A dying man had made a great deal of money in his working life, but he was determined to keep it for himself. Before he died he left his wife clear instructions that she was to bury all his money with him when he died so that he would have the use of it in the afterlife.
After he died and had been placed in his coffin, the funeral director was just closing it up when his widow popped a box in beside the body.
A friend, watching the proceedings, turned to her and said: ‘surely you wouldn’t be fool enough to bury all that money with your dead husband?’
‘Well, I promised him,’ said the loyal widow, ‘that he would be buried with his money.’
‘You are really going to bury him with all that money?’
‘I certainly am,’ she replied. ‘I got it all together, put it into my account, and put a cheque in the coffin. If he can cash it, he can spend it!’
(Joke attributed to Mark Bailey by David Pytches)
Of course, the parable of the talents isn’t really about money. But imagining money buried in the ground (not necessarily in a coffin, of course) does remind us how wasteful it is possible to be. Money that has been buried does nothing; is no good to anyone – and paper money would rot away. If we don’t use the gifts and abilities that God gave us in His service, then we are doing the equivalent of burying them in the ground.
Sunday readings at this time of year tend to focus on the future: they are the passages about being ready for when God comes to change things, to bring the new heaven and the new earth into being. Jesus and Paul today are reminding us to be ready. We don’t think about this aspect of following Jesus very much. Perhaps that’s because the warnings of what will happen if we are not ready, or not found to be serving and following God faithfully, are – frankly – alarming. Jesus is not being gentle, meek and mild when he speaks of throwing a servant into the outer darkness. We get so alarmed by that part of the message that we miss the good bits. Because actually it is very good! Jesus is coming back, one day. And when he does, we who follow him will be able to join him and will receive eternal life. Those who have used the gifts that we are given in his service will be commended.
We are all able to use our gifts in God’s service, every one if us, no matter how old or young we are. Some of you have served the Lord faithfully in many ways for a long time, and perhaps a few of you feel that you are too old, or too unwell, or too bound by responsibilities as carers or at work, to do any more now. But I say to you that you are never too old or too infirm to do what St Paul asked the Thessalonians to do as they prepared for the coming of Jesus. Paul said: ‘Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.’
Recently I visited a dying man. As we talked – and talking was very difficult for him- he spoke words of encouragement to me and thanked me for visiting. For him, the return of Jesus is absolutely imminent. He is old, unwell, but still wanting to show love and encouragement to others. I know that he prays for me and many other people, as well as saying words of encouragement. I also receive encouragement and prayer from many other older members. Those members may not be able to do the practical things any more – the cleaning, the coffee making, the visiting, the teaching, or any of the other things that many of us do together to help our church to grow. But those central things, which strengthen and enable every one of us, to pray and to encourage – we can all do them, every single one of us.
Prayer and encouragement are an investment which leads to growth. If you pray for the church and its members, and use every chance you have to encourage and build up the others in the church, then you won’t be burying your gifts, you will be growing not only your own but other peoples gifts too. People who have been encouraged and supported achieve so much more. I know two girls who were encouraged by a 95 year old to believe they could do anything for God. So at the ages of 6 and 4 they decided that they wanted to hold a Bring and Buy Sale to raise money for underprivileged children. The adults around them encouraged them to do it. The 95 year old booked a space in the church building. Other church members made sure that the event got into the church newsletter and photocopied the posters that the girls designed. Others were there with the girls on the day. This was in 1999, and those children raised £60. Today in 2014 those girls, now adults, are still actively following Jesus. Being encouraged and prayed for by other church members, especially the oldest ones, still sustains them as followers of Jesus.
So as we look forward to the return of Jesus, I encourage you not at any time to bury your gifts, and thank you that you use them so well to serve Jesus and build your church. And I join with Paul to say to you: ‘encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.’