November 19, 2023

The 25th Sunday after Pentecost

November 19, 2023

The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

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

From this morning’s Psalm, “our eyes look to the Lord our God…” I speak to you in the Name of God our Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifying Sustainer. Amen.  

     As many of you know, my preparations for the Sunday sermon begin on the preceding Monday and include daily prayers thereafter asking what it is that the Spirit of God desires to say to God’s people on this occasion through these particular scripture readings. And that usually works out really well. But here it is the following Sunday morning, and I still wonder what is it that God desires to say to us because today’s readings seem so contradictory.   

See, our Old Testament lesson tells us that because they chose to ignore their covenant promises about their relationship with God and neighbor, the people of Israel, once again, were enslaved. And that prompted them to cry out for God’s help. Well, the grace of God that accompanies repentance and amendment of life is always good fodder for a sermon.

But history tells us that once God set them free and life returned to normal, within a generation they again ignored their covenant promises, chose to live only for themselves, and this whole mess started all over again. Hmm, not sure if that’s what this sermon should be about.

     St. Paul, in our New Testament lesson tells the oppressed Church at Thessalonica to hold onto the hope of Christ’s return - a return he describes as like “a thief in the night” – but then Paul says don’t let that image of a thief scare you because our Lord’s return will be marvelous day. So, be encouraged and comfort one another. Now that’s great a sermon topic. But in our Gospel reading with its glimpse of what the return of Christ will be like, Jesus says we had better look out because he is coming in judgment and there will be hell to pay – quite literally. What on earth is going on here? After all, next Sunday is the Feast Day of Christ the King – the day we celebrate and affirm our hope and joyful anticipation of our Lord’s return in glory at the end of this age. Are we supposed to look forward to that day as St. Paul suggests, or wait for it with fear and trembling as foretold in our Gospel reading? Indeed, what is going on here? Well, let’s back up a bit.

    Historians and theologians say that the Books of Joshua and Judges need to be read together because they tell the same story but from different perspectives. It is the story of how the nation of Israel having settled in the Promised Land and entered into a time of prosperity, forgot or outright ignored their Covenant promises with God and turned to selfish ways. As a result, the Book of Joshua says their nation suddenly fell into slavery because that is what happens when we don’t follow God’s direction. However; the Book of Judges describes that same fall as a gradual decline of a once mighty nation that lost sight of God’s values. Two different perspectives and yet both books affirm that God is always faithful and merciful and, in spite of ourselves, when we cry out to God for help as described in today’s reading from Judges Chapter 4, God always provides a way home. This Old Testament lesson affirms that God never forgets God’s people. God will always forgive and restore even whole nations, if we are willing to ask for God’s help, humble ourselves enough to admit that we must change how we choose to live, and then do it.

     The early Christian Church grew tired of waiting for the return of Christ. Like earlier disciples and apostles, they believed Jesus would return at any moment. But as the years passed and he did not return, their faith and confidence was shaken. So much so, many began to leave the Church, especially churches rife with inward struggles for power or churches that were houses of exclusion, rather than radical welcome and hospitality. Paul urges the Church to remember our hope remains secure: Christ will return. But that return should not be our focus. Paul says the church should be focused on living their faith deliberately and, thereby, demonstrate their trust and total confidence in God in this present moment regardless of what is happening around them now or in the future. God’s people choose to live their faith: they choose to love God and neighbor at all times. And that includes not just the neighbor we know, but those unknown to us, or those we choose to ignore. Paul says living one’s faith is the choice every Christian must make because inaction is unacceptable. He says do not worry about how or when Jesus will return because you are children of light and those who live in light can see what is coming. So, stop fretting over when Christ will return and, instead, live the Gospel: live it deliberately – proclaim it boldly – proclaim and demonstrate everything Jesus said and taught and showed us. Life is lived in the moment – right now – and as for the future, like the Psalmist says, “Our eyes look to the Lord.” God’s people keep their eyes and for that matter, their hearts and minds, focused on God’s ways and values at all times, in all things, and with all people.   

     In our Gospel reading, Jesus offers his parable of the talents which foretells the judgment the Christ will bring when he returns. An interesting thing about “talents:” We might think of them as gifts and abilities, but in 1st century Palestine, a talent was equivalent to fifteen year’s wages. Now that changes the story doesn’t it? See, if we were talking about a few dollars, most of us would probably take a chance on the stock market to earn a few bucks. But, fifteen year’s wages is a huge sum and warrants careful planning. This is no simple story. Jesus goes on: The first fellow receives 5 talents or 75 years of wages. He invests or trades up that money so that he doubles it into the equivalent of 150 years wages. (I wish he was my broker.) The second receives two talents or thirty years wages and he, too, manages to double it in value. And both of these men, upon the master’s return, are called good and trustworthy servants.

     But the third fellow only received a single talent or fifteen years wages, and he was afraid. See, he knew how demanding the master really was. Matthew doesn’t tell us but, for all we know, he may have tried to invest his own money in the past and lost it all so this time, he chose to bury it where it would be safe so that he could present all of it to his master upon his return. Jesus surprises his hearers and us when the master calls this fellow “wicked” and has him thrown out of town. From an eschatological viewpoint, Jesus says this fellow was thrown into hell – into utter darkness forever separated from God. Jesus says, “For all those who have, more will be given … but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away…”. This seems so unfair. I know I would have done the same thing as this “wicked” slave. I think most of us would and that is the point Jesus is trying to make.

     See, faith is never static and never ours alone to cling to. Hanging on to what faith we have, or hiding it, or keeping it to ourselves rather than explore and develop and share it creates a passive way of living as if “life is just about me and Jesus”. But Jesus has said and demonstrated throughout the gospels that faith that means anything, faith that makes a difference in our lives and the lives of others requires taking initiative and risk in order to build up the kingdom of God. Faith requires action. Faith requires a shift in our mindset so that we are focused not on when Jesus will return, or hoarding the grace we have received, but sharing with those around us what God values– those values affirmed in our Baptismal promises. The master in this parable never told these men what to do with this money. So, faithfulness in this story is not about following instructions. It  is about each of us deciding how we will use what we have been given, how we will put to use the faith we embody while our master is absent so that it makes a difference in us, our community, and this world. To do nothing as if we are protecting God or protecting God’s assets is not faithfulness, it is unacceptable.

Our Gospel lesson echoes what Paul says about living our faith boldly, to seek ways to grow in grace, to discern every possible way to become Christ’s light even more brightly in this community. In fact, our Gospel lesson affirms our reading from Judges: inaction is certain slavery and death.

     So what is it that the Spirit of God desires to say to us through these scriptures this morning? I believe it is an important message for us especially in this year of transition: Faithful Christians live with certainty that when Christ returns he will find that we have been faithful and trustworthy servants because we were active and deliberate in sharing that same abundance of God’s mercy, forgiveness, welcome, love and grace that changed our lives – shared and demonstrated it with, and to, everyone we encountered. Until that day then, dear friends, let us choose to live our faith in ways that will as the Psalmist says, continue to draw our eyes – and the eyes of our neighbor - to look to the Lord our God from whom all blessings, and new life flows forever. Amen.