“But the fat and the strong I will destroy”

Friday

Ezekiel 34

File:US Capitol Building.jpg16I will seek the lost,
and I will bring back the strayed,
and I will bind up the injured,
and I will strengthen the weak,
but the fat and the strong I will destroy.

It’s such a sweet verse until you get to that last part about the fat and the strong. It is like eating sweet grapes and then biting into a sour one. It is the kind of language that troubles us about the Old Testament. But there is a story behind these words.

We don’t typically hear this shepherding imagery as political speech. We think of Psalm 23 and the parable of the shepherd searching out the lost sheep. We see the paintings of Jesus as the good shepherd with the lamb around his neck. We hear these words as sweet assurances of God’s care in times of trouble – and the last line doesn’t seem to fit.

But this is tough, prophetic language, spoken in a time when the leadership of the nation had engaged in policies that inevitably brought the nation to destruction. The royal house and wealthy families had caused this people to be scattered, wounded and impoverished. The words of the prophets in their time sound more like God declaring, “I, myself, will run the Fed, and lead the banks, and manage the economy,” in the years when the banking system nearly failed because of the criminal greed and manipulations of the banking houses. “I myself will refinance mortgages, and provide loans to Main Street, and hire the unemployed.”

Jerusalem had set a course that betrayed the justice and mercy God had commanded of the people, that worshiped at the altars of fertility gods and rain gods – gods of prosperity, gods of sex and power and wealth.

When God declares I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed,” the reference is to those refugees of war and famine that had fled the country – and looks back 200 years to the collapse of the northern kingdom for the same reasons and to the Assyrian resettlement policy that scattered the Israelites across the ancient world.

“I will bind up the injured,” speaks to those cut down by sword and spear. “I will strengthen the weak,” evokes those at the edge of starvation, like the liberated captives of the concentration camps. The siege of Jerusalem had been beyond brutal.

When God declares, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep,” it is a roaring voice from heaven that God will take back the reins of power and rescue his shattered people.

In such a context we can recognize the words “but the fat and the strong I will destroy” as words of grace. Those who ruled with power and greed will be erased from the nation, no more to inflict their damage upon the people of God.

I like the sweet hearing of the text. I like the picture of a tender God taking up the grieving, the lonely, the struggling, the wounded of life into his tender care. But there is also a word of the mighty God in this text – a God passionate for his people and his world – a God of power willing and able to undo the damage of human misrule. In the face of the continual violence erupting throughout the world, and the perpetual devastations of economic greed and power, there is warning and also great grace in these words – including those words at the end.

Into his presence with thanksgiving

Thursday

Psalm 95

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Piligrims riding on the outside of a train after a three-day Sunni Muslim festival in the ancient city of Multan, Pakistan

2 Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving.

A few years ago I met my brother and his son in Berkeley for the Big Game between Stanford and Cal. It was the first time I went to see this game on enemy territory. Stanford was the home team when we were growing up. Palo Alto’s main street is University Avenue. The Stanford stadium was across the street from my high school. Our high school played its big rivalry game at Stanford Stadium and though our small crowd looked silly rattling around a 90,000 seat stadium, this was the big time! Playing in Stanford Stadium!

Going to the game in Berkeley with my brother and his son was my first foray into the enemy’s camp across the Bay. I rode up on a BART train (Bay Area Rapid Transit) and joined the throng walking up the hill to the stadium. As the crowd ascended it grew ever bigger and the energy level grew ever higher. The mounting excitement was contagious. Songs and cries and chants broke out continually. We might as well been led by the marching bands. (The infamous marching band story we won’t get into.)

I think of that day when I hear these invitatory psalms calling the community to worship – the throngs of people ascending the temple mount to stand in the presence of God and acclaim him as their lord and king, their rock and deliverer.

It’s too bad we can’t recreate that energy as people walk from the parking lot to the sanctuary on a Sunday morning. We get a taste of that pilgrim excitement on Christmas Eve when the place will be full and people come early for seats. There is a taste in the energy of the children eager for Christmas morning. There is a taste in the walkway bordered with luminaries and the buildings adorned with lights. There is a taste in the beauty of the sanctuary, the special music as people arrive, and the moment the congregation rises to sing “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” As children, we waited all year for that moment at the end of the service when the lights are extinguished, candles distributed and the warm, flickering candlelight spreads through the room, passed from one person to the next, until we all lift up our candles singing “Silent night, Holy night.”

We don’t generally see that excited expectancy on the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost or in the cold or wet winter days of the 4th Sunday after Epiphany. But this is true of all of life. I am much more likely to duck out for the restroom or refreshments in the middle of the fifth inning at AT&T Park than the bottom of the ninth.

2 Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving sings the psalmist to the crowds ascending the hill of Mt. Zion. There is excitement and energy in the crowd because it is a national festival like Christmas. The city is full of pilgrims for the holy season. But the psalm does more than capture the excitement of the day – as we can tell from the warning in the second half of the psalm. We won’t read those words on Sunday, but the thought shapes the meaning of the call to enter God’s presence.

We are not coming in the excitement of the festival to celebrate our team. We are coming to honor the God who promised a homeland to Abraham, who gathered a people from bondage in Egypt, who taught a new way to live, who guided his motley crew of former slaves through an arid wilderness and brought them to a rich and abundant land. We are coming to honor the God who revealed himself in the words of the prophets and in the words and deeds of Jesus his anointed. We are coming to bow down before the one who bears the brokenness of the world in his hands and side, and deals with us according to his goodness not our deserving.

2 Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving. The singers of the psalm are not serving as cheerleaders or the marching band to geek up the crowd. They are reminding us that our only proper response to God is a profound gratitude.

He is the creator who lifted up the mountains and governs even the depths of the earth. He is Lord of all, setting limits to the chaotic seas and forming the land upon which all life depends. He is master over every spiritual reality and has made us his own. Shouts of joy are appropriate, but above all we come into his presence with thankfulness.

Sheep or goats?

Wednesday

Matthew 25

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A Nubian (aka Anglo-Nubian) goat attempts to eat their prize ribbon at a Scottish fair. By John Haslam from Dornoch, Scotland

32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,

Jesus calls them “my brothers,” the sick, the imprisoned, the hungry. If we could just pause here long enough, we might begin to understand the true power of the parable. We might begin to understand the true power of Jesus. He has claimed those that others have scorned.

Some have argued that the word ‘brother’ means a follower of Jesus, that the nations will be judged by their treatment of the disciples of Jesus. The suggestion is that the ‘nations’ are Judeans scattered throughout the Hellenistic world, and their response to the oppressed and persecuted witnesses of Jesus will reveal whether they are sheep or goats.

The other possibility is that Jesus has declared these ‘least’ are members of his family. If you ask me, this latter sounds much more like Jesus. He had that pesky idea that everyone was our neighbor, not just people like us – and therefore you should welcome the outcast and show steadfast love even to enemies.

We call this parable the Last Judgment, but it is not a judgment scene. It is a sorting. No lives are being weighed. No actions are being evaluated. The mass of humanity is simply being sorted out. Some are sheep. Some are goats. The sheep go over here. The goats over there.

Jesus’ hearers understand this idea: goats need to be kept warm at night; sheep can remain outside. The flocks are taken out together during the day to graze the hills, but at night they must be sorted.

So we shall be sorted.

Sheep don’t have much symbolic significance for me. I haven’t known any. I have known a couple goats. They were cute. At a motel years ago, high in the Rockies with my daughters, there was a couple with some baby fainting goats. They were adorable just gamboling around. But when you clapped your hands, they fell over. They passed out. Kerplunk. No twitching. No stumbling. At a loud noise they just fell right over. It was hysterical. And darling. Anna wanted one. Anna really wanted one. So, to me, goats are cute and sheep are just sheep.

But just as we invest animals with a certain symbolic character, so did the ancients. When we call a man a ‘dog’ it has a strong cultural meaning – so, too, if we call him a ‘puppy dog.’ Or a ‘lion’. Or a ‘fox’. And calling a man a ‘fox’ has a different meaning than calling a woman a ‘fox’.

To Jesus’ audience, sheep were honorable; goats were not. Sheep symbolize honor, virility and strength; goats are unrestrained and lascivious. (This was my experience of my friend’s goat – entertaining, but always into trouble). An honorable man will protect the honor of his family. In particular, he will defend his wife from the sexual advances of others. A ram will not allow anyone but himself to approach one of his ewes; goats, apparently, have no such compunction. A cuckolded man was called a goat. Zeus and noble Apollo were associated with the Ram; Pan looks and behaves like a goat.

This sorting of humanity into sheep and goats is more than just sorting buttons. It is a gathering of the honorable and a setting aside of the dishonorable. It evokes the parable of the weeds and wheat that grew side by side until the harvest.

It is not a judgment scene; it is a sorting – a sorting by whether we have acted honorably towards the poor, the outsider, the needy. What a surprise if American Christians are to be sorted by the hospitality shown to Muslims! Did we extend our protection to the stranger? Did we give water to the thirsty and bread to the hungry? Did we tend the sick or send them back to Liberia? I understand the fear, but the church’s first response to AID’s was not particularly honorable. We could probably come up with an uncomfortable list.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him.”   No books are opened. No witnesses are heard. No records are examined. The Lord knows who have treated others with the grace of heaven and those who have not.

We need to do more than pray for mercy.

There is grace here. The shameful will not govern the earth forever. The faithful will be gathered. This is a great promise and a profound assurance in a world with too much evil.

But there is also a challenge. And the question is not whether we will pass inspection, whether we have the right religious heritage or the right religious experience – the question is whether we have lived hospitality and compassion towards the poor and the outcast. Have we shown ourselves to be sheep or goats?

“All the nations will be gathered before him.”

Watching for the morning of November 23

Year C

Christ the King:
Proper 29 / Lectionary 34

File:Palais du Tau - Christ portant le globe.jpg

Original statue of Christ the King with the globe. Preserved in the palais du Tau in Reims (Marne, France).

For all our concern about language and gender equality there is something primal, archetypal, about the notion of kingship. When the true, just and wise king is on the throne all is well in the land. When the usurper rules, all is corrupted.

The just king cares for the lowly. The just king sees what is done in his lands. The just king rights wrongs and in the presence of his justice, the people prosper.

Power corrupts. Those who lust for power, who seize power, are corrupted and corrupting; they are not the source of gracious order but insecurity and instability. Those who do not seek it, to whom power and authority are entrusted, are able to rule with the light touch and just hand that are required.

So the young King Arthur, when just a squire, pulls the sword from the stone unknowing. George Washington is prevailed upon to accept the presidency – and refuses a third term lest it become a lifetime appointment. King David is a shepherd boy, offended by Goliath, not an aspirant to the throne. (Until Bathsheba comes along, anyway.) Jesus is the just and righteous king who saves his sheep. He does not, like the Jerusalem leaders confronted by Ezekiel, feed on them.

In this modern era when have witnessed fascisms and tyrannies of terrible stripe, when kings and leaders and rebels slaughter the sheep rather than protect them, when people are thought to serve the state (or the economy, ideology, movement, company or religion) rather than the state serving the people – in such an epoch as ours, the church wisely declares that Christ is King. Only Christ Jesus can claim our lives without taking them. Only Christ Jesus can summon our service without stealing our humanity. Only Christ Jesus is the just and righteous one. Only Christ Jesus is our true king.

Sunday is the feast of Christ the King and the final Sunday of the church year. We will read more words about judgment, but the dominant note is the just and faithful reign of God in Christ. Ezekiel will blast the leaders of his day but make the strange dual promise that God will be our shepherd – and give us a new shepherd. The psalm sings thanksgiving, summoning us to kneel before our maker, “a great King above all gods,” for “we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.” Ephesians will speak of Christ ascended and all things placed under his feet. And Matthew records for us that great and profound parable about the sorting of humanity like sheep from goats.

In a world with a myriad voices demanding we kneel before earthly dominions and rulers, we come to kneel before the shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep and declares as his family “the least of these”: the hungry, the stranger, the poor, the sick, the imprisoned.

The Prayer for November 23, 2014

Eternal God, Lord of all,
before you every human community and every human life must stand,
and by the example of your Son, Jesus, be measured.
Grant us an abundance of his Spirit,
that as he brought your grace to the fallen and your healing to the broken,
we too may be agents of your compassion;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for November 23, 2014

First Reading: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
“I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.” – God speaks a word of judgment upon the shepherds of Israel (the leaders of the nation) who take care of themselves rather than the people in their care. God will be their shepherd and gather his scattered flock. He will judge between the fat and the lean sheep and appoint a new David to govern them.

Psalmody: Psalm 95:1-7a
“O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.” – In these opening verses of Psalm 95, the poet calls the community to acclaim God, the creator of all, as their king.

Second Reading: Ephesians 1:15-23
“He has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things.” –
With soaring poetry, the author of Ephesians offers his prayer for the community – prayer that rises into praise of God who raised Christ Jesus “above all rule and authority” and placed all things under his feet.

Gospel: Matthew 25:31-46
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory… All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” – The final parable of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel is this vivid declaration that the nations will be judged by their treatment of “the least of these” with whom the Son of Man identifies himself: “as you did it to one of the least of these…you did it to me.”

“But wait for me.”

Saturday

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/09/Ghanians_wait_for_visiting_USN_medics_-b.jpg

Ghanians waiting for medical care from U.S. Navy medics

 

Zephaniah 1

12At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps,
and 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.”

When we hear the word ‘punish’, much that is wrong about the common perception of religion comes to mind. There are two familiar stereotypes of God: one that God is love, perfect love, embracing everyone with compassion regardless of our choices or actions. Everyone gets to travel the tunnel of light to a land of reunion and bliss.

The other stereotype is that God is the author and defender of “the rules”.   The exact rules differ from place to place or people to people. For some, these are social rules and boundaries, often involving sex and property. God may be forgiving, but there are rules about that, too. There is a way in which forgiveness must be sought and given – either in a ritual or in a specific attitude of mind and heart: true repentance and amendment of life. And there is a price that must nevertheless be paid by someone – God cannot just forgive; Jesus must die.

There is power and wisdom and truth in the biblical words about the majesty of God’s love and the reality of sin, grace and redemption; it’s just not all one or the other. And the important thing is it’s not a ‘system’; it’s a relationship. It’s not a set of rules; it’s a God who engages the world in a dynamic give and take. God is not the watchmaker who creates the clockwork and sets the world running. God is the parent seeking reconciliation with rebellious children. It’s why the Old Testament has no problem suggesting that God changes his mind. It’s why God can promise David an endless line upon the throne of Jerusalem – yet bring Babylon to tear it down when that becomes necessary to save his people and his world. “The gifts and call of God are irrevocable,” yet God is free. I will always be my Father’s son, but that does not mean I will always get the keys to the car – or, for that matter, that I will always find an open door. God’s purpose is to save us not protect the rules. God’s purpose is to restore his creation not preserve the system.

So back to the word ‘punish’. God will ‘punish’, not because Judah broke the rules, but because Judah betrayed its relationship with God. This is about a people, not individuals. Lightning isn’t striking one person for his or her sin; the thunderstorm is advancing upon a nation that has betrayed its identity, its reason for being. This is about a people, and it is about a long pattern not a single transgression. It is the outcome of a path they have pursued for generations – a path that leads them ever further from God, a path that leads them to an inevitable cliff.

These are the children of the Exodus. These are the descendants of those who saw God give Pharaoh ten opportunities to repent, ten plagues, ten awe-filled manifestations of a world gone wrong, until those who tried to kill God’s first born (the people of Israel) lost their first born. These are the descendants of those who saw pharaoh’s army defeated by the returning waters of the Nile. These are the descendants of those who were fed manna from heaven and water from the rock, who heard God’s voice at Sinai and vowed to be ever faithful. These are the descendants of a people who were led through the wilderness and given a land, the dream of the homeless, the fulfilled promise to Abraham and Sarah. And now these children of God say: “The LORD will not do good, nor will he do harm.” They believe there is no reward in righteousness, no consequence for disobedience. They think God is powerless to affect our lives – or God simply doesn’t care. It is another way of saying “God is dead.”

There are consequences when you have reached the place where there is no right and wrong only power. Believing this, they will now see what power will do. Babylon is coming and they will “search Jerusalem with lamps”:they will capture every man in hiding; they will seize every woman; they will steal every horde hidden away; they will strip the temple of its gold and bronze; they will leave nothing but rubble. Such is the way of power.

This is not punishment for breaking rules; it is the consequence of the total rupture of their right relationship with God and one another. They have chosen a path with no happy ending.

The prophet’s words are powerful and chilling. And, of course, they are ignored – for this is a people who have come to believe there is no God, no reality, other than themselves. But, for God, this is a relationship. It means God suffers with and for this people. God suffers with and for this world. And after the prophet’s devastating words of judgment, exposing all this people’s betrayal, we hear in chapter 3 verse 8 this sweet, sweet word: “But wait for me.” God is not through with this people. God is not through with us. After this utter destruction, God will yet arise and this people shall be reborn – the world shall be reborn, born from above, born of God’s own Spirit. In chapter 3 verse 15 the prophet bids the broken people to rejoice for “The LORD has annulled the judgment against you.” After death comes resurrection.

God is not the taskmaster with a ruler waiting to smack our knuckles; God is the parent willing to lock the door and let the child go to prison if he will not enter rehab. A terribly painful choice. But a redeeming one. One that will, eventually, bring the child home.

“Wait for me,” says the LORD, “Wait for me.”

A full and terrible end?

File:Prophets from Ferapontov01 (Kirillo-Belozersk).jpg

Icon of the prophets Zephaniah, Habakkuk, Jonah and Moses

Friday

Zephaniah 1

18A full, a terrible end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.

A lot depends upon translation. Different words evoke entirely different images. The word translated as ‘earth’ also means ‘land’.  “He will make a terrible end of all the inhabitants of the land” is far different than “he will make a terrible end of all the inhabitants of the earth.” The one disaster is local; the other sounds cosmic. The one is about Judea; the other is about all of us. The one is about the Babylonian onslaught in 586 BCE; the other is about the apocalyptic end.

Of course, the devastation of war – the hunger, the violence, the ruined buildings, the disease that follows in its train, the dead, the violated, the captives taken into slavery, the lost national treasures, the lost identity, the lost hope – there is no other way to describe it than as “the end of the world.”

And, still, we speak of even personal tragedies and crises as “the world crashing down.”

We understand the prophet. Berlin after the war, Dresden, Auschwitz, Stalingrad, Hiroshima, Iwo Jima, the killing fields of Cambodia, Aleppo – only apocalyptic language can tell the horror.

This language of the prophets will be taken up by others, especially by the Revelation to John. It will come to speak of that final catastrophe when humanity persists in rebellion from God until every plague has been suffered. Yet even that allusion to the plagues of Egypt, the plagues that were the consequence of Pharaoh thinking he was master of all and resisting to the end God’s purposes for the world – even those plagues are about redemption, setting both Israel and Egypt free from the bondage of slavery. So, too, are the disasters of humanity’s ultimate resistance to God. They are the birth pangs of a redeemed world.

God will make an end of all the inhabitants of the earth. God will make an end to the brutality of war. God will make an end to the sufferings of injustice. God will make an end to the corroding reality of poverty.

God will make an end to our violence and fear. God will make an end to our guilt and sorrow.   God will make an end to our pride and pettiness. God will make an end to our thirst for revenge. God will make an end to the coldness of our hearts and the disorders of our passions. God will make an end to our rebellion, one way or the other.

And though it cost us our life, it will give Life.

The LORD’s sacrifice

Thursday

Zephaniah 1

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Look photographic assignment: Chicago city of contrasts. Stanley Kubrick [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

7 The LORD has prepared a sacrifice,
he has consecrated his guests.

I am ever amazed at the skill and audacity of the prophets. Here, with a half dozen words, a terrible and frightful image is set before the nation. God is getting ready to offer a sacrifice and he has called upon his guests to prepare themselves. “Take up your knife and fork. Say the table blessing. I am setting before you a feast. I myself will draw the knife and lay the carcass upon the fire. You need only come and dine.” The guests are the nations around them. Jerusalem is the fatted calf.

With five words (in the Hebrew text) any attempt to envision God as a partisan God, hawking and defending the glories of the nation, is shattered. God is not interested in Jerusalem for Jerusalem’s sake; God is seeking a people of justice and mercy. God is not interested in a temple bigger and more glorious than other gods; God is interested in a holy people, a people who walk God’s holy way, a people who honor the poor and speak the truth in testimony and do not pervert justice with bribes. A people who do not cut down the fruit trees for instruments of war, who do not take the mother bird with the eggs, who give a Sabbath even to their own oxen, who leave the margins of their fields for the poor to come and harvest. God is not looking for powerful armies, but humble kings. God is not looking ritual purity but spiritual fidelity.

And this nation, that bears God’s holy name, that sings God’s holy songs, that offers God’s holy sacrifices – this nation God will bind and lay upon the altar, a feast for all the nations to come and gorge themselves.

It is chilling. I feel like a beggar asking my congregation for scraps compared to this daring herald of God. “Please be a little nicer…” rather than “Thus saith the LORD…”

But I am not a prophet; I am a preacher. I point to the prophet’s words. I try to help those words come off the page and speak to us. I pray for God’s Spirit to grant us ears to hear. But I have a privilege Zephaniah does not have.

I am glad not to be a prophet. I envy their skill, but to I do not want their burden. I know what happened to the prophets. I know their laments. I know their sufferings.

But I am glad, not just because I do not want their sorrows. As a preacher I have this other treasure, of a child born, a man awash in the Spirit, an anointed one bearing witness to God’s ultimate governance of this earth. I have this other treasure of sins forgiven, bodies healed and spirits delivered. I have this other treasure of bread shared and feet washed and a life laid down. I have this treasure to announce of an empty tomb and an ascended Lord.

The words of judgment stand. God has prepared a sacrifice. God will pull down his own temple when it serves injustice. God will scatter his own people when they abandon mercy. But God does not abandon mercy. The knife is drawn across his own throat. He himself is the lamb that reconciles us to heaven and one another.

The prophets are fearless and bold. They speak brilliantly. And even their songs of hope are exquisite. But I get to point to a man who is the prophets’ word made flesh, who is God’s voice incarnate, who is slain but lives, and who summons us to live in him.

Consider the mob boss

Wednesday

Matthew 25

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Paulamaria Walter: Die anvertrauten Pfunde, Betonrelief, 1963, Wege zur Kunst

26 ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.

It is hard for us to hear this parable as the crowd around Jesus would have heard it. We give our children savings accounts at an early age and teach them the value of accrued interest. If my girls didn’t spend their allowance right away, I paid them interest on their “savings”. I wanted to encourage the practice of delayed gratification. We share something of the mythology of the banker as the most trusted man in town – reinforced by images of Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey.

Of course, in recent years, we have discovered that bankers can be unscrupulous, selling us worthless stocks and taking a government bailout while paying themselves huge bonuses. Yet, still, we tend to make a distinction in our minds between these “Investment Bankers” or “Wall Street Bankers” and our local banker. So we have conflicting sentiments about banking, our memory of the home town banker contrasting with the impersonal megabanks charging outrageous fees, while giving the wealthy preferential treatment.

The only reason bankers pay lower taxes than I do is because, instead of paying taxes for the common good, they bought legislators who granted them special privilege. But I’m not bitter…

The ancients were bitter. They lived in a world where charging interest was forbidden by God – but bankers then, like today, found ways to manipulate or evade the rules. Charging interest was seen as taking advantage of those in need. Debt led to foreclosure, led to lost family lands, led to indentured servanthood, led to ever deeper poverty – or to landlessness and death.

So to “invest” with “bankers” in our parable is akin to investing with loan sharks. It is not honorable. It preys on human misery and multiplies it. The man who buries the talent entrusted to him is the only person in the story who acts honorably. He is the only person in the narrative for whom the crowds would feel sympathy. But they would also recognize he is a fool. You can’t swim with the sharks and not be one. He knows his master is ruthless – he should act accordingly.

And this is the strange power of the narrative. It takes a scene out of The Godfather and uses it to speak about our Father God. God’s servants should live like their master. It is dangerous folly to fail to recognize who God is and what he expects. If we are smart enough to recognize the inevitable outcome of this foolish man with one talent; we should be smart enough to recognize the inevitable outcome of those who fail to live God’s reign of mercy.

But we must remember this is a parable. It does not say God is a mob boss. It says servants are fools not to live in keeping with their master. The purpose of this story, like all the parables, is to open our hearts and minds to see and live a new way.

Talents aren’t talents

Watching for the morning of November 16

Year C

The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 28 / Lectionary 33

File:Fanefjord Judgment day.JPG

Fanefjord Church, Møn, Denmark. Fresco of the Day of Judgment

A talent is a measure of weight and a unit of money. It is unfortunate that it is a homonym for natural gifts and abilities; it tempts us to mishear the text.

Judgment day, the end of all things, the final accountability of all creation to its maker, these are the deep bass notes rumbling the floor of the theater this Sunday. There is sweetness in these texts. There is beauty and poetry. But the vibrations in that cup sitting in the console indicate the thumping steps of approaching danger.

Through the prophet Zephaniah, God declares that a day is coming when God will make “a full, a terrible end…of all the inhabitants of the earth.” The prophet’s rich, wonderful poetry carry devastating words:

The great day of the Lord is near,
near and hastening fast;
the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter,
the warrior cries aloud there.

15
That day will be a day of wrath,
a day of distress and anguish,
a day of ruin and devastation,
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness,
16
a day of trumpet blast and battle cry
against the fortified cities
and against the lofty battlements.

And the apostle Paul, writing to Thessalonica, declares:

The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!”

In the Gospel the ‘worthless servant’ is cast “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Even in the psalm we hear this note of judgment:

7 For we are consumed by your anger;
by your wrath we are overwhelmed.
8 You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your countenance.

But we are a long way from fire and brimstone, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” This is about that moment when the laboring mother changes her mind and decides she doesn’t want to have a baby. There is no stopping the inevitable. A new world will be born. And the only question is whether we are ready and waiting for it.

The Prayer for November 16, 2014

Almighty God, Lord of all,
you summon us to lives of faith and love
and stand as judge over all things.
Renew us in your mercy that, clothed in Christ,
we may live as children of the day
that is dawning in your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for November 16, 2014

First Reading: Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
“Be silent before the Lord God! For the day of the Lord is at hand.” – During the reign of Josiah, in as era that seems like a period of great national revival (though not far in time from the Babylonian conquest), the prophet exposes the underlying faithlessness of that generation. His portrait of the coming cataclysm is cosmic in scope.

Psalmody: Psalm 90:1-12
“Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.” – This opening prayer of the fourth ‘book’ (section) of Psalms, reflects on the brief and fragile nature of human life, and the ever present threat of God’s “wrath” – God’s opposition to our ‘sin’, our rebellion from and resistance to the fidelity to God and one another for which God fashioned us.

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
“Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you.” –
Having assured the community in Thessalonica that those who have died will share in the coming transformation of the world, he urges them to be awake and aware of God’s dawning reign of grace, living as faithful children of the light.

Gospel: Matthew 25:14-30
“It 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.” – Jesus uses a salacious example of a greedy and ruthless man entrusting his affairs to his underlings in a parable summoning us to understand the nature of God and God’s dawning reign.

Running to the table

Sunday Evening

File:Running Samburu Boy.jpg

By Erik (HASH) Hersman (Flickr: Running Samburu Boy) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I apologize that there was no meditation for Saturday. Late Saturday evening, when I finally had my blog composed the way I wanted it, my hard drive crashed. I lost the blog entirely – and my sermon for this morning.

To be honest I didn’t regret the loss of the sermon as much as the loss of the blog. The sermon I wasn’t yet happy with – though I needed the hours I spent fixing my laptop. The blog, on the other hand, was finalized. I was just adding the text links and getting ready to post it.

So I had to “wing it” somewhat with Sunday’s sermon. I knew the texts. I knew what I wanted to say. I just had to do it without the reassurance of having composed the words ahead of time, so that I said what I wanted to say. I call it “working without a net” – nothing to catch me if I lose my train of thought or get off track and end up in a cul-de-sac. (You could also call it depending on the Spirit, though I know I am depending on the Spirit when I write my manuscript.)

A manuscript also helps me stay within a reasonable time frame. (Years ago, on my first try, when I felt the need to try preaching without a manuscript, I preached for 40 minutes – about twice what is customary in our churches.)

Some church services are a sermon with a little bit of music. Lutheran services are sometimes music with a little bit of preaching – though the tradition calls for equal attention between the liturgy of the Word (readings and preaching) and the liturgy of Holy Communion.

We are creatures who need liturgy. We need the power that comes with symbolic acts. An engagement ring is a symbolic act. Thanksgiving dinner is a symbolic act. A retirement dinner, a housewarming, graduation, bringing flowers to your daughter after her performance in the school play, these are all symbolic acts. They mark the moment. I could have given my daughter a picture of my high school play (though I was not on stage) but the tradition is to give flowers – so we give flowers. It has a culturally defined meaning – just like candy or roses on Valentines’ Day.

That small bit of bread and sip of wine are one such symbolic act with a culturally defined meaning. Only this meaning is defined by the promise of the prophets, the actions of Jesus, the last supper, and the whole history of the church. It means we are welcome at God’s banquet table – we are accepted, we are loved, we are forgiven, we are joined to of God’s people, we are joined with God in Christ, we have a share in the feast to come, and we bear Christ’s body into the world.

Ask a child and they may not be able to tell you all this. But this morning, as communion was being served, the children were late coming from Sunday School (they go to a lesson after the children’s message, during the time of the readings and sermon, and return to participate in the Lord’s Table). As I served the ushers and the organist – usually the last to be served before the assisting minister and me – I could see out the back door that the children were running to get to the table in time. I was more than happy to wait.

Running to the table. Eager to participate in this stylized action that symbolizes all God’s promise for the human community – that we will eat together at one table in that day of perfect peace, when every wound is healed and every debt forgiven. A promise that we are called to live now, knowing it is the destiny for which we were made.

These small children could not likely have explained any of this, but they were running to be there.  They know what it is to be included with everyone else in something that is very special.

As do we who imagine ourselves rational adults.