Year A, Pentecost, Proper 28
“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage,” wrote 20thcentury author, Anaïs Nin.[i] Our texts this week radiate with this challenging idea. It seems that turning from the ways of God, as risky and counter-intuitive as they may seem to the ways of modern – and ancient – society, requires less rather than more courage. The people of God are confronted time and again in our texts with the challenge of life-expanding courage as they endeavor to live in God’s ways. It often seems to put them – and us – in opposition to the status quo. God’s ways require courage as we live upholding God’s counter-cultural justice, mercy, grace and generosity. And God provides us with the courage to live in these counter-cultural ways.
The Israelites, who have “done what was evil in the Lord’s sight,” cry out for help as they come up against their captors, King Jabin of Canaan and his general, Sisera. Their judge, Deborah, prophesies help from God. Many centuries later, Zephaniah prophesies a warning to the people of Israel that “the day of the Lord” is coming, a day of judgment interpreted as the end of time, when they will be judged for turning from God’s ways. “Neither their gold or their silver will be able to save them…”.The psalms alternately beg for God’s mercy and promise assurances of it. They voice the peoples’ confessions. Paul declares to the Thessalonians that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” and yet they can hope in God’s salvation through Jesus the Christ. Matthew gives us another parable in the sequence of Jesus’ teachings on preparedness and living into the challenges of “end times.”
Drawing from Kate Huey’s reflection on the parable of the talents in “Sermon Seeds”, we find in Jesus’ parable a picture of stewardship that is much broader than just stewardship of money.[ii] As this ancient story is thrown alongside our own lives it asks us pointed questions about the stewardship of how we will share the gospel of Jesus, God’s good and counter-cultural news of justice, mercy, grace, generosity and love. It takes courage. The etymology of “courage” leads us to the Old French and finally the Latin word for “heart.” To “encourage” someone is to “put in heart” in order to strength them. As we ponder the parable, in light of the other texts, how are we are encouraged to good stewardship of the gospel? Is sharing the gospel a challenge to bring heart – the very heart of God – to others? How will we meet this challenge with courage?
I have two stories that share images of courage. The first story speaks more to the over-all theme of the lectionary texts. The second could be experienced as a surprise reversal story of Matthew’s parable of the talents.
The first story is in the book, Stories for the Journey; A Sourcebook for Christian Storytellers, by William R. White (Augsburg Publishing, 1988, 87-88). White has adapted it from a Jewish folktale as a picture of “gemilut hasadim”, loving-kindness, or the giving of self. Check out White’s telling as well as my re-telling below.
One day, a much-revered rabbi was working in the fields with his students and other people from their village. It was long hat morning of hard work. When it was time for the noon meal, a pail of water was brought to the rabbi so that he could wash his hands before the meal, as was the religious law. Instead of washing his hands and arms up to the elbows in the ritual fashion the rabbi only dipped the tip of his fingers into the water and gave them a very short rinse.
Everyone, especially his students, were astonished and taken aback! How could the rabbi break the law in this way? Why would the rabbi break the law in this way? There was a great silence that the rabbi did not seem to notice. Finally one of the students cautiously approached him and asked, ”Rabbi, why did you wash only the tips of your fingers? Is it not the law that hands need to be completely washed in the ritual fashion before a meal?”
The rabbi replied by pointing silently to a peasant girl who was struggling up the hill from the village well with two great buckets of water. She had a long, thick pole slung across her shoulders and hanging from each end were the buckets. One could tell that they were of a great weight and that she was working very hard not to spill a drop.
The students and the villagers were puzzled. They did not understand. So the rabbi said to them, “I could not wash my hands at the expense of this girl’s labor. Perhaps I saved her from carrying a bucket of water up this hill.”
The story of the rabbi’s courage to break the law for the sake of loving-kindness became a favorite in the village. And it was told at the firesides of all the families for many years….even to this day. And now I am telling it to you.
The second story is a children’s picture book by entitled, The Empty Pot by Demi (Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1990). It is an award-winning favorite in recent children’s literature and can be found in many libraries. You can also find in on line at Amazon.com and there is a kindle version. Below is a brief outline of the story. Check out the book if you can for its beautiful illustrations.
There was a boy named Ping who lived in China long ago. He loved flowers and everything he planted flourished into great beauty. All of China loved flowers. So did the Emperor who was also a great gardener.
The Emperor was old and needed to choose a successor. He decided to let the flowers that everyone loves so much choose the right person. He called all the children of China to the palace and gave them very special seeds. He said “Whoever can show me their best in a year’s time will succeed me to the throne.”
The children took their seeds home to plant and nurture. Among them was Ping who was known for his gardening skills. He carefully planted the seed and gave it all the right care. But nothing happened. It did not grow. All that long year he tried everything he could to grow the seed. It still did not grow. At year’s end the time came to go back to the Emperor and all he had to show was an empty pot. His grandfather spoke kindly to him, encouraging him to be honest. He had done his very best and that is what mattered.
Still it was very hard to bring the empty pot into the courtyard of the palace when all the other children had pots of large and exotic flowers.
They stood in rows as the Emperor inspected all the pots. Finally he came to Ping’s empty pot and he stopped. He clapped his hands and cried, “Here is my successor! This young man was the only one honest enough to bring me his best. All the seeds I gave you were boiled so they would not sprout. The honesty of an empty pot shows the honesty of a good heart.” And that is how Ping became the successor to the Emperor of China’s throne. And in his time he was a good and honest ruler.
Blessings on your story journey this week,
©Jane Anne Ferguson, 2017 and beyond. Photos and commentary maybe reprinted with permission only. Please find and tell the stories!