Sermon for the New School Year

Evening Prayer for the Beginning of the New School Year

All Saints’ Church, West Lavington
Sunday 9th September 2012
The Revd. David Johnson

A reading from chapter 5 of St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians

Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light — for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.

Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,

‘Sleeper, awake!
Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.’

Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.

A reading from chapter 25 of the Gospel of St Matthew

Jesus said, ‘The kingdom of heaven is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.

The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”

And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”

Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.”

Sermon

“Live as children of light – for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.”

That sentence is from the first reading; it is the key to what I want to say this evening and I will come back to it in just a few moments. I am grateful to Jack and Harriet for reading tonight, but the passage we have just heard, known as The Parable of Talents, needs a bit of explanation.

At first sight is might seem to be quite a hard headed business lesson about investing money and doubling your return. Two of the servants have done well and have been praised by their master.

The passage, as it ended, has the master about to react to the servant who had hidden the one talent he was entrusted with in the ground, because he was afraid to lose it, and he has just said to the master ‘here you have what is yours’.

What happens next is the master expresses his immense disappointment, telling him off for being lazy: for not being industrious, imaginative or adventurous enough to do anything with what he had been given. The message does seem to be about making a good return on your investment.

But the parable, like many of Jesus’ words, works on a number of levels. A talent is a measure of weight for precious metals, somewhere around 30 kilos. With one kilo of gold currently selling for around £35,000 one talent would be just over a million pounds. Knowing this, we can see that the story is set in the fantastic context of immensely rich man entrusting the equivalent of millions of pounds of gold to his servants.

But, of course, we would more usually use the word ‘talent’ in referring to an ability; one of the skills that makes us special.

So a better interpretation of the parable is that we should make the most of what we have been given; to value what we are entrusted with and to take the opportunities that life gives to us. That is a good message and one that fits in very well with this new school year ahead of us.

More than this, the parable is very honest and reflective of life in that it acknowledges some of the basic inequalities of existence: some are given more than others. There is a place for luck, circumstances and many factors of birth, family, nationality, genetics and variables within situations beyond our control.

That happens to be the way life is. Whilst we could wish for many things to be different, it is fundamentally of little use to bemoan our situation and what life has given to us in an attempt to make excuses for not daring to achieve what we may be capable of. Life is not about the hand we are dealt but about how we play the game. We can achieve lives of which we can be proud regardless of what our circumstances are.

That has been the unspoken message of the incredible paralympic athletes. Their disabilities have not defined them. They have worked to overcome what has happened to them at birth or in life and have truly shown themselves to be amazing humans in their achievements. They have changed the way we look at sport as well as the way we look at disability. We see beyond the disability to the achievements and the characters of the athletes themselves.

Just like the servants in the parable each being given a different amount of talents we each start with different abilities, different opportunities and from different situations. We are not equal and we will not all excel or be the winners in the same things. But that does not excuse us from trying our hardest and doing our best in whatever this adventure of life puts in front of us. The third servant is told off by his master because he did nothing with what he had been given. He hid his talent – his million pounds of gold – in the ground; just as we might hide our talents and abilities by not pushing ourselves to do our best; not making the most of the opportunities we are given; not being willing to take some risks and to explore our potential; or perhaps sometimes by just being too afraid. I hope that your approach to school is to take advantages of the opportunities you are given; to support and encourage those around us; and hopefully, to make, share and offer opportunities to others. We must always remember that we begin from an immensely privileged position and we need to use our skills, more than anything, for others as we attempt to build a fairer world.

You are a unique community of people: from first formers to upper sixth gathered here this evening; you share so much of your lives with each other and you have the potential to be very powerful influences for good on the lives of each other. But very few of you will know with any certainty what you want to do with your future lives. Of course as you go through the school your choices narrow and you might begin to specialise, for example in arts or sciences. But we should always be careful about closing down options, leaving interests behind or turning away from any part of the full experience of life. In the closing passage of TS Eliot’s poem East Coker he writes:

Old men ought to be explorers

Here and there does not matter

We must be still and still moving

Into another intensity...

And so life, for us, must always be open to new possibilities, a sense of adventure and a willingness to learn and to explore.

What is more important in life than what we do and what we know is the person that we become: our character, our relationships and the values by which we live.

It is in this area of life that our circumstances, abilities and opportunities are far less important. We are defined by the choices we make; the values we hold onto and which shape the way in which we think of and relate to other people.

And that is why I chose the first reading for you to hear tonight. It is about trying to work out how to live. St. Paul describes the good life as one lived in the light. That is what it means to have a good character and to be a good person.

The father of one of the leavers who came to the service here in church on the last day of term emailed me yesterday as I was writing this sermon. Reflecting on what I said that day about the choices we face in adult life, he noted that from his position in business he valued a simple test for any action or decision: ‘how would you feel if this action was reported in the media?’ Was that action something of which you could be proud? That is exactly what St. Paul is saying by making the comparison between things that we would prefer to keep hidden in the darkness as opposed to having the integrity that comes from honesty and good actions.

Christianity, as I understand it and live by it, is not about telling you what you should do or about living in fear of punishment in this life or beyond. Jesus challenged others to think about their lives and to use their lives to care for others; he did not give prescriptions for every situation and the question ‘what would Jesus do?’ is actually not a bad one for us to ask in certain circumstances.

So, in coming to a conclusion, I return to the sentence with which I began. St Paul writes “Live as children of light: for the fruit [meaning the outcome and the result] of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.” Some of the differences between good and bad are, of course, obvious; some can be taught, or even better, shown by the examples of others. But actually, a lot of good and bad has to be worked out and discovered, trusting that we will recognise the light when we find it.

We have a lifetime of opportunities and choices in front of us. From tonight we might just focus on this one year ahead; this coming term; or just the days of this new week. What we achieve, and how well we succeed, will be shaped by the opportunities we take and the effort we put into everything we do.

Much more important will always be the kind of person we are. Who we become is defined and shaped by the choices we make. So let us try, like St. Paul and countless generations before us, to “Live as children of light”. Let our lives be based on the priorities of what is good and right and true: for ourselves, all those whom we love and for the community we shape together here at Dauntsey’s.

The Revd. David Johnson
Dauntsey’s School Chaplain
September 2012