|Reading 1:||Reading 2:||Reading 3:||Reading 4:|
|Judges 4:1-7||Psalm 123||1 Thessalonians 5:1-11||Matthew 25:14-30|
By David Grant Smith
This is the kind of text that provides more questions than edification — and they are disturbing questions, to say the least! What did the Israelites do to that “was evil in the sight of the LORD?” Does God really punish entire nations by putting them through war, endangering the lives of both righteous and unrighteous (or faithful and unfaithful) people? Does God in fact know the outcome of battles? Or does God even give military advice to “favored” people in order to defeat an enemy?
It is more than likely that if this text is read in the context of Christian worship, it will raise these (and other) questions. And these questions deserve an honest struggle. And at the heart of that struggle would be this overarching question: If this scripture is being read in worship, it must have a holy and edifying purpose for the faith community. So what is that purpose, and how is it supposed to edify anyone? There are some congregations where simply omitting this reading would be an option, thereby mitigating the need to engage the text — whether as reader, hearer, or preacher. There are other traditions in which there is no choice; if it’s in the lectionary for a given day, it must be read. If it is the case that this text must be read, it would be wise to engage it in preaching, even if only very briefly, to simply frame it in a way that provides some edification that doesn’t turn the community of faith into a context in which war propaganda becomes either explicitly or implicitly part of the liturgy.
As process-relational people, it is our goal to hold before our congregations what we believe to be the primordial nature of God, characterized by beauty, truth, zest, adventure, peace, love, and justice. Though an argument could be made that war is, for many, an avenue of adventure, it is by no means an avenue that leads to the sum of the whole of all the other characteristics which we believe to be part of the initial aim of God which lures us toward creative transformation, and not outright destruction.
The one small edifying piece which could potentially be brought out of this passage would be that this biblical narrative contains yet a fine example of how God empowered a woman to be in a position of authority and an advisor to the military. Deborah’s presence in the story is a unique diversion from the scriptural predominance of the patriarchal exclusion of women, especially in positions of authority (that of a judge) and tactics (that of a military advisor), let alone someone who would receive a message from God directly in order to deliver it to a man. From a socio-historical point of view, this runs contrary to what we know to be “true” about this ancient culture. And from a process-relational view, having a woman’s presence in these roles works to affirm the notion that God’s empowerment for humanity to be co-creators with God in the world extends to other people besides powerful men. It may seem that this “goes without saying,” but it could very well be that saying it out loud on a Sunday morning may be just the thing that some women would find to be edifying; and it more than likely will challenge at least some men to consider this reality for, perhaps, the first time.
Though the threat of war is the theme of the first reading, the response to that reading identifies the threat to the common good as being “the scorn of those who are at ease, …the contempt of the proud” (New Revised Standard Version) or “the scorn of the indolent rich, and the derision of the proud” (The Book of Common Prayer). The contempt for others which is propagated by classist paradigms is not unique to ancient Israel and past centuries. It is alive and kicking today; and those whom it kicks the hardest are thee most vulnerable people who have limited (or no) resources with which to advocate for themselves. This is not to say that it is wrong to have financial resources; but the biblical witness is clear about the need to share resources with those who need help, and to use those resources in such a way as to not cause harm to others. The biblical witness is also clear that it is morally reprehensible for those who “have” to be contemptuous of those who “have not.”
The psalm is composed such that its main petition is for mercy. The psalmist affirms the need for mercy, but also the Source of all mercy; and the psalmist looks to God to bring forth mercy for the common good. In a process-relational worldview, though God may be the Source of all mercy, God is not the sole agent of mercy. The initial aim of the divine is working to lure all humanity to embody mercy. So, as the faithful community prays together for God to bring about mercy, it may be instructive (and it will hopefully become missional) to pray in such a way that we ourselves — individually and corporately — become co-creators of mercy in the context of our own lives. How might we as individuals become the mercy that the world needs; and how might we show that mercy to others? How might we as a community of faith proclaim and enact mercy for our neighbors — both known and unknown neighbors? How is God luring us in this moment to be merciful? Who is most in need of mercy? It may be that the best way to pray this psalm is in such a way that we pray that we might “become the change we want to see,” as the saying goes.
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Many preachers over the centuries have found rich material in this passage for the purpose of getting a congregation emotionally charged into a place where they feel a need to be converted (or reconverted, or rededicated) to a certain level of faith and
For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!
These two sentences convey the weighty idea that just when we think things are secure, there’s bound to be calamity that will come upon us and catch us unprepared… and unprepared people face dire consequences — or so many preachers have led us to believe. But the truth is, that kind of gloomy outlook isn’t the main point of what Paul wrote to the Thessalonians. Instead, he was writing against such doomsayers and
The point Paul was making was that the Thessalonians, because of the solid relational way of living they had adopted, didn’t have to succumb to such gloomy outlooks as those who do that kind of naysaying. Instead, they can rely on their faith, and the fact that they had learned to put their faith into action by being mindful, watchful, and attentive to God, self, and others. The images of night and day aren’t only about good and bad; they also convey the image of being awake to what is going on in one’s own life, and in the lives of those around us.
By being “awake” (or mindful, or watchful, or attentive), we know how to recognize God’s lure calling us to participate in the initial aim, and to be co-creators with God in bringing beauty, truth, adventure, zest, peace, love, and justice to fruition in the world around us for the purpose of creative transformation. Being “awake” also helps us to be aware of what is going on in ourselves, sensing and discerning to what degree we are actually responding favorably to God’s loving lure day by day, moment by moment. Being “awake” allows us to see the needs of our neighbors — both familiar and unfamiliar — in order for us to respond to their needs in such a way that they can become part of what God envisions for them, for us, and for the whole world.
This passage briefly reflects the battle and war imagery of this week’s first reading by listing various pieces of armor in a metaphoric sense. But here the enemy isn’t other people or nations; the enemy is darkness. And in a process-relational worldview, the enemy of darkness isn’t limited to pure evil and naughtiness; darkness also becomes a metaphor for apathy. Not caring, not paying attention, not being mindful (of God, self, or others) is to put ourselves (and potentially others) into peril or “darkness.” Therefore, the better path is that of “day” or “light” or being “awake.” Though the passage is very much an effort to cheer on the ancient Thessalonians (and us, by extension), it is also meant to convey the importance of ongoing discernment, encouraging us to look at ourselves carefully so that we are always “awake” to God, self, and others. And if we aren’t “awake” to God, self, and others, we may need to discern what it is that we might do in order to bring ourselves out of the “sleep” that prevents us from being fully who God is calling and empowering us to be/become.
Last week, in comments for the first thirteen verses of this chapter [see Proper 27, Year A], it was suggested that the Gospel of Matthew is held between two bookends that help to shape all that is between — “‘and they shall name him Emmanuel’ (which means, ‘God is with us’)” [Matthew 1:23b] and “…I am with you always, even to the end of the age” [Matthew 28:20b]. If the theme of God’s presence being with us is the theme of the Gospel, the climax of Jesus’ teaching on that subject could arguably be the three parables of Matthew 25, which each demonstrate how “God is with us” above and beyond how we experience God’s presence in and through the message and ministry of Jesus.
The parable of the talents is, of course, a popular passage for any parish going through a stewardship or pledging campaign. Though a bit problematic in the way that it upholds slavery and economic classism, it is rich with the message of how we are all given gifts by God, and given the ability to make those gifts increase for God and for God’s purposes. But from a process-relational standpoint, what is often missing from reflections on this parable is the idea that God is present with us in the ways that we work with those gifts. God is present with us in our creativity. In fact, in a process- relational approach to this text, we would say that God is with us in partnership in order for us to work with God to embody and work with God to continue the work of co- creation and creative transformation.
This parable feels harsh, of course, because of the way the “master” in the story treats the one who was afraid and simply hid what had been given to him. After all, a “talent” was worth about 15 years of wages, so who could blame the guy for being scared? But if we are careful to remind ourselves (and our congregations) that parables are intended to be metaphoric and not historical, and that all metaphors break down when taken beyond a certain point, we really have no reason at all to believe that God would behave like this severe landowner did toward the one who was afraid and who hid the talent that had been entrusted to him. Yet the metaphor of “outer darkness” in which the scared man found himself in the story could easily point to the kind of “outer darkness” and empty existence that any of us could experience if and when we don’t partner with God in the use of those things with which God has entrusted us. When we don’t live into our fullest potential, when we don’t work to allow the initial aim of God to find concrescence in our lives, and when we don’t expend our God-given creativity, we find ourselves in very lost and lonely places, spiritually and emotionally. Humanity was created to be creative; and when we aren’t creative, part of us is dying on the inside.
God’s lure to join in partnership with God is intended to be relational in a loving and persuasive manner, not in a coercive or manipulative manner. The gifts that God gives us for the work of co-creation and creative transformation are themselves God’s invitation to each of us to “enter into the joy” which God intends for us. God is dependent on our participation in the work of co-creation and creative transformation; and it is God’s desire for us to have a working relationship in which God can entrust us with a few things so that we might learn to be entrusted with more.
This all goes hand in hand with the idea that the gifts we have from God are things which can be grown and increased. In a process-relational way of life, we never perceive anything as being static; things and beings evolve, as do the interrelatedness of all relationships. God’s initial aim to humanity — collectively and individually — is to become participants in God’s primordial nature, and to creatively engage the world with beauty, truth, adventure, zest, peace, love, and justice. This parable points to the ways that “God is with us” in the very thing that makes humanity so very human — creativity and co-creative enterprise.
The Rev. David Grant Smith is a priest in the Episcopal Church, and is currently doing a residency in Clinical Pastoral Education at Christiana Care Health System in Newark, Delaware, where he is the Chaplain Resident for Pain & Palliative Care. From early 2008 until July of 2014 he had been the Rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Penn Yan, NY (where he was ordained), in the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester, where he is still canonically resident as a priest. Prior to his ordination to the priesthood in 2008, David had a career as a lay professional in church music. In addition to his interests in weaving process theology in and through preaching, liturgy, teaching, and pastoral care, David enjoys travel, writing, and spending time with family & friends.