Sermon, Dec. 19

Today we read one of my very favorite collects. A collect is a type of prayer – a short paragraph that says something about God and then asks something from God. The funny name comes from the idea that it’s gathering us, or our prayers – collecting them together. We say a collect at the beginning of worship, and another collect at the end of the prayers of the people. 

The collect assigned for this Sunday reads, “Blessed God, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them…” 

This is one of our really old collects; it goes back to the first English Book of Common Prayer, published in 1549, and was written by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. If you’ve heard that the Church of England, our mother church, was founded by Henry the Eighth, please do look up Thomas Cranmer sometime! Cranmer’s big work was getting liturgy and Scripture to be in the language people understood – English, instead of medieval Latin. Having ordinary people be able to read and study the Bible was very important to him, and it’s important to me, too. 

I have always loved that list of verbs: Read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest. It lays out that receiving and finding meaning in Scripture isn’t a one-step or simple process. It takes time and reflection. Sometimes it takes study, seeking more information. It takes curiosity and prayerful openness.  

We have read several pieces of Scripture this morning already. So let’s turn to the rest of those verbs. What about mark? 

Mark is being used here in a somewhat archaic way, still preserved in the saying “You mark my words!” It means, To pay close attention to, or take note of. 

Let’s pause, then, to mark our first reading today, from the book of Judges – about the judge Deborah. 

Judges is the book of the Bible that lays out what happens after God’s people settled in the land of Canaan. Last week you heard their leader Joshua, Moses’ successor, ask the people: Are you going to follow the God who brought you out of Egypt, and obey God’s commandments? And the people answered: The Lord our God we will serve and obey!

Narrator: The Lord their God they did NOT serve and obey. At least, not for long.

The Book of Judges has some dark stuff in it – some PG-13, some definitely R – but it’s a fascinating read. People sometimes assume that anything contained in the Bible is good – is how things are supposed to be. Judges is NOT that. 

The editorial voice of the text is really clear: This is a book about a time when society was coming apart at the seams. Leadership was unstable; there was a lot of chaos and violence; there were no strong shared values or sense of the common good. Everyone did what was right in their own eyes, says Judges chapter 17. 

Among other things, the Israelites UTTERLY FAIL to wipe out all the other peoples who are living in the land, as the text claims God told them they should. They live right alongside the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and they intermarry with them, and they start worshipping their gods. (3:5-6) 

The Israelites are breaking Commandment number one – You shall have no other gods before me! – left and right. And God gets cranky about it. 

As the book of Judges understands it, because the people aren’t loyal to God, God repeatedly lets them get conquered by other nations, in the many tiny back-and-forth territorial wars of this time and place. 

When they get conquered, Israel remembers God and cries out to God for help, and God sends them a leader to help them – a judge. The ideal judge was wise and attuned to God, and also capable of leading the people as needed, including military leadership at times. 

Not all of the judges in the Book of Judges are ideal judges! Have you heard of Samson, the strong man? He’s probably the most famous figure from Judges. But the text is not kind to Samson.  

Deborah is Israel’s fourth judge, after Othniel, Ehud – that’s a story! – and Shamgar. I hope we’ll see a short drama of the rest of the story at our Talent Show, but you can also just read Judges chapter 4 – it’s not long. 

What might we mark about Deborah’s story? 

It is significant that she is a woman! One of very few named female *leaders* in the Bible. 

It makes sense that this happens in the early years of Israel, when leadership is still informal and based on call and giftedness. 

More formal and hierarchical leadership structures tend to lean patriarchal and lock women out; this happens both in Israel’s history, and then later in Christian history. 

The voice of the text accepts Deborah’s leadership – and seems to present her as one of the successful judges. At the same time, the text is aware of conventional gender norms, and plays with them. War was men’s work – and we are supposed to notice that Barak, whom Deborah calls to lead Israel in battle, says, “I’m not going unless you go too.” And Deborah fires back by saying, Fine, but God’s going to use a woman to kill the enemy general. You aren’t going to get to chop his head off and bask in manly glory. 

I think all of that is really interesting, and in some ways surprisingly current! We are still, as a culture, working through how we feel about women as warriors – or even just as strong, assertive leaders. 

It was only during the Obama years – another Barak! – that combat positions in the U.S. military were opened to women. 

And it’s well known, at least among women, that if you’re in a leadership role and try to lead like a man, you’ll get called things like abrasive and bossy and another word that starts with b.

So I mark that about the Deborah story: that there are seeds of solidarity and struggle here for the long, long human journey of unpacking expectations and constraints around gender roles. 

How about learn? Sometimes we learn from Scripture;  sometimes we learn things that shape how we read Scripture. 

Our text from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is beautiful. It’s one of many in these weeks that lean towards Advent, with themes of staying alert and being ready for the day of the Lord, the second coming of Christ, the great and transformational intervention of God in history that the church still awaits. 

The thing that I am learning, in relation to this text and many like it, is that we need to be thoughtful about our imagery. 

This passage refers to Christians as children of light, not of darkness. What do light and dark mean, here? 

There’s a first layer of metaphor that’s pretty direct:

In the dark, you can’t see. You can’t do much. 

There aren’t electric lights, and oil lamps only go so far.

Dark is when thieves and bandits operate, and when people do the things they’re ashamed to be seen doing. 

Daylight is a blessing, in comparison. You can see what’s going on, and go about your business. 

That’s all straightforward enough.

Some later Christian texts, especially gnostic Christian writings, use light and dark in a more value-laden way – where light means good and pure, and dark means bad, evil, or corrupt. Paul is maybe leaning in that direction a little here. 

Sixteen hundred years later, European nations started conquering Africa and other places where darker-skinned peoples lived. And we started to add a racial dimension to those moral metaphors of light and darkness. 

Light-skinned people of European origin understood themselves as the bearers of culture, civilization, and the light of the Gospel to the dark places of the earth. 

And the idea of “darkness” increasingly tied together skin color with ideas of ignorance, childishness, and moral depravity. 

We who lead and worship in predominantly white churches have been asked to pay attention to how we use imagery and metaphors about light and darkness. Not to edit them out of our Scriptures, but to be mindful of the harm this language has caused, and can still cause. 

Sometimes learning makes us handle Scripture more carefully or in new ways. Being children of light, children of the day, means openness, honesty, integrity. Some of the metaphorical associations of “daylight” in modern American English have to do with coming to a new understanding, or with bringing something out into the open so we can take a good look at it. Developing greater awareness of the ways centuries of systemic racism have filtered into our language and thought is actually a pretty good way to be children of light. 

That brings us to inwardly digest. What a wonderful phrase! Sometimes we definitely have to really chew on Scripture to get to something that can feed us. 

Today’s Gospel parable is a puzzler. I don’t feel like I fully know what Jesus meant by it. What’s more, I’m not sure the Gospels know what Jesus meant by it. 

It is widely interpreted as a capitalist parable: Take a little, turn it into a lot, please the boss. 

We have this story in both Matthew and Luke’s Gospels, but they tell it very differently. Luke’s version includes some details that point towards a universally-hated political leader, Herod Archelaus, who was around when Jesus was a child. So it seems that for Luke’s version, the boss in the story is a bad guy. 

In Matthew’s version, if you peel back the layers of all the sermons you’ve heard about how you’re supposed to use your talents to please God – and I say this as we’re about to share a talent show! – it’s actually pretty hard to tell how we’re supposed to feel about the rich man. 

If we think he stands for God, what do we do with the fact that he is presented as harsh and greedy? 

What if instead of emulating the first two slaves, we’re supposed to see them as being welcomed in to a corrupt and exploitative status quo? Like a new employee who proves he’s willing to lie and cut corners, so he gets a promotion?… 

I’m not sure either Matthew or Luke has a coherent theological understanding of this parable. I wish we could get back to what Jesus actually said. I suspect part of the puzzle is that Jesus’ original audience would have known stuff we don’t know, that would have made the gist of the story more clear to them – like recognizing the allusions to Archelaus, or like the fact that being trusted with someone else’s money was a really big deal in the ancient world. (And a talent was a LOT of money! This was a fraught, risky situation.) 

What comes next in Matthew’s gospel is the parable of the sheep and the goats. We’ll hear it next week. That story features a true and righteous ruler – and suggests that what God is looking for in our lives is not return on investment, but feeding the hungry, clothing the cold, visiting the sick and imprisoned. 

There is – clearly – much to digest inwardly here! 

Our collect says that the goal of reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting Scripture is to hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life. First Thessalonians says that we will always be with God, whether awake or asleep, but other than that, today’s Scriptures don’t have a lot to say about life beyond this world. What I hope, rather, is that our abiding with, and grappling with, Scripture will help us feel that there’s something here worth the seeking, worth the reading, learning, and digesting. 

That in this big, strange chronicle of some part of the long human dance with God, there are texts that – by the grace of the Holy Spirit – still speak to challenges, questions, hearts and lives today/ That can still point us beyond ourselves towards something – towards Someone – bigger, better, wiser and kinder than we can imagine.

Let’s pray it one more time… 

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.