Sermon Seeds: Expectant Choices
Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A
Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 28
Judges 4:1-7 with Psalm 123 or
Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18 with Psalms 90:1-8 (9-11), 12
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Additional reflection on 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
You’re invited to share your thoughts and reflections on these texts on our Facebook page.
by Kathryn Matthews (Huey)
Preaching on a text that contains one of Jesus’ parables can be a challenge. Invariably, one scholar insists that we need to avoid a given interpretation of the parable, while another presents that “incorrect” interpretation in a persuasive and helpful way. So I remind myself that parables are stories with layers, or perhaps many facets of meaning, stories that can be heard in different settings in different ways, stories that come with a warning that I once heard years ago: if you believe that you know “the” meaning of a parable, you know you’re mistaken.
This week’s parable, the second of three in a row in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, is as challenging as last week’s story about the foolish virgins who weren’t prepared for the bridegroom’s delayed arrival. To those of us who breathe the very air of capitalism, this week’s story about servants giving an accounting to their master could sound like a warning from Jesus to invest our money well, or at the very least to deposit it in the bank for interest! However, the story isn’t about money, of course: money is the illustration Jesus uses, but as always the meaning is surely much deeper than mere cash or bank balances. Consider the parable’s setting in Matthew’s Gospel: as Jesus nears his death, would he really be exhorting his disciples to invest their money well? We suspect he would not, so the story must be about “something more.”
Where are your talents?
We sometimes interpret the story to be about “talents” in the sense of personal gifts and abilities that God expects us to use well – for the sake of the Reign of God, of course. (Several scholars point out that the word “talent,” which was a unit of money in the ancient world, came into the English language from this very parable, because of this interpretation.) Use our talents well and good things happen, including amazing growth – in us, as well as in the Reign of God. Bury them, leave them unexercised, and we end up out in the cold. The parable is about things like responsibility and accountability, then: putting our resources and our talents to good use.
Certainly, that reading does not exhaust the story’s meaning.
It helps to read this parable with the other two, and to read all three in light of where Jesus is on his journey. He’s preparing to leave his disciples, knowing that there will be a long “meantime” until he returns. In the Gospels, there are passages where Jesus speaks with great love and reassurance when he’s leaving the disciples. We are often reassured by the words, “Do not fear,” in the Bible. But then there are these parables that challenge us and even, at times, warn us. In last week’s reflection, Fred Craddock suggested that parables can “present justice and grace, either of which becomes distorted without the other” (Preaching through the Christian Year A). All three of our parables in this chapter seem to be about justice and consequences, including this story about talents, enterprising or lazy servants, and an anticipated reckoning when the One we await returns.
How much will it take?
As Jesus leaves his parting instructions, Charles Cousar says, he uses these stories to address the things that are uppermost on his mind: “faithfulness, preparedness, and risk” (Texts for Preaching Year A). Oil is the image in last week’s passage, and money is used this week. If hyperbole is exaggeration for effect, Jesus’ story certainly makes his point by using sums of money that would have been fantastic to his hearers. How much, we wonder, would it take to impress us today, when even “a trillion dollars” has lost its impact? Many years, many generations could have lived off the talents in this story. And “the man” gives them not equally to the three servants but to each “according to his ability.” The word translated as “ability” is dynamis, or “power.” We’re intrigued to think about the power within each servant, within each of us, and how we use it, or how we bury it. Not just talent, but power. (I admit that I stumble on this phrase, because it almost feels like the third servant was set up to fail. Were his cowardice and lack of creativity predictable?)
Andrew Warner, a pastor in the United Church of Christ, has written a thoughtful reflection on this text, beginning with a question that’s perhaps a bit whimsical: “Did the ‘worthless slave’ know the story of the foolish bridesmaids?” It’s an imaginative approach, because characters in parables are, of course, not historical figures; in fact, Warner calls the servant a “caricature, a foil for you and for me, someone who shows our own potential for folly.” But wouldn’t it be interesting if a foolish bridesmaid and the unwise servant could have a conversation? Warner observes that it’s understandable that the servant would “focus on preserving his money.” However, “[i]t turns out that preservation is not the same as preparation, and endurance is not simply ending up where you started” (The Christian Century 11-4-08).
Sharing “the wealth” of our gifts: a question of circulation
One layer of meaning in the story addresses what’s going on inside the third servant, and his commitment, courage and worldview. Is he lazy, or stupid, or immobilized by fear? (Some might say yes to all three.) The lesson we can learn from the story about money and loans is to put our gifts into circulation: This parable, Richard Bauckham writes, “compares the use of all God has given one…in God’s service, with the use of a financial loan in order to make a profit for the investor.” If we hoard and hide money, it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do; in the same way, Bauckham says, “what God has given us – our selves, our lives, our faith, our abilities, our gifts, our possessions – is given in order to be spent and put into circulation,” in order to be “the source of further blessings for others and for ourselves” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).
It’s no wonder, then, that this is often read as a stewardship text. But how often is courage part of our stewardship preaching? The third servant’s fear prevented him from taking the risks of a life fully lived, which followers of Jesus understand as a faithful life that follows Jesus no matter what may lie ahead, remembering that what lay ahead for Jesus was suffering and death, and resurrection as well. Bauckham writes that God’s gifts are similarly given to us “to be risked in new ventures in God’s service. Every new step in living for God is a risk” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).
The tension: preservation, or preparation?
In keeping with the theme of the stewardship of money, then, Warner creatively uses the example of church endowments, and the tension between preservation (of the money) and preparation (for the master’s return). He sees the money entrusted to the servants as “amazing – a reckless, unearned, unheard-of trust.” The first two “responded with daring, courageously doubling both the principal of the bequest and the principle behind it. The worthless slave did not understand what he’d been given.” Warner’s challenge might unnerve many a church leader and longtime member: “When we are called to account, the question will not be how it is that we preserved the balance sheet or the bricks and mortar, but whether we emulated others’ daring and doubled it, taking audacious action to preserve principle over principal” (The Christian Century 11-4-08).
Thomas Long dependably provides a slightly different angle of approach, focusing on the way the third servant sees others, in this case, his master. We might say his worldview produces exactly the results he expects, that is, “he gets only the master his tiny and warped vision can see.” Like Cousar, Long speaks of consequences, in this case, the consequences of one’s faith. His reflection is as chilling as the final verse of the parable: “[T]o be a child of the generous, gracious, and life-giving God and, nonetheless, to insist up on viewing God as oppressive, cruel, and fear provoking is to live a life that is tragically impoverished,” while those who trust in God’s generosity “find more and more of that generosity; but for those who run and hide under the bed from a bad, mean, and scolding God, they condemn themselves to a life spent under the bed along, quivering in endless fear” (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion).
Stewarding the gospel
As valuable as all of these insights are, I think we could also read in this parable a very important lesson about how to live, again, “in the meantime,” before Jesus returns. Yes, courage and generosity and good stewardship of our resources are all part of the picture, but the big picture is one of a transformed life, as individuals and as a church. When Matthew wrote his Gospel, Cousar reminds us, he wasn’t necessarily talking about the risk of losing money or being hurt in a relationship, but the risk of preaching the gospel, openly sharing the good news in a world often hostile to its message, “rejecting the lure of security, with its logic of fear and intimidation, and taking the risk of discipleship, with its dangers and perils” (Texts for Preaching Year A). This is stewardship beyond money: a stewardship of the gospel itself.
It’s perhaps important to note that many people think of “stewardship” as a kind of holding/keeping/care that might slip into hoarding. (I find myself using the term “practicing good stewardship” when I use every last bit of the candles that I can manage to light.) Can we imagine good and wise and generous spending of resources as “good stewardship”? What about risky use, if it’s done with faith and hope and imagination and creativity? I wonder about that myself, especially when I read this parable and struggle with what it’s teaching me.
Keeping faith, or burying it?
Could it be that we bury our faith, our relationship with God, the gospel itself, or at least tuck it away in some hidden place, and just take it out on Sundays and emergency situations? Or is our whole life affected, changed, transformed by living out our baptism, by responding every day to the call of the Stillspeaking God? A story always says this sort of thing better, and I remember reading the story long ago about one of the Desert Fathers from early, early Christianity, when people were driven by faith into the wilderness to live with very little material comfort but with tremendous spiritual riches. One day a young monk came to Abba Joseph and asked him what more he could do, since he was already doing some fasting, and some praying, and some work, mostly weaving baskets. The holy man responded, the story goes, by raising his hands, and fire shot out from his fingers as he responded to the young man with this great challenge: “Why not become totally fire?”
The story stirs our spirits, but how well does it describe the faith of our congregations and the whole church? Are we going along, doing some fasting and praying and basket-weaving, but not catching fire? Is our faith life more about safety and reassurance and security, or is it about risk-taking and openness and courage, and the unimaginable abundance to which these virtues lead? Have we even thought of such things as virtues? Are we willing to let the gospel loose in the world? Are we willing to be a blessing to the world?
For further reflection:
John Lubbock, 19th century
“If we are ever in doubt about what to do, it is a good rule to ask ourselves what we shall wish on the morrow that we had done.”
Michael W. Smith, 21st century
“I think if the church did what they were supposed to do we wouldn’t have anyone sleeping on the streets.”
Anaïs Nin, 20th century
“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”
Robert Frost, 20th century
“Freedom lies in being bold.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 19th century
“Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.”
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, 21st century
“Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave – that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm. And therefore, this courage allows us, as the old men said, to make ourselves useful. It allows us to be generous, which is another way of saying exactly the same thing.”
Last week’s passage from Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians responded to questions and perhaps anxieties of the early Christians who watched their fellow believers die before the return of Jesus. This week’s passage continues the reflection on this great event to come, this distinguishing mark of Christian belief, this root of our expectant hope. We now live in an age that tries to alert us to threats and possibilities of terrorist attacks, and we’ve even tried a color-coded system to notify us that we should be prepared, although there is usually very little we can do except to be afraid. The unknown is unnerving, and believers throughout the centuries, today just as much as in the first century, if not more, would like to know exactly when the return of Jesus might be expected.
Perhaps it is worthwhile to consider how we would change our lives today if we knew this coming were indeed happening in our lifetime, as these earliest Christians expected. Would we change our ways, on the other hand, if we knew Jesus would not return for two thousand more years? In an age and culture of 30-year mortgages and 60-month CDs, do we consider “the day of the Lord” relevant? Paul almost refuses to address the “when” of Jesus’ return: “I don’t think, friends, that I need to deal with the question of when all this is going to happen. You know as well as I that the day of the Master’s coming can’t be posted on our calendars. He won’t call ahead and make an appointment any more than a burglar would” (Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message).
Perhaps many members of our churches never give this question a second thought, while others live in uneasy fear. It seems that Paul is warning us against either route. Instead, and perhaps paradoxically, we should be aware on one level at all times that the past, present, and future are all in God’s hands, that all things will unfold in God’s time and God’s way, and therefore be prepared for a sudden and dramatic turn of events that will undoubtedly strike fear in the hearts of many. And yet, believers, children of the daylight and clear vision and wakeful alertness, should live in joy and confidence because we see the big picture, the assurance of sharing God’s life and our ultimate salvation. We should encourage one another with that shared reassurance, and not worry about the details of timetables and schedules. Even if we die before that great day, we are still alive with Christ.
According to Eugene Peterson, Paul is “prodding us to continue to live forward in taut and joyful expectancy for what God will do next in Jesus” (The Message). John Dominic Crossan’s exploration of the word parousia sheds more light on the “now” of this way of living: “The parousia of the Lord was not about destruction of earth and relocation to heaven, but about a world in which violence and injustice are transformed into purity and holiness” (In Search of Paul, with Jonathan L. Reed).
How have you viewed the “end of the world” or “the day of the Lord” in your life of faith? How many of the folks in your church give a great deal of thought to this expectation of our faith? In what ways might this expectation bring them joy and reassurance rather than fear? Are there also folks in your church who dismiss this idea altogether? If we think of this second coming not as an event but as one part of a process already begun, how are we participating in it? How might we claim to be in the midst of a process of transforming the world, in the midst of a resurrection set in motion by the raising of Jesus? How is our work for peace and justice part of that participation? How do the popularized novels about the end of the world differ from your own expectations, and what sort of response do they evoke? In what ways do they change people’s lives, and in what ways might our lives change if we took this Christian hope more seriously? Two thousand years later, the thief in the night has not yet arrived, and neither have the labor pains of the woman. Or have they? Birth, after all, the bringing of new life, is often very long and very hard. What if the alert level for us children of the day is at its highest level? How then shall we live?
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, after Ehud died. So the Lord sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-ha-goiim. Then the Israelites cried out to the Lord for help; for he had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly for twenty years.
At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment. She sent and summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you, ‘Go, take position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.'”
To you I lift up my eyes,
O you who are enthroned in the heavens!
As the eyes of subjects
look to the hand of their ruler,
so our eyes look to the Sovereign our God,
until God has mercy upon us.
Have mercy upon us, O God, have mercy upon us,
for we have had more than enough of contempt.
Our soul has had more than its fill
of the scorn of those who are at ease,
and its fill of the contempt of the proud.
Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
Be silent before the Lord God!
For the day of the Lord is at hand;
the Lord has prepared a sacrifice,
he has consecrated his guests.
At 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.”
Their wealth shall be plundered,
and their houses laid waste.
Though they build houses,
they shall not inhabit them;
though they plant vineyards,
they shall not drink wine from them.
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.
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,
a day of trumpet blast and battle cry
against the fortified cities
and against the lofty battlements.
I will bring such distress upon people
that they shall walk like the blind;
because they have sinned against the Lord,
their blood shall be poured out like dust,
and their flesh like dung.
Neither their silver nor their gold
will be able to save them
on the day of the Lord’s wrath;
in the fire of his passion
the whole earth shall be consumed;
for a full, a terrible end
he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.
Psalm 90:1-8 (9-11), 12
O God, you have been our dwelling-place
in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You turn us back to dust,
and say, “Turn back, you mortals.”
For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday
when it is past,
or like a watch in the night.
You sweep them away;
they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed
in the morning;
in the morning it flourishes
and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.
For we are consumed by your anger;
by your wrath we are overwhelmed.
You have set our iniquities
our secret sins
in the light of your countenance.
For all our days pass away
under your wrath;
our years come to an end like a sigh.
The days of our life
are seventy years,
or perhaps eighty,
if we are strong;
even then their span is only toil
they are soon gone,
and we fly away.
Who considers the power
of your anger?
Your wrath is as great as the fear
that is due to you.
So teach us to count our days
that we may gain a wise heart.
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. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When 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! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then, let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.
[Jesus said:] “For 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. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’
“Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'”
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings.