The Adventurous Lectionary – November 1, 2020 – Pentecost 22
Joshua 3:7-17; Psalm 1071-7, 33-37; I Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12
On the verge the of USA Election, this Sunday’s scriptures paint a variety of pictures of God’s involvement in the raising up of leaders and in our institutional and corporate decision-making. The Israelites believed in divinely chosen leaders. The idea of divinely-anointed leaders is repugnant to us, especially when church leaders connect divine anointing with narrow political ideologies and morally suspect individuals. As our understandings of God have become more universalist and pluralistic, we must ask: Does our image of God include or exclude those who differ from us, or create the possibility of persecution and genocide or institutional healing and transformation? Does our vision of God shape our vision of leadership in the church, home, and nation? Too often our images of God support authoritarian images of political and domestic leadership, privileging patriarchy and demagoguery.
The reading from Joshua presents a mirror image of the Israelites’ escape from Egypt under Moses’ leadership. It depicts Joshua as a leader, blessed by God with powers similar to his predecessor Moses. In the case of the reading from Joshua 3, God is described as giving Joshua, God’s agent of victory, the power to part the Jordan River enabling the people move forward safely to their new land.
The main difference in the passages, however, involves the intent of both God and Israelites – the crossing of the Red Sea under Moses’ leadership involved liberation from captivity. In contrast, the miraculous crossing of the Jordan, under Joshua, was the prelude to conquest and displacement of the native peoples. No doubt the Israelites, like many before and after them, believed God was on their side and that the enemy – the present occupant – had no right to their homeland.
The twin stories beg the question, “How influential is God on natural processes such as winds and waters? Can God determine cause and effect relationships using certain media as talismans – Moses’ staff or the ark of the covenant? And, if so, why can’t God always effect similar changes in our physical bodies, for example, the eradication of cancer cells or the coronavirus?” Both readings mirror each other in their ruthlessness: the Egyptian soldiers die as the result of surging waters; the Canaanites will soon be victims of Israelite colonization. Does God cause, inspire, or condone such violence? Does God really pick sides in international conflicts? This passage must be read with care and not as a model of displacement or justification of manifest destiny or subjugation of ethnic, racial, and sexual minorities?
Clearly, the God of Israel can do great things and can raise up great leaders. The challenge of this passage is that it encourages nationalistic identifications of our nation’s projects with God’s will. Passages such as this have been used as weapons of war and genocide throughout the centuries. They assume God has a preferential option for some peoples and is hell-bent on destroying others. We can see this in the behavior of ISIS and al Qaeda, and in our own nation-first policy that assumes our way is the right way and that might makes right. We see it Christian nationalism and dominion theologies. Historically, we can also see this in the conquest of the Americas, the Crusades, and southern Africa by those who presumed they were instruments of God’s will.
Passages such as this, as well as the destruction of Jericho and the ensuing bloodlust, need to be used with caution and criticism. We might consider the story from the point of view of the Canaanites as well as the Israelites. How would they have recounted these events? Would they have invoked God’s blessing on the wars that ensued? Did their defeats create a crisis of faith in relationship to the gods they worshipped?
The litany from Psalm 107 proclaims the goodness of God and reminds us that God’s steadfast love endures forever. The Psalmist believes that God is ultimately on our side – and the extent “our” is debatable in this passage – and that God will provide what we need for safety, well-being, and spiritual flourishing. To be meaningful today, this passage must be both individualized and universalized. God wants my flourishing and the flourishing of my family; God also wants all creation to flourish, including people of other nations. This passage encourages, then, an ethic of flourishing in which we seek the well-being of all God’s beloved. Abundant life is for all creation, and not just my immediate kin.
The passage from I Thessalonians raises two important points, as I see it. First, in response to hearing God’s word diligently preached, we are called to “lead a life worthy of God.” Embracing God’s good news in Jesus involves the whole of our lives – body, mind, and spirit. It involves a transformed mind (Romans 12:2) and transformed actions, and faith active in love for each other. As Paul says to the Galatians, the choice is clear: we can live by the egocentric ways of the flesh or the open-hearted ways of the spirit. One way emphasizes self and its well-being; the other path embraces the well-being of others as well as my needs. Our care for each other is the fullest demonstration of God’s grace toward humankind. In light of the story of Joshua and the Israelites, what would it mean for our nation and its leaders to live lives worthy of God? On the eve of the USA election, we need to ask, how does a worthy life shape our political involvement?
Despite the fact that many Christians see biblical ethics as primarily personal, authentic biblical ethics – and the passage in I Thessalonians – guides and challenges corporate behavior as well as individual actions.
The second important point is the identification of the evangelists’ words with God’s word. This may strike many preachers as hubris. How many of us would say, “The word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers?” Do we assume to be speaking “God’s word” from our pulpits? This sounds too fundamentalist and too authoritarian for most progressive preachers. Yet, we must be open to God’s word speaking and working through us, if God is truly omnipresent and constantly presenting us with insights and intuitions. We can be the voice of God, in all humility, to one another. Given that, we need to take our preaching seriously. Good – and sometimes bad – preaching changes lives. Our congregants’ lives can be transformed – persons can experience new hope – as a result of the interplay of the Spirit’s guidance and a well-thought-out preached word. Perhaps the author of I Thessalonians is not suggesting perfection or an absolute correspondence of his word with God’s intent, but rather the ability to align oneself with God in such a way that one’s words reveal God’s life-transforming message.
The reading from I Thessalonians and Matthew 23 mirror each other. In the case of Jesus’ description of the religious leaders, their errors come from separating themselves from others, and from claiming a special position in relationship with God, and assuming a type of authority that is beyond human reach. What they preach, they don’t practice. They need, as the Quakers say, to let their lives speak. Even when we share God’s good news, we need to share it with humility and for the well-being of others and not our self-aggrandizement or ego-boosting. We are mere mortals, and yet we have been entrusted with God’s message. God’s message joins, rather than separates us, from others, binding us together in brokenness and healing. We can as Thessalonians and the words of Jesus suggest mediate God’s good news through words of wisdom and love, and this should be our goal, whether teaching, preaching, or sharing with one another. Our lives – as well as our words – are our testimony and we pastors and the congregations we lead are called to live worthy of God and preach worthy of the grace we have received.
Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of over 50 books including PROCESS THEOLOGY AND POLITICS, HOPE BEYOND PANDEMIC, GOD ONLINE: A MYSTIC’S GUIDE TO THE INTERNET, and PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S CONTEMPLATIVE ACTIVISM.