Saturday Night Theologian
6 November 2005

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25

A colleague of mine recently returned from a visit to India. One of the places she visited was Calcutta, where the Missionaries of Charity continue to operate after the death of their founder, Mother Teresa. Because of her life of service and dedication to the poor, Mother Teresa is on the fast track to becoming a saint in the Roman Catholic Church, having already been declared Blessed by Pope John Paul II in 2003. It is not only Catholics who revere her, however. My friend reported that many Hindus in Calcutta now count Mother Teresa as a Hindu goddess, and she showed us photos of people coming to revere her. The idea that a new god or goddess could be added to the pantheon in modern times is hard for most people in the West to understand, as is the possibility of choosing from among many deities one who would be the chief object of one's worship. If we don't understand the real possibility of choosing one god among many to worship, then we don't understand the background of today's reading from the book of Joshua. Modern Jews and Christians often quote a portion of this passage as an affirmation of our faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus: "As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord." We don't always pay much attention to what proceeds it: "Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the (Euphrates) River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living." The choice the Israelites faced was a real one. The concept of absolute monotheism did not yet exist, so Yahweh was just one god among many that they might have chosen. Joshua was challenging them to consider what Yahweh had done for them and their ancestors and to choose to serve Yahweh rather than any of the other gods who were viable alternatives. Because those of us raised under the influence of the three major Western religions accept monotheism as a given, we rarely if ever consider the alternatives to worshiping our God. After all, since there is only one God, are there any real options when it comes to worship, other than just not worshiping at all? I think there are, and I think many Christians in today's world have fallen into the worship of other gods without realizing it. One alternative god is Money, also known as Greed. Another god is Pleasure. Others are Family, Career, Happiness, and Power. These gods are fairly obvious, and many acknowledge both their existence and the draw that they have on people today. I believe that there is another, more insidious, god that many people worship today, one that hides in plain sight. This god takes the name of the true God, but substitutes its own soul for God's. This god is a nationalistic god whose followers substitute patriotism for a concern for the whole world. This god is a capitalistic god whose followers value personal gain over caring for the poor. This god is a chauvinistic god whose followers consider men more worthy than women. This god is a homophobic god whose followers use the language of family values to mask their prejudice against gays. This god is a sectarian god whose followers deny entry into their god's kingdom to any who do not share exactly the same faith experiences. This is the god that too many people in our country and around the world worship on Sunday mornings and serve throughout the week. There is a choice to make today, just as there was in Joshua's day. Will we serve one of the alternative gods, some of whom masquerade as the true God, or will we commit ourselves to the God whose love is available to all people equally?

Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16

 Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy,
wealthy, and wise.

The early bird gets the worm.

Cultivate the habit of early rising. It is unwise to keep the head long on
a level with the feet.

Few ever live to old age, and fewer still ever became distinguished, who
were not in the habit of early rising.
What is it with morning people? I live with two of them, and I just don't get it. How can they be so cheerful in the morning? How can they be so awake? The world is divided into morning people and night owls, and I definitely fall into the latter camp. I'd rather stay up till four in the morning than get up at four in the morning. I function much better at night, or in the wee hours of the morning. In fact, I have my own definition of morning. It doesn't start at midnight, it starts either when I wake up or when the sun comes up, whichever is first. Believe me, I've seen the sun come up plenty of times after staying up all night studying or working. I don't mind, though, because night is when I do some of my best thinking. The author of the Wisdom of Solomon must have been a morning person. Describing Wisdom as a beautiful woman, he says, "One who rises early to seek her will have no difficulty, for she will be found sitting at the gate." What about those of us who are night owls? Do those of us who like to sleep in after going to bed late have a chance of finding wisdom, too? I'm sure the answer is yes, because the author also says of Wisdom, "She goes about seeking those worthy of her, and she graciously appears to them in their paths, and meets them in every thought." Rising early is great, because those whose minds are awake and active in the mornings can find wisdom there. Staying up late is great, too, because wisdom is within the reach of those of us who do our best thinking after midnight. Some of the best theological discussions I ever had occurred late at night, in between doughnut runs to Shipley's and while drinking chai (long before it was fashionable, or even before most people knew what it was) with my college friends. We discussed the problem of pain and suffering, the existence of God, and the nature of the Bible in the dorms of one of the most non-religious colleges around, and we discovered something interesting. In the midst of the bustle and chaos of college life, surrounded by students and professors of great intellect, confronted with a tremendous variety of both belief and unbelief, we sought wisdom. We wanted to know God, to understand God's world, and to figure out our place in that world. We were looking for wisdom, and every now and then, she found us.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

In Buddhist thought, life is characterized by suffering. When one life is over, it begins again in a different form, born again to suffer. After many such lives, through dint of effort and enlightenment, it is possible to pass out of life into Nirvana, where one finally escapes suffering and is joined with others in the great world-soul. Passion, desire, and even consciousness are extinguished, and the soul find perfect peace. Eternal life is a great evil in the Buddhist way of thinking, for it implies both continued suffering and the failure to attain enlightenment. In Christian thought, by contrast, eternal life itself is peace, because in eternity the believer abides with God. As Augustine said, "Inquietum est cor nostrum, donec requiescat in te": "Our heart is restless until it rests in you." Paul writes to comfort the Thessalonians who have lost loved ones before Christ has returned to collect his faithful, an event assumed to be in the near future. Don't worry, Paul says, for the dead won't be forgotten but will join the living in rising to meet Christ at his Parousia. This passage tells us that Christians, like Buddhists and people of many other faiths, long for the rest that can only come through union with the divine. Whether that rest comes through losing one's own identity, as in classical Buddhism, or involves the retention of identity, as in Christian thought, it is a desire that unites humanity. Like Job's friend Eliphaz, we know that human suffering is just as natural as the upward drift of sparks from a fire (Job 5:7), and at some point in our lives, if we live long enough, we long for rest. It is the assurance of rest in the presence of God that Paul says we can count on, not some particular order of resurrection or rapture or timetable for the second coming. The exact sequence of events is of little concern to Paul, as it was of little concern to his readers. What they wanted to know was whether their loved ones who had gone on before them would partake in the rest of the Lord alongside those who remained behind. Yes they will, Paul said. All who love God, living or dead, will find rest for their restless souls in God.

Matthew 25:1-13

Toward the end of the first century C.E., Christians in Judea and Galilee were expelled from their spiritual home, the synagogue. In retrospect, it was probably necessary for Jews and Christians to separate, since Christianity was becoming predominantly Gentile and since its belief system was beginning to depart radically from that of rabbinic Judaism. At the time, though, the rift was painful. What would the newly orphaned community do? Could they survive the time of turmoil and persevere until Jesus returned as he had promised? The Gospel of Matthew is addressed to a Jewish Christian audience, probably one that had separated from the synagogue, perhaps in the fairly recent past. As they struggled with new social realities, many of them felt helpless: sad about their break from the past and uncertain about their preparedness for the future. The parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins deals with the trepidation and aimlessness that many of them felt. The message to the church that the parable teaches is the importance of preparedness. In the story, five of the bridesmaids were ready for the coming of bridegroom's party, and five were not. Alongside the lesson concerning the need for preparation, another deals with the fact that no one can prepare someone else for the eventualities of life. Much as we would like to prepare our children, our families, or our friends, we can't do it. All we can do is pray, show them the ropes, and lead by example. Are you ready for whatever God brings your way?