sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 28A-Trk 2), November 15, 2020
Zephaniah 1:7,12-18; Psalm 90:1-8, (9-11), 12;
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Robert Frost. For some inexplicable reason, a poster of that poem hung in my third-grade reading classroom. I don’t know what was going through Mrs. Ballard’s mind when she put it up there. Certainly the reading level of the poem is appropriate for third graders—but the subject matter? Nevertheless, I was entranced by the poem and quickly memorized it. I recited it for my parents, though I don’t remember their reaction.
What was it about the poem “Fire and Ice” that enticed me to commit it to memory? What is it about the end of the world that alternately terrifies and stimulates us?
The customary response to our readings from Scripture is, “Thanks be to God.” But when I heard that first reading today, the one from Zephaniah, my honest response was more like … “Um, thanks be to God?” Please tell me you felt something similar. If you were listening at all, you must have had at least a little bit of a reaction like, “Wait, what? Did God just announce plans to destroy the entire world and everyone on it?”
Yes, you heard right. Welcome to eschatology and apocalypse.
It happens every year at this time: as the Christian year draws toward its close, we hear proclamations of doom from the prophets of ancient Israel and Judah. That’s one reason we’re doing a three-part class this month on eschatological writings: that is, writings about the end of all things. Or, if you prefer, the fulfillment of all of God’s hopes and plans.
But the end of the world? Really? That’s God’s plan? Didn’t God promise Noah that would never happen again? Well, not by means of a flood, anyway. Cold comfort. There’s still plenty of fire and ice to go around.
As our Wednesday night group is studying eschatology, we’re also studying apocalypse, a subgenre given specifically to world-ending disaster and the consequences of not having prepared for it. Apocalyptic writing feels especially relevant this year … and this morning, too, as Governor Inslee announces a backward step in our phased reopening plan! Maybe it helps to imagine things worse than not having guests around the dinner table for the holidays. Maybe we can say, “Well, at least it’s not all burning down yet.” It’s a hard year.
I’ve said before that I don’t believe COVID-19 is a divine punishment. Yet Zephaniah definitely talks about punishing here. And the other readings follow suit. Paul writes to the Thessalonians that “the day of the LORD will come like a thief in the night … and there will be no escape!” Then he abruptly counsels his community not to despair. He urges them to participate in faith, hope, and love—to build each other up.
And while Jesus’ parable today doesn’t deal directly with the end of the world, it does speak of the consequences of complacency. Jesus’ words are no less urgent than those of the prophets and of Paul. His parables are meant to unsettle us and move us to action, so we can ask ourselves, “Am I the one who was given one talent—that is, several years’ worth of wages—and squirrelled it away so nothing would happen to it? Have I been so invested in safety that I have made myself unsafe before God?”
These are exactly the kinds of questions that can lead us into a deeper faith, to more investment in one another and less in ourselves. “No man is an island,” John Donne wrote, though we Americans sure try to live like it. My nation comes first, we say. My family and I come first. My excess money and energy might go to my community, if I so choose. I have the freedom to say no. I have the freedom not to invest in the lives of others. I have the freedom to protect myself from all the pain that results from relationship. I decree, with Paul Simon: “I am a rock. I am an island.”
“Not so,” God contradicts through the mouths of every single prophet, every single apostle, and Jesus himself. “Not so. Your life is never separate from the lives of everyone else. And when you don’t trust me on this, the consequences to your soul are severe.” When we wall ourselves off, we make ourselves the worst kind of heretics. Christian practices like giving are meant to prevent us from falling into such heresy.
That’s easy to understand intellectually, of course, but I don’t like this side of God. I don’t want to hear about a day of wrath, distress, anguish, ruin, devastation, darkness, gloom, and battle! I’m tired. Can’t God give us a break? Can’t we at least wait out this pandemic before sharing our lives more fully with others? Most of our methods of doing so have been taken away from us as it is!
Yet the urgency remains: the urgency of sharing our very selves. Why would that change now, when the pain is all the more acute? Maybe when we’re at our weariest, that’s when we need each other most. Maybe it’s not about giving more, but giving differently. Maybe there’s something else we can stop doing. Then, maybe the little bit of extra energy we find to reach out to others—in our church community, in our families, reaching out just a little beyond what we would normally do—maybe that will make up for some of our weariness. Maybe it will even lead to joy.
One thing I’ve learned clearly in the past eight months is this: I can spend all day on my computer writing sermons and blogs and planning classes and emailing people. But every time I pick up the phone and call one of you, I come away feeling so much better about life than I did before. Now, I’m an extravert, so you’d think I’d already know this about myself. But for all of us, relationship takes energy. That’s even truer when life is hard and we don’t feel there’s anything we can do about it.
So yes, I’m urging us to keep in touch with one another, and to reach out a little further than we might otherwise, proactively … to really invest in relationships. Who is one person from Good Shepherd you can call this week, just to check in and say hi?
But hang on … we still have to deal with this horrible prophecy of the end of the world. After Zephaniah’s prediction of inevitable doom, the prophet’s next instruction is a command to the people to gather together and seek the LORD, to seek righteousness and humility. There is a hint here that there might still be a chance. Later still, Zephaniah writes that “at that time”—whatever that time is—God will reverse what happened at the Tower of Babel. All people will speak a common tongue together so they can unite in serving God and the world. Zephaniah drops hints of a divine plan to draw everybody back together again. And this will come through the removal of the proud and the oppressors, but the sparing of the lowly and humble.
The Book of Zephaniah concludes with a series of verses that we use every year at the Great Vigil of Easter, words of pure hope, the final words of the prophets that we share together before we announce that Christ is risen! Do you see, then, how this reading today functions? It’s like hearing the beginning of a story, but only up to the point where the really bad thing happens—and then putting the book down. All hope is lost! Why would I keep reading?
Because the story isn’t over yet.
It’s the same with this pandemic. The world is falling apart, and all hope is lost! Well, since when did “all hope is lost” serve as an adequate ending to a story? There’s supposed to be a happy ending to all this. But “all hope is lost” is the drama in the middle that moves us toward the surprising turnaround. It’s just easier to handle when it’s only in a book and not our actual lives!
Every church service is also just a small piece of the story. We gather every week together because we can’t tell the whole story all at once. It’s too huge. Yes, we proclaim Christ’s Resurrection every week. But the details behind that story unfold over time and over our entire lives. This is the penultimate week of the Christian year. Everything is about to shift.
And this is why we don’t abandon all hope. We know Christ is risen. We know how the story continues. We don’t know exactly how the story ends, but how could we? We’re on the stage right now, playing our parts in a drama to which we were never given a script—only a promise that the director of the divine play isn’t finished yet. So we play our parts. Any one of us can make the most of the time we have, whether we’re out in the community with masks on, serving on the front lines among despairing people—or shut up in an apartment with only a TV, a computer, a telephone. There are lonely people out there beyond ourselves.
And to say one more word about Jesus’ parable today, please note that the judgment pronounced on the man with one talent is not a judgment on the results he achieved, but on his failure to act at all. He didn’t even try, so God could achieve no good through him. God invites us to participate in the world to help bring God’s purposes about. When we stop trying, we get in God’s way. In response to God’s promised fire, we become ice. What an unworthy way for our world to end.
But I’m going to speak now as your priest. Rest assured that I believe your slate is wiped clean. You can let go of your anxiety about the things in the past that you didn’t do … or did badly. Salvation does not dwell on regrets, because forgiveness has risen from the grave. None of us gets to relive the past. We only have the present moment. And the present moment is always urgent, because in the next moment, it becomes the past.
How will you spend this moment, this day, this year? In short, how will you love?