The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost
Parable of the Talents, anonymous woodcut, ca 1712. Public domain.
See the texts, artwork and Revised Common Lectionary Prayers for this service at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.)
Leccionario en Español, Leccionario Común Revisado: Consulta Sobre Textos Comunes.
Para obtener más recursos leccionario, Estudios Exegético: Homiléticos.
Lectionnaire en français, Le Lectionnaire Œcuménique Révisé
After Ehud's death, the Israelites again began to "do evil." The narrator tells us this is why they fell into the hands of Jabin, a Canaanite king, The Israelites prayed for God's help. God used Deborah, a judge, and Barak, a military leader, to free them.
Psalm 123 or Psalm 76 (UMH 797).
). For Psalm 76, use the Response with Tone 4 in F-minor (p. 737).
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11.
The Day of the Lord will come at an unexpected time. Therefore, Paul exhorts us to remain sober, faithful, and hopeful, and to continue to build up and encourage one another.
Jesus uses a provocative, even offensive story in his description of the kingdom of heaven while teaching in the temple. For the LolCat Bible translation of this passage (to which yours truly contributed), click here.
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Advent officially starts on November 30, but beginning last Sunday, the readings for each Sunday are already addressing the primary Advent theme of the return and final reign of Christ, making all things new. For resources to begin Advent celebrations a few weeks early using our current lectionary, check out The Advent Project website.
If you haven’t started planning for Advent, whether “extended” (starting today) or “regular” (starting in two weeks, it’s time! Discipleship Ministries has an archived webinar you can view yourself or with your planning team, a complete handout of the slides for the webinar, and a planning article exploring the texts in depth. The webinar provides at least five different approaches for Advent and Christmas Season planning to help you and your congregation celebrate each as fully as you can, as well as links to hundreds of other Advent-related resources on our website. For more specific guidance for planning Advent, see “Planning Advent for Year B” on this website.
Christ the King Sunday (Last Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A, or Third Sunday in Extended Advent, Year B) is November 23. It is a “bookend Sunday” for ordinary time after Pentecost (the other bookend is Trinity Sunday), on which all of the readings relate to each other around a common theme centered in the gospel reading.
Christ the King/Reign of Christ Sunday is a fairly recent addition to the Christian Calendar. It was first celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church in 1925 in response to attempts by governments in Mexico and elsewhere to declare themselves the ultimate authority in the lives and even the religions of their subjects.
Plan to celebrate Holy Communion on this day. See “A Great Thanksgiving for Christ the King Sunday.” See also this Call to Worship and this Service of Scripture and Song that recapitulates the whole Christian Year.
How does your congregation keep Thanksgiving Day (USA)? How do folks keep it at home? New for 2014 is “Thanksgiving Celebrations for the Home.” You can find it, and our many other resources, in our Thanksgiving section.
All Month: Native American Heritage Month
November 9: “Restored” or Extended Advent 1, Organ and Tissue Donor Sunday (USA), International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church
November 11: Veterans Day (USA) (GBHEM resources)
November 23: Christ the King Sunday; Bible Sunday in National Bible Week (November 23-30) (USA)
November 27: Thanksgiving Day (USA)
November 30: Advent (Regular) Year B Begins, United Methodist Student Day
The First Sunday of (regular) Advent is November 30 this year, and we move into Year B of the lectionary (focus on Mark's gospel, the stories of David's family, and the epistles of Ephesians, Hebrews and James).
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Atmospherics --After Deliverance: A Cycle of Fall and Redemption
Judges marks the last of this year’s readings from the “patriarchs/settlement” cycle. It also marks the first reference we see in this year’s lectionary readings to the “sin-downfall-outcry-redemption” cycle that marks the telling of the history of the settled peoples from judgeship through kingship and into exile over a period of several hundred years. “The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” will later be replaced by the repeated opening line “King X did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.”
In Judges 4, it is King Jabin of Canaan who reaps the benefit of Israel’s evil. For twenty years, he was able to hold sway over the people by the strength of his military personnel and technology.
The way the story is told, it would appear that the “outcry” cycle did not begin until twenty years into Jabin’s reign. Once the outcry did occur, their judge, Deborah, summoned a military leader from Naphtali, Barak, to lead a battle that she would arrange between the Israelite and Canaanite armies at the Wadi Kishon. As she gives instructions to Barak, she is clear that these come from the Lord (YHWH), and that the Lord will grant Barak the victory.
We do not see the battle itself in this week’s reading. The battle itself is not the point in selecting this text. The battle is the Lord’s, with the support of those God has raised up to call for it and lead it (Deborah and Barak, among others). God wins, and as is also usual, by unusual means. The point of this week’s text is to introduce the sin-downfall-outcry-redemption cycle, or, put another way, God’s faithfulness, human unfaithfulness, and God’s willingness to wait for the covenant people to recognize their need to cry out to their God for help before providing it.
In Your Planning Team
For starters, are you concluding your readings/series in patriarchs/settlement, or continuing an Advent focus today?
If the former, recognize this week’s “conclusion” is really a kind of introduction. It introduces the pattern by which the biblical writers framed the story of Israel’s history prior to the exiles of 721 and 586. It’s a pattern that seeks to make sense of why such massive destruction and exile happened to God’s chosen people after so dramatic an effort by God to deliver them from exile in Egypt and settle them in Canaan.
It may seem odd to conclude with an introduction. But then isn’t this what many of our cultural rituals actually do? Graduations are called “commencements” to mark not so much the ending of one phase of life as the beginning of another. Funerals, likewise, mark the end of the life we have shared with someone and the beginning of a life in which that person is no longer physically present. “In the end is our beginning,” Natalie Sleeth’s well-loved hymn reminds (UMH 707).
But this beginning is not all happiness, neither is it without some hope. It is the beginning of a cycle that would last for centuries, signaling the dual truth of human sinfulness and God’s saving grace, a saving grace ultimately made known within the Old Testament in an acts of radical destruction and exile.
This brings us to precisely to Advent. Advent is about the degree to which we, ourselves, continue to live in a seemingly irredeemable time that will lead to a destruction of the way things are and the full establishment of the way things should be in God’s kingdom. This story lays out the pattern that makes such ultimate destruction in order to bring about ultimate restoration necessary. We find ourselves in a world bent on sinful, destructive ways, at once persisting by the mercy of God and judged by the justice of God. It will not, in this worldview, shared by Jesus, get “better and better” but only worse and worse. Still, some people within it may yet find the joy, abundance, and blessing of God’s reign, even as they resist and suffer under the reign of the powers that be. We hope in God’s mercy for those who resist God’s justice now. And we hope in God’s justice for the sake of a new creation in which all will know the joy, abundance and blessing we already experience as a foretaste of the age to come.
Whether you are concluding a series, or continuing Advent, concluding a series while also pointing to the coming of Advent in two weeks, ask yourselves how this week’s text speaks most importantly for where your congregation finds itself today.
Here are five possibilities.
- You are stuck somewhere in your own sin-downfall-outcry-redemption cycle. Perhaps you get it right for a while, but then you fall back into old, self-destructive and God-dishonoring patterns of life again and again. What images from your own congregation’s or community’s life may reflect this? How might the arrangement of worship space, or art in the space, or movement throughout worship suggest about where you are in the cycle right now?
And, as importantly, where are the stories of hope where you have broken out of this cycle in the past, or may be breaking out of it now? Who has a witness, a testimony of life that no longer “backslides”? There’s victory in Jesus! There really is—for individuals and congregations. Acknowledgment of our state in the face of the reality of our hope for deliverance—offering the outcry—can begin to unlock God’s way through and beyond the cycle.
- You may be in denial about being in this cycle, perhaps because you’ve been in it so long it has become “situation normal.”
The biblical story does not tell us what it took to get the Israelites, finally, after twenty years (a generation!) of occupation by King Jabin, to recognize this should not be situation normal and to cry out to God for help.
What needs to be “cried out” about? Who is already crying out where you are? How can these voices be heard and magnified in worship today? And then how can these heard and magnified voices be joined by many more in your congregation, and maybe community, to begin offering an outcry from your whole neighborhood? The psalms are full of such outcries. Psalm 123 is one of those—though brief. Consider using it more than once, praying it over and over and more intensely each time, until the congregation rings with the outcry “We have had more than enough of contempt!” Cry out! Then watch out. Our God will act!
- You know things are bad, but you fear trying to address it may make things worse. Like the Israelites who feared Jabin’s 900 iron chariots, you are afraid to cry out or hope for anything different. What are the powerful symbols of “the occupation” where you are? Have you given those symbols too much power over you and the life of your congregation? Who is really in charge—your fear, or God’s grace and justice? What are the symbols of God’s grace and justice in your midst? How do these already undo the clasp of the occupation? Where is Christ reigning, judging, in the face of the occupation?
- You have some Deborahs and Baraks already in your midst, wise women or men already trusted and now called to declare God’s will for deliverance. Who are the Deborahs prepared to stand up, resist oppression, and trust God for the victory? Who are the Baraks ready to answer the call to organize for action? And who will be the footsoldiers in God’s victory?
- You wonder whether God may have sold you away. God sold the covenant people into the hand of the Canaanite king. They didn’t just fall. This was no accident of history. God dealt them away.
What might it mean, or what does it mean, when your congregation or people in your community find they have been dealt away by God—or a least think they have?
This is a story of redemption. God had dealt the Israelites away. But God bought them back, too. That’s the good news in this, one of the first of many such stories in this ongoing cycle. God is ready to buy us back when we’re ready to cry out for help.
But not sooner.
What are the stories of being bought back by God in your congregation or community? If you are currently being dealt away somewhere, who sustains the faith in the One who redeems? And what does that faith look like in the face of the present consequences of having been sold away?
I Thessalonians: "Strength for Today, Bright Hope for Tomorrow" Live in the Day, Not Fearing the Night to Come
The readings from I Thessalonians conclude today, continuing one of the two themes (concerns about eschatology), that inspired the writing of this letter in the first place.
Last week’s reading focused on the certainty of Christ’s return, the resurrection of the dead, and the dramatic deliverance and eternal presence with Christ of those alive on that day. The certainty of “the end of the world as we know it” through the coming of Christ our Judge can sound like bad news to many. As was noted in last week’s text, and even more so in this week’s, Paul meant it as good news and positive encouragement for the Christians who would receive this letter.
This week, the focus is on uncertainty. No one knows the day or the hour of Christ’s return. It will be like “a thief in the night.” But for those who are in Christ now, this does not need to be a bad surprise. The body of Christ is a people who knows how to be ready. We are “of the day,” he says. We don’t “live for the night” of partying, dissipation and drunkenness. We live for the day, sober, alert, watchful, not in fear but in readied, joyous hope.
Paul addresses Christians in Thessalonica as soldiers: “Put your armor on!” These are soldiers of Christ, wearing a breastplate of faith and love and a helmet of hope for deliverance, for salvation. Our lives in the world are to be characterized by faith in God through Jesus Christ and active love toward God and all. Our minds are to be dominated and protected by hope—not fear, not judgment-- hope in God’s salvation.
Paul offers this advice not primarily as admonition, but as inspiration. His point at the end is not even that they should try really hard to live this way. Instead, he concludes by reminding them they already do live this way, and encourages them to encourage one another to keep it up.
In Your Planning Team
Once again, are you concluding a series in I Thessalonians today, or primarily continuing Advent, or pointing toward Advent?
If you’re primarily concluding a series in I Thessalonians, today’s text gives you an opportunity to end on a high note of inspiration and mutual encouragement. Celebrate the examples of those who are living as “children of light and children of the day” (5:5, NRSV). Find and lift up testimonies of those who are putting on “the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (5:8, NRSV).
If you are continuing or pointing toward an Advent focus today, linking all three readings, incorporate perhaps a briefer version of such examples and testimonies as a “second lens” or “second angle” on this week’s Advent theme. The first (from Judges) is the cycle the world and perhaps we ourselves may be caught in and from which we need decisive deliverance, or, as Paul puts it here, the way of those who are “of the night or of darkness” (5:5, NRSV). In response to this reading from I Thessalonians, express your living hope in the midst of this kind of world caught in sin’s thrall, yet extended by God’s mercy, but heading for “sudden destruction” (5:3, NRSV).
Matthew: On Mission with the Master
Playing by the Master's Rules
Our second to last Sunday reading from Matthew’s gospel until Epiphany Sunday (the first Sunday in January) brings us close to the end of the public ministry of Jesus. Christ the King Sunday, next week, marks the conclusion of his public teaching in Matthew’s gospel.
The parable of the talents has become a perennial “favorite” for “stewardship Sundays.” It has perhaps become so connected to church budget appeals over the years that its radical message has become domesticated and missed. The core issue in this story is not how much people were willing to risk. The two issues in this story are about what God is ready to entrust to us and what kind of master we think God is.
The opening line of the story should be a shocker. No significant property holder would entrust the entirety of one’s property to slaves in Roman culture, not even for a short period of time. This man was giving these three slaves the equivalent of 120 years of daily wages to manage. This man is either crazy or incredibly trusting of his slaves to do the right thing.
What two of the slaves did next was also shockingly offensive to a Jewish audience and could have felt uncomfortable to many Christian audiences until well into the sixteenth century, when some Protestants began to relax laws against earning interest on loans. Indeed, these slaves committed a grave sin, called usury, by making money with money. Worse, they did it with relish, taking the money and working it “immediately” until they doubled their investments. The third acted in the most morally, even “biblically” appropriate way—burying the money (15 years worth of wages in his case) in order to protect it.
What the master did in response to the first two slaves would have been seen as another offense. He commended the usurers, and even promoted them from slaves to, in essence, vice presidents in the family business. The third, who did the most morally correct thing, received extreme condemnation. The master called him wicked and lazy, continued to treat him as a slave, took away what was given into his care, split it as a bonus for the new vice presidents, and finally threw the third slave out of the household altogether. The former slave was hardly free. Now he would be doomed to be a beggar!
How is anyone in the first century supposed to hear this story and not cringe, or run away, or become convinced that this Jesus must be stopped?
Jesus was out to blow their minds-- and ours. He did. And he still does—if we’re listening to him and not to the conventions of this world.
Jesus’ speech here, as elsewhere in these final discourses in the temple, was intentionally provocative. He was not doling out good advice for daily living. He was describing the new reality that has already hit, and that at his departure (through his execution, resurrection and ascension) would begin to multiply—the reign of God. He was describing the way of the disciples trained in this new reality. And he was describing the character of the God whose reign was and is to come in ways bound to offend those invested in the way things are. Why? Because what God and God’s reign would do undoes those invested in the way things are.
Jesus, who would depart and return after a long time, was and is as the third servant describes the master: Tough, reaping where he did not sow, gathering where he did not scatter. The third servant withdraws even from the gift that has been given (see verse 18). He will not act according to the values of his master, but according to conventional values he would have had every reason to expect a “normal” master to have. He can accurately describe the master’s character, but he refuses to live the way this master does.
Not so for the “immoral” others. They see who their master is, they have learned how he operates, and they do likewise, right away. They have been true and eager disciples of their “non-normal” master. And they are rewarded for their faithfulness for what they have so clearly learned and taken to heart.
“Conventional values” around economics and investments have been in rather a turmoil in the world ever since the economic collapses in the US and Europe beginning in 2008. Do we invest with the bankers, and risk an even further erosion in our pension funds because of their risky and sometimes immoral actions? Were our ancestors who thought the stock market to be a form of gambling, and therefore sinful, right after all? And are we now continuing to reap the judgment for our sin? Don’t avoid such questions as you plan worship for today, even if this parable may not provide any pleasing answers!
Listen to the conclusion the master comes to. “To all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”
It’s a remarkable and subtle statement. It describes the ways of the kingdoms of this world. The poor continue to get poorer. The rich continue to glide off on golden parachutes even when they have run companies and economies into ruin. It’s the world as we know it, when we think about money.
But it also describes the kingdom of God, and the way of Jesus. Look, more is given to those who have. More is given. It is not that they earn it. It’s gift, an overflow of God’s abundance, which God, like this master, is ready to give to us to care for, and indeed has done so in Jesus. Receive this lavish gift, this news and presence of God’s kingdom, and live accordingly, and there will only be more to follow. Walk away from this gift, try to bury it and call it good, and you’ve buried your own future.
In Your Planning Team
Today is not the final word or conclusion if you have been working on a series in Matthew’s gospel through these weeks. It is the denouement. The conclusion of the series is next week, Christ the King/Reign of Christ Sunday. This is different from the other two readings this week. Keep this in mind, so if you intend an actual conclusion and you’re working with the gospel reading, you make the “big ending” with its segue into the new series (Advent 1) next week rather than this.
Of course, if you are now in the second week of Extended Advent, this is not a concern anyway. What may seem, concerning, though, is how “un-Adventy” this text may seem on the surface.
Yet, it is precisely an Advent text at its heart. As we have already seen in Judges and I Thessalonians, the world in which God’s people faithfully follow God’s way is not at all like the ways the world itself typically works, or even the church as an institution at times.
The “parable of the talents,” as this week’s reading is often called, is one of the most powerful and disturbing illustrations of the radical disjuncture between the ways of the kingdoms of this world and the ways of the kingdom of God. It seems to reverse even expectations “good Christians” have about those whom God would bless versus those whom God would curse. Here, the wealthy are blessed, and the one who chooses to remain poor is not only cursed, but cast out.
Whether you celebrate Christ the King/Reign of Christ Sunday as prelude to Advent or the third Sunday in Extended Advent, this week’s reading declares just what sort of king we have in Christ—tough, reaping where he did not sow, gathering what he did not scatter. This is why and how Jesus values and is present among the sick, the prisoners, the hungry, the thirsty the poor, and the naked. He did not sow sickness, oppressive justice, hunger, thirst, poverty, or beggary. But among and through the people who are the victims of such, Jesus finds and calls us to reap God’s rich harvest.
That’s for next week.
For this week, do what you can in worship to help folks get the great reversal of values this gospel reading embodies. Find ways to help worshipers name or even talk briefly with one another about what disturbs them about this story. It was intended to be shocking after all! Then help them come in touch with what they have been given, and whether they are investing it like our Master Jesus does—reaping where they did not sow, gathering where they did not scatter.
As you plan for this service, identify together people you know who are eager to take what God has given them and “work it” at least until there is a doubling, or to plant where no seed has been seen (or sown) before, or who may be out there with scythe in hand to harvest for God’s way where no one has tried before. These are the first two servants from this parable where you are. Get their stories, get their ideas, let them share their crazy dreams about God’s abundance and readiness to give, to evangelize, to end poverty, to spread healing, to unbind the bound, whatever it may be. These are the ones living in the joy of our master, Jesus.
To be sure, such joy may scare off a few of the timid in your midst who “aren’t so sure.” But it also may just convert or reignite the fire in their souls.
Greeting: BOW 450 (Matthew, 1 Thessalonians)
- Opening Prayer: BOW 460 (Matthew, 1 Thessalonians)
Acts of Response to the Word:
- BOW 188, "Senor, Apiádate de Nosotros" ("O Lord, Have Mercy Upon Us") — Psalm, Musical Response
- BOW 195, Musical Response, "O Lord, Deliver Us" (Judges, Psalm)
- BOW 201, Musical Response, "O Lamb of God" (Psalm)
- BOW 508, Psalm of the Woodlands (Matthew)
- 403 (UMH) "For True Life" (Matthew, 1 Thessalonians)
- 481 (UMH) "The Prayer of Saint Francis" (Psalm)
- BOW 476 (Matthew, 1 Thessalonians)
- BOW 478 (Matthew)
- BOW 480 (Matthew)
Concerns and Prayers:
- Ecumenical Prayer Cycle: Cameroon, Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea
- BOW 540, Prayer for Those Who Work (Matthew)
The Great Thanksgiving: BOW 70-71, The Great Thanksgiving for the Season after Pentecost
Dismissals/Blessings/Benedictions: BOW 559 (Matthew, 1 Thessalonians)