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Friday, November 11, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Judges 4:1-7 AND Psalm 123:1-4 OR Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18 AND Psalm 90:1-12, I Thessalonians 5:1-11, Matthew 25:14-30

Most of this week’s readings are rooted in humanity’s outrage when seeming injustice and/or violence overtakes them. Evil happens and the struggle to explain it is endless and futile. We see it in the attack on the towers in New York City, in shooting rampages that take down students and politicians, in the recent surfacing of a sex abuse scandal at Penn State, in corporate greed (big bonuses for execs at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac), in the use of power in totalitarian states, in tribal and ethnic hatred and slaughter. We could fill this entire blog with a list of such gut-wrenching phenomena. We blame it on mental illness, genetics, lack of proper socialization, greed, hunger for power, improper values, the devil, etc.

The most common response seems to be to strike back—revenge—give evil or evil. Romans 12:21 (not one of this week’s readings) says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Followers of Christ often say we are called upon to “forgive,” and that we are. I come this week, however, with more questions than answers.

My most basic question is how are people (including ourselves) held accountable for their actions. Society’s answer is often to punish people. Biblically we find many images of a final judgement, where those who have fallen short don’t fair too well.

I was fortunate enough to serve a church in a county seat where the sheriff was a seminary graduate pioneering one of the first victim-offender reconciliation projects in the country. It used our church as a place for victims and offenders to meet and seek reconciliation. I’ve seen it work, but does it work when we move to a larger scale? South Africa tried it with a Truth and Reconiliation Commission and similar efforts have been made in other countries—with positive but mixed results. There are no easy answers.

The book of Judges depicts a period of Israelite history when they were ruled by judges. In Judges 2:18-19, the period is described in this way: “Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge, and he delivered them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge; for the Lord would be moved to pity by their groaning because of those who persecuted and oppressed them. But whenever the judge died, they would relapse and behave worse than their ancestors, following other gods, worshiping them and bowing down to them. They would not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways.”

Repeatedly in the book of Judges one finds the words which begin this week’s reading. Ehud, the judge, has just died and “the Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” (Judges 4:1) The result is that they are sold “into the hands of King Jabin of Canaan.” (vs. 2) It may be noteworthy that the next judge is a woman, Deborah. (vs. 4) Following her instruction, the Israelites win the next big battle (vss. 5-7) and have forty years of peace. (Judges 5:31) Then chapter six opens with the words: “The Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” Evil is persistent and this reading gives us little comfort, only a sense that cycles of revenge don’t work.

In Psalm 123 people who seem to be at the bottom of the heap cry out for mercy—“for we have had more than enough of contempt. Our soul has had more than its fill of the scorn of those who are at ease, of the contempt of the proud.” (Psalm 123: 3-4) Such cries can be heard in every age, including our own, when those in power, those who sit at the top of the economic heap, seem to have little appreciation for those whose life is a day to day struggle. The rest of us sometimes seem to be little more than pawns.

Zephaniah, the prophet, looked around Jerusalem shortly before it fell to the enemy in 586 BCE and identified the wealthy as the source of evil. The solution is again punishment, destruction. “Their wealth shall be plundered, and their houses laid waste . . . That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness . . . Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them . . .” (Zephaniah 1:13, 15, 18) There is truth in the warning that the pursuit of silver and gold is often the source of injustice, but what kind of justice is it that destroys a whole city? Isn’t there a better way? It’s a question I come back to again and again as I read these stories of revenge and punishment.

The author of Psalm 90 seems almost to throw up his hands in pessimistic resignation. It’s not a stance I can embrace, but there are times when it seems there is little we can do. The writer says we are “like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers . . . For all our days pass away under your wrath; our years come to an end like a sigh. The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.” (Psalm 90:5-6, 9-10)

How would you like to spend a day in the company of this man? Anyone who imagines the Psalms to be always inspiring missed this one. The hopeful word, however, is perhaps in the final verse—“So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” (vs. 12) Humans have often looked to philosophies which teach us to live one day at a time, living fully into the moment as the only place we can make a difference. The time when we can do what is right is now, and that, at least, is something. Jesus, in what is called “The Sermon on the Mount,” concluded his section on worry and anxiety with these words: “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today." (Matthew 6:33-34) When faced with the consequences of “evil” my heart longs for something more, but “one day at a time” is not a bad place to start.

Both the epistle and Gospel lessons deal with a coming time of judgment. Early Christians, as has been true of some Christians in all ages, felt it was just around the corner. From the two letters to the church in Thessalonica we can gather that they engaged in quite a bit of speculation about it, some believing the end had already come (II Thessalonians 2:1-2), some believing it is so near that there is no point in working any more (II Thessalonians 3:6 & following), etc. In Today’s reading from the first epistle, some seem to be ignoring pending doom, saying, “There is peace and security.” (I Thessalonians 5:3) These verses do not seem so much to name some evil worthy of punishment as remind the readers that the time when judgment will come is not known. (vs. 2) They extend the notion of living one day at a time. We are to live fully awake, avoiding darkness since we are “children of light,” encouraging one another and building up each other. (vss.5-6 & 1) It is an exhortation to keep on each day doing what is right, letting our lights shine (as was emphasized this past Sunday at Kairos-Milwaukie UCC).

Like so many of the Jesus’ parables, the one in our Gospel reading ends with a judgment scene. The parable depicts a man leaving his “slaves” in charge of his property, entrusting them with funds in varying amounts. (Matthew 25:14-15) When the owner returns, he finds that the two slaves given the most have doubled the value of what was entrusted to them. (vss. 20-23) The third, who received the least, was afraid and hid his money. (vss. 24-25) The result seems to us to be very harsh. The money he buried is taken from him and given to the one who earned the most, and “this worthless slave” is thrown “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (vss. 29-30)

Basically it is a parable about using what we have. The money they were given was measured in “talents,” a Hebrew unit of measure. Most interpretations of the parable have taken the word “talent” to refer to the abilities and gifts we have.

The lesson is not unlike what we have drawn from the previous two readings. Whatever we think about a final judgment, we are to go on living now, letting our light shine, using our gifts and abilities. That is what we are accountable for. It’s almost a “use it or lose it” message: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” (vs. 29) I can’t sit easily with that, nor some of the depictions of harsh judgments, but I can accept accountability for doing my best with what I have been given, trusting in a divine love which will multiply my efforts, assuring me that they will make a difference, however small, not only now, but in eternity.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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