Late in life the Welsh poet-priest RS Thomas wrote these prophetic lines:
Gods are not put to death
any more. Their lot now
is with the ignored.
You could dismiss these melancholy lines as the ramblings of a famously wild and impenetrable man in old age and retirement. But this view of the indifference of the world to God and faith is one which runs through all of Thomas’ poetry. Writing much earlier in life, and only a few years after his ordination, Thomas speaks a A Priest to his People saying, somewhat controversially and shockingly to his nameless parishioners:
How I have hated you for your irreverence, you scorn even
Of the refinements of art and mysteries of the Church
These words perhaps speak more of Thomas than they do of his parishioners, who although undoubtedly a great poet was not, I think it is fair to say, a great priest. Throughout his clerical career he kept up a daily pattern or reading in the morning, walking and bird watching in the afternoon, and visiting the sick in the evening. He is fondly remembered by some who he served, but also remembered for his own indifference to his flock, once vaulting over the wall of a graveyard in his cassock to avoid having to speak to the mourners. But his poetry does speak prophetically of the indifference that many feel towards religion and faith in their lives.
We are often reminded of the threat of militant atheism. But more of a threat to the life of the Church and the world of faith is the indifference to religion so many have; it is indifference and not atheism that replaces the infant Jesus for a sausage roll in a recent advert. Religion has become something that many can take or leave, and mostly leave. As we come to our readings today we come to realise that it was ever thus.
In our reading from the prophesy of Zephaniah we hear another great prophetic voice speak to us of the cost of indifference.
I will punish the people
who rest complacently on their dregs,
those who say in their hearts,
‘The Lord will not do good,
nor will he do harm.’
Here the crime is not that they have rejected God, or misused God. Their crime is that they have become indifferent to God and God’s purpose for them. Like that great image in the Letter to the Church in Laodicea in the Book of Revelation, there is a deep danger in indifference:
I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.
Although it might not seem it on first reading, this crime of indifference lies behind our Gospel reading.
This passage from the end of Matthew’s Gospel is usually ceased upon by PCC Treasurers as budget time approaches. Its seeming call for us to invest and develop our talents, either in action or money, is a helpful message as we face our yearly round of financial planning and commitment. But this reading is not really about that. This reading is about the danger of indifference. In the whole run of Matthew’s Gospel this story sits within, what scholars have named, the apocalyptic discourse. Through chapters 24 and 25 Jesus warns us again and again of the coming judgement and our need to be ready. Immediately preceding the parable of the Talents – which we heard today – is the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids – which finishes with these words:
Keep awake for you know neither the day nor the hour
These then continue directly into the beginning of our reading today…
For it is as if a man, going on a journey…
The impetus and meaning of this parable comes not so much in its content – however much Treasurers love it – it comes from the impetus to be ready.
Keep awake for you know neither the day nor the hour. For it is as if a man, going on a journey…
In this context we see the crime of the final servant not as laziness, but as indifference. Where the other servants have taken their gifts and live riskily with them, the third slave merely buries it. Seeking the least worst option he is indifferent to the gift he is given to him by the master, and for this, as in the prophesy of Zephaniah and the Letter to Laodicea, he pays the ultimate price.
This prophetic and apocalyptic language is not something we are used to. But as we seek to develop and grow the life of the Church one of the great hurdles we need to overcome is our own reticence and indifference to the gifts God has given us. During the weeks we worked through LyCiG local the most revelatory moment was the part in the course when each of us was encouraged to share in two minutes our faith story. It was, I know, an experience which not everyone enjoyed or found easy. We do not, as a rule, speak about our faith to other people. But after everyone had spoken and been listened to I asked this question:
“Now what difference would it make to the life of our Church if we could speak of our faith with that confidence to other people?”
The danger of for the Church is not that we lack faith, or that we lack commitment. The danger for the church is that in an indifferent world the Church can seem indifferent itself.
One of the key insights we are learning together as Parishes by the Wall is that we need to grow in confidence. We need to find ways of speaking about our faith to ourselves, to each other, and those who we meet in our lives. That does not mean tud-thumping door to door, but it does mean being able to answer with honesty and sincerity when people ask us why we go to Church, and for us to be able to see and speak of the divine we see all around us.
If we are engaged with our faith, passionate about it, live it in a committed way then an indifferent world will see what a difference the life of faith can make in their lives.
And if we do this we will shake ourselves from our indifference and be ready.