Judges 4:1-7; Psalm 76; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30
Bigfork Community United Methodist Church
November 19, 2017 – 24th Sunday after Pentecost
We conclude our meditations in Ordinary time this week. And in the three-year cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary, we walk through Israel’s history in this long period of Ordinary time. We read of Israel’s birth, of the greatness of its power in all the world, and its destruction.
We just sample a taste of the period of the Judges this week. You are invited to read more deeply into Judges if you wish and we are doing that in our Disciple Bible Study Class each Tuesday night. If you do decide to read more deeply into Judges, I warn you that the content is harsh.
But today, our reading is limited to the beginning of the reign of the Judges in the period when Israel enters the land and tries, unsuccessfully, to subdue it.
There is a rhythm to this part of the story, too. Israel is obedient and successful at first. Then there is a period of apostasy and their fortunes on the battlefield decline.
There is a period of adversity and the nation prays for deliverance. God hears their cries and sends them a leader who sees them through the crisis.
The judges are an ad hoc national government, assembled at a time when the threat to Israel is too powerful for one clan or one region to ward off. The ad hoc alliance of villages and regions is dissolved immediately once the crisis has past.
The history of Israel will one day produce a king…a permanent national sovereign. But in this early history, judges come and go.
In our own history, we might think of the Revolutionary period when George Washington was unanimously elected the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army.
He was called to service because he was well known for his success and he commanded the respect of those in the room…wherever that was.
Indeed, it is Washington’ sense of propriety and his presence that saw the Cause of Independence through the adversities of a war with Britain.
The story is told of him at Valley Forge, riding up to two soldiers who were quarreling. Now, they had much to quarrel about. They were cold, rations were inadequate, and fevers and sickness were rampant. And things weren’t going well from a military standpoint, either.
But they had to hang together, as Benjamin Franklin had said, or they would surely hang separately. Washington’s arrival went unnoticed, so he got down off his horse, grabbed both of the soldiers by the scruff of the neck, shook them, lectured them, got back on his horse and rode off.
The quarrel was over. Because Washington had decreed it, personally. And when the war was over, the army was disbanded and Washington was happy to ride home to Mount Vernon to resume his private endeavors.
Deborah is the first of the judges and she has become wise as someone who can settle difficult disputes. She didn’t grab any one by the collar and shake them, but she was like an arbitrator would be in our day, with disputes being submitted to her because both parties would abide by her decision because she was smart and fair… that is to say, she was wise.
The point that fits in with the flow of all our readings, is that when she was called, she acted and the result was a great service to her country.
We need someone who will act in this desperate situation. We call them to service. They serve successfully and leave service with their reputation and their honor intact,even improved.
Our reading from Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians tells us that we are in such a desperate time. We live in the days between the days Jesus walked the earth and the day when he will come again to judge the living and the dead.
We don’t know when he will come, but we know he is coming back and then there will be an accounting. We are privileged to have this much knowledge, because we can live our lives out along a greater trajectory than those who do not believe.
They eat. They sleep. They get what they can. And then they die.
We eat and sleep, too, but we have a vision and we live to build up the body of Christ on earth. It is our calling to serve in this great enterprise of faith.
As children of the light, we are blessed with salvation as our helmet and faith as our breastplate. These are protective coverings to see us through our days on earth, and our reward is two-fold.
First we are awake. We do not sleepwalk through this life. We see more, feel more, respond to life’s prodding more meaningfully and effectively…more lovingly. We are more alive.
And in the next life, we will be one with God. Our deeds will be here, like Deborah’s, and the ways we have delivered our friends and loved ones…and a few strangers…will be celebrated by people who have no idea who we were. We live the abundant life.
Abraham Lincoln is the most remarkable example of this phenomenon I can think of. There are many examples …most of them far more ordinary.
But Lincoln was amazingly awake and very deep as well. He knew hardship and he knew the Bible.
His religious affiliation was not well-defined, but like Washington he believed in a Divine Providence that was on the side of good…and that is who he served…difficult as it was.
Asked by a clergyman whether he believed God was on the Union's side or not, he replied that the real question was whether the Union was on God’s side.
He gave his great speech at Gettysburg on this day in 1863, and it said in a very few words what the whole war was about and what the whole United States was about.
He would live to become a great liberator, and he saw that he appeared to be following some great calling God had for him….some great invisible hand was guiding events and he was its instrument.
He followed it with a pronounced fatalism, knowing that people wanted to kill him. Any day might be his last. One night on his ride back from the Old Soldier’s Home on the outskirts of Washington…his version of Camp David…someone shot the stove pipe hat off his head.
His words and deeds seem to be as durable as any in American history. He was beatified as one of our secular saints the day he died, and historians are still fascinated at the deep well of mystery at the center of this simple man’s complicated life.
Jesus’ parable for us today…the Parable of the Talents…urges us to use our days as humbly as Washington and as diligently as Lincoln. The worst thing we can do with our lives is to play it safe…to hide from the tides of history we swim in today…to simply save our lives in the midst of all that is going on these days would be to lose them.
We are all called to be in ministry… as surely as Washington or Lincoln …as surely as Paul or Deborah. God gives us life so that we can make the most of it…to find salvation in it…to receive it by losing it.
Whether we are awake or asleep, as Paul writes to us today, we may live together with him. As Jesus tells us today, we have been given not only breath, but talents as well.
A talent in Jesus’ day was the wage one laborer could earn for 15 years of work. Given the life expectancy of the day, a talent represented a life’s wages. Each of these servants were given a fortune. The question was: What shall I do with it?
It is generally agreed by the scholars that Jesus is the Master in this story, and the journey the Master was taking was the time between Jesus’ ascension and his second coming. We are the servants.
We know that the servants who put the talents they had been given to work in some useful endeavor were praised and rewarded. They returned his faith in them with their faith in him. They doubled their master’s property.
But what property does our master have? What talents does he give to us to put to work in the world?
I think it is always a surprise to the one who suddenly sees that they have been given the treasure of a lifetime. To be awakened more fully to life, so that we can see what is there…that is the gift of God.
And it is surprising to everyone around them when they own up to the talents they have been given and begin to use them.
Mac McCormack was a State Representative from Great Falls. He was a labor guy who sat in the last row and read his speeches…with difficulty. Nobody knew what he had said when he was done, but his bills always passed. He was a good guy and he was harmless…
One day there was a bill on the floor to ban smoking in restaurants. He didn’t smoke but his wife, Della, did, and Mac got up and went after that bill with all he had…and no notes.
Somebody from the other side got up and asked him a question, trying to get us back on track, and Mac zinged him so hard that the guy sat down hard in his chair. Another member got up and asked a question and Mac zinged him, too.
Everyone was turned around to see if this was really Mac talking. He was a mountain of authority on that one bill…and he killed it…because nobody was going to tell Della, his queen, she couldn’t have a cigarette after a nice meal in a restaurant.
It had nothing to do with smoking, but it had everything to do with how much he loved his wife. That was where he was getting his power that day…his love for his wife…and with it, he beat back all challenges.
We get our power from our love for the one true person who ever walked the earth, and we are not to hide his love or its power. We are to invest it in God’s kingdom, come to earth.
And it can happen to anyone. When people found out I had taken up preaching and was serving a church they said, “YOU?!” And I said, “It can happen to anyone…It can happen to anyone.”
Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—dwell on these things.
It is simple. Do no harm. Do good. Stay in love with God.
We are not given decades or years or months or even days at a time. We are given this moment…this precious present…and it is good here, with eyes to see and ears to hear…and a beautiful world…and a universe…to explore.
For whoever has that hope, that faith, and such a love of life will be given more. Whoever does not have it, even what they have will be taken from them. There will be no lasting joy…no abiding peace…in what they do. The will be stuck in The Land Of The Judges.
Jesus brings us truth and freedom, peace and light…whoever we are… wherever we are…whenever we can awaken to the love around us now. Amen.