Sunday, November 9, 2014
Texts: Psalm 78; Joshua 24:1-3, 14-25; Matthew 25: 1-13
Today’s Psalm alludes to “dark sayings” from “our ancestors” (Ps. 78: 2). Today’s Gospel reading tells a dark parable about an unforgiving Christ-figure who shuts out the foolish (Mt. 25:10). Today’s Hebrew Bible reading depicts a jealous and unforgiving God (Joshua 24:19). It’s a good thing our children are away on a camping trip with their fathers because, unlike the Psalmist, we may indeed want to “hide [these dark sayings of old] from our children” (Ps. 78:4).
Asking what spiritual heritage we want to pass on to our children is one way to get at the heart of our own spiritual needs, our vision of church, and our understandings of the Bible. Perhaps part of our responsibility as Christians and members of this progressive faith community is to make choices about what we retain from our faith tradition and what we modify or jettison entirely. Because I think we have a choice. Joshua declared: “Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served”or some other god (Joshua 24:15). For Joshua there were many gods from which to choose. (The Hebrew people gradually and inconsistently became monotheistic, and the Bible reflects that uneasy evolution to monotheism along with a persistent tribalism.)
We, too, must choose. The god we have come to understand through the life of Jesus is in some sense different from a devotion to, say, Joshua’s god—or more precisely, one story’s depiction of Joshua’s god.
>“Choose your god,” ordered Joshua. Commanding his people to choose “the Lord,” he reminded them that their ancestors had served other gods at one time. Joshua was looking toward the future—not the past.
We can make this choice, even as Joshua’s people made a choice, by considering both our ancestors’ wisdom and our children’s needs. But to be honest, the God of Joshua who threatens to harm us if we don’t obey him kind of loses some of his appeal for me (Josh 24: 20).
To some degree we are each day choosing our god—choosing what values and dreams and attitudes and devotions will hold sway in our lives. Week after week we gather here with others hoping to make the right choice. And together we support one another in making the right choices for ourselves and those who come after us. We choose for our children and whatever part of humanity’s future we might impact.
You might be wondering if this very story about Joshua and the speech he gave to rally his followers before conquering an indigenous people is a story worth passing on to our children. As you know, this is a speech sometimes used today to rally religious-political allegiance. “Choose this day whom you will serve,” shout the religious and political demagogues. Joshua’s god is mighty in this story. Joshua’s speech is powerful. But neither Joshua nor his god seems very nice. Maybe we should smooth out the rough places in the Bible and eliminate embarrassing stories like this one—and parables like the one of the ten bridesmaids. So should we bequeath to our children and their children only the sanitized Bible where God is always pleased as punch with us?
I think not. The stories that are worth passing along are complicated. We and our children need new stories for a new day. But we also need stories that have stood the test of time, stories textured with layers of history and knotted up with meanings never fully resolvable. Our children need stories that tell them where Christianity and humanity have been and perhaps hint at our future. We and our children need stories that are more artful than morality tales or the latest Law and Order episode. We need stories that can shock us into realizations and shake us out of our complacency, stories that suggest more than they state.
Some people who come to despise Christianity because of flawed people and inconsistent theology within the Good Book don’t seem to understand literature. These folks seem to position themselves as morally superior to the writers and lovers of the Bible because they have discovered—as if it’s a well-kept secret—biblical examples of a God who’s mean and God followers who are meaner.
The stories we tell our children should be permeated with compassion and goodness—but must also hold ambiguity and tension so they can decide for themselves what is right and wise and true. The library of stories and poems and laws and liturgy in the Bible have stood the test of time for this very reason: they are stories to learn by and often they are stories to live by.
Sure, there are biblical stories that are not very, well, biblical. Sure, there are “dark sayings” attributed to Jesus which you know good and well he never said or maybe said when he was sleep-deprived and had left half of his sermon notes at home.
But I think we and our children deserve to hear varied voices in the biblical text. I think we and they can be trusted to test those voices against our own experiences and common sense and modern science and others’ experiences of the sacred—including other religions’ experiences of the sacred.
Frankly, I grow a little tired of the outrage of the newly disenchanted who lift up biblical examples of meanness or theological contradiction or error as if they’re the first to discover these problematic passages. Really? As if Christians have to read this library of ancient stories and poetry and law and liturgy in literal and uncritical ways. Really? Do they not know how literature works?
We need grown-up stories. Maybe we adjust those stories to make them accessible to our children. But we let our children grow up and authorize them to read complicated, nuanced stories that sometimes have no moral center and sometimes merely provoke questions or generate new stories. And we trust the next generation to carry these stories responsibly into the future—praying our stories and theirs serve the future of humanity, trusting that the storytellers are always guided by the Spirit of Life and Love.
Imagine that you and I are tapped one distant day to choose the literature that the remnant of humanity, still alive after some future cataclysm, will carry with them toward a new planetary home. I would recommend that we download the Bible onto the starship’s computer. I’d choose other literature, too, from many cultures, words of beauty and truth to serve the human race in an unknowable future. Surely we’d include the Bible in its entirety, even Joshua 24 and Matthew 25 and Psalm 78 and all the other embarrassing or otherwise disturbing scriptures. Let’s add some commentaries to provide socio-historical-rhetorical-literary perspective. But let’s pack the Bible.
I will hope someone continues to teach our story to our children. And I will hope they will choose to serve the god of Jesus whose ways are revealed within much of that library of books called the Bible—though they may come to know this source of love by other names.
“Choose!”Joshua commanded the Israelites as they moved into the new territory of Canaan—which may have felt as far from Egypt to them as the Alpha Centauri system seems to us. “Choose!” our future calls to us. We cannot make up God as if we are the creator of God. But we do choose our gods when we choose our priorities in our personal and communal lives. We as individuals or as a people might serve the god of war, of wealth, of complacency, of prestige. We are responsible for recognizing the very practical ways our behaviors and ethical commitments reveal what we elevate above all else. Before we make an evolutionary leap, humankind will make billions of little decisions and actions that add up to collective choices toward a more just and loving future—or not.
What parts of the biblical story seem to you especially suited for travel into the future? What parts will have the longest “shelf life”? I’m not asking what are the purest and sweetest and most inoffensive scriptures or images or stories in the Bible. I’m asking what parts of scripture will endure and will help humanity evolve.
Two thousand years ago Paul answered the question of Christianity’s enduring essence this way:
Love never ends. [Love is what will endure.] But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. (I Corinthians 13: 8-13)
What are the stories we want our children to know and live? Today’s psalm announced that we’ll pass down to our children some “dark sayings” (Ps. 78:2) our ancestors have told us. But the Psalm implies we should do so in ways that “set their hope in God” (Ps. 78:7).
PRAYER: Give us your stories, God of Love, and help us live and share them with hope. Amen