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    Nov 19, 2017

    Nov. 19, Proper 28A

    Nov. 19, Proper 28A

    Speaker: The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan

    Series: Sermons

    The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart. A revolution which must start with each one of us. We don’t cross bridges just to get across the water. The bridge itself transforms us if we just re-member the faith it takes to not fear the possible human weaknesses lurking in this edifice of connection. We cross bridges because we seek connection with the rest of the human family. We trust the bridge because it is made of the stuff of God.
    Proper 28A
    Judges 4:1-7
    1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
    Matthew 25:14-30
    The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan
     
    Well, it’s a good thing I got over my fear of bridges!
     
    In 1980 a freighter knocked out half of the Tampa Bay Bridge. Some of you may remember this. That bridge arched up over the bay very high and was in two sections, north and south, two lanes in either direction. In 1983, I was driving in the south bound lane approaching this bridge and did not know of this disaster, nor did I know about the new bridge pending, most of all I did not know nor could I see ahead that just as you start up this bridge, in 5:00 traffic no doubt, you get sort of rushed and pushed along and suddenly can see the missing part on your side! There was no way to exit at that point and it seemed I was part of a car wildebeast stampede headed straight for end of a broken bridge, 150 feet above deep waters! All that I could see was three or four orange cones at the top and it seemed I was being forced toward them. Of course we were merged to the north bound part that was still intact and one lane each way. But that moment left me with a fear of bridges for many years. But I’m over that now. I really have enjoyed driving back and forth across the bridges over the Dan here in Danville and I don’t care, in these more mature years, about the tail-gaiters who glare at me as I slow down so I can gaze at the beauty of the river.
     
    So, today I want to talk about bridges. And I wonder if that seems cliche in a river town. I’ll bet if we could count them there have been many, many, probably far too many bridge and river metaphors from this 140 year old pulpit. But let’s see about perhaps a new twist on that.
     
    Today’s Gospel reading is pretty obvious. It really is about not hiding your gifts and talents but sharing them with the world as a sort of investment in the Kingdom of God. The word talent actually comes from this Bible story. A talent was a sum of money at the time but the English word means special gifts and abilities like music or art or even math. The main thrust of this parable is the next to last verse: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” This seems a bit harsh. But to emphasize only the failure of the third servant is to miss the high-risk activity of the first two servants. The first two doubled the money en-trusted to them, hardly a possibility without running the risk of losing the original investment. The major themes of the Christian faith - caring, giving, witnessing, trusting, loving, hoping - cannot be understood or lived without risk. The third servant in this parable was motivated by the opposite of faith; he was afraid. Fear of failure, fear of punishment, fear of loss have not only paralyzed this servant but if you think about it, you can see the comparison of the fear of many servants and many congregations.
     
    Friday afternoon, I took my dog Prancer for a walk and decided to explore some of the parks in town. We ended up at the Richmond Danville Railroad Bridge and I was excited to get out there over that river so I could gaze at it’s beauty. Prancer was more interested in the smells along the way from the parking lot but off we went and it is so lovely there and there were other happy walkers and I was admiring the old brick buildings down on Bridge Street. We headed across the path to the bridge from the park there. But about 10 steps out, on the part of the bridge where you get actually over the water, my old fear suddenly came back. I stopped cold. I couldn’t go any further. All I could see suddenly was a whole bunch of 150 year old rusty bridge. I was like, “Nope. Uh-uh. Not gonna’ happen.” and I turned on my heel and took Prancer back to the grassy part of the park. I decided then and there that I would never try that again!
     
    But I thought on the drive home about what might have gotten me across that bridge. I thought that if someone were on the other side that I really wanted to see, some loved one or lost friend, my husband, my Mom. Or, maybe if Jesus himself were coming toward me to meet me half way. Would I venture out over the waters then? What if the only answer to a problem was for me to cross that bridge. But I didn’t cross that bridge on Friday. Instead I went home where I felt comfortable and safe.
     
    Today’s Old Testament lesson is interesting too. This story from Judges goes overlooked too of-ten and it is rich with history and meaning for us so let me just sketch it out for you. The book of Judges features the stories of six major military leaders in Israel called “judges.” This was before the rise of kings in Israel. The Isrealites wanted a king, but God raised up these temporary judges instead to rescue them from a series of oppressive enemies. The events in each judges story follows a similar cyclical pattern:
    • Israel sins and worships other gods while living in Canaan.
    • God becomes angry and allows enemies to attack Israel.
    • The Israelites cry out in pain because of the attack, and God has pity on them. There is no re-pentance here, just pain and mercy.
    • God raises up a judge who delivers Israel and returns the people to proper worship of Israel’s God for a time.
    • When that judge dies, the Israelites return to their old ways. The cycle begins all over again.
     
    In Chapter 4, part of which we read today, there is an interesting variation on the typical pattern of the judges story. Four main characters appear:
    • an Israelite woman prophet and “judge” named Deborah who is an arbitrator.
    • an Israelite military general named Barak,
    • a non-Israelite woman named Jael and
    • a Canaanite military general named Sisera, head of the enemy army.
    Much of the drama and interest in the story is trying to decide who the real “judge” is that God has sent to deliver the Israelites. Is it the prophet Deborah who is the first major character in the story? Or is it Barak, a male military leader like the previous judges in chapter 3? Or is it Jael, a non-Israelite woman, who delivers the decisive hammer blow to the Canaanite enemy general named Sisera? In the end it is the collaborative effort of this blend of unique leaders that wins the day. There has been a lot of discussion lately about violence and how the church should respond to violence. Sadly, the human condition across history is often marked by violence and war. The Bible does not ignore or shrink from that tragic truth. The God of Scripture enters into even these messy and tragic conflicts and battles. As God fought for the Israelite slaves in Egypt, so God fights in this story on the side of the oppressed and less powerful who cry out to God. God fights against those who trust in and worship above all else their own idols of military might and humanly cre-ated technology, - iron chariots and the like.
     
    There is a Roman Catholic priest in the speaker circuit right now named Greg Boyle. Fr. Boyle has developed a ministry to the gangs in Los Angeles over the past 25 years and he has come to understand God’s call for us as one of developing kinship. The young men and women he works with are forced to work together and become mutual with prior enemies. Fr. Boyle tells stories os transformation that comes not from just a job after prison, but healing. And healing comes from being in relationship, real, honest, open and mutual relationships. Fr. Boyle calls us to venture fearlessly to the margins and engage in this type of relationship with the marginalized and pro-mote healing and peace. He has successfully done this. It is doable. I encourage you to Google Greg Boyle’s Ted Talk to hear more. Here is one quote: “How can we achieve a certain kind of compassion that stands in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than in judgement of how they carry it? For the measure in our compassion lies not in our service of those on the margins but in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them and mutuality.”
     
    So, one final point about our Old Testament lesson: the theme in Judges is not about war and violence, those facts of life but rather it is about interdependence and shared responsibility in reaching a common goal. God works by creating a network of different and often unlikely hu-man agents in order to accomplish the purposes of God. Deborah, Barak, and Jael are brought together by the providence of God. Just as the reader in the end may not be sure who the “real” “judge” is in this story, so we may not always be aware of the multiple and sometimes unknown ways in which God is guiding individuals or communities to God’s larger goals.
     
    Still, we must be courageous and perseverant.
     
    Which brings me to the Epistle reading, just to tie them all together. Paul, still writing this week to his church in Thessaloniki, is telling them to be faithful and not fearful. We don’t like to talk about this passage much. We want to avoid all that stuff about the “thief in the night” and sud-den destruction and the unavoidable pain of childbirth, much less do we want to hear admoni-tions about those who sleep too much or don’t sleep enough or get drunk at night! Yikes!
     
    Most of the Bible is metaphor, not allegory. So, at the risk of pushing the metaphor, we would do well to consider the bridges between us and between this community and the marginalized we are called and commanded to seek out and be one with. And I do love Paul’s lovely image of putting on the breastplate - not of war, but of faith and love and the helmet - not of war, but of the hope of salvation. And Paul leaves them and us with this most important reminder: “Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.” Well, we can’t encourage and build up if we are living in fear. One of my FB friends posted this thought this week: “When I have more, I want more. When I want more, I never have enough. We're all very casual about this cycle.” (William Yearout) He had this reflection in the context of studying one of our Episcopalian saints, Dorothy Day who said this: “The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart. A revolution which must start with each one of us.” We don’t cross bridges just to get across the water. The bridge itself transforms us if we just re-member the faith it takes to not fear the possible human weaknesses lurking in this edifice of connection. We cross bridges because we seek connection with the rest of the human family. We trust the bridge because it is made of the stuff of God. So, I’m going to walk on that old railroad bridge one day soon. Though I will likely need to do it with a friend.
    Amen.