Advent 1B – Unforeseen possibilities

One of my favorite TV shows was “The Closer” which ran from 2005-2012. The star character was LAPD Assistant Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson who headed up the Major Crimes Division. Leading a colorful team of crack detectives, she solved the mystery of who committed the crime and almost always closed her case with the offender’s confession.

Often, Brenda and her team had investigated all of the leads and clues and still didn’t know who had done it or why. Only a chance remark or behavior, heard or seen at the 11th hour in the context of her personal life gave her the crucial insight. Sometimes no words were needed. Like the time she was wiping off the bathroom mirror which her husband’s shower had steamed up. An “aha!” silently widened her eyes as she saw the connection to her case and solved the mystery.

We are beginning Advent – a season which has very little mystery left. Sometimes it seems like a surprise birthday party which doesn’t really surprise anyone. We wait quietly in the dark waiting for a guest of honor who we all know has already arrived. Two thousand years ago.

I found a different approach to Advent in the work of theologian Monica Coleman. She says that God and humanity are partners in the work of contending with evil and transforming the world. It is not up to God alone. We are indispensable members of God’s team.

We don’t always feel like empowered team members when we are facing evil and suffering. It can seem like we are on our own, knowing only that everything we have tried has fallen short. It is tempting to play at the surprise birthday party game and wait for God to show up and fix it.

But it is not up to God alone.

In her 2008 book, Making a Way Out of No Way, Coleman choreographs the interaction between God and humanity when the team is working for a better world. She describes four movements, the first of which is “God’s presentation of unforeseen possibilities.”

When we are contending with suffering and evil and feeling despair or inadequacy, God offers us possibilities. And not just one. God offers us many.

“God contains all the possibilities of the world and offers them to us based on the particularities of our context.” [1]

Coleman says that God considers the context of our personalities, our abilities, our feelings and our circumstances. God knows who we are. As the speaker in the first reading reminds God, “We are the clay and you are the potter.”

The God who knows us also calls to us and offers us possibilities which we could not have imagined on our own. Indeed, God fills our world with the possibilities. Maybe they are in a dream or an insight. Maybe in a friend’s comment or something we overheard a stranger say. Maybe in the way the clouds moved or the musical phrase played. Maybe in scripture, or a poem or what the grandchild said. Maybe in the connection we made when we wiped the steam off the bathroom mirror.

The God who knows us also calls to each of us and fills our world with unforeseen possibilities. It is for us to be alert and open to them, confident that none of them is wrong. Each will help in some way, large or small. And any of them will bring some newness into our lives, inevitably changing what lies beyond.

Next week: Advent 2 and Movement 2: Human agency.

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[1] Monica A. Coleman, Making a Way Out of No Way: A Womanist Theology, (Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 2008) Digital: Kindle location 849.

Photo by Ben Hoskyn on Unsplash

Pr28A Becoming Interpreters

Judges 4:1-7
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

There are large gaps between Black and White Americans when it comes to wealth. The racist explanation is that there is something in Black people which causes this inequity. The non-racist explanation is that there is something wrong with the prevailing culture’s practices and policies.

We want to believe that most everyday practices and polices are race-neutral. When it comes to buying a home or a car, applying for credit or car insurance, buying and selling on-line, applying on-line for jobs, etc. it shouldn’t matter if you are Black or White. But it does.

In The Black Tax: The Cost of Being Black in America, (Good Steward Publishing, Southbury, CT, 2017), MBA and corporate executive Shawn D. Rochester documents the financial cost of conscious and unconscious anti-black discrimination. The Black Tax, he argues, has for generations reduced the ability of Black households to earn and save the way White Americans can. Consequently, in 2012, Black Americans owned only about 2% of American wealth.[1] Here are some more recent numbers from the Brookings Institute.

We can believe that this wealth gap is caused by defects in people or defects in policy. The first explanation is racist, the second is anti-racist. There is no in-between. [2] Our eyes are either open or they are closed. In the language of 1 Thessalonians, we are either asleep or awake.

Oddly, Jesus is not sounding very “woke” in Matthew’s story of the slaves and the talents. The slave who received only one talent decided to protect it by burying it. The Master called him “wicked and lazy.” According to Jesus, the moral of the story is that “to those who have, more will be given.”

It’s hard to hear this story without cringing. Jesus sounds so off. What happened to “the last shall be first” and rich people being warned about camels and a needles’ eye? How do we interpret this parable?

My favorite book about exegesis is Biblical Interpretation: A Roadmap (Abingdon Press, Nashville) 1996. Authors Frederick Tiffany and Sharon Ringe recommend a process of biblical interpretation which allows people “to take advantage of the expertise and authority of their own life experiences and context, as well as those of other readers in other cultural contexts – including those of academic biblical scholars.” Biblical Interpretation: A Roadmap at 13.)

Their method starts by inviting us to ask lots of questions, of the passage and of ourselves. Before we pick up someone else’s commentary, they say we should authorize our own expertise and life experience. We should pay attention to how we feel about a passage.

We’ve learned to do that with portions of the Hebrew Bible (for better or worse) and we’ve learned to do it with Paul (especially as regards his teaching on the place of women and slaves), but Jesus seems to be off limits.

I reacted to this parable with disdain and defensiveness. Disdain because Jesus seems to be praising the world as it is: inequitable and unforgiving. A world in which it takes money to make money and in which the system insures that the poor will never win. As a legal services attorney, I learned that nothing that makes the cost of living higher than being poor. The poor pay more for everything: housing (often substandard), transportation (unreliable), groceries (unhealthy) and even medical care, assuming they can get it at all.

The parable also made me feel defensive because I don’t believe that being cautious with someone else’s property is a moral failing or that risk-taking is always a virtue. I had to ask a lot of questions about this passage and about myself. [3] The interpretation I came to was this…

Maybe Jesus was talking to a crowd that included fewer farmers and fishermen and more business people, so he changed his metaphor accordingly. He’s right, after all, about how money works. It does not grow hidden under a mattress or buried in the ground. So, maybe the slave master is not a symbol for God. He is just a business person who knows how money works.

A “talent” was a large sum of money: a fortune, a treasure. Maybe Jesus is not talking about money per se, but about the things we value and hold dear: goods or values or life itself. The moral: As with money, we cannot protect and preserve what we value by burying it. We must put it into circulation, and sometimes, even at risk.

As the collect of the day says, scripture is a thing of great value: a source of instruction and faith and hope. Scripture is at its best when we are in conversation with it and about it. It is not fragile. We can ask questions and challenge it with our experience. We can pass it around to hear what others think and feel. Hopefully, we can listen to what other voices have to say. We will be reliable interpreters then, because the Holy Spirit loves a good conversation.

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[1] Rochester’s research is based on secondary sources: government publications and scholarly books and journals. It does not rely on recently discovered caches or archives. Which is to say that the data has been there for White America to see for a long time. We have chosen not to see it.

[2] “There is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy. Every policy in every institution in every community… is producing or sustaining either racial inequity or equity between racial groups.” How to Be an Anti-Racist, Ibram X. Kendi (Random House, New York) 2019 at 17.

[3] Many are uncomfortable with the parable. An interesting interpretation is offered by David Ewart, a Canadian UCC minister and he provides a link to a sermon based on that interpretation. “Matthew 25:14-30″ at www.holytextures.com, accessed 11/10/2020.

I am taking a week and listen to “other voices” so there will no post for Christ Our King (November 22.) The next post will be on Wednesday November 25 for Advent 1B.

Photo by itsPortAdelaide on Unsplash