The Adventurous Lectionary – Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost – November 15, 2020
Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18.; Psalm 90:1-12; I Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30
On the descending edge of Pentecost, the lectionary passages are challenging and also inspirational. There is risk and there is also promise in encountering the living God. For those who turn to God, who practice justice and take risks for a greater good, the world is alive with possibility. For those who live by scarcity and injustice, hoarding rather than sharing their financial resources at the expense of the poor, self-inflicted punishment is on the horizon. God’s justice will be done. The impact of our actions will come home to roost in joy and sorrow.
As we move toward the USA Thanksgiving celebration ten days from now, the parable of talents turns us from scarcity to abundance thinking, from fear to action, and passivity to creativity. The heart of today’s scriptures, the well-known parable of the talents, is a reminder that opening to divine possibility, even when it means the risk of novelty, awakens new and unexpected energies. God wants us to flourish and to use our resources for the well-being of our communities. This is not the prosperity gospel or “trickle down” spirituality but a recognition that our agency contributes to intensity or diminishment of God’s presence in the world.
In the wake of the USA presidential election, I have chosen Zephaniah over Judges because of its relevance to contemporary as well as ancient economic practices. While many hope for the Day of the Lord, God’s coming will bring judgment as well as comfort. God’s anger is aimed at wealth and consumption among the favored few. The poor are not mentioned as objects of wrath; only those who live in comfort and possess silver and gold.
As we look toward the future of the USA, Zephaniah’s words challenge us toward justice. God has, according to Zephaniah, a clear sense of justice; the wealthy must look out for the poor rather than their own self-interest. Silver and gold cannot save us, and the hoarding of wealth, Zephaniah warns will lead to social chaos and national destruction. The prophet is not railing against creativity and innovation, but at the focus on wealth as the primary good of life. None of us is truly saved unless all of us are saved in the intricate fabric of relationships. As Jesus asserted, centuries later, you can gain the world, but lose your soul.
Psalm 90 asserts that life is short. All things, even our greatest earthly achievements, must pass. Presidents come and go, even nations are temporary and finite. In light of the brevity of life, we are counseled to “count our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Focus on what truly matters – loving relationships with God and one another, delight in this moment of life, good and just work, creativity and wonder. Seize the day, celebrate the passing moment, delight in the temporary joys of life.
Thessalonians 5 speaks of God’s coming into our lives as being like a “thief in the night,” unexpected, surprising, and often unnoticed. The author counsels wakefulness. Be alert for God’s comings in your life. While apocalyptic authors connect this passage with the Second Coming of Jesus, a healthier and more responsible theological approach is to affirm that God comes to us moment by moment; and that we need to be aware of the God-moments, disguised as chance encounters, synchronicity, dreams, and unexpected events. Will we sleep through God’s visitations in our lives? Or, will we be alert to angels in disguise, bringing tidings of great joy and inviting us to creative transformation? God is seeking our wholeness and salvation, and we need to embrace the grace which undergirds us. The surprises of grace involve not only our own well-being but our care for others. In this moment, God comes to us in the disguise of our neighbor and the vulnerable stranger.
Jesus’ parable, known as the parable of the talents, is about the ways we use our gifts and resources. The Master congratulates and rewards the business savvy of two servants, while punishing the servant who holds onto his allotment, fearful of risk-taking. There is no need to punish prudence or agency, and perhaps the third servant doesn’t deserve the rebuke he receives. Still, the times call out for prudent risk-taking, that is, trusting God with the future and acting creativity and responsibly.
Often congregations are too conservative with their resources, preferring a gradual slip into irrelevance and oblivion to taking the risks necessary for growth and faithfulness in their particular situation. Adventure is risky, and it is also rewarding, opening to us new gifts and horizons of possibility.
Today’s Epistle and Gospel readings invite us to be agents of our destiny as individuals and congregations. They beg the questions: What prudent risks do we need to take as individuals and congregations? What are we missing in our current setting? What would happen if we were awake to synchronicities and energies emerging in our current situation? In light of the Hebraic passages, today’s scriptures challenge us to focus upon what truly matters, not superficial wealth or gain. It challenges us to speak out on behalf of the vulnerable, even if this may involve a degree of risk.
Consumption is a false god that destroys communities, persons, and the planet. Our risk taking and use of talents must not be an excuse to practice forms of the prosperity gospel that only further perpetuates injustice but to faithfully serve God’s path of justice, healing, and reconciliation.
Still risk is frightening to persons and institutions. It is challenging to churches in this time of COVID, Zoom, and safe distancing. It means change and loss. Many congregations and persons are imprisoned by self-imposed limits and fail to see that limitation – another word for concreteness – is the womb of possibility. Let us be bold in our prudence, launching out into deeper waters trusting God as our companion and lure to the future. Let us use our gifts to multiply God’s healing realm in our world.
Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of over fifty books including GOD ONLINE: A MYSTIC’S GUIDE TO THE INTERNET; PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S VISION OF CONTEMPLATIVE ACTIVISM; PROCESS THEOLOGY AND POLITICS.