Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
Joshua 24:1-3, 14-25; Psalm 78:1-7; I Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13
Because I write this prior to the election, I do not know the outcome. No doubt some of us will be soaringly elated and some of us will be deeply chagrined. The pastoral task on this Sunday is to call the faithful away from either elation or chagrin back to the more elemental realities of our faith. In my church calendar, this Sunday is designated as “Stewardship Sunday” in which many congregations have their annual awkward talk about money. But money-talk in the church is simply incidental to the more elemental realities of our faith that persist in its promises and its demands regardless of election outcomes.
These lectionary readings strain to assert that this moment, right now, is a freighted moment of deep urgency for the life of the world.
...The epistle reading in I Thessalonians 4 awaits “the sound of the trumpet” with the inexplicable arrival of new life.
...The parable in Matthew 25 anticipates the dramatic coming of the bridegroom.
...The Joshua narrative asserts that we must “choose today.”
This triad of trumpet, bridegroom, and “choose today” together suggest that this is a laden moment in the life of faith. This moment that these texts characterize as urgent is opportunity to talk about our “treasure” as way of locating the location our heart, our passion, and our deep purpose in life that runs deeper than the election.
Whether the election turns out well for Biden or for Trump, we are at a new beginning in our political economy, because social reality will not wait on an election. It is the work of faith to attest that this new beginning is not simply a reiteration of old conservative mantras or of old progressive good intentions. It is rather a moment when we may consider that God is doing a new thing, so that the old things we may cherish must be relinquished. The “old things” to be relinquished are not incidental or private pet projects, but whatever it is that resists the purpose of God for our life in the world.
The “new thing” to be received is not a proposal by a candidate, but a newness of what God wills for the world. It is possible, I suggest, to see three dimensions of this kairotic urgency that may be the grist of our preaching.
First, our work is to recover the alternative narrative of faith.
Psalm 78, the Psalm for the day, invites Israel to “tell the coming generation” about its memory of God’s goodness, so that they can “set their hope in God” and “keep his commandments” (v. 7). This narrative of God’s goodness is alternative to the dominant narrative of self-sufficiency into which Israel had been seduced. We will not transmit the alternative of faith to our children until and unless we identify that dominant narrative into which we have been seduced. The dominant narrative among us is one of U.S. exceptionalism that makes our culture privileged, entitled, and righteous. Yet it is not a story of all Americans. It is a story of white domination that received its wealth as a result of taking it from others. It is a story of male domination in which history is made by so-called noble white men.
The alternative U.S. story to be recovered in the wake of the election is a story of greedy violence that took Native American land by genocide and that depended upon Black people who were enslaved to generate wealth. But it is at the same time also a story in which all persons “are created equal,” a claim advanced by the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson, and now in the wake of the election, an alternative awaiting actualization.
It will be a story not grounded in fear, greed, and violence, but a story that pivots on the generosity, civility, and restorative justice that honors all neighbors, that protects all LGBTQ+ neighbors, and that provides for all the impoverished and neighbors in need. This alternative story is deeply grounded in the gospel. But it is not only a gift. It is an assignment. It is a task to be done in the intimate places where we tell our treasured stories, in the market places where we bargain and trade, and in public places where we make policies concerning debt and taxes. This is a time to get our story straight, to engage that narrative that we have nearly forfeited in our narcoticized indifference.
Our children will thank us for that work.
Second, our work is to put away foreign gods.
The drama of the Joshua text has this imperative as the primary requirement for covenant with YHWH. In the ancient world “foreign gods” were actual material icons of which archaeologists have found many. Already in Genesis 35:1-4, it is reported that Jacob required his household to “put away foreign gods,” and he hid them (ear rings and all!) under an oak tree, taking them out of commission. Further:
“Then come, let us go up to Bethel, that I may make an altar there to the God who answered me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone” (v. 3).
Our “foreign gods” are not so readily “handled” as that, as they are more like ideas and ideologies that have compelling force among us. Thus, a congregation might spend some energy identifying foreign gods that operate with authority to distort our lives and talk us out of our true selves.
No doubt our “foreign gods,” causing us to be alienated from our faith and our true selves, include racism, sexism, classism, ageism, consumerism, all of the images of self that distort those who are not like us. And surely the strongest and most dangerous of those among us now is racism. And if these foreign gods diminish the “other” who is unlike us, then “putting them away” might entail the painful process of being face-to-face with the “other” in order listen to and honor the “other” as a carrier of pain and hope that is not very different from our own pain and hope. It is not likely that we can effectively do that hard work in homogeneous communities, but must find ways to face the other physically as a compelling presence to us.
In the Joshua drama, the positive summons is to serve YHWH with completeness and reliability (v. 14); this is the antithesis of “foreign gods.” That imperative concerning foreign gods is up front for Joshua. And then, after a long dialogic exchange, Joshua at the end reiterates, “‘then put away foreign gods and incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel’” (v. 23).
Perhaps the entry point into this topic is to ask about the tilt of one’s heart.
We might pursue a riff on the “tilt of our hearts”:
But incline our hearts to him, to walk in all his ways, and to keep his commandments, his statutes, and his ordinances, which he commanded our ancestors (I Kings 8:58).
In the Psalm, the talk of the tilt of the heart is voiced in prayer that God should give my heart a tilt:
Turn my heart to your decrees,
and not to selfish gain (Psalm 119:36).
Israel is sure and has no doubt that a heart tilted toward YHWH and YHWH’s commandments is the way to wellbeing. The foreign gods, however, have great force in turning our hearts away from this glad obedience. This either/or of good or bad tilt suggests to me an allusion to Paul’s contrast between the desires of the flesh (Galatians 5:16-21) and “the fruit of the spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23). A review of Paul’s two categories will help us identify the toxic force of foreign gods that talk us out of our true selves.
In the end, talk of “foreign gods” is not an abstract matter, but issues in real life conduct and attitude. The foreign gods characteristically place the self in all its self-serving at the center of reality. By contrast, the God of the covenant binds us in covenantal loyalty to those around us who depend on us for wellbeing. Once the foreign gods had been expelled, Joshua could make a covenant that reconfigured the lives of those present to the meeting.
The third task of the church as it returns to basics is to watch for and receive the newness that God is working in the world.
In the Joshua text, the newness is covenant that redefined social relationships among the neighbors (v. 25). It is worth noting the radicality of the covenant that moved social interaction away from calculating transactionalism to neighborly engagement with each other. This way of social relationships is variously articulated by Paul as “look the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4), or to “weep with those who weep, rejoice with those who rejoice” (Romans 12:15). Imagine rejoicing with a person of color or weeping with a Palestinian.
The dramatic act covenant-making creates a novum in the world, a newness of which the foreign gods are quite incapable. In the New Testament texts, that radical newness is voiced in figurative language. In the parable of Matthew, the imagery is of a wedding and a wedding banquet. The subtext, however, is the coming rule of God that Jesus has initiated. The work of Jesus is to initiate a new set of social possibilities that is enunciated in both his talk and in his action. For that reason, the parable ends with an imperative to “keep alert” and be on notice, because the new world erupts here and there without warning.
It is the work of the faithful to watch and to notice, identify and celebrate wherever it is that new, neighborly actions are committed that make all things new.
The imagery of the epistle is not easy for us; however we may take the seemingly “mythic” language of the epistle. It is testimony to the new rule of Christ and the consequent resurrection of the dead. Imagine, those dead made alive (see Luke 15:24)!
It is the work of pastoral teaching and proclamation to take these various moments of newness in the text, cast in rhetoric alien to us, and let them point to the emerging newness now in God’s world. We are, as these texts attest, at a breaking moment in the life of the world. There is no going back. There is no holding on to what was. There is no chance to continue to treasure what we have long treasured that is in contradiction to the purpose of God. It is not “liberal” or “progressive” to see that the future will be a society in which all persons will share in the elemental viability of the economy. The onerous old divisions between rich and poor, male and female, gay and straight are not sustainable. Such an awareness is not at all “progressive” it is evangelical; it is the good news:
...Joshua initiated a break with all old patterns of social interaction by binding Israel to the neighborly Torah.
...The parable urges us not to miss the new celebrative work of the bridegroom because we are ill-prepared or asleep.
...The epistle ends with the mandate: “Encourage one another” (v. 18).
This is an odd conclusion to the paragraph. “Encourage” that we will be ready for inexplicable inauguration of new social reality. This newness is not for the faint-hearted or the fearful. We are in the midst of “all things new.” That newness is a gift; it is also a task, one that can only be done when we get our story straight and when we expel foreign gods. When these preliminaries are addressed, we may be at the cusp of God’s new coming rule among us that will entail both cost and joy.
Walter Brueggemann is surely one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.
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