The Adventurous Lectionary – November 8, 2020 – Pentecost 23
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; Psalm 78:1-7; I Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13
What does it mean to be a monotheist? What does it mean to believe in God, especially when many conservative Christians have embraced Christian nationalism and elevated Donald Trump to be defender of Christianity? What are the practical implications of following the One True God rather than the many deities of our own creation? The objects of our faith, what Paul Tillich describes as our “ultimate concern,” shape our character and relationships with others. Believing in God isn’t enough; the type of God who commands our loyalty – our vision of God – may be a matter of life and death. More important than the question “do you believe in God?” is “what kind of God do you believe in?”
Theological reflection, accordingly, is essential to the life of faith as a way of affirming healthy images of God and challenging unhealthy images of God and the values they promote.
Put away the gods of old! Move from the many to the One, serve the one God alone, Joshua commands.
Leave your old haunts, as Abraham and Sarah did, and discover a new God, the one true God, a god of sufficient size to embrace the whole universe and not just the land upon which you live.
Joshua’s warlike/nationalist god was sufficient for his people, but perhaps too small for us in a pluralistic age. Though universal, the One God was still too closely aligned with the projects of the Hebraic people. The One God of their faith had clear favorites and was indifferent, if not harmful, to other peoples, most particularly the Canaanites. We need bigger images of God than nationalistic and militaristic visions that inspired our Hebrew parents. Still, Joshua raises some important theological issues: Who are these foreign gods? Do they have a reality apart from the one true God? What are the consequences of leaving one or many gods to follow a different vision of the divine? What old gods do we need to leave behind – even Christian images of God – to be faithful to the Holy One? (These questions might be too complex and subtle or a twenty minute sermon, but they would be great for an adult faith formation class or sermon talk back.)
Paul Tillich saw our god-visions in terms of our ultimate concern, that is, what we are willing to live or die for, the primary objects of our loyalty. What we worship and treasure shapes our character. Anything that demands exclusivity or primacy focuses our spirit. Placing the one God above all others orders our lives and enables us to live globally as well as locally, transcending the individual ego in light of larger visions. Yet, exclusivity can also lead to violence and displacement as it did in the Israelite occupation of Canaan. Joshua demands a choice. There is no “cheap grace” here; following your god’s path is not optional, and there are consequences to serving the “wrong” deities. There are Christians today who believe that their way is the only way, and deem those who differ as heretics or immoral.
The passage from Joshua challenges an easy pluralism or laissez faire relativism. It also challenges the parochial and materialistic gods of our culture and the “practical polytheism” of following the gods of the moment, including the gods of consumerism, nationalism, and ideology. Following one God requires a type of faithful – albeit open-spirited – commitment to a particular vision of reality and way of life that may be at cross purposes from the values of other religious traditions. All religions are not alike, nor do all roads lead to the same destination. Nor should we follow any politician without reservations. Further, some visions of God are healthier and more insightful than others. In a pluralistic age, we can incorporate the wisdom of other religious traditions, but still we must choose to see Christ as the lens through which we encounter other faiths and their spiritual practices. This does not preclude Christians practicing yoga, reiki, tai chi, or Buddhist meditation. It does challenge us to integrate these practices with our Christian commitments and fidelity to Christ. (For more on such integration, see Bruce Epperly, The Energy of Love: Reiki and Christian Healing and Bruce and Katherine Epperly, Reiki Healing Touch and the Way of Jesus.)
Like Joshua, the Psalmist sees our faithfulness as grounded in remembering what God has done and trusting what God will do in the future.
The reading from Thessalonians is about hope, not world-destroying apocalyptic. Death and grief were real in the early church just as they are today. Denial is not the answer, nor is the suppression of our pain. Healthy grief comes from a vision of reality in which we affirm that our times are in God’s hands and that nothing can separate us from the love of God. We can grieve, cry, yell, and swear, knowing that God is with us, treasuring our feelings and memory of those we loved. Moreover, the future is in God’s hands; the end of the world as we know it is the prelude to God’s everlasting adventures.
Most of our congregants are not focused on an apocalyptic Second Coming or the rapture of the saints in the air. Those doctrines have left in their wake injustice and ecological destruction, and turning heavenward while abandoning the earth to the “powers and principalities,” the forces of evil in high governmental, business, and political places. We need to be both heavenly minded and earthly good.
The story of the vice and foolish bridesmaids, found in Matthew 25, counsels preparation and wakefulness. We never know when the bridegroom will come, that is, we never know when we will be called upon to respond to God’s call. The vagueness of Messianic appearances is good, a rather than bad, news. Vagueness inspires us to see every encounter as holy, an opportunity to love God by loving God’s children. God is always coming to us: we don’t have to wait for a God-directed end-times scenario to experience God’s presence.
The passage, however, begs the questions: Would sharing among the maidens have been possible? How would this story differ if the maidens shared their resources or invited their companions to join them in the vigil? The point of the story is awareness of God’s coming into our lives, but we need not imitate the insider-outsider aspects of the story. God’s coming into our lives awakens our charity for others, even those who are ill-prepared for divine visitations.
Faithfulness to the wisdom of God found in our faith is life-transforming. Still, our commitment should foster what philosopher Alfred North Whitehead described as world-loyalty and not parochial in-group, out-group attitudes and behaviors. Following the One God may be the greatest inspiration to look beyond our own ego-interests, mean-spirited patriotisms and ideologies, to seek the well-being of God’s creation and humankind in all times and places.
Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of over fifty books including PROCESS THEOLOGY AND POLITICS; FAITH IN A TIME OF PANDEMIC; HOPE BEYOND PANDEMIC; GOD ONLINE: A MYSTIC’S GUIDE TO THE INTERNET; and PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S VISION OF CONTEMPLATIVE ACTIVISM.