Today’s readings contrast hope and fear, and abundance and scarcity, as spiritual issues that shape our personal and corporate behavior. Pastors and congregants alike are also asked to reflect on whether or not our actions make a difference to God. Do we somehow contribute to the quality of God’s experience or is God indifferent to what happens to us and our world?
The relationship of God and the world is at the heart of the Zephaniah reading. Those who believe that God is indifferent to our world are in for a surprise, and not a good one! Harm will come to those who “rest complacently (like old wine) on their dregs, those who say in their hearts, ‘The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.’” While we must question the explicit violence in this passage as unworthy of gracious God revealed in the life and ministry of Jesus, it is clear that this passage asserts that our actions have consequences for God and ourselves. Everything makes a difference and brings us closer to - or takes us further away - from God’s vision for our lives.
Even a gracious and loving God cannot nullify the consequences of our actions. A graceful universe is compatible with the reality that we reap what we sow. God seeks to minimize the negative consequences of our actions, and bring good out of evil, but our turning from God or our belief that we are free to do whatever we want, without regard to others, partially blocks the abundance God desires for us. The good news from Zephaniah’s words of apparent doom is that we and our actions really do matter to God and the future of the planet, and that we can, as Mother Teresa counsels, “do something beautiful for God.” Our faithful and life-supporting actions create a field of resonance that enables God and us to be more active and creative in bringing healing and justice to our world.
In the spirit of Psalm 8, the words of Psalm 90 contrast the infinity of God with the obvious finitude of human life. In our fourteen billion year, one hundred twenty-five billion galaxy universe, we seem of no consequence. As the Psalmist says: “For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday, which passes like a watch in the night. You sweep them away like a dream;
they fade away suddenly like the grass. In the morning it is green and flourishes;
in the evening it is dried up and withered.” Still, as the hymn inspired by this Psalm affirms, God is nevertheless “our help in ages past, our hope in years to come.”
In a universe without a clear geographical center, some physicists believe that every place can be identified as the center of the universe. Two phrases capture the contrast between the infinity of God and God’s care for finite and fallible human life: “God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere” and “God loves each one of us as if there is only one of us.” (The first statement has many sources, while last statement is attributed to Augustine.) Everything is important, but nothing is all-important. Or, as a Jewish proverb notes, everyone should have notes in each of her or his two pockets: the first saying, you are dust; the second affirming, for you the universe was made!
In light of the reality of our mortality, we are called to “number our days,” that is, to treasure each moment as holy. As Psalm 118:24 proclaims, “This is the day that God has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!” Recognizing the brevity of life, we are called to awaken to the wonder of each breath and every encounter. In the spirit of Mary Oliver, Psalm 90 asks us to consider: “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
The words of today’s gospel are filled with both promise and threat. A literal reading suggests that those who use their gifts will receive greater gifts, while those who fail to maximize their gifts will be stripped of what they have. Accordingly, these words can be misused to justify a type of Social Darwinism, which penalizes the unsuccessful and meek, and awards risk-takers and so-called job creators.
More to the point, “the parable of the talents” contrasts hope and fear, and abundance of scarcity. Do we see the world in terms of what we lack or in terms of possibilities for growth and transformation? Often realism is mistaken for seeing life only in terms of the bottom line, or our current perception of our resources as barely adequate to support our needs. This was certainly the case in the feeding of the five thousand: the disciples rightly noted that they only had five loaves and two fish, which, of course, can’t feed five thousand. But, Jesus believed in a deeper realism, which included God’s lively energy, the generosity of the crowd, and divine-human abundance hidden in apparent scarcity.
The parable challenges laypeople, pastors, capitalists, and socialists alike to a type of prudent risk-taking, grounded in the awareness that the perceived concrete limitations of life are also the place from which possibilities emerge. We may live with regret for neglecting certain life-giving possibilities. Our failure to trust God and, then, take appropriate risks shrinks the size of our world and diminishes our sense of possibility; but, despite our timidity, new possibilities are always on the horizon. In contrast to the parable’s words of threat, those who fail are not cast into darkness, but are given second and third and fourth (and more) chances to turn from fear to hope, and abundance to scarcity.
Read in light of the contrast of abundance and scarcity, and hope and fear, the passage from Thessalonians is also good news, despite its apparent threat. As children of day, we are called to walk in the light, trusting God and supporting one another. Remembering we are `part of the body of Christ, that interdependent community in which our joys and sorrows, successes and failures are woven together, we discover that we have everything we need to be faithful to God and live abundantly. This is good news for small congregations that worry about the future. From mustard seeds come great plants, and from five loaves and two fish a multitude can be fed. Faithful realism sees more than meets the eye, and trusts that nothing, not even our failures, can separate us from the love of God.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty one books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. He is available for lectures, workshops, and retreats.