Hard to believe I’ve been blogging here for 10 years, and when I look back to my very first post I am a bit shocked to see it was about bringing our troops home from Afghanistan. I also originally did posts based on biblical texts from the Revised Common Lectionary; so today I decided to revisit that practice, and when I looked up the texts for August 22 I find God’s spirit moving again in mysterious ways. Several of these texts speak to the centuries old issues at work in the seemingly intractable conflicts in the Middle East.
The passage from Joshua 24 addresses Israel’s transactional “right” to occupy the land of their ancestors if they remain faithful to their covenant with Yahweh. Verses 15-18 say, “Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD. Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods; for it is the LORD our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the LORD drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God.”
Verses like that last verse one always trouble me—“…the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land.” Would a just God of the whole universe choose sides and violently force the occupants of a piece of God’s creation out of the land they have called home for centuries? Would a just God rationalize such an eviction just because Joshua says God told us we can have this “Promised Land” even though we’ve been living in Egypt for 400 some years? That is not a rhetorical question because the fact that Israel and her neighbors are still killing each other over that piece of real estate makes this an urgent contemporary issue.
Preachers can challenge and deepen their own faith and that of their congregations by wrestling with such challenging issues. Some of us fear that exposing contradictions in the Bible will destroy faith, but that is not true. I love the quote in one of Frederick Beuchner’s books that says, “Doubt is the ants in the pants of faith.” We don’t usually come to Scripture or worship because our faith is totally secure. All of us, preachers perhaps most of all, come thirsting for authentic encounters with God, and if what preachers are serving fails to meet that need folks will stop at McD’s on the way home for junk food. I cast my lot with the theologians who realize that certainty is the enemy of faith, not doubt. To ignore contradictions within holy texts in hopes that no one will notice is a fool’s bargain. Because real faith at its core always contains some mystery and is therefore a holy riddle inviting us into dialogue with the text and with God.
For example, another of the lectionary texts for August 22 is from I Kings 8 which describes part of Solomon’s dedication of the first temple in Jerusalem many years after Joshua led the conquest of the Promised Land. Beginning at verse 24 we find these words: “Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling place; heed and forgive. Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm–when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built.”
“Do according to all that the foreigner calls to you; so that all peoples of the earth may know you name….” What an about face from thanking God for killing off the Amorites! And what a great way to examine the evolution of faith over time as God inspires women and men in all generations with the wisdom of Solomon. God’s concern for the foreigner/alien/sojourner is of course interspersed throughout the Hebrew texts along side more nationalistic sentiments because we know the path to faith is not the wide comfortable one but the narrow mountain road with numerous switchbacks and challenges that require our devotion and honest intellectual curiosity.
One of my biggest regrets about my preaching career is that I have not always been brave enough to wrestle in corporate worship with the challenges of biblical interpretation. It has been poor stewardship on my part to withhold from my parishioners and others the marvelous gifts of historical-criticism and narrative criticism I was given in my seminary education.
When I taught homiletics I encouraged my students to focus on just one text per sermon and refrain whenever possible from trying to preach on two or more selections from the lectionary. But there are exceptions to every rule, and this set of texts interact so well with each other that it is at least worth exploring how they inform or expand each other. For me the epistle text from Ephesians 6 also speaks to me as both a preacher and a citizen of our broken world.
The familiar passage about “putting on the whole armor of God” is an excellent metaphor for those preparing to speak for God in these difficult days of pandemic and domestic and international conflict. But “armor” can be a two-edged sword (to mix metaphors?). Remember how David refused to put armor on when he confronted Goliath because it hampered his ability to use the shepherd’s tools at his disposal? ( 1 Samuel 17). It is rather like Brene Brown’s analogy I heard recently in one of her podcasts where she characterized getting defensive when we feel vulnerable as “armoring up.”
Those “weapons” described in Ephesians are also metaphors and not meant to for us to go out as “Christian soldiers marching as to war…” as one of my my childhood (but no longer) favorite hymns puts it. I invite you to instead focus on the qualities of discipleship described in Ephesians instead of literalizing the military memes. As the author of Ephesians 6 says, “… in the strength of God’s power put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness.”
In these days when lies, mis-information, and “alternative facts” bombard our ears and senses without ceasing I would argue that we need none of these parts of “armor” more urgently than “the belt of truth.” It is no accident that it is the first item listed for it is the truth that will set us free. But we know that truth can also make us feel very vulnerable and uncomfortable. We cannot question Joshua’s conquest of the Amorites, or the imposition of the nation of Israel on the Palestinians after World War II without also seeing in the mirror American genocide of indigenous people who lived on our “promised land” for centuries before Columbus sailed the oceans blue. No matter how much we divert our eyes we must eventually face the fact that our choices and actions as individuals and nation states have long-lasting consequences.
When I was in high school I excelled at history/social studies because I was blessed with a good memory that could regurgitate historical dates on demand. But it was not until I took a world history class in college that I had the first ah ha moment and began to connect the dots between one historical event and others that followed. For me my first revelation that the harsh treatment the allies imposed on the conquered Germans in the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I was used by Hitler to inflame German nationalism and racism by blaming the dire economic plight of the Great Depression on their European enemies. A huge part of that Nazi response was to unify their base by scapegoating Jews and anyone else who was different from the pure Aryan race. Tragically that strategy resulted in the deaths of 6 million Jews and thousands of others in dozens of extermination centers. And the next link in the chain of events was an attempt at repentance by the allies who far too long pretended the Holocaust wasn’t happening. That act of penance was to create a new/old homeland for the Jews in Israel, which in turn displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, and the viscous cycle rages on with 9/11, Desert Storm, killing of Osama Ben Laden, oil wars, Hezbola, the Taliban, etc. etc.
The gut wrenching headlines from Afghanistan right now defy any human resolution of the impact of brutal violence as city after city falls to the Taliban. It like all wars before it yet another gruesome illustration that peace can NEVER come through instruments of death. Violence ALWAYS escalates into more and more violence. The good news is that only when we reach the ultimate limit of our human wisdom can we surrender our fear, pride, ego and arrogance and call upon the cosmic power of the one we call God.
O Eternal Being, we have been told that your “Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26). This is one of those moments, O God. We confess our weakness. Intercede for us and bridge our foolish human divisions. Let all of us children of Abraham come together in weakness, trusting you as the only way, truth and life. Let believers, atheist, agnostics and all of your troubled children put down our weapons and raise our hands in unconditional surrender so your will and not ours will emerge from a world of chaos and death. Amen
Note: I would welcome comments and reactions. If you preach on one or more of these texts give me some feedback on how helpful or unhelpful this was. Thanks