Sermon, 11/9/20: Decision Making 101: An Introductory Course in Choosing (The Right) Side

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23 Pentecost

Ps. 78:1 – 7; Joshua 24:1 – 3A, 14 -25; I Thessalonians 4:13 – 18; Matthew 25:1 – 13

But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. Joshua 24:15b

 

This week I had a personal debate with myself, whether I should not declare the 23 Sunday after Pentecost a CEB Personal Holiday.  After all, since our bishop, our governor and the mayor of the City of Somerville proclaimed mandates against in-person worship, since Sunday, 13 March, I have not taken a day away from those concerns under which we all live daily, and still with no end in sight: anxiety, feelings of isolation not only from family in distant places, but also from friends, colleagues, and the familiar stranger, like me, hidden behind a face-covering, not hearing in person the beautiful, up-lifting music in our sanctuary.

Further, like many of you, I have not been immune from the stress and uncertainty of our national election and the aftermath of contemplating how best to heal our divisions.  And, then I had before me a full day of a virtual Diocesan Convention, on a day when often I am putting my thoughts for Sunday to paper.

But then something happened on my way to declaring a CEB Personal Holiday.  But then I read the lectionary for today: the Old Testament prophet Joshua and parable of the kingdom by Jesus, this time described in terms of bridesmaid, caught my attention.  And I had to ask myself what in the world, aside from experienced and written in two quite distinct eras, did these two readings have in common, that they would be aligned to each other?  Where was the connection?

My immediate and only conclusion, to give away the outline of my homily, is that both have to deal with decision-making and taking on the responsibilities resulting from that decision.  And should you fear that I am about to speak about the politics of our election process, I say promptly: Fear not.  For that I refer you to the professional on TV and in our printed media, whose job it is to inform you.  I have directed my thoughts to something that, in its essence, takes priority over politics.

How often did I hear as boy at Mass the phrase: “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord,” as rendered by Joshua?  Maybe it was the poetic ring of the phrase or maybe it was the clarity and certainty, with which Joshua spoke, that has caused this sentence to be the reason that I felt caused to the Priesthood.  I do not know for sure.  But it is and has always been the determining factor behind my Weltanschauung, as we say in German, or my worldview.  Basic to Joshua’s declaration stands a relationship that precedes any political debate, a relationship and an expectation, on which everything else in the created world rests.

To anyone who takes an interest in politics, it becomes clear that our forebears were not without choice.  Yet, voter votedI maintain to you today, that my sermon is not about politics, but about something more fundamental.  What gives meaning to our earthly existence and how do we express that power in our lives?  The question has always been: Which of the choices is the right one, and why.  Prophets who succeeded Joshua have offered their terminology, their world view, their vision of the path to God, the basis for all our actions.  However, Joshua lays out for the Israelites their history and choices for the future.  Joshua did not proclaim out of a void or vacuum.

 

 

There were competing loyalties:

  1. a) a life and an obedience to the gods beyond the Euphrates;
  2. b) a life and an obedience to the gods of the Amorites, where they now found themselves; or
  3. c) a life and an obedience to Yahweh, the god of Abraham, Sarah and Isaac, who describes himself simply as “I am that I am.” No golden image, no statuary of any sort; rather an all-present, all-knowing, an intangible, but still-in-the-midst-of- things God, who defines confinement, who defies definitions, a God whose will passes our understanding. The laws of Moses and the Summary of the Laws of Jesus can be seen as the bookends of what Joshua lays out for those of his generation.

That brings me to the gospel appointed for this day.  It is one which is one usually associated with the liturgical season of Advent.  And even in this season of Pentecost, as I read this gospel, those beautiful Advent hymns “Sleepers, wake! A voice astounds us, the shout of rampart guards surrounds us;” (Hymn 61) sung to the majestic music of J.S. Bach, and Hymn 640 “Watchman, tell us of the night, what its signs of promise are.”

That we should hear this gospel lesson at this time late in post-Pentecost caused me this week to think about it in a different light.  More specifically, reading it now caused me to think of the Lord’s Prayer, which you and I pray not only in a Eucharistic setting, but also almost every time when we celebrate joys or feel distressed or mourn a loss.   This prayer is the great unifier among Christians of many stripes and flavors.  Even now, decades since 1967 after my ordination to the Diaconate and my immediate departure that summer for Vienna, Austria, where under the auspices of the World Council of Church and the Archdiocese of Vienna, I participated for two months in an ecumenical gathering of young women and men from such places as Czechoslovakia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Great Britain, Africa, the United States, and Sweden.  No matter our weariness at the close of very active and tiring assignment during the day, coupled with a report on those assignments, we closed each day with a recitation of “the Lord’s Prayer,” each in his/her tongue.

And these recollection have, in turn, caused me to imagine what a conversation between Jesus and his chosen band might sound like in a 21st Century jargon.

Disciples: Hey, Master, teach us to pray. 

Jesus: When you pray, pray so: Our Father in heaven: Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” 

Disciples: Yo, that’s woke, man!  But, like, what’s it like, this place, this kingdom in heaven, where you say you’re from?  That’s heavy stuff, this kingdom of heaven.  We can’t wrap our heads around it.  Lay it out for us, man!

Now, if you and I have been attentive during this season after Pentecost, as we have read Matthew’s gospel, and not only today’s lesson, we will have discovered three things:

1) Matthew is totally obsessed by the concept of the kingdom of God and heaven.  His record of Jesus’ ministry is riddled with almost countless numbers of sayings that begin: “The kingdom of heaven is like.”

2) Each description of the kingdom is unique, peculiar to the question which someone or a group has just put to Jesus.  Today’s reading is no different.

3) And most jolting to me about today’s lesson from Matthew, is that Jesus is not addressing the question of Advent as a time of preparation for Christmas, as we have come almost exclusively to understand Advent.  Rather, what jolts me is the reminder, if not realization, that the kingdom of heaven is about the here and now.

It is my belief and understanding of scripture that it is not coincidental that Jesus formulates his prayer in this manner: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven!  On earth, as in heaven!  In so doing, Jesus describes heaven in a language and with symbols and anecdotes and day-to-day images which are readily understood and achievable by his followers and other listeners. Heaven is a place of harmony, after which we ought to model our human interactions.  But it is also a place where each dweller has held himself/herself accountable for how he/she has employed the talents and time which God, through nature, has given each of us.

There was a time, when I was much younger and, upon hearing today’s gospel, read usually in Advent, I would wonder quietly why the five young girls, the five wise maidens, could not be generous with their oil toward their fellow maidens.  Upon reflection, however, it has become clearer.  I have come to understand this description of the kingdom of heaven quite differently, and to be exact, in light of the Lord’s Prayer.

There is no spite, no vindictiveness, no selfishness, no sense of superiority at work here. Joshua reminds us that we make choices, and that choices have consequences.  The Israelites could choose to follow idols and remain lost and excluded from that which God had promised them, or they could choose to remain with the God of their forefathers and –mothers who has proven over and over His support, for they will have done what is right.  The Pharisees listening to this parable recognized easily themselves as the Five Foolish Maiden who squandered a unique opportunity to connect to something that potentially brought great joy and satisfaction.  The Five Foolish Maiden knew what was required of them, but they believed that they could sneak in a bit of personal advantage.

And what is it that God requires of them (and of us)?  For that answer, one need only turn to a later prophet Amos: “…let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24)   The prophet Micah, following in Joshua’s footsteps, teaches also decision-making when he proclaims: “He (God) has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)  The Five Foolish Maiden, the aristocracy of the Temple and Society, were caught unprepared.  They had not contributed to “your kingdom come on earth, as in heaven.”

Although I stated at the beginning of my sermon and maintain even now, as I conclude, that my words to you this morning are not about politics.  In any case, they are certainly not about an individual or specific political campaign.  Rather, as people of faith, I believe that we are bound to the basic principles espoused in Joshua and his subsequent fellow prophet, as well as by Moses and those who came before.  I say this to you, for I am persuaded that the God who led the people out of Egypt, was the same as who had established a covenant with Abram/Abraham as a beacon of what should be the guiding rule of life in community.

That is the same God, of whom Jesus spoke and speaks.  As recorded in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ mission, Jesus states clearly: the coming or the Advent of God’s kingdom to which we of faith are called, requires an alertness, a preparedness, for we know not when we may be called to build that kingdom with that one individual who stands before us in the supermarket.  Each of us will be accountable to ourselves, first and foremost, as well as to those who need our attention!  Fundamental to that accountability, though, is the necessity of preparing ourselves for a successful outcome of the task before us, on earth.  That will be our task as a nation in the weeks, months, and years ahead.  And I propose that, in whatever language is most fluent, we should conclude each encounter and each day with the phrase: “your kingdom come on earth as in heaven.“

AMEN