The Adventurous Lectionary – Pentecost 14 – August 22, 2021
I Kings 8:22—30, 40-41; Psalm 84; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69
We live in a dark and yet wondrous time. A time of pandemic resurgence, the big election lie and the attempt to overturn the election, incivility, and the politicization and violence surrounding vaccinations and mask mandates. Frankly, a good portion of our nation appears to have gone mad, seduced by superficial understandings of freedom and misinformation regarding science, not to mention political demagoguery. Sadly, much of this incivility and dishonesty is coming from segments of the Christian community who identify Jesus with anti-science, anti-mask, and a rugged individualism contrary to the teachings of Jesus and the prophets.
Yet in the darkness, our faith reveals that the eye begins to see, as poet Theodore Roethke asserted. We need to face the challenges of our time with spiritual integrity and trust in the unwavering grace of God. We need to surround ourselves and the threats that face us and our planet with deep and abiding prayer. We can’t make it on our own, but we can trust God and then go to work to save those parts of the world where we have responsibility. We can claim our role as God’s companions in healing the earth without demonizing those with whom we disagree.
In the reading from I Kings 8, Solomon rejoices in bringing the Ark of the Covenant to the temple. Yet his rejoicing is tempered. The Temple is finite, God is infinite. The Temple can be identified with nation alone, yet foreigners are also God’s beloved. When we would privilege our religious practices, Solomon reminds us, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” God is always more than our theologies, sanctuaries, doctrines, and traditions.
Solomon prays to an all-embracing God whose glory includes stranger as well as friend. God hears the prayers of the foreigner, for known or unknown, God’s care includes the outsider as well as our kinfolk. In these times of xenophobia and incivility, grounded in binary and authoritarian understandings of God, politics, and revelation, we need to hear and respond to these words of inclusion. God loves all God’s children: undocumented persons and persons illegally crossing our nation’s borders have standing with God. To God, no child or parent is undocumented. Everyone needs to treated with care, individually and corporately. God loves scientists and those who foolishly oppose fact-based science. For those who see God’s realm divided in two kingdoms – individual/church and civil – it is important to note that Solomon’s prayer acknowledges only one kingdom; God’s realm permeates the civil and governmental and our highest values should guide governmental and political as well as personal behavior. While politics involves the use of power, it should always be judged by values of God’s realm. We should seek – with recognition of pluralism and our own limitations – God’s realm on earth as it is in heaven. (See “One World: The Lord’s Prayer from a Process Perspective” and “Process Theology and Politics.”)
Psalm 84 is a hymn to God’s glorious dwelling place, the Jerusalem Temple, and recognition that God’s glory is universal. In this time of pandemic, God is found in our churches and God is also found beyond the church buildings. There are thin places – places where divinity and humanity meet – everywhere.
Ephesians proclaims put on the whole armor of God! Put on God’s armor of light! For a long time, I found this passage too militaristic in tone. Yet, in recent days, I have recognized the need for what William James described as the “moral equivalent of war.” We need to be strong to face the demons within and the demons let loose in our world. We need to pray and also protest. We need to reach out and also make good trouble.
Whether or not you believe in the reality of demonic powers – the powers and principalities of which Walter Wink wrote – there is a “war” out there. You can see the forces of evil forces moving into battle – some with confederate flags, some waging war on women’s equality and marriage equality, some denying or dismissing Pope Francis’ encyclical on global climate change, some separating children from their parents, some railing against a free press and diversity, some threatening scientists, doctors, and educators. Politicians intentionally promote chaos and division, and normalize incivility and dishonesty, and religious leaders are complicit, identifying politicians with God’s will, and placing their political heroes above Jesus. In the gospels, the demons are both internal and external, and they know their enemy much better than those Reinhold Niebuhr described as “the children of light.” Ultimately, the “children of darkness” have as their enemy the pathway of Jesus Christ – the way of healing, hospitality, and Shalom.
We need to recognize the need to protect ourselves from both internal and external forces. Many of us are imprisoned by anxiety, depression, trauma, family of origin issues, and the impact of ritual religious abuse. In the era of national chaos, anxiety and fear are rampant, and the we worry about the fate of the earth along with constitutional protections. The powers that threaten are often greater than we can bear and threaten to undermine our spiritual and emotional integrity. Our only hope in responding to them is found in trusting God for our healing and sustaining and aspiring to live by the highest and best despite the challenges of life. We also need a community to uphold us in prayerful support. No one is ever saved alone. We need a cloud of witnesses, a community of love, to sustain us in life’s challenges. The disciples recognize that in times of crisis, there is nowhere else to go but to God. In times of prayer, worship, and sacrament, we experience the bread of life, able to sustain and guide us in times of trial.
The author of Ephesians focuses on the spiritual/moral virtues as our greatest protection. Often in difficult times, we are tempted to vengeance, self-interest, fear, hatred, greed, and protection. Our souls can easily shrivel in times of personal, relational, and physical challenge. But, in such times, our character and faith are called forth. We need, as Dostoyevsky proclaims, to be worthy of our sufferings. We need to become large souled, world-loyal people, compassionate, yet firm, in times of trial. We need, as a plaque at Kirkridge proclaims, to both picket and pray. Frankl notes that everything can be taken away from a person except one freedom – one’s unique response to life’s challenges. Difficulties do not excuse us from moral greatness. We are largest in stature when we face life’s challenges with love and equanimity and when we challenge the things we cannot accept. On the cross, Jesus forgives his enemies. Their hate cannot determine his response: his love is stronger than their fear, and his grace is stronger than their sin.
In times of trial, we would do well to lean on the words of Martin Luther, “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.” In his lively metaphysic, Luther imagined devils tempting him. He also proclaimed that just one name, “Jesus Christ,” can defeat them. Christ will win the battle, even if our prosperity, good name, and life itself are threatened.
Regardless of our theology, we can recognize the powers of evil. We don’t need to specifically identify their ultimate source to recognize their power to destroy, divide, and create chaos; they are irrational, hateful, yet alluring to some, even seductive to those in power. We need moral strength but more than that we need to throw ourselves upon God, opening to a grace, wisdom, and mercy, greater than our own to get us through. God’s energy of love provides the protection that we need to face, even in all our fear and trembling, panic and trauma, the destructive forces – and dare we say, persons and spirits – of life.
In the Celtic tradition, travelers often began their journey by drawing a circle around themselves and saying a prayer of protection. This prayer of protection reminded them that wherever they went they were surrounded by God’s circle of love. They prayed, in the spirit of Patrick, with the affirmation that Christ is above, beneath, to the right and left, behind and before, and in all that we meet. We can show our congregants the Celtic circle prayer, “caim,” by simply rotating slowly in a circle, and pointing our index finger outward as if to inscribe the circle. This “praying in the Spirit” won’t entirely banish our fears and anxiety; but it will enable us to live with them, trusting God in them. We can be afraid, as a psychiatrist told a child experiencing “night terrors,” but we don’t need to be afraid of being afraid because God – and people who love us are with us.
Bruce Epperly is a pastor, professor, and author of over 60 books including MYSTICS IN ACTION: 12 SAINTS FOR TODAY; PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S VISION OF CONTEMPLATIVE ACTIVISM; WALKING WITH FRANCIS OF ASSISI: FROM PRIVILEGE TO ACTIVISM; PROCESS THEOLOGY AND POLITICS; and GOD ONLINE: A MYSTIC’S GUIDE TO THE INTERNET.