We will go forth in hope

File:Religión en Isla Margarita, Valle del Espíritu Santo.jpg

Watching for the Morning of November 19, 2017

Year A

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 28 / Lectionary 33

There will be thanksgiving in the service on Sunday, but it will not be enough to set our hearts at ease. We do not feel like the world is safe. We see divisions and threats. We are uncertain about the future. We are not confident that a turkey on every table is the truth of the country. We don’t see bounty and peace.

The first thanksgiving was not the meal of bounty and peace we have rehearsed in grade school plays, but we want that myth, the truth embodied in that story. It seemed inevitable, once, our manifest destiny: prosperity for all. We appear to have replaced it with uncertainty for all.

So it will be an act of faith when we offer prayers of thanksgiving on Sunday. We will dare to assert that God is good, that God is generous, that God is rich with mercy and love. We will dare to believe in generosity. We will dare to act on the notion that a table is to be shared, that kindness is to be shown, that truth is to be spoken – and can be spoken in love.

And we will do this even as we listen to texts of terrifying judgment. The prophet is so carried away with the ferocity of God’s coming wrath he sees the whole earth consumed “in the fire of his passion.” The poet ponders the brevity and frailty of life and declares: “Who considers the power of your anger? Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.” And Jesus will use the image of a ruthless and vindictive rich man casting his worthless slave into the outer darkness, “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” to tell us about God and the living of God’s reign.

In this season of harvest, when days grow short, darkness grows long, and leaves fall to the ground, when we draw near to the end of the church year and ponder the end of all things, there is a certain dread in the air. But we will cling to the promise in our reading from Paul, “God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ,” and with courage remember all for which we give thanks. And we will go forth in hope.

The Prayer for November 19, 2017

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 19, 2017

First Reading: Zephaniah 1 (appointed: 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.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AReligi%C3%B3n_en_Isla_Margarita%2C_Valle_del_Esp%C3%ADritu_Santo.jpg By The Photographer (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

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“But wait for me.”

Saturday

https://i0.wp.com/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

File:Stanley Kubrick - butcher with slab of beef cph.3d02352.jpg

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

File:Wegezurkunst-walter.jpg

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.