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Darkness, Clouds, Blood, and Wrath… hum?!: The Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

Leslie and I have been very wisely and proactively working on our relationship. So in the interest of avoiding and reducing tension and dissension we recently purchased a dishwasher… As we were narrowing down our options I went online to look up some reviews of the models that fit the space we had available. And there I found a recent and glowing review for the model we ended up going with: “I LOVE LOVE LOVED it… Unfortunately my house was recently destroyed in the Alemeda wildfire, along with everything I owned. [Five stars.]” And in the space of a split-second, I felt simultaneously reassured about the washing machine, and distraught for the person who wrote the review.

The review, and the situation, were absurd. But doesn’t that say something about the absurdity of life? An absurdity that Paul knew, and the Psalmist, not to mention the existentialist philosophers of the 20th century. Doesn’t that sharp left turn halfway through that two-sentence review say something about the disturbing unpredictability of life? (Rendered less disturbing largely because we’re ignorant of what lies around the corner. We don’t plan on getting in that car accident on the way to work. We don’t expect to step on nail. Those times when we land in the emergency room: we never started the day expecting that nine-hour hospital visit. Or think of this pandemic that has changed our lives and our society, and will have an impact on human behaviour even after the pandemic: very little of the strategic and five-year planning of our world’s various bureaucracies have retained their applicability and relevance in this new normal.) As Jesus said in the words that immediately precede this week’s gospel reading: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” The master in today’s parable returns to his estate after a long time.

“The great day of the LORD is near, near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the LORD is bitter, the warrior cries aloud there. That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness…” This is a far cry from the ‘I’m good, you’re good, we’re all good’ peace accord of liberalism. One approach is to ignore or deny these passages, as antiquated mumbo jumbo. But that would ignore the reality and omnipresence of distress and anguish in our world, even if it isn’t clothed in the astronomical signs of the genre trappings of our apocalyptic texts. Another approach is to adopt and become preoccupied with them, and redirect the wrath we read about at people that are different from us. Create a system where we’re let off the hook, and it’s just everyone else that gets creamed.

What we might do instead is to look at St. Paul’s example. He lived at a precarious moment in the life of the Church, and the people he shepherded were concerned about death, and looking toward the sky for help from above. And what does Paul write? “God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.” When we deal with the apocalyptic passages that are undeniably a part of our heritage and tradition, and like next week when we will celebrate the kingship of Christ on Reign of Christ Sunday, Paul reminds us that we are called to keep our feet on the ground, because as Christians, the pillar or ladder that connects the earth and the heavens is the Cross. The cosmic drama that Zephaniah describes with reference to blood, clouds, and darkness may not be so much a disruption of our lives or the opposite of our mundane everyday experience, so much as a glimpse into the depth of meaning that undergirds our existence. The Magi from the East saw past the curtain of everyday. A few of the disciples caught a glimpse on the mountaintop at the Transfiguration. The Roman soldier at the base of the Cross did too, when he said “Truly this man was God’s Son.” Matthew’s Gospel describes a scene, not recorded anywhere else in the Bible or in the history books, of an earthquake and the dead rising from their tombs following the Crucifixion; an expression of the world-altering event that had just happened; not just failure or tragedy as it appeared on the surface.

We do too, in those admittedly fleeting moments when we feel our hearts strangely warmed. When the a verse or prayer connects with what we’re feeling or experiencing. And not just in church. It can happen in those ‘thin places’ where earth and heaven seem closer. Or when we meet someone and fall in love, and describe it in cosmic language like “time stopped.”

So as we sit, perhaps uncomfortably with these stories of clouds and deep darkness and a master that returns and rewards some and punishes others, we remember hold them alongside the Cross, and remember that it is what holds together heaven and earth in a single peace. Like the slaves entrusted with talents, we’ve been entrusted with much. And what we do with what we’ve been given — how we live our lives in this space between the first and second coming of Christ — it matters. Sometimes we forget this. But our stories in scripture — including and especially the scary ones — remind us of this. What you do matters. Who you are matters. And our Christian faith holds before us the sacrament of Communion, where we offer the most basic, everyday things: bread, wine, and water, and with them, ourselves, to be taken up and transfigured in Christ’s sacrifice. All of this not in a spirit of fear, but thanksgiving. Amen.

© 2020 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter