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Pentecost 24 November 19, 2017 - The Rev. Janet Campbell
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PENTECOST 24  Proper 28  Year A
Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18; Psalm 90: 1-8, 12; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11;
          Matthew 25:14-30
 
Christ Episcopal Church
Tacoma, Washington
Sunday, November 19, 2017
The Rev. Janet Campbell
 
 
Admonitions and warnings . . .
violence and destruction . . .
a thief in the night . . .
and
weeping and gnashing of teeth
          in the outer darkness . . .
 
who would ever choose these readings?
 
Good thing we have a lectionary
          that has chosen them for us,
 
so that we might hear, read, mark, learn
and inwardly digest event the seemingly indigestible
          as we near the end of this year,
the Church’s year of grace
                   so compellingly named – Year A.
 
Good thing we have a lectionary, I say,
because each of these readings,
in its own context
          and in its own way,
deals with important questions
that God’s people have always needed,
          and will always need, to think about . . .
The nature of God
          and our own nature.
 
How we are to live:
intentionally, vigilantly,
fully awake and aware
          of God,
          of ourselves,
          of the world around us . . .
 
The seriousness of
          not taking God seriously.
 
 
“The great day of the Lord is near,”
the prophet Zephaniah warned the people
          of Judah and Jerusalem
          in the 7th century before the Common Era,
“near and hastening fast.”
 
On that day of darkness and gloom,
Zephaniah envisions
an angry, punishing God,
          lantern in hand,
prowling the streets of Jerusalem,
separating out those who had
          heard and kept God’s commandments
from those who had rested
          “complacently on their dregs . . .”
 
(dregs – that which is leftover and worthless . . .
for instance,
the sediment in a wine vat)
         
In the case of Judah and Jerusalem:
          dismissing the God of Israel
                   as impotent and irrelevant,
                   who does “neither good nor harm,”           
                             to embrace more “attractive” alien gods . . .
          living lives of luxury,
          having accumulated silver and gold,
                   houses and vineyards and lands and flocks
                             at the expense of others . . .
                  
False gods,
ill-gotten wealth . . .
these, warned Zephaniah,
          would be revealed as worthless
          on that terrible day
          when God would finally come
                   to put an end to it all . . .
 
 . . . the utter devastation of that day
evoked by images and sounds
          of invasion and war . . .
          of complete destruction . . .
“for a full and terrible end,” said Zephaniah,
          “[God] will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.”
 
Well, the prophet got a little carried away
          in his righteous indignation,
but he was a staff prophet of a zealous reforming king,
          and it was his job
                   to make a point:
 

God has shown you, O Judah and Jerusalem,
what is good, and right . . .
repent,
return to God,
choose life,
the life
          God intends you to live . . .
 
for the heedless way you are living
          will lead to nothing but disaster.
 
 
“Concerning the times and the seasons . . .”
the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonika
in the first century of the Common Era,
                                                                            
“you know very well  
that the day of the Lord
will come like a thief in the night . . .”
 
will come to the complacent
who think they can find
           peace and security
                   in the ways and things of this world.
 
They have rejected
the only source of true peace, true security:
          Jesus the Christ. . . .
 

The heedless way they are living
          will lead to disaster . . .
sudden destruction will come upon them
          when they least expect it,
there will be no escape . . .
 
But the followers of Jesus
will not be taken by surprise
on that day . . .
 
The Church is to keep awake,
to live with sober intent,
girded about with faith and love:
 
Let us attend,
says Paul,
          to the true state of our hearts and minds,
          the true state of the world around us,
          the true source of our salvation . . .
 
Despite the desperate times
          in which we live,
despite the trials and uncertainty we face
          while we wait
          for the promised return of Jesus,
we must “continue to encourage one another
          and build each other up . . .”
 
“for God has destined us not for wrath
          but for obtaining salvation
          through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
 
 

“For it is as if,” Jesus said,
“a man going on a journey
summoned his slaves
and entrusted his property to them . . .”
 
What is this “it?”
To what does “it” refer?
 
This parable of the talents
follows immediately on last week’s
          parable of the ten bridesmaids,
which ended with the admonition,
“keep awake,
for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
 
So, Jesus says, keep awake,
for your master is
going on a journey,
has entrusted his property to you,
and you have no idea
          the day or the hour
                   of his return.
 
Pay attention.
 
A very wealthy man
entrusted his property
          to his three slaves . . .
 
Eight talents in all,
a talent being a measure of weight,
          about 130 pounds of silver or gold.
 

One talent would comprise
          about 6,000 denarii
          (the common coin of the day),
                   at about 46 denarii to the pound.*
                  
(No need to try to remember
          these numbers . . .
whether or not this sermon
makes any sense
will not depend on it . . .)
 
 
A denarii was a day’s wages
          for a common laborer.
 
So . . .
The first slave was entrusted with
5 talents . . . 30,000 denarii . . . 605 lbs of coins . . .
          about 82 years’ wages.
 
The second was entrusted with
2 talents . . . 12,000 denarii  . . . 260 lbs of coins . . .
          about 33 years’ wages.
 
The third was entrusted with
1 talent . . .  6,000 denarii . . . 130 lbs of coins . . .
           about 16 ½ years’ wages.
 
A whole lot of money.
They didn’t each get the same amount,
but, it is noted,
the master gave
“to each according to his ability,”
presumably the ability  
          to make something of it
          for their master
                   while he was gone.
 
A weighty assignment.
 
The assumption in that society
was that
there was a finite amount
          of goods in the world,
already distributed,
already owned . . .
 
If you increased your holdings,
that meant you had gotten
that money or that land
          or those flocks or that vineyard
from someone else.
 
A fruitful investment,
a skillful trade,
was to be admired,
even though it meant
that as someone was winning,
          someone else was losing.    
                                                           

The first two slaves
proved as cunning and entrepreneurial
          as their master must have been
                   to amass such wealth . . .
 
by clever trading strategies
          they doubled
the money entrusted to them,
and were rewarded with praise
and more responsibility
          in his household.
 
The third slave,
for fear
of what his master might do
          if he suffered a loss,  
buried the money entrusted to him
          for safe-keeping.
 
What his master might have done
couldn’t have been worse
than what his master did do . . .
 
“Take the talent from him
and give it to the one with the ten talents . . .”
 
“As for this worthless slave,
throw him into the outer darkness,
where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
 

In that culture
the master’s expectations of his slaves
          would be considered reasonable,
and his punishment of the slave
          who did not fulfill his duty,
                   justified.
 
 
What was Jesus
getting at
when he told this parable?
 
He was in Jerusalem;
the time of his crucifixion
fast approaching.
 
He was urgent in his desire
to get his own beloved people
          to wake up,
          to pay attention,  
          to open their eyes and ears
                   to see and hear what God
                   was doing in him . . .
 
          to accept his invitation
                   to participate
          in God’s coming kingdom
         
                   before it was too late . . .
 
. . . hence the warning of
the outer darkness
and the weeping and gnashing of teeth.
 

Would God’s people receive the life-giving word
that was being spoken among them
          and respond,
or bury it in the ground?
 
Would they continue
          in their old, complacent ways
or embrace the transformation
          God was working among them?
 
 
What was Matthew
getting at,
some 70 or 80 years later . . .
 
as his community
was working out how to live
          as Jesus’ followers
          in a hostile environment
still awaiting his promised return,
          now not as imminent as originally expected.
 
They must
be alert,
keep awake,
 
despite his apparent delay . . .
 
for he had entrusted
his ministry to them,
the ministry of God’s kingdom . . .
 
and they were to make something of it.
 

What do we hear
in this parable
nearly 2,000 years later.
 
It’s “moral,”
the truth it tells
is still condoned, even rewarded
          by society at large:
 
“For to all those who have,
more will be given,
          and they will have an abundance;
but for those who have nothing,
even what they have
          will be taken away.”
 
We see it manifest
all around us . . .
 
The relentless, no-holds-barred
          pursuit of ever-greater profits,
while
people are priced out of their homes
          to live in cars,
          or in tent cities or shelters
          or on the street,
access to adequate health care
          for body and mind
          is threatened
the poor scrounge for food and resources
          for themselves and their children . . .
 
 
All three readings
point to reckonings to come . . .
 
Reckonings the people of God
bring upon ourselves by
our failure
to live according to God’s ways.
 
Because God takes us seriously,
God holds God’s people accountable
          for the state of the world
                   that God has entrusted to us . . .
 
we are meant to live in it
          in a way that fosters the well-being
                   of all God’s beloved creatures,
          and advances God’s purposes.
 
We have ever needed warnings
          to get our attention,
          to wake us up,
warnings of our heedlessness,
          complacency,
          timidity,
          obtuseness . . .
 
our failure to take God seriously.
 

Is it God who punishes . . . ?
or is it we who punish ourselves and others,
          by our negligence and complicity
                   our going against the grain of the Kingdom  . . .
                  
 
What do we make
of these three tough readings
          in our own very difficult season
          our own baffling and troubling times?
 
They are a call to responsiveness
and responsibility . . .
 
And despite the direness of their warnings,
they are a call to God’s hope for the world . . .
 
In the fourth text assigned for today,
the psalm,
we are reminded:
 
That the times of any human being,
          of any human community,
          of any human era,
are but a moment, a pin-point
          along the long trajectory of history . . .
 
That what happens in each moment
both matters immensely
and is passing . . .
 

That we will fall short,
fail to please God,
 
despite which
God is ever-present, ever-helping,
          our refuge
                   from one generation to another . . .
 
That we can dare hope for the future
because of the help we have
          experienced in the past.
 
That we must keep awake,
be alert for signs of that help,
for it is by recognizing God in those signs
that we will find ourselves
          renewed in hope.
 
“So teach us, O Lord, to number our days
that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.”
 
 
 
* Pilch The Cultural World of Jesus Cycle A Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN p. 137