Sermon for 24th Sunday after Pentecost, Nov 19 2017

Sermon for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
November 19, 2017
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Judges 4:1-7; Psalm 123; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

This week’s sermon was a bit of a struggle – not so much because I couldn’t figure out what to say about one or another reading for today, but because I couldn’t figure out which reading to focus on, and whether and how to use them to provide insights for one another.  Finally, I settled on talking about the Gospel lesson – because we have been exploring Jesus’ teaching about we ought to be spending our time waiting for the end times – and to use what we find there to explore what was going on in the first reading, the one from Judges.

Which on its face seems pretty dull.  But since this passage only comes up once in our three-year lectionary cycle, and it is the only reading we ever get from the Book of Judges, and it speaks about a time between Moses and Saul, when the Israelites were first finding their way in Canaan alongside the other people who lived there, it is a page in history that we often ignore.  And I do think there is something to examine there.

So, I’m going to start with the Gospel, and then look back over the centuries to a time maybe as much as a thousand years earlier, and then come forward again, even to our own time, and, well, let’s just see how that goes, okay?  Thank you, by the way, for indulging me on this.  Not that I’ve given you much choice, of course.

You’ll recall that Jesus is talking about the end times.  He’s chewed out the religious leaders who are playing the Romans’ game, keeping the people in line and preserving their own necks in the process.  They’ve spent a lot of effort ensuring that ritual and rules govern who has access to the Temple, and to God. And, as we know, Jesus thinks it’s much more important for them to care for the people, to love them, to watch out for them, to ensure they have what they need to survive, and, above all, not deny them access to God.  After he chews them out, he then spends time with the disciples teaching them how to live while they wait for the return of the Messiah and the coming of the kingdom of heaven.  First he gives them a parable about the Lord who comes sooner than expected, and finds his trusted representatives drinking and carousing and abusing those over whom they have been put in charge.  Then he gives them the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids; some of whom are far more prepared for the long delay in the arrival of the bridegroom than others.  I spoke about the oil in their lamps being their works of faith, which can’t be transferred to the credit of other persons.

Today we hear of another Lord who was delayed in his return, after entrusting each of three of his slaves with a vast sum of money and asking them to do their best with it.  Just FYI, I understand that a “talent” is worth about 15 years’ labor – think of it as about $200,000 – fulltime work at our minimum wage.  So one of the slaves gets a million dollars to work with; another gets $400,000, and the last gets 200,000.  And when he finally returns, the first hands him a cool two million, the second gives him $800,000, and the third returns the $100,000, and blames him for reaping where he did not sow, and calls him harsh.

This last guy completely missed the point.  It would be easy for us to do the same, although perhaps, as the lord said, we might put it in a bank.

Let’s look a little deeper: at 5% interest, it takes 14.5 years to double an investment.  If you’re going to double it faster, you have to seek out a higher rate of interest.  And that also means seeking out a riskier investment vehicle.  So the first two slaves chose to risk the money; they could so easily have lost some, or even all.  So the third guy does the prudent thing, burying his one talent in the ground.  In fact, that’s what people often did with their money to safeguard it.  We read from time to time about treasure hunters finding a stash of coins hidden underground, dating from a time and place of invasion – in England, the Anglo-Saxon monks would bury the altar silver underground when they heard the Vikings were coming; householders and others did the same.  But some of the inhabitants were killed or driven off, and the cache was lost to history.

So the prudent guy loses out – he is cast into the outer darkness along with the abusive stewards and the foolish bridesmaids, while the guys who took the risks were rewarded.  Given Jesus’ contrarian views about money, I’d guess that they weren’t rewarded because they doubled the money – but because they took the risk and invested it in the marketplace.

Putting it bluntly, if we are given gifts – talents, privilege, smarts, abilities – we are supposed to use them for the benefit of others, not hide them away.

Now, what has this to do with Deborah?

The book of Judges tells of a time between Moses and Saul, the first king.  The stories were handed down from generation to generation, and were probably first written down during the Babylonian exile.  They are given a place in the almost mythical history of the people of the Covenant.  And these are tales that have very little to do with the rules and rituals of worship, and nothing whatsoever to do with the temple in Jerusalem, which they precede by as many as 5 centuries.

Now, we only hear a small piece of the story of Deborah, here in chapter 4.  We don’t know why the Lord “sold the Israeilites into the hand of King Jaban of Canaan, except that they “did evil in God’s eyes.” We don’t hear what happened after Barak followed her advice.

If you do take a look at Judges, you will see a clear pattern: the Israelites did evil and were conquered, then repented and were given victory over their oppressors.  (We see that in the Books of 1st and 2nd Kings as well.)  The evil of which their chroniclers accused them was to worship, as the Canaanites around them did, the god Baal and the goddess Asherah.  Now Deborah was unusual in that she was a woman; usually the post of judge was held by a man.  The story of Deborah is unusual in another way – she wasn’t the only woman in the story.  When Barak went down into the valley to fight Jaban and his great general Sisera, he won decisively.  The Canaanites were slaughtered, and Sisera ran away on foot.  He came to the tent of a man named Heber the Kenite – who, it is said, was related to Moses’ father in law.  Heber was away helping Barak, and his wife Jael remained at the tent.  She saw Sisera running by and invited him into the tent. She promised he could hide there, and she gave him milk to drink, and he laid down and she covered him with a rug. Then she took a tent peg and a hammer and killed him while he slept.

Why do we hear / not hear this story today, over and against the Gospel parable of the talents.  What might the two stories have to say to one another?   

But what else is going on here? 

Notice what the Israelites’ experiences were:  they did fine for a while, then they fell away and worshiped the wrong gods, then they were conquered and enslaved, then they repented and cried out to God, and God sent them a great leader to free them, and then they worshiped the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and Joshua, and then the cycle began again.

And again.  And again.

Once they were secure and safe, they forgot who they were.  They thought they were special. They thought they could do whatever they wanted.  They thought that breaking the Covenant was no big thing. 

So what if they abused their privileges and wasted the gifts that God gave them?  So what if they were selfish?  So what if they forgot the poor, forgot the widows and orphans and the sick?  So what?  They were the people of God.  Their arrogance and greed didn’t faze them.  Until it did, because in their carelessness, the protection that they thought God would provide them was denied them.

They were like the abusive stewards, the foolish bridesmaids, and the hang-dog slave we read about today.

It matters how we live; it matters how we wait; it matters what we do with what we are given, what we are entrusted with, how we treat others, how we treat God.  Just because the Messiah has come does not mean our journey is over, our job done, or our souls secure.

But if we do “invest” ourselves in the risks of living and loving and in the lives of others, if we do use the gifts we’ve been given for the benefit of the kingdom to come; then we too will be rewarded with rejoicing, not because we were successful, but because we are willing to risk everything for the kingdom.

  January 2018  
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