This was a funny week. I knew this week’s Gospel was the parable of the talents (being stewardship days and all), but I totally forgot it. As I worked through the first 2 readings, it was actually quite a surprise to hit the parable! Perhaps due to that, I was blessed to read the parable in a new way that I’d not quite connected before. But anyway, the mystery of faith. In the end, to have a concept of how faith really does make all things possible is revolutionary. To try and explain that sense seems so utterly complicated, though. In any case, I pray perhaps I did some little bit of justice to that end, this week…..
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. – Zephaniah 1:7
Welcome to the last days of Judah! I keep thinking of that movie “The Last Days of Disco” for some reason. Don’t ask…. In the 7th century, King Manasseh is noted as the longest-ruling king in Israel or Judah’s history. Think something like 697 through 642 – about 55 years! The book of 2 Kings practically cremates him as worst ruler ever, and as a supporter of false gods, no less. Do keep in mind, Judah is a vassal of Assyria at the time, hence pagan civic religion isn’t so weird, per se. But, highly unfortunate? You bet! Huge roadblock for bringing God’s vision to fruition? Yup! And to cap off the other end of the time period, note that the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian Exile date to 586. This is our sandbox.
Manasseh was succeeded by his son Amon, who walked in his father’s footsteps. After just 2 years, Amon was soon assassinated by members of his own royal court, amid the people’s anger over Assyrian domination. And then, his son, the boy King Josiah, was placed on the throne at the tender age of 8. What happens under Josiah? Assyria falls apart. Judah’s emancipation (at least for a time). Israel taken under the control of Judah. The book of Deuteronomy discovered in the Temple. Josiah reads Deuteronomy, rends his clothes in distress, and begins wide reforms to bring the people back to life under the covenant. All in all, good times for a few years.
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.’ – Zephaniah 1:12
Now then, just who is Zephaniah? Seems he was a fiery preacher, and likely a part of the Temple cult. Hated Assyria. Hated idolatry. Loved Yahweh. His oracles fit into the early days of Josiah’s rule, well before any reforms. So, Zephaniah is railing against all that Manasseh and Amon seemed to stand for. This reading is an oracle from Zephaniah, warning that all who were given over to paganism would be winnowed. Those who have perverted the teachings of Yahweh, or fallen away, all punished – brought to justice. We are lucky – we have the entire (small!) book of Zephaniah. We can view this reading through the context of a society having grown perverted and being brought to justice and back into their grounding. Punishment not for its own sake, but with the overarching vision of the people returning to their God.
In these days, with millions of dollars having just flowed into the Indianapolis mayoral race, what’s the first question that might run through your mind? What were Greg Ballard or Melina Kennedy thinking? Millions of dollars that could have fed the hungry, clothed the needy, paid for teachers for the underprivileged. Millions of dollars for a campaign that’s now over and done. But now, as this reading goes on to speak of the great and ferocious day of the Lord that approaches, the oracle is pretty negative. I picture some kind of crazy gladiator movie. Hence I stick with the overarching theme of Zephaniah as winnowing, as refining, for the greater and common good.
The great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast…. a day of battle cry…. they shall walk like the blind… neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them.” (from verses 16-18).
The daily paper would grant us a sense of acceleration, the world shuddering and nations intertwining in ever more complex systems. Occupy Wall Street and its brethren staking out a place to protest. People not knowing who to vote for. People with lots of questions about God and about faith. And of course, did all that money from the last election really buy us candidates who will drive us toward the greater good?
Amidst all of this uncertainty, it seems right (and meet so to do!) to offer a prayer for the church, as a teacher of wisdom learned over ages. Just as Zephaniah precedes the promise of Josiah’s reforms, we may be on the brink of some kind of revival of faith that will blossom hope and justice for all of us.
God of Promise, we thank You for the gift of Your holy Church, for the message of hope and renewal that You proclaim through it, as days grow shorter, and darker. Spur us, ignite us, as Your Church, to speak truth to power, to be a voice of justice and hope, and to teach it to all who long to hear it.
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. – 1 Thessalonians 5:1-2
Interesting – I wasn’t necessarily obsessed with daylight savings time and the days now growing short. There’s plenty more night to come, a little more every day, in fact.
When they say ‘There is peace and security’, then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labour pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! So then, let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. – 1 Thessalonians 5:3, 6
It’s been a while since I’ve seen the “question the dominant paradigm” bumper sticker around. But, that seems to be a core theme for today. A lot of warning in these two readings so far. This is not to say that we’re necessarily going to hell in a handbasket. But, be alert. Ask questions.
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. – 1 Thessalonians 5:8-9
Big lesson for the GOP, perhaps? For all who would judge, who would pretend they know the mind of God and who’s in or out. No, we don’t know the mind of God – we never could. But, we know salvation and its joy. We know the gift of faith that we could wish for all people to have and to relish. In the midst of uncertainty, of loud voices that claim to have all the answers that we think we need, what we have and could stand to re-center ourselves in, is the salvation of our faith, that ebbs and flows and carries us through these uncertainties.
It seems appropriate to offer a prayer for our leaders. It’s too easy to pander to popular opinion, especially when the masses seem to think that justice is all about punishment, rather than about what happens next. What happens then? Justice is about our course correction – our re-centering ourselves in the journey toward the common good of God’s dreams for us. And as I quoted above from Paul, “let us be sober.” We know there are no easy answers in this world. Living in the tension between in and of (the world), our heads know that faith is our only hope for sanity and serenity. Do our hearts know this? Not so much. Back to our leaders – it seems appropriate to offer a prayer that they might allow their faith to lead them through the decisions that affect us all. For courage, to make right decisions that may cost their popularity, for like us, they ultimately have only their faith to see them through this present time.
Lord of Faith, we thank You for marking us as Your children, and for instilling Your saving faith in us to give us hope. We pray for our leaders, after votes and elections. Strengthen their faith, to empower them to make decisions and to lead in ways that bring life, promise, and justice for all people.
Ah, the parable of the talents. Right now it’s high stewardship season for countless congregations. As chair of stewardship for Christ Church, I’ve been teaching Sunday School classes on financial generosity, lining up people to give testimonies on giving, preparing for a pledge campaign, and whatnot. Oh, the joy! Anyway, this has always been a tough parable for me to crack. Three slaves are entrusted with 5, 2, and 1 talent, respectively. The first 2 slaves invest and make more, pleasing their master. As for the third slave:
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? As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” – Matthre 25:24-26, 30
So if I don’t return on God’s investment, I’m doomed? I never could read this parable any other way. With the standard song and dance about the obligation of the tithe, I always found myself in a certain ghetto of guilt, fear, and uncertainty. After the first 2 readings, though, I suddenly realized a new thought for myself. My God’s not harsh! After thinking so much about faith, and how only it sees us through the ups and downs of uncertainty, it strikes me that it reflects how I perceive God. Really, it’s like a sort of personal creed, and naturally I live within that context.
If I believe in a harsh, exacting God, then that’s the reality I live within. And sure, that God would delight in damning me for being a poor return on investment. But blessings! I believe in a God of free grace and salvation. Because I know myself to be marked as a child of God, because I know and seek to proclaim God’s grace to the world, in a nutshell I’m making more talents. It’s not for the sake of success – it’s not about the talents themselves – it’s about what it means to believe in a God of grace, and to claim the faith that God has implanted within me. I am impelled to serve, to share, to care. I am not afraid, I do not hide my light under a bushel. I sin boldly.
So, I now find myself for the first time ever, reading this parable not as instructive, but as descriptive. Descriptive of the reality of living in covenant with this God. Why doom yourself to living under a harsh God that reaps where He does not sow? You don’t have to do that! The description of the harsh God goes further – “from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” Our God is peculiarly present and active among the neediest of us – those who literally have nothing, no way to buy God’s favor.
Flush with reading this parable in a new way, I want to offer a prayer for the local community in light of the season of stewardship. Instead of worrying about how we fall short because we do not give “enough”, let us be filled with gratitude for all that we have been given, and filled with courage to strike out and let it go. Courage to give generously because we are free to do so.
Spirit of Generosity, Your blessings to us enrich our lives, and multiply as we share them with those around us. Fill us with gratitude, to recognize how infintely blessed we are, how very much you care for us. And fill us with generosity, that we do not have to give, but that we want to give, to let our ministry in this place change lives in our community, and even change our own lives. Spur us to give generously and to walk boldly into that mission.
So, I have the joy of being able to read a parable in a new way. I can have lots of interesting thoughts about it. I guess my hope for you this week might be to reflect on your faith – how connected you are to it. Because your faith is salvation in itself. If you’re stuck on big questions that give you restless sleep, some serenity would be a Godsend indeed! And perhaps you might also have the opportunity to be generous, to follow Jesus in a deeper way than before. Through your generosity, you really are exercising the very same healing Spirit with which our Lord healed the sick and lonely. Thank You, Lord, for the mystery of faith.