Friday, August 18, 2017

What can we say come November 12? 23rd after Pentecost

     1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is (for me) a curious blend of the pastorally profound, and then the apocalyptically curious.  Paul’s admonition, “that you may not grieve as those who have no hope,” bears much reflection.  You grieve!  Sometimes Christians get into this “it was God’s will” or “he’s in a better place” business that is cruel to many, and theologically vapid.  Paul doesn’t say You don’t grieve.  You grieve, and heavily – but you grieve as those who have hope.  The “caught up in the air” is more problematical, especially for physics lovers and three-story-universe-skeptics like me.  To all this Paul adds, “Comfort one another with these words.”  Not God will fix everything now.  It’s thoroughly eschatological.  We are perhaps not as gifted at comforting each other with full allowance for grief and yet a firm eschatological hope.

     I like the Matthew 25:1-13 text when I first glance at it; hey, my daughter got married this Fall!  And I love that terrific choral anthem, “Keep your lamps trimmed and burning,” and would admire my choir singing it to match my sermon.  But the text never works well for me.  The ending is harsh – which doesn’t mean it isn’t preachable.  Just gets moralistic in a nano-second.

     I’ll go with Joshua 24,one of the pivotal and eternally applicable texts in all of Scripture.  I rarely title sermons, but this one will be “As for me and my house.”  This is the title, by the way, of Walter Wangerin’s fantastic book about marriage, which I’d commend to you, and may touch on in the sermon – as he demonstrates a good bit of what it means for “me and my house” to serve the Lord.  The Christian couple focuses on values, on serving the world, on being Christ’s Body, on (as we say in the wedding liturgy) being “a haven of blessing and peace”… “so that those to whom love is a stranger will find in you generous friends.”
     The place to which Joshua summons everybody matters.  Shechem, today, is part of the contested, tense West Bank.  The topography is rugged, rocky, not the easiest drive.  In the Bronze Age, if we read between the lines we realize that the Israelites didn’t conquer the whole land, as if by blitzkrieg, and then enjoying total dominance.  They won a few places, and not the most fertile; the Canaanites still controlled the main roads and marginalized the Israelites who had to scrape for whatever they could manage.  In other words, Israel lived in a hostile environment, as a minority, and religiously, as a downright weird sect. {The same was true for early Christianity...}

     The question for them was the same for us: What does it mean today to make the choice they made – that we will serve the Lord, this Lord, the biblical God, Jesus Christ, and not all the others?  The preacher is wise, periodically, to remind good Christians that many gods compete for our attention and loyalty.  In the case of Joshua 24 there is even a peculiar wrinkle:  Joshua says “Put away the gods your fathers served.”  He’s thinking pagan, Mesopotamiam, and Egyptian idols, many of which had strong footing in Palestine.
    But for us:  what idols did your parents, whom you love and adore and owe so much to, serve?  Jesus spoke of pitting father against son.  He’s not stirring up family strife, but pressing for a choice.  Many of our parents imbibed the whole civil religion thing of the good American life, American superiority, maybe the god of money and upward mobility, maybe those darker deities that bedevil us still on race or jingoism.  Joshua was worried about those Egyptian golden bulls; we have our own golden bull on Wall Street in New York!  How do we invite our people to shed even their parents’ lovely ideals, which may even have panned out marvelously, in order to serve the true and living God?

     And what does this theological God-choice look like?  Not just mental assent, but very practical stuff, how you farm, your job, what you buy, how you treat people, especially different people.  As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord – so do we grab the latest gadget? Do we join in neighborhood banter making fun of somebody?  Do we give church a skip to get to the golf tournament?  Do we turn off the gadgets and TV and observe Sabbath?  Examples abound.

     For us, it is Communion Sunday.  So As for me and my house… involved food: how do we eat, what do we eat (and drink), and why?  With whom do we eat?  Jesus gave us a very do-able yet rarely-heeded command: “When you give a dinner, do not invite those who can invite you in return, but invite the poor, maimed, lame and blind – and if they don’t come, go out into the highways and hedges and compel them to come in.”  As for me and my house… we are at least going to try this.

     I laugh out loud when I get to Joshua 24:19.  Joshua has just stirred the crowd into a resounding commitment to follow the Lord!  His response?  “But you cannot serve the Lord.”  What??  I can’t probe Joshua’s theology, or even that of the Deuteronomist very incisively.  But we have here a humbling, a recognition at the outset that our most determined zeal to serve God will falter, be imperfect, or just a huge mess.  I’m drawn to C.S. Lewis’s clever wisdom in Screwtape Letters, which envisions the devils plotting to do us in. I love this one: My dear Wormwood, I note with grave displeasure that your patient has become a Christian. Do not indulge the hope that you will escape the usual penalties; indeed, in your better moments, I trust you would hardly even wish to do so. In the meantime we must make the best of the situation. There is no need to despair; hundreds of these adult converts have been reclaimed after a brief sojourn in the Enemy’s camp and are now with us. All the habits of the patient, both mental and bodily, are still in our favour.”

     Joshua’s passionate tribes still had feet of clay – which we see as the story unfolds.  Mind you, Lewis continued that letter by pointing out one of the most surprising perils for the new convert, or the one making a renewed commitment to serve the Lord:

     “One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate. When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer with rather an oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print. When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like ‘the body of Christ’ and the actual faces in the next pew.... Work hard, then, on the disappointment or anticlimax which is certainly coming to the patient during his first few weeks as a churchman. The Enemy allows this disappointment to occur on the threshold of every human endeavour. It occurs when the boy who has been enchanted in the nursery by Stories from the Odyssey buckles down to really learning Greek. It occurs when lovers have got married and begin the real task of learning to live together. In every department of life it marks the transition from dreaming aspiration to laborious doing. The Enemy takes this risk because He has a curious fantasy of making all these disgusting little human vermin into what He calls His ‘free’ lovers and servants—’sons’ is the word He uses, with His inveterate love of degrading the whole spiritual world by unnatural liaisons with the two-legged animals. Desiring their freedom, He therefore refuses to carry them, by their mere affections and habits, to any of the goals which He sets before them: He leaves them to ‘do it on their own’. And there lies our opportunity. But also, remember there lies our danger. If once they get through this initial dryness successfully, they become much less dependent on emotion and therefore much harder to tempt...."
   ** My two newest books, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, and Weak Enough to Lead: What the Bible Tells Us About Powerful Leadership, are now available!
The images are Giotto's fresco of Francis kneeling before the crucifix, and David Roberts's print of what Shechem looked like in the 19th century.

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