Thanksgiving, Apocalypse, and Commitment

A sermon for Proper 29, Christ the King: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Psalm 100, Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25:31-46

Good morning, on this last day of a Thanksgiving weekend. I hope you have enjoyed the festivities. This morning we have a very crowded docket: we have Thanksgiving, we have Christ the King, and this morning we are looking ahead to next week’s Commitment Sunday. So, let’s start with the oldest of all these traditions.

We have been celebrating Thanksgiving since 1789 after Congress requested a proclamation by George Washington. It has been celebrated as a federal holiday every year since 1863 when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of

Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens, (Wikipedia)”

I wonder, how much attention do we give to divine generosity today?

A priest Face-Book friend was asking “How many churches held a service on Thanksgiving Day?” Almost everyplace I have been held a Community Thanksgiving Service of some sort or another. I don’t think I have ever presided at a Thanksgiving Day service in my 23 years as a priest. I fear the visions of Black Friday, either avoiding or engaging, or afternoon football, or getting to the next function, have overcome any religious notion of Thanksgiving. Truth is it is I wonder how long Thanksgiving will be celebrated, other than a sale on Turkey? There is so very little in the stores about Thanksgiving these days, the merchandising goes from Halloween to Christmas. Another truth is that we should never give up Thanksgiving, because no matter the state of our lives, or the state of our community, or the state of our the nation, or the world, we should be thankful, for our Father, as always, is still here, and always will be, even if we are walking in a shadow.

There is another Thanksgiving experience to ponder. I do not know how long I have been aware of it; however, for a long time, Thanksgiving has been a time of extraordinary efforts to reach out to the least of these, in our communities and in God’s Kingdom. Growing up in Atlanta the Ga. – Ga. Tech freshman squads play an annual charity game under the theme Strong legs run, that weak legs may walk. In West Virginia, a member of the church started a simple thanksgiving meal program, that continues to grow t this day. In Blytheville the Thanksgiving program that formerly feed 800 people a hot meal, has had a change in leadership, due to a work promotion, and this year delivered 1,200 bags of food designed to feed a child for the entire week school was closed this year. I am beginning to see these commitments as an expression of Thanksgiving. And I am thankful to live in a community that celebrates Thanksgiving together, and in acts of generosity that mirrors our Father’s benevolence.

And yes, the celebration of Christ the King is not as old as the celebration of Thanksgiving. The First World War was over; however, nationalism and secularism were rising. Pope Pius XI, called for the celebration of Christ the King to encourage Christians whose faith might be flagging (Ashley). The first thing we should note is that the King that Pius envisions does not look anything like the powerful wraiths of The Lord of the Rings. For that matter Pius’ vision does not look anything like the heroic Aragorn, King of Gondor either. A close examination of the readings from Ezekiel and Matthew reveals impassioned attention on justice and relationship (Epperly; Harrelson). They are overtly political and hold us accountable for the state of the most vulnerable people in our society (Epperly).

Ezekiel’s attention is on Israel’s political leadership. The imagery of Kings as shepherds and the people as the flocks they are to tend is common in the ancient middle east (Keener and Walton; Charles L. Aaron). Unfortunately, at least Israel’s kings are not very good at their tasks, and often do what is evil in the sight of the Lord. Their disastrous self-interest has led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple (Aaron Jr.). They did what all the other kings did, looked after the desires of the rich and powerful and ignored the needs of the marginalized (Hoezee, Ezekiel; Gaventa and Petersen) In fact, in verse 10, just before our reading this morning, the failed shepherd Kings are accused of eating the sheep that they are responsible for tending (Gaventa and Petersen). The shepherd Kings’ brutality, and self-interest scattered the flock, denying them food, and a safe fold. Therefore, God commands Ezekiel to proclaim that God has rejected them as shepherds over the divine flock, and God will: seek them, rescue them, feed them, lead them to good pasture, bind the injured, strengthen the weak, and feed them with justice. God will do this with one shepherd, a prince from the House of David.

Through Ezekiel God is speaking to three sets of people. First, the leaders of the people, who are in their position by heredity, or by appointment, or election or otherwise. The message is clear: “Tend to the people, all of them, or you are fired.” Secondly, to the people: “Do not despair, your worldly condition is not the consequence of, or punishment for sin you might have committed. Finally, to us. As the people of God, we are God’s stewards’ protecting everything and everyone entrusted to our care, and who belong to God, and who are the image of God. Ezekiel refers to charity events and feed the hungry special events. He also speaks to the disparity of everyday life; no one should be hungry, no one should lack medical care, no one should be denied education, no one should be refused a safe home. As God’s shepherds we are called to use all the kinds of resources we have, from personal work, and money, to social and political capital to tend the flock. And we do so because God loves them, just as God loves us.

Matthew’s apocalyptic vision is a bit more complex. We are all familiar with the righteous sheep at his right hand asking:

And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? (Matthew 25:38-39)

 And we may recall the accursed goats destined for eternal fire at his left hand asking:

Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ (Matthew 25:44)

What we might have missed is that both the sheep and the goats don’t realize that the hungry, the marginalized, the poor, the naked, the stranger, and the prisoner are Jesus. We might wonder why Jesus didn’t tell them? Does he tell us, who he is when we meet him? But when we meet him, we should know who he is, because every living person, everyone who ever was, and is, or will be is made in the image of God, and that is enough (Hoezee, Matthew).

None of this is new, Proverbs we are taught

Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker,
but those who are kind to the needy honor him (Proverbs 14:31)

Way back in Isaiah we hear:

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. (Isaiah 58:7-9) (Olive Tree).

In this eschatological, end of time, proclamation Jesus says

  • nothing about confessing faith in him,
  • nothing about grace,
  • nothing about justification,
  • nothing about forgiving sins.

Jesus’ single focus is caring for God’s people, all – of God’s people (Darr).

Like Ezekiel, Jesus is speaking to the dispossessed, the rejected, and the outsiders, reassuring them that the time will come when their fortunes will be reversed. Like Ezekiel, Jesus is speaking to the leaders and people telling them “The marginalized are your responsibility.” Unlike Ezekiel there is an element here that is unique to the early persecuted church, who Matthew wants to reassure (Darr). Finally, like Ezekiel, we are the objects of Jesus’ parable. We need to quit worrying about calculating the end of days, because it is not yours to know. Between now and then, when ever that might be, we are to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, heal the sick, and visit those in prison. (Matthew 25:35-36) Then you will be blessed and inherit the life prepared for you since the beginning (Darr).

All this, all of this informs the choice we are asked to commit to next Sunday. It has a financial component to it, as it does ask us to prayerfully discern and commit to how we will financially support St. Stephen’s continuing service to Christ’s Ministry. This ministry includes sharing the story of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, especially how that story is a part of our lives. That ministry also includes tending sheep,

  • those who are prone to wonder,
    • or who otherwise get lost,
  • those deemed unworthy,
    • the otherwise undeserving,
  • the hungry,
  • the thirsty,
  • the stranger,
  • the naked,
  • the sick and
  • those in any sort of prison.

We know Jesus is the prince, of the house of David, who is tending the sheep, who is tending to all God’s people. We know we will inherit Jesus resurrection, which also means we inherit Jesus’ earthly ministry. I encourage you, in this coming week, to prayerfully discern and commit to how you will continue to by word, by action and by financial participation proclaim

  • the Good News of God in Christ;
  • seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbors as yourself;
  • and strive for justice and peace for all people, and respect the dignity of all of God’s people. (The Episcopal Church).

Amen


References

Aaron Jr., Charles L. Commentary on Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24. 26 11 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Ashley, Danáe M. “Love in Translation, Christ the King Sunday.” 26 11 2017. Sermons that Work.

Darr, Katheryn Pfisterer. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Book of Ezekiel. Vol. V. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. VII vols. OliveTree App.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 26 11 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Gospel Matthew 25:31-46. 26 11 2017.

Olive Tree. Olive Tree Cross References: Expanded Set. Harper Collins Christian Publishing, 2015.

The Episcopal Church. The Book of Common Prayer. New York: Church Publishing, 1979.

Wikipedia. Thanksgiving. n.d. 24 11 2017. <(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thanksgiving_(United_States)&gt;.

 

 

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Living In A Time of Judges

A Sermon for Proper 28: Judges 4:1-7, Psalm 123, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, Matthew 25:14-30

Roger Ailes, Harvey Weinstein, Judge Moore, HW Bush, Bill Clinton, C.K. Louis, Sen. Franken, Bill O’Reilly, Anthony Weiner, Kevin Spacey, Donald Trump, a number of pastors, and many more have been accused of sexual assault or harassment. Some have refuted the accusations. Most have acknowledged their misbehavior. Some have truly apologized. Three or more Universities have suspended all Fraternity activity because of deaths related to out of control events some fraternities sponsored. Middle-class wages have been essentially flat for about the last 40 years. Robert D. Putnam was asked by an association of bowling alleys to find out why they were selling more games than ever, but revenue was falling. It turns out participation in bowling leagues had dropped way off, and they purchase more food and refreshments than families and one-time groups buy. This lead him to research participation in all voluntary social associations. His book Bowling Alone, published in 2000, describes the broad decline in all voluntary social organizations from churches to youth sports leagues to volunteer fire departments. There have been multiple accounts of an extraordinary rise in the price of a rather ordinary medication; in one case 5000%. The denial by major corporations of damage to, or risk of damage to populations and land near facilities, are uncomfortably frequent, and frequently wrong, and sometimes shielded by federal law. There has been a notable increase in all kinds of assaults on people of another race, creed, or national origin. There has been an increase in mass shootings. The is little if any trust in social institutions, including the church. It seems that every day we hear one more story of one more way in which our social fabric is fraying. The strong covenantal attachments to family, community, creed, and faith, on which our social institutions of democracy and capitalism that celebrated liberty and individual rights stand, have greatly diminished. Racial essentialists, tribalism, and populism are rising to fill the void (Brooks). It feels as if we are reliving the time of the Judges.

The Book of Judges is between the story Exodus, the wilderness wanderings, and Joshua’s conquest of Canna and the establishment of the Kingdoms of Israel beginning with Saul and David. In it, we read tales of heroes, political attacks, and horrific images of a society in chaos (Sakenfeld). Each story follows the same cycle.

  • Israel does what is “evil in the eyes of the Lord”
  • Yahweh allows Israel to be oppressed by one or another neighbor
  • When things get bad enough, Israel repents, or at least claims she has, and calls on God for help
  • God raises up a judge to deal with the mess and finally
  • A time of stability and peace follows.

Some of the most familiar biblical heroes are found in the Book of Judges including Gideon and Samson. It is story after story of political opportunism, and domestic warfare. Through it, we catch a glimpse of the difficulties of life for the Israelites in their attempt to settle in Canaan and their desire to create a common identity (Sakenfeld). Because it was written in a time of captivity, probably in Babylon, it also reflects the struggles of a people without a land, without a king, without a political or religious center, and without control over events that affect their daily life (Sakenfeld).

This morning we read the first 7 verses of the story of Deborah, who is a prophetess judging, or settling disputes, for Israel (Gaventa and Petersen; Olson). For the first time, Israel is facing an internal enemy from Canna (Olson). We hear her call Barak to assemble the militias from Naphtali and Zebulun, to go out against King Jabin and his commander Sisera, with those 900 chariots of iron, at Mount Tabor, and that they will be delivered into his hands (Gaventa and Petersen). And here ends the reading, ~ but not the story.

The story continues with Barak bargaining; he will go, but only if Deborah goes with him. It may be an act of cowardice or a gracious, insistent invitation to Deborah. We cannot know, nonetheless, she agrees, and the story continues (Olson). Sisera hears that Barak has assembled his forces and goes to meet them with his 900 high tech chariots (Olson). Barak goes down from Mount Tabor with his ten thousand soldiers, or ten military units, and the LORD mysteriously throws Sisera and his forces into a confused panic, rather like the Egyptians at the Red Sea (Gaventa and Petersen; Harrelson; Olson). The chariot army is routed and Sisera flees on foot. With this victory, Barak could also be the Judge of Israel.

Heber is a Kenite, a descendant of Moses’ father in law, who might have been there because of the Kenites’ skill in working with iron(Gaventa and Petersen). He has left his tribe and is camped near Kedesh (Olson). Sisera goes there. Only Heber isn’t there, so, against all social customs, his wife Jael greets him, provides him hospitality, a drink of milk, and a place to sleep. Leaving Jael on guard, Sisera falls deeply asleep. Only he doesn’t wake up because Jael drives a tent stake through his temple. Causing Sisera’s death may make Jael Israel’s judge.

Jael’s action reflects the actions of prior judges: Ehud kills Israel’s oppressor, King Eglon, through deceit and with his left hand. He also offers a tribute to gain favor, and Shamgar made a weapon out of an ox-goad, which is a farming implement to guide oxen pulling a cart (Olson). Jael’s and Deborah’s strong leadership and courageous actions follow the examples of 17 other strong women in Judges (Olson). Barak’s victory is a reflection, of the other victories that brought freedom to Israel.

Some observations of all this. We need not be forced to choose between Deborah, Barak, or Jael as Judge over Israel. It is reasonable to see how all three judge Israel at the same time (Olson). This story shows God’s ability to work in complex systems, and a leadership team, in that day, of a woman, a man, and a gentile is complex (Olson). Jael’s action breaks the peace treaty between the Kenites and Canna and the tradition of hospitality to strangers. It is a similar story to Moses Killing the Egyptian overseer; both raise hard moral questions, and neither story answers them (Olson).

Some thoughts. This story and the Book of Judges, as a whole, as do many other stories and books in the Bible, assure us we are not the first people to find ourselves in troubled times. Here Israel is having trouble establishing functioning social norms that strong social institutions can be built on. Our social norms have largely fallen out of acceptance and we are struggling to establish new norms, which may include parts of the old ones, but also, must include new or revised norms.

It is possible some very violent actions may be required for our covenant attachments to be re-forged. But, we must never presume that such violence is endorsed or awarded by God; biblical silence on the morality of such action is not divine approval. Moreover, there is the risk that wide use of such violence gets built into covenant attachments and then violence becomes an accepted tool of social institutions.

In The Book of Judges, the health and well-being of women is an important measure of the core health and values of their society (Olson). In the gospels we witness that this measure includes children, the sick, the poor, those oppressed in any way, and outsiders. A way of knowing how well we are developing new covenant attachments is too honestly test how many groups of people are marginalized by whatever system of identifying groups of others we may come up with. In other words, do not survey the 80% in the middle, survey the 15% at the bottom of any social scale, there you will find the truth.

What I have come to is: yes – we do live in days of difficult transitions. They may even be dark days. However, as disciples, as followers of the Risen Christ, Son of the Living God, we know we are not the first, and because we know story of those who preceded us, we know we are not alone.

It is as Dennis Olson writes:

In the end, God’s will for the world will prevail, but God also makes adjustment to human freedom and actions along the way. As the people of God, we can be confident that God is at work in and through our lives and communities to accomplish God’s will, even when we may be unaware. Indeed, God may work through outsiders or those on the margin of our community in ways we would never expect (Olson).

I’ll go one further; you/we may never expect how God is working through you; how God is working in us; right here, right now.

AMEN


References

Brooks, David. “Our Elites Still Don’t Get It.” 17 11 2017. NYTimes.com. <nytimes.com /2017/11/16/opinion/elites-taxes-republicans-congress.html>.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Kaiser, Walter C. New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary The Book of Leviticus. Vol. I. Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. Olivetree App.

Olson, Dennis T. New Interpreter’s Bible The Book of Judges. Ed. Leander E. Keck. Vol. II. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001. XII vols. OliveTree App.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Choosing to Serve

A Sermon for Proper 27; Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25, Psalm 78:1-7, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Matthew 25:1-13

Loyalty can be a fickle and funny thing. I have a friend who is a dedicated Razorback fan; there is no such thing as too much Razorback red. However, he has been very disappointed with the performance of the football team over the last few years, so … he has put his Razorback red slacks in the closet until there are some leadership changes. At the moment, my favorite loyalty image is a commercial. A couple is leaving to go to her parents’ house and she tells him he cannot wear that Raiders’ shirt. So, he takes it off, revealing the Raiders’ sweater that is underneath. The next scene is around her family dinner table. He in his Raiders sweater, with those little l-e-d blinking lights that go all around like that; and she and all her family, including the dog, are in Kansas City Chiefs’ apparel. It ends with her asking him “Can you at least turn the lights off?”

This morning we hear the story of Joshua challenging Israel to choose who they will be loyal to. For some background information; ‘Joshua’ means Yahweh delivers. He was born in Egypt and became Moses’ high minister. He was one of the twelve spies that Moses sent to explore Canaan, and along with Caleb gives the only positive report. The other ten are focused on the numerous people, and their fearsome warriors. As we head a couple of weeks ago, just before his death Moses anoints Joshua to be his divinely appointed successor.

Now Joshua was given 2 missions. He is to lead Israel as they conquer the people who occupy Canaan. He is also to allocate the land among the tribes (Olson). Israel crosses the Jordan River to begin their mission, Joshua circumcises all the people and observes the Passover. Then he leads Israel to victory over six nations and 31 kings; though he does not completely conquer all Canaan’s previous occupants. Joshua dies at the age of 110, and is buried in Timnath-serah (Easton). Much like our reading a couple of weeks ago, this is a transition story. As Israel prepares to take possession the promised land, he asks them to recommit to following God. It is a cleaver challenge. He reviews Israel’s history:

  • all the way from Abraham,
    (and in verses we do not read)
  • through Egypt,
  • through the wilderness wanderings,
  • the blessing curse of Balaam,
  • the fall of Jericho, and
  • the victories over the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites,

and then he tells them choose this day the god you will serve; and immediately he pledges himself and his family (which may include his tribe) to serve the LORD.

Israel replies We also will serve the Lord, for he is our God. This is not the choice we think we hear. There is no individual aspect to it. ‘Loyalty’ is probably not a strong enough word. There is an element of unease because this pledge is grounded in reverence to and dependence on their relationship with their lord and master (Coote). ‘Lord meaning king not necessarily god; but it is that dependent relationship.

After 25 years Israel is victorious, so why is there a need for the challenge to choose who Israel will serve? Well it turns out there is real risk. Doug Bratt notes Israel is in a

strange land whose ways prove to be attractive to her. Canaan’s women are beautiful, and her gods seem powerful (Bratt).

If Israel is distracted and forgets the Lord, they will lose the gift of the Land. Israel’s history is full of apostacy and idolatry. They apparently assume that they can serve Yahweh and other gods at the same time. They have worshipped gods from Mesopotamia, Egypt, Shechem, of the Amorites and the Baals (Coote). Joshua’s challenge forces Israel to answer serious questions:

  • Who are these foreign gods?
  • What old gods do we need to leave behind?
  • What are the consequences of leaving one or many gods to follow a different vision of the divine? And Yahweh is a different vision of the divine.
  • Do they have a reality apart from the one true God?

Joshua challenges the easy relativism of being loyal to God and (quietly) honoring other gods, that come up at any of the moment, or happen to be of the land, or perhaps an idea, or some convenient product (Epperly). The challenge reminds Israel their victories were never the results of their superiority, their sincerity, their faithfulness, or their obedience; their victories were solely dependent upon God. Likewise, their future is solely dependent on God’s faithfulness, mercy, powerful word, and the transformation of their hearts (Olson).

In the exuberance of going into the promised land the people choose.

Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord

…. who did those great signs in our sight,

protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed,

who drove out before us all the peoples who lived in the land.

Therefore, we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.

Now, if it were me, I’d say “Great, well done!” But that is why Joshua is the leader. He declares You cannot serve the Lord! He knows it is important for them to realize the danger that they are in if they make the pledge to serve God and then fail to do it (Gaventa and Petersen). And the people hear him, and they proclaim No, we will serve the Lord!

Their pledge to serve God is sealed with the declaration that they are witnesses against themselves. This is not witnesses as in a court room, this is witnessing a legal document. That sealing also includes a large stone as the second witness against them. Israel’s agreeing to serve the Lord has a familiar sound to it. We have heard it before. It echoes a similar pledge at Sinai, a pledge that they rather quickly forgot (Olson). It is also similar to the local Hittite or ruler – subject/slave treaty, in terms of form and how it is put together, so they are already drawing from customs of the surrounding area. (Keener and Walton).

The idea of renewing a pledge to serve or to follow is a part of many Christian worship services, including ours. Every we recite the Nicene or some similar Creed, which is a statement of our faith. But to make a declaration of faith in God/Jesus/Spirit is also to make a declaration to serve or follow (Bratt).

Pledging to serve or follow God may resonate with a political pledge, but there are differences, especially in the US. ‘The people’ in this story is not same as ‘We the People’ of our Constitution. We are culturally and politically different than the people of Israel (Coote). As the ancient peoples did we also understand our faith in the context of our social and political order. As a nation we value individualism, and that is a part of our western culture. The way in which we pledge allegiance to the flag is a part of the cultural context in which we reaffirm our beliefs set forth in the Nicene Creed, and it influences how we understand it. And here we see how Joshua’s challenge is important to us today, just as it was then.

We can simplify Joshua’s challenge to asking ourselves “What other gods are in our world?” The list includes several political, social, economic, cosmic, or other ideologies that shape how we are in relationship with each other individually, locally, nationally, and internationally, and how we behave in those relationships. I can see how some people follow one or more of these other gods, because those gods these ideologies are the source, the primary values behind all of their decisions, that drive how they behave and their relationships with other people, and thus, thus these ideologies become the object of worship. Joshua’s warning does not eliminate wisdom from other sources nor other cultures. It does require an adaption, it requires that such wisdom or knowledge be seen and understood through the lens of God/Jesus/Spirit. The notion of purity in this morning collect is not freedom from moral defect. It is about the relationship that comes first in our lives. In the end it does not matter if you wear your Razorback Red slacks or your flashing Raiders sweater. What matters

  • is does your relationship with God/Jesus/Spirit come first?
  • is your relationship with God/Jesus/Spirit the determining factor in how you treat other people and all of creation?

How it does is a part of the wisdom by which we are able to recognize our hope and our inheritance as children of God and heirs of eternal life.


References

Bratt, Doug. Proper 27 A Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25. 12 11 2017. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Coote, Robert B. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary Joshua. Ed. Leander E. Keck (NIBC) Deuteronomy 34. Vol. II. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols.

Easton, Matthew George. “Joshua.” Easton’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary. WORDsearch Corp. n.d.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 12 11 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

Kent, Dan Gentry. “Joshua.” Holman Bible Dictionary. Ed. Trent C. Butler. Prod. Holman Bible Publishers. n.d.

Olson, Dennis. Commentary on Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25. 12 11 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

 

Help From the Saints of Ages Past

A sermon for All Saints: Revelation 7:9-17, Psalm 34:1-10, 22,  1 John 3:1-3, Matthew 5:1 -12  

In some circles there is a conversation about how our times may be something of another reformation. Writers, like Phyllis Tickle, point out that about every 500 years or so the church, if not the whole world, goes through an emergent transformation, or sudden explosive evolution that follows a long period of very gradual change (Tickle). And yes, I know the reformed churches celebrated the 500th anniversary of The Reformation last week. But hang with me, because in the end, it is all the saints.

Ross Douthart suggest that neither the Protestants nor the Roman Catholic Church won the bitter wars of The Reformation. He says it was the Machiavellians, the Westerners, who wanted political and economic life set free from the meddling of troublesome priests and turbulent prophets, who have prevailed. Their new gods of the market, capitalism, and strong central states have brought us a more orderly, rational and wealthier world. But this transformation came with a cruelty, and repression and secular inquisitions that made the original look tame (Douthart). 

For centuries our view of this Machiavellian world was a story of freedom. 

We lived in stable communities where people earned a decent living. They had family living close by. They could expect to work in the same line of business all their life, buy and embellish their own home, and enjoy a few years of respectable retirement. Free education meant that if their children did well they could make a better life for themselves, near or far (Brooks, Politics).

But over time power, privilege, and prejudice were dismantled by technology, globalization, and finance. And then came Sept 11 and seven years later the 2008 financial crash. They revealed the second story in which we began to see that the liberation of technology, globalization, and high finance in reality made slaves of us all. We want to rebel against our slavery. We see the flaws in our myth of freedom, but our very identities are bound to it and we are surprised that we cannot let it go. We are disappointed to realize our freedom story is false. Samuel Wells writes that we are also surprised  when we recognize the slave story, is also false (Wells).
The Machiavellian victory in the Reformation wars has also lead us into the practice of idolatry. As long as the freedom story held, our idolatry was hidden from us. But as it crashed, and we were left 

without stable families, tight communities, stable careers, ethnic roots or an enveloping moral culture. [What we were left with] is just a whirl of changing stepfathers, changing homes, changing phone distractions, changing pop-culture references, financial stress and chronic drinking, [all of] which make it harder to sink down roots into something, or to even have a spiritual narrative that gives meaning to life.

With the failure of both the myths of Western Liberalism and of Neo-Conservatism many people turned to  an alternative populist political myth. However, just as technology, globalization, and high finance make ever increasing demands of us, political populism does too. At first the demands are reasonable  because we believe in the benefits of what we are being offered. When the benefits fail, and we realize that we are being controlled, we find ourselves enmeshed in idolatry. We are now being controlled by what we believed would bring us freedom. David Brooks writes

If [our] politics are going to get better we need better myths, unifying ones that are built on social equality… [it cannot] be fixed by political means. It needs repair of the deeper communal bonds (Brooks, Politics).

Douthart goes on to speculate that if the church had remained united it

might have served as a stronger moral check on the new powers, a stronger countervailing force against greed and secular absolutism.

He sees in all the

pan-national institutions, [like the] United Nations … European Union [and all] NGOs, a kind of ecclesiastical power, a churchlike form of sovereignty, on the basis of thinner, less dogmatic but still essentially metaphysical ideas — the belief in human dignity and human rights.

But he concedes that we recognize that they are a “thin vail over a dark power” (Douthart).
Curiously enough Neither Douthart, Brooks nor Wells is pessimistic. Brooks writes we need a counter moral vision and he thinks the America’s traditional biblical ethic is still lurking somewhere in the national DNA (Brooks, Week). Douthart notes we do not know the ending of our saga. And Wells ponders:

Are we going to allow ourselves to be possessed by pernicious and deceitful powers? Or will we discipline ourselves through obedience and thus allow ourselves to be owned by the truly liberating spirit of grace?
And thus, we arrive at the saints.

In the wonderful hymn I Sing a Song of the Saints of God we hear how God asks ordinary people do extraordinary things:

by letting our light shine so that our world may know that God is alive, 

by seeking beauty, healing, and justice in our midst,

by aspiring toward holiness

by being a person of stature, grace, and hospitality, sharing God’s healing love and 

by breaking down barriers of race, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality,

all of it throughout the ordinary business of everyday life  (Epperly). We can take offour Halloween masks and be who are called to be (Knowle-Zeller).
We are not the first community to be divided by the choices of a turbulent emergent future. John the Elder’s community is divided. They are separated from society and have an us-against-them mentality (Black). John tries to remind them they have good reason to hold on because they have experienced the truth of living in the presence of the risen Christ and the creator God (West). He reminds them that justice (1 John 2:29) and purity (1 John 3:3) are a response to God’s prior action not a precondition of grace. They are called to, and they can, go into a future shaped by Jesus’ death and resurrection, by which they can withstand uncertainty and loss, even death, with vigor and hope, because they are already children of God (Black).

There is a similar conflict in the community of John of Revelation. The Emperor’s cult is a significant challenge to the early Christian community, costing some their lives. Moreover, there is a division about accepting Gentiles into their community (Kiel). Revelation is realistic in its concern with power and the exercise of power, both in the divine way and in opposition to it (Rowland). It also provides a glimpse of the future  that is built upon the past, but one that also carves new channels for God’s activity and interaction with humanity (Kiel). It is not easy route. It does not mean there will be no suffering (Gaventa and Petersen). It does mean the faithful witness of the great multitude can be the vocations of others, including John’s community, including us. Witnessing against the beast, refusing to compromise, and espousing the way of the Lamb includes many who never “named the name” of Jesus but who lived and live lives that continued in the way of the Lamb. They are also, and will be, included in that great multitude of “All Saints” (Rowland).
The stories of the saints of ages past show us the road we have to travel, and the challenges we will face, but they also the strength that has already given to us as children of God. We do not know the ending of our saga. But we can trust the biblical story. We can discipline ourselves, we can draw confidence from the grace and power of the resurrected Jesus, that enables us to take off our masks, to honor one another, to work together to tend to creation, to the earth, and all humanity (Gen 1:26). We can mold the shape of our nation’s and world’s defining myth, which is grounded not in slavery, nor in freedom, nor in the allure of technology, globalization, and high finance, nor political populism, but in the grace and power of God, because we are the blessed Children of God.

References

Black, C. Clifton. “The First, Second, and Third Letters of John (NIBC) 2 Peter 3:17.” Keck, Leander. THE NEW INTERPRETER’S BIBLE COMMMENTARY (NIBC) Galatians 6:18. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015.

Brooks, David. “The Week Trump Won.” 26 10 2017. newyorktimes.com. <https://nyti.ms/2yQclxS&gt;.

—. “When Politics Becomes Your Idol.” 30 10 2017. nytimes.com. <nytimes.com /2017/10/30/opinion/when-politics-becomes-your-idol.html>.

Douthart, Ross. “Who Won the Reformation?” 1 11 2017. nytimes.com /2017/11/01/opinion/protestant-reformation.html. <nytimes.com /2017/11/01/opinion/protestant-reformation.html>.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 6 9 2015. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Kiel, Micah D. Commentary on Revelation 7:9-17. 5 11 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Knowle-Zeller, Kimberly. “Wearing masks.” 31 10 2017. episcopalcafe.com. <https://www.episcopalcafe.com/?s=Wearing+masks&dSozmAkhgHvNE=Dv%5BkXI1%40B6.x8&jdtlMgxFsTviCbzV=U%5DSRdm2Tt1HV8vnX&gmxBluobUAyHNiqk=859Uj3OR%40%5BLdnfNo&AQiKFeghfLnTywR=%5BKsINqyVHek*%40mM&gt;.

Rowland, Christopher C. “Revelation.” Keck, Leander. The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary. Vol. X. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. X vols.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Tickle, Phyllis. Emergence Christianity. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008.

Wells, Samuel. “Two stories that define our world.” 31 10 2017. christiancentury.org. <christiancentury.org /article/faith-matters/two-stories-define-our-world>.

West, Audrey. Commentary on 1 John 3:1-3. 5 11 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.