The Revd Robin Sims-Williams
Henry was hard working, but had low self-esteem. He had been hired in desperation for another body. He hadn’t been in the company for long and worried what his colleagues thought of him. He was working hard, and there were lots of people relying on him. He was in a rush, but it was raining and he was worried about his paint job, so waited in the dry for the rain to stop. He was afraid of what people would think if the rain spoiled his green paint. People were getting impatient, he knew they needed him to get a move on, but what would they think of him if he didn’t stick to his guns. It was still raining so hard. Eventually, after several attempts to get him to move on, the Fat Controller ordered the tracks be taken up and the tunnel be bricked in.
Fear can be a deadly thing, it can stop an animal in it’s tracks, dangerous for the animal and those around it. There is an old wives tale in Canada that the number one killer of police in Northern ontario, a relatively unpopulated part of a country with a low population density, is the moose. Frozen in the headlights of the police car, and standing six feet tall on long spindly legs, they are not your average road kill, in fact the moose will often survive.
There is nothing like an upcoming election and the need to gain votes from a broad array of middle of the road voters, to make politicians scared of owning up to the truth or to engage with either the issues or what they really believe about them. Perhaps avoiding a difficult vote on the European Arrest Warrant was just the most recent example of politicians avoiding the real debate. Hiding from the problem in hope that it will go away has been a national past time when it comes to immigration. Much like the no campaign in the Scottish referendum, the failing to give a positive understanding of the benefits of having a pluralist society has left a void, allowing those who believe that there is little benefit to diversity, that pluralism must always lead to ghetto-ism, that schools where people speak different languages, have different perspectives, different faiths, where teachers are challenged to be creative not to simply tolerate and overcome those differences, but to use them to improve everybody’s education is a bad thing. The result is frustration the tone and content of the conversation ends up being set by somebody else.
My previous employer is an example of European integration, at least in part. Each country doing their part of design, procurement and manufacture. Bringing it together to make a product even the American arch-competitors have realised is better split with major components being built in Japan. Each country bringing their own special skills into the mix. Sharing experience and design and method to make the whole business better. That is until fear of a looming deadline, and of the potential shame that would come from being late, causes things to seize up. Each entity starts behaving surprisingly like a personality, the cultures within the businesses like the conscience, the prejudice, and the fear of shame that you would find coming from any individual. The result was a long few months where everybody pretended everything was fine on the outside, while struggling to make the things happen in an impossible timeframe, without any extra resource, until somebody had no choice but to stick their head out and admit there were problems in the works. Everybody was quick to round on the entity which had taken the blame and all sighed with relief that they could have time and resource to sort things out for themselves.
Shame and fear are powerful emotions, capable of stopping people, countries and companies in their tracks. The realisation that there was a culture of avoiding blowing the whistle for fear of shame, was able to lead to a hope for gaining from the benefits of the different parties at work.
Henry was scared of what people would think, of what he would look like. He was scared that he’d end up not just looking like a mucky engine, but become an engine fit for nothing but work among the coal piles and mud. In the story, it wasn’t until much later he was invited out, when two other engines weren’t available, and he needed repainting - because life in the tunnel had done more damage than the rain would have done. It’s often easy to see that a child is scared, they aren’t always good at hiding emotions, but they also aren’t good at communicating them. It takes some digging to figure out that they don’t really dislike ballet, for example,
they are just upset because they don’t think they can get their feet into first position. Not realising that the point is to learn how to put their feet into first position. But then adults aren’t much better at expressing their fears either.
Any parent will probably know that fear of being overwhelmed, enveloped in the role of parent, to the extent that one looses one’s own identity. Too covered in glitter and glue and sick to be the person they had been before. The same fear can come at any significant juncture in our lives, from marriage, moving, starting a new job, and even little things can catch us out and fill us with fear, but the challenges that come through our lives are opportunities, for rediscovering who we really are, because our situation isn’t what defines us, it’s how we respond to it that does.
The servants in today’s story, each entrusted with a great quantity of money, multiple years worth of income, are expected to invest and use what they’ve been given. Trusted only a little compared to the others, fear does a terrible thing to the third servant and he bury’s his head in the sand, or at least the money. Perhaps he is hoping the master won’t return. He’s hiding from what scares us, from trying and getting it wrong. Denying the reality of our situation only makes it worse. It leads to continual frustration - the gnashing of teeth that Matthew is so keen to remind us of. The shame can bed in and keep us from ever engaging with the issues at hand and can take us to a dark place where we don’t feel anybody can reach us - the outer darkness
The talents in the parable, we are told, are the property of the master, entrusted to the servants. Be these talents the inheritance of all Christians, the church, which we are all entrusted with, or the whole of creation of which we are God’s stewards. We don’t have to look very far to see that, out of fear of getting things wrong, we often fail to take responsibility for what needs to be done. We let others take responsibility for that which we have been given by Christ. But the more common interpretation, for obvious reasons, is that the talents are the gifts we are each given personally by God, our talents. And again, how easy it is to be afraid of demonstrating our own talents, how embarrassing it could be if we fail to live up to expectations. It is a short lived experience of Lord Sugar which the apprentice who fails to deliver on the task in which he or she has claimed to be the world expert in.
I can remember the first sermon I gave. I was in the process of discernment, As churchwarden I had dealt with pastoral needs of members of the congregation, I had been involved in replacing the organ, I had even been involved in doing a major refurbishment of toilets, all the keystones of Christian ministry. I was feeling like my calling had, to some degree, been validated. But I avoided preaching for the first time, afraid of what I would discover. The reality is, I found I needed to work at it, I still do.
Responding to the challenges we are given, seeking to turn risks and threats into opportunities, has the potential to give new life, new possibility. It is only by taking the chance to open ourselves up to the challenge that we can discover what can come from it. By investing in ourselves and each other, with time and patience, that we can become who we were created to be. Amen.