Proper 28, Year A – Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

October 26, 2017 | by Bruce Epperly

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Judges 4:1-7 Psalm 123 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 Matthew 25:14-30 Zephaniah 1:7,12-18

Today’s scriptures highlight risk and promise.  The preacher needs to decide which pathways to take.  Will she or he note all four scriptures or focus on only one or two of the passages?  No preacher can be all-inclusive and decisions have to be made, especially in the context of a fifteen to twenty-five-minute sermon.  Decision means “cutting off,” as Alfred North Whitehead says, but such cutting off may open up new possibilities.

I am hard pressed to find much to commend the readings from Judges and Zephaniah.   Although the wealthy of Jerusalem, as Zephaniah threatens, may deserve punishment as a result of their injustice and infidelity, there is virtually no grace in the passage.  God is the judge, the unempathetic arbiter, the source of destruction, and epitome of wrath.  Yes, acts have consequences: as Whitehead says, the best for a particular impasse may indeed be painful.  By our own actions, we can minimize God’s impact on our lives and communities and we may have to reap the whirlwind of our personal or corporate acts.  As twelve step programs note, coming clean before God and others may be humiliating and painful, but the Higher Power ultimately has plans for us – for good and not for evil, for a future and hope, as Jeremiah proclaims.  We may experience our personal or national collapse as the consequence of what we perceive to be divine intervention, but process theology, on the whole, sees the divine aim and God’s use of power as ultimately remedial and healing in nature.  At the very least, we lose our souls or deaden our emotional lives through acts of injustice. The passage from Zephaniah reminds us that there may be “hell to pay” for our nation’s current love affair with consumerism, profit making, and environmental destruction to make a quick buck; our leaders’ comfort with racism, policies that benefit the wealthy and harm the most vulnerable; and contentment with growing income inequality may lead to national disaster. 

The passage from Judges, while ethically and theologically problematic, does lift up the role of one woman, Deborah, as a judge – a political and religious leader – over Israel, powerful enough to determine the course of battle.  Despite the coverups perpetrated by so-called biblical literalists and their attempts to minimize the role of women as leaders in scripture and Christian history, Deborah reminds us that women can be spiritual, political, and military leaders and that they can wield wisdom that often eludes their male counterparts, then and now.

Psalm 123’s giving voice to those in need, apparently crushed by the oppressors or the results of past behavior, reminds us that looking to God can deliver us from hopelessness.  God’s mercy and loving-kindness can restore us to wholeness and set us on a new path.

The reading from Thessalonians 5 challenges us to claim our identity as God’s children of light. God can come to us at any moment.  Any moment can be a moment of decision.  There are “thin places” and “Kairos moments” everywhere and permeating every encounter.  We don’t need to wait for a Second Coming.  Christ is already coming to us right now – with dreams, visions, possibilities, intuitions, and synchronous encounters.  Deep down God is always revealing God’s self to us; we are often however too busy about other things to feel God’s presence or so tranquilized by trivialities that we miss the ever-present God-moments of life.  Our sense of the divine can be awakened through prayer, meditation, and ongoing “crying for a vision,” asking God for guidance, help, and insight.  (For more on intuitive and synchronous experiences and encounters, see Bruce Epperly, “Angels, Mysteries, and Miracles: A Progressive Vision,” Energion Publications.)

Jesus’ parable of the talents is both inspiring and threatening.  We would do well to emphasize the inspiration while redeeming the threat as a form of good counsel rather than punitive behavior.  As I read this parable, I am reminded of Mary Oliver’s question: “What do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  I will be focusing on this scripture on the Sunday in which our church votes on its 2018 budget.  The congregation, like many others, will be presented with the option of moving forward, taking some calculated risks and spending capital to expand its mission, or maintaining the status quo and retrenching in terms of outreach.  Every congregation can be asked, “What do you plan to do with this one wild and precious church?” 

In this parable, Jesus commends a type of responsible risk-taking.  The servants who make a profit could also have a taken a loss.  To simply sit on your assets – maintaining the status quo – will eventually deaden an organization and its participants, employees, and leaders.  Just think of the companies that refused to innovate or failed to take advantage of new technologies or emerging markets.  Many of them are now in freefall with little future ahead. 

Wise risk-taking opens us to a world of possibilities that elude those who live in the past or hang on to the status quo.  When we open to divine possibility and energy, we may initially feel insecure, but the frontiers of uncertainty and insecurity are full of promise for visionary risk-takers.

While there are hints of punishment in this parable, and the greatest punishment is found in a life of regret; a life of missed opportunities and love lost.  God wants us to have abundant life, but we need to reach out for it.  We need to follow Jesus’ path and then forge ahead in directions toward which God points us.

Bruce Epperly is Pastor and Teacher at South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Centerville, MA. and a professor in the D.Min program of Wesley Theological Seminary.  He is the author of over 40 books, including Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed, Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God, Becoming Fire: Spiritual Practices for Global Christians; and Praying with Process Theology: Spiritual Practices for Personal and Global Healing.