grace, sermon, wrath

Frank Preaches About COVID-19 and Wrath

This sermon was preached in the Zoom worship of St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in Wilmette, IL on November 15, 2020. I’m posting it here a few weeks later (just slightly expanded) because I think it offers a “word of God” that addresses the pandemic theologically. That word is “wrath.”

Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost Year A (Proper 28A)

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

If this had been a normal year the political season would be over. But nothing this year has been normal. Tensions have been so high that we know it will take a while for things to calm down.  Maybe not for a long while. We pray that Joe Biden as our next president will, by God’s grace, be able to bring the country together so we can deal as a nation and with the rest of the world with the frightful circumstances we’re in terms of the current surge of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic hardships it has created for many people.

The political season for Christians is never over because we live in expectation of Christ’s coming again to bring about the fullness of the kingdom of God he proclaimed. Between his coming in history and his coming again in glory as ruler and judge over all we are always about the business of advancing the agenda of God’s kingdom in this world against the powerful opposition of the world, the flesh, and the devil.

By “world” I mean the social systems in which we are enmeshed and cannot extricate ourselves. By “flesh” I mean our deep desires that sometimes trump our common sense. By “devil” I mean forces of evil lurking about that would entice us away from faithfully anticipating God’s kingdom and doing God’s will. “Deliver us from evil,” we pray.

Jesus laid out a platform for the kingdom of heaven (as Matthew calls it) in his teachings. He presented a manifesto of the kingdom in his Beatitudes that were read on All Saints’ Day. He performed signs of the kingdom in his healing miracles. Jesus’ healing ministry has been the justification for the church’s healing ministry. Throughout Christian history ministry and mission has served to heal bodies as well as cure sin-sick souls with the message of salvation. Now on these last Sundays of the church year and into Advent we hear Jesus’ teaching about the judgments that will be made when he comes again to judge the living and the dead.

Christ the Judge by Michelangelo on the wall above the altar in the Sistine Chapel

Jesus’ teachings about the final judgment were in the form of parables, which was a typical way in which rabbis taught. Parables were stories that used familiar life situations to make a moral or religious point. We heard an example in last Sunday’s Gospel: “The kingdom of heaven will be like this.” And Jesus told a story about bridesmaids who were waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom. Not untypically, the groom was delayed. Some of the bridesmaids were prepared for that situation and had extra oil for their lamps. Others were not prepared and while they ran off to buy more oil they missed the bridegroom’s arrival. The doors to the wedding banquet were closed when they returned.

Today we hear a parable about three slaves who were entrusted with their master’s money while he went on a long journey. It wasn’t unusual for slaves in the Roman world to be entrusted with great responsibilities. In Jesus’ story the master didn’t tell the slaves how to handle the talents. Two of them took the initiative to put the money to wise use and make capital gains. They were commended by the master when he returned. The third slave, who knew his master’s reputation for being a harsh man, buried in the ground the one talent that had been entrusted to him. He kept it safe and handed it back to his master. But instead of commending the slave for his caution, the master rebuked him, gave his talent to the one who had been the most enterprising, and threw him into the “outer darkness” (presumably a dark dungeon).

Even though this is a parable about the kingdom of heaven, we should NOT take the harsh master as a stand-in for God. The story is about an ordinary life situation that Jesus’s hearers would have recognized. Yes, slaves could be highly rewarded with important responsibilities when they proved trustworthy. They could also be treated harshly for their failures.

A second trap we should avoid is allegorizing the parable to see who it is told against. Many commentators have read an anti-Jewish polemic into this parable. But the evangelist doesn’t give any clues in the text to warrant this. He does present a temporal context. Jesus was in Jerusalem. He had been having debates with the various Jewish parties. A plot to arrest and execute Jesus was gathering momentum. And Jesus had already foretold that his disciples would abandon him. So if this parable is directed against anyone in particular, it’s against the disciples. That includes us. So let’s take a look at these three slaves, beginning with the one who buried the talent entrusted to him.

I think a bit of psychologizing is in order here. This slave is a keen observer of the way things go in the world. He sees that his master is a harsh man who reaps where he does not sow and gathers where he does not scatter. He doesn’t want to run the risk of mismanaging what has been entrusted to him. He wants to keep it safe. So he buries it.

Perhaps we have here the conservative Christian who wants to conserve the faith, preserve the Christian tradition, keep the institutional church going because it does good things for society. So he’s willing to make contributions to keep the institution going but he doesn’t do anything to advance its mission in the service of God’s kingdom in the world. He may even think that some mission projects are too political and object, saying that the church should just be concerned about spiritual things. He’s willing to bury the gifts the Spirit gave to the church to heal and save bodies as well as souls.

The master condemns this slave using the slave’s own words. “You knew, did you, that I reap where I do not sow, and gather where I do not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.”

If the slave really was afraid of his master, as he said, he would surely have found some safe way to use what his master had entrusted to him. But that would have required taking some initiative. The master rightly calls him “lazy.” He took the easy way and no one profited from that. He certainly didn’t augment his master’s holdings.

Do we really fear the Lord in the biblical sense of taking God seriously? That’s the issue Zephaniah is raising in his prophesies. The Assyrians have overrun the northern kingdom of Israel. Do the Judeans think they will be spared? They’re being complacent. They refuse to be alerted to the coming storm. They will not be prepared for the coming day of the Lord.

Therefore, says the prophet, “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, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements.”

Wrath is an important but mostly misunderstood concept in the Bible. Wrath is not so much what God does (like hurl lightning bolts) as what God doesn’t do (like intervene to save the situation). Wrath is the suspension of grace by which God upholds the creation and preserves his people. It’s like God just stands back and let’s things happen. It’s kind of like when a parent gets exasperated with a disobedient child and says, “okay, do it your way and we’ll see what happens.”

Just as the law is the antithesis of gospel and despair is the antithesis of faith, so wrath is the antithesis of grace. Martin Luther was the great theologian of grace because he had experienced God’s wrath, God’s negative judgment of the sinner. There are a lot of people in the world today who feel like they’re living in a time of wrath, a time of divine abandment. It would be a timely biblical idea for the church to teach rather than avoid it because we’re afraid that this might actually be an attribute of God. God is not always nice. As the Psalmist says, “Who considers the power of your anger? Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you” (Ps.90:11).

Jesus on the cross experienced the wrath of God and uttered the psalmist’s cry of lament, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1) Whether God actually abandoned Jesus in his wrath is a theological nut I’m not prepared to crack here. But I think it would behoove the church in this time of pandemic to provide litanies of lament as we bewail the situation of seeming God-forsakeness during this pandemic, and yet hold out the hope of “again praising you in the midst of the great congregation” (Ps. 22:22) when this modern plague has been vanquished by vaccines.

Matthias Gruenewald’s altar piece in the chapel of the Isenheim leper hospital showing a suffering Christ who identifies with humankind’s suffering, sharing in the wrath of God.

The third slave receives the wrath of his master. He didn’t use the interim time of the master’s absence as a grace period to do his master’s work. We’re in a time of grace while we wait for the coming again of our Lord to judge the living and the dead. We have time to work with the deposit of faith that has been entrusted to us.

In next week’s parable of the kingdom, the third one in Matthew 25, we will hear Jesus give a whole list of things we can do for his little ones. There are so many ways to advance the life and work of God’s kingdom through the church and in the world. Our weekly bulletins are full of them. We don’t need to do God’s work because we fear God’s wrath. But some works are so important that if they can’t be motivated by love of the neighbor, maybe the motivation of God’s wrath is needed.

Wrath is not what God wants to show us. As St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Thessalonike, we who are children of the day and of the light do the works of faith and love in the hope of salvation. “For 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.”

How shall our divine master judge us in terms of our attitudes and works during this pandemic? As the surge in positive cases occurs in all parts of our country and around the world (in a pandemic the virus must be dealt with in all parts of the world), our front line medical people and hospitals are stretched to the limits. The death rate climbs and the grim reaper claims people of all ages, not only the elderly. The virus strikes anybody, anytime, anywhere. We need to maintain due diligence. Yet we have Christians who refuse to have their precious personal freedom limited by practicing the simple measures that will mitigate contagion of the coronavirus, like wearing a mask and maintaining physical distance. How does it sound to God when Christians act as though their individual rights are more important than their neighbor’s welfare? Should such servants of the Lord be commended by their master? Or should God, in his wrath, leave them to their own devices as cases surge in their own communities and families?

Let’s take a quick look at the other two slaves in Jesus’s story before I end this sermon. One made a lot with the larger amount entrusted to him; the other made less with his lesser amount, but still worked with his lesser amount. They both took initiative; they both took what Kierkegaard called “a leap of faith.” And their master’s judgment was commendation rather than condemnation.

That can be our judgment too. No matter how big or how little the investments we make in advancing God’s kingdom, we receive the same reward. We bask in our Master’s favor. Whether one is a front line worker in an ICU ward or a dutiful citizen abiding by time-honored forms of disease prevention, whether we take a giant leap into fighting this virus or the little steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 for the sake of our neighbor, we can merit the divine accolade, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; enter into the joy of your master.” Amen.

Pastor Frank Senn

Doctors during the medieval Bubonic plagues wore leather coats and beak masks filled with herbs to cover the smell of death and decay. Not so different from the garb and face masks of front line medical workers today.


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