Wednesday, February 19, 2020

What can we say November 8? 23rd after Pentecost

   I wonder how these texts will play the Sunday after a hotly contested election - and what mood people will be. I suspect they all speak, to grief, to hope, the "as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord" (theologically presuming neither "side" is the one way to do so). {Here's something I posted on election day, which certainly applies the Sunday after!}

   1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is a rich text that in a way reiterates All Saints: “We do not grieve as those who have no hope.” The world does its grieving, but it’s trivial, isn’t it? At a funeral “gathering party,” for there was no service, everyone sang “I Did It My Way” and then danced the Macarena, fondly recalling the deceased. Insufficient. Cute. We say a person lives on in memory. But not for long. We have hope, and not just for a ticket into heaven to continue endlessly the life we’ve enjoyed (like dancing the macarena, or even hearing Elvis himself….). Hope is finding yourself by sheer grace as a small but infinitely important and beloved part of God’s redemption of all history and all creation. And everything is transformed. No surprise Paul could say, in v. 18, “Therefore encourage one another with these words.” I’m encouraged just suggested that we encourage one another with these words.

   Paul’s phrase “The Lord shall descend” found its way into Horatio Spafford’s hymn composed in the wake of the deaths of his children at sea, “It Is Well.” Upper Room is publishing a book I’ve written about the theology of hymns – and on this one, my mind is drawn to Julian of Norwich. Seminarians may recall nothing else about her, except that she said “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” Actually, those were words Jesus himself spoke to her. In the year 1373, she had a series of visions in which she saw the crucified Christ, who conversed with her. The “All shall be well” is the centerpiece of much profound theological exploration in her report of her visions.

It may seem a bit naïve to sum up the Gospel as “All shall be well.” This is the kind of trivial spirituality people love, that everything is good, life is sweet, and tomorrow will be a happy day. But Jesus said this to Julian as she wrestled with stark realities of suffering and sin. She lived in a small brick cell in the city of Norwich during the Great Plague of Europe. More than half the population of Norwich perished. The Hundred Years War was simultaneously raging, and the worst schism in history was tearing the church asunder. In such a terrifying, insecure, bleak moment, Jesus told her, and those who listened to her, and us who read her today, “All shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.”

   Part of me wants to argue with him, or her. Yes, but… Yet seminarians remember those words, and they linger in my heart. Just hearing them, defying muddy reality, despite the news of the worlds crumbling around us, and our own personal losses and fears, brings inexplicable but certain comfort. I believe it. All really will be well. In the moment of hearing it, or saying it myself, I believe. Or singing it… We put this on a big sign for our church yard for this election and pandemic season.

   I never quite warm up to Matthew 25:1-13, although I love the catchy anthem, “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning.” It’s weirdly easy to moralize about such an eschatological text. Jesus could get away with it. But me? And is it sound to get creative with such a text? Gerhard Lohfink complains about modern readings that sympathize with the foolish virgins, who are shut out as the “stigmatized, suffering and humiliated.” We should share our oil with them! The Darwinian prepared virgins lack solidarity and harbor “concealed violence” against those unprepared: “This shears the point off of Jesus’ parable and perverts the whole thing. The issue is not one of solidarity, readiness to help or tolerance, but the neglected kairos, the hour not seized.”

   So I will preach on Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25. I rarely title sermons, but I may go with “As for me and my house,” the title of Walter Wangerin’s fantastic book about marriage, which I’d commend to you, as I do to couples preparing to marry or trying to recover. 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.”

   Geography matters here. Shechem, today, is part of the contested, tense West Bank. The topography is rugged, rocky, not the easiest drive. Back in the Bronze Age, Israel hadn’t conquered the entire land. Canaanites still controlled the main roads, and the marginalized Israelites 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.” Does he mean Mesopotamian or Egyptian idols? Or even the gods known to Abraham, Lot, Jacob, etc.? 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. 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. As political ideology is the dominant idolatry of our day, putting those gods away, and instead saying "We will serve the Lord" matters post-election. The Church's mission didn't change on election day.

   If it’s a Communion Sunday: “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. Having stirred the crowd into a resounding commitment to serve, Jacob surprisingly replies, “But you cannot serve the Lord.” What?? I can’t serve the Lord you just asked me to serve? 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.”

  My newest book, Birth: The Mystery of Being Born (in the Pastoring for Life series) is out - and as we're heading toward Advent, my book on carols and their theology might be of use in preaching or in groups: Why This Jubilee? Advent Reflections.

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