Saturday, October 8, 2011

Proper 28 Year A

Proper 28 A
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Judges 4: 1-7; Psalm 123


Zephaniah 1: 7,12-18; Psalm 90: 1-8

I Thessalonians 5: 1-11; Matthew 25: 14-30

An earlier victim of Joshua's victories over him, Jaban the King of Hazar, now wants revenge. After harassing Israel for twenty years, he mobilizes a large, well-equipped army for conquest of Israel. The alarmed Israelites turn to a leading authority, the prophetess and judge, Deborah, to take charge. She summons Barak, who gathers an army of 10,000. She instructs Barak where to encamp while she draws Jacob's army into Barak's waiting army. (After this excerpt, Barak follows Deborah's commands and routs the enemy. But on reaching their headquarters he discovers that their general, Sisera, had already been killed. The victory is credited to the wise and brave leadership of Deborah who in 5: 7 is called "a mother of Israel.")

The psalmist paints a moving vignette-- the expression and posture of an adoring slave girl as she awaits the attention/instructions of her mistress-- to evoke Israel's waiting on the Lord.


Refuting directly those who dismiss the Lord's accounting, Zephaniah foretells "the Day of the Lord." It is always speeding toward us, it will cause chaos and pain for those who have the most to lose in the status quo and no one will escape. ("The Day of the Lord," when God will intervene suddenly and directly in human affairs, is a recurring idea in the Hebrew scriptures. Sometimes it is applied to specific events in history, e.g. the Babylonian captivity, as well as a cosmic event for all creation. It will be greeted with horror by those who have not followed God's ways, but with hope by those who have. The Christian scriptures pour all these venerable meanings into the judgment/hope of Christ's second coming.)

The only psalm attributed to Moses, who himslef lived a hundred and twenty years and played the pivotal role in the history of the chosen, acknowledges that God was before creation and spawned creation. To God a thousand years of human history are like a fragment of a memory from a dream. And our seventy, or even eighty years, just slip by. But the failures of a life-time, even those hidden from others, come before God's face and we fear God's anger. May this anxiety about reckoning spur us to "count our days rightly/ that we may get a heart of wisdom."

"The Day of the Lord," i.e. Christ's return, will come Paul writes "like a thief in the night"-- unexpected, by surprise, undetected until it is standing right over our bed, startled. "But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are children of light...." So while some are indifferent while others are frightened of a time of accounting, you have nothing to fear. "For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through Jesus Christ our Lord, who died for us, so that whether awake or asleep we may live with him."

Following another parable about watchfulness (see proper 27 A, last Sunday), Matthew adapts a story which transposes his point into one of our most carefully calculated and emotionally gripping commodities-- money. We are to act as shrewd managers of money do; invest prudently and wisely. And what does money represent in this parable? Perhaps it is what we all possess by various measurements-- our time on this earth, the impact we have on others individually and at large, the decisions we make, our actions and their consequences, in short all that comprises our lives. There will be an audit. Get busy.

We all cease to be-- stripped of relationships, capacity for daily living, meaning. We will cease to be when we die, of course, but we can also cease to be some ways even before death. Furthermore, even though we can acknowledge we will die "some day," we can say nothing certain about when that moment of death will come.

In his sweeping examination of the human condition in
Being and Time, Martin Heidegger's discussion of this reality of not existing plays an important role. ( Div. II, p 274ff) Coming to grips with this reality he insists is crucial. We will cease to be when we come to the end of our time, but, we can also cease to be even before then by failing to live beyond basic instincts and missing what it means to be more authentically ourselves and more deeply engaged with and for others. He analyzes the many ways we can "tranquilize" ourselves to avoid confronting our limitations and our potential by just giving into the supposed urgencies of unexamined living.

Today's appointed readings and gospel jolt us out of our complacency. In just a few words that have echoed for millennia, the psalmist compares our fleeting, finite time to God outside human time. For God a thousand years of human history must seem like a left-over fragment of some dream barely recalled. Our seventy or even eighty years fly by in a blur. Both Zephaniah and Paul use the venerable phrase "The Day of the Lord" to apply in new contexts the reality that life as we know it, as measured in all human history as well as our individual lives, will not last forever. And in the end we will face the consequences of our failures, even those we have kept from others.

So what do we do with these facts? We are not to be frozen with fear. The psalmist urges us to to use this stark awareness of our reality as a prod to "count out days rightly/ that we may get a heart of wisdom." Paul argues that if we are already engaged in doing God's work we have nothing to fear and, just as importantly, we are not to just sleep-walk though our life, sort of dead already. We are not destined for fear, Paul insists. The parable Matthew relays it even more explicitly. Get up. Get busy. Use your instinctual shrewdness for good. Invest what is most precious-- your time on this earth, your impact on others, your money, in short the various aspects that make up your life as calculatingly as the most successful investors. Use your assets for maximum return. Do not just sit on them, or hide them under the mattress. You do not have forever. You do not know how much time you actually have. So behave as if you were running out of time, because you are !

Awareness of such human realities as final death, as well as ways of "dying" even before death, and an accounting for how we have used whatever abilities and time we are given leads to what Heidegger calls "an impassioned
freedom towards death [his emphasis]-- a freedom which has never been released from the Illusion of the "they [conventional, everyday ways of just getting along, just getting by], and what is factical, certain of itself and anxious." (p. 311) Today's readings from Zephaniah, Psalm 90, Paul and Matthew convert this "anxiety" into a healthy, constructive motivator for productive action. It prods us to use whatever capacities, circumstances and time we have beneficially for others and, thereby, for ourselves as well. Live life more abundantly by "investing" whatever we have been given.