Saturday Night Theologian
12 October 2008

Isaiah 25:1-9

When I first read today's passage from Isaiah, I thought, "Great, another reading that denigrates foreigners!" not exactly a message that our already xenophobic nation needs to hear. But then I looked again. Yes, there are a couple of allusions to foreigners as evil, but that's not the overall thrust of these verses. Rather, the focus of these verses is a feast to which all nations and peoples are invited, a feast hosted by Yahweh of hosts. Strong and weak, rich and poor will all be invited to participate in the feast. Yes, there is an undeniable tendency in these verses to promote one group of people over another, but that's the fact of the human condition. Despite Jesus' commands to love our enemies and the New Testament theme of God's love for all people, even those who consider themselves progressive people of faith have a hard time feeling as much agony over the suffering of people in another country as we feel about the suffering of people in our own country. Will it always be that way? Are we doomed to always be nationalists, seeing our fellow citizens as somehow preferred in God's eyes? I don't think so. I see a time, probably in the far distant future, when the commitment to the nation-state (a situation dating back only to about the seventeenth century) will be overtaken by the commitment to the citizen of the planet. Maybe such a situation will develop gradually, as people around the world realize that we all share a single, fragile planet. Maybe it will come about only after a cataclysmic event, such as a nuclear war or an environmental crisis of inconceivable magnitude. I hope for the former rather than the latter, but in any case, I'm convinced that the future of the planet is reflected figuratively in these words: "On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever."

Psalm 23 (first published 6 March 2005)

About 1880, when Robert Dick Wilson was 25 years old, he made up his mind to prove the veracity of the Old Testament scriptures. Based on the lifespans of his immediate ancestors, he estimated that he would probably live to be about 70 years old, so he calculated that he had about 45 years left. He decided to divide the remainder of his life into three fifteen-year segments. During the first he would study every language that had a bearing on the text or background of the Old Testament. He would spend the next fifteen years investigating the Old Testament itself. Finally, he would devote the next fifteen years to publishing his conclusions. Indeed he did publish voluminously, and conservative Bible students to this day appreciate much of his work. His life was a prime example of one that was well planned out and executed. Most people don't have their lives planned out to nearly the same degree as Wilson, or if they do, they find that somewhere along the way they deviate rather seriously from their plan. "Midway on our life's journey, I found myself in dark woods, the right road lost." I suspect that most people can relate to these opening words from Dante's Inferno better than they can relate to Wilson's example. Like the character in his narrative, Dante himself felt lost in the middle of his life, having been expelled from his native Florence and sentenced to roam the land as an exile. Dante's protagonist wanders from the right path, and to escape the attacks of fierce beasts--leopard, lion, and wolf--he enters the gates of Hell. Fortunately, he is not abandoned there, for providence has supplied him with a guide, the poet Virgil, and he successfully navigates the circles of Hell and emerges in Purgatory, eventually to enter Heaven. The psalmist similarly describes a journey which humans must take, and like Dante, he knows that we need a guide to make it successfully to the end. If the psalm is read as a picture of life's journey, one can see interesting parallels between the beginning of that journey and its end. The good shepherd at the beginning of life leads us to lie down in green pastures where there is plenty of food, while at the end of life he prepares a table for us. For drink, the shepherd leads us beside still waters at the beginning, and at the end he fills our cup to overflowing. For personal comfort, the psalmist says that the shepherd restores his soul at the beginning of the journey, whereas at the end he anoints the psalmist's head with oil. At the beginning, the psalmist says, "He leads me in right paths," and at the end, "I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever"; in both cases, God is right there with the psalmist. When I was a young seminary student, like Robert Dick Wilson I had my life pretty much planned out. I was going to get my Ph.D. and teach in seminary for the rest of my life. As it turns out, my life didn't work out that way. Now halfway through my life's journey, I look back and see that life has led in directions I never would have imagined. In some ways life has been better than I imagined, and in other ways it has been more difficult, but it has certainly been different. Now I work at a job that didn't even exist twenty years ago when I was in seminary, and I teach in an institution that is quite different than I envisioned back then, but I wouldn't trade the life I've had for the one I imagined, not in a million years. The reason I wouldn't is that all along the way God has been leading me, sometimes in ways that were blindingly obvious, sometimes in ways that were apparent only in retrospect. God was there in the beginning, God was with me during times when I sometimes felt like an exile, and God is with me now. That's the message of the twenty-third psalm to me as I contemplate where I've been and where I'm going. At the beginning of the journey, at its end, and everywhere in between, God is with us.

Philippians 4:1-9 (first published 9 October 2005)

The first Nobel Prizes for 2005 were announced this week, and it got me to thinking about what people are remembered for. How would you like to be remembered? Most of us would like to be remembered for our wisdom, or our compassion, or our courage. We wouldn't mind being remembered because of an athletic or academic accomplishment, for holding political office, or for winning a prestigious award of some sort. None of us would like to be remembered for our shortcomings, failures, or sins. Nor would we like to be remembered for our pettiness, but that's exactly what we think of when we hear the names Euodia and Syntyche, two women leaders in the Philippian church who had some sort of disagreement with one another. The verses that mention them are often overlooked when people read this passage from Philippians, because we want to get on to the verses that talk about rejoicing, prayer, and the peace of God. We bypass the message to Euodia and Syntyche at our own peril, however, because it is a message we need to hear. When church members fight with one another, the church becomes ineffectual. Prospects don't want to join a church where they see bickering. On a larger scale, potential converts might be frightened away by Christians fighting with one another. This is not to say that Christians should agree with one another on everything. That will never happen, nor should it. We are going to have differences of opinion on matters of faith and practice, and we must accept that. Some people see the multitude of different denominations as a problem, but I don't think it's necessarily a problem. We all need places where we can worship God with a measure of comfort. On the other hand, we also need to remember that we have no guarantee of comfort in the church. In fact, if we are always comfortable, we are probably not being challenged, and we're certainly not being confronted with new ideas. We Christians need to learn to accept one another's differences of opinion and approach to Christianity without feeling the need to convert others to our own opinion. Even worse, we should never assume that our understanding of the truth should be normative for everyone else. My biggest problem with fundamentalists is not the beliefs that they hold but rather their assumption that their doctrines and practices are required of all good (or true) Christians. I'm perfectly happy for people to hold views of the Bible, of faith, of salvation, and even of God that are quite different from mine. I believe that I can learn more from people who have a different perspective than I can from people who share my approach to religion. All I ask is that those who approach Christianity differently extend me the same courtesy. If Christianity ever ceases to be an important religion in the world, it won't be because "Christian" nations have been conquered by people of different faiths, it will be because Christians are so busy fighting among themselves that they don't even notice when the world finally dismisses Christianity as a serious contender for their loyalty.

Matthew 22:1-14 (first published 9 October 2005)

When early Christians retold the parable of the Wedding Banquet, they interpreted the guests who were invited first but refused to come to the feast as the Jews, and they saw themselves as the people from the streets who were invited to attend. In the first century, such an analysis might make sense, although of course the bulk of the earliest Christians were Jews themselves, but how can this parable be applied in the context of a predominantly Gentile church in the midst of a Gentile world? Now it is reasonable to associate the first group of invitees with those who have grown up in the church and take its blessings and benefits for granted, who see themselves as God's chosen people. What the parable teaches us is that God's "chosen people" can never take their chosenness for granted. The God who chose one group can un-choose the same group and substitute another. Similarly, the group that responded positively at one point can grow complacent and satisfied, no longer worthy of the moniker "chosen people." Matthew adds to this parable another, originally separate, parable, about the guest at the feast who wasn't dressed properly. The king orders him to be cast outside, where he cannot participate in the joys of the feast, and the parable concludes with the words of Jesus, "Many are called, but few are chosen." In fact, even those who are chosen at one time may not be chosen at another, because they have neglected to conduct themselves properly as inhabitants of God's kingdom. The good news is that, if they amend their ways, they can be chosen again. This is not to say that only the worthy are chosen. On the contrary, no one who is chosen is worthy of the indescribable blessings of God. However, once we are chosen, we are responsible for living our lives in accordance with the precepts of the kingdom: loving our neighbors, praying for our adversaries, helping those in need, etc. Some people avoid Christianity, and other organized religions, because they believe that they will have too many rules to follow and their lives will be too restricted. Yes, there will be restrictions, which are for the benefit of both those in the kingdom and others, but there will also be great blessings. After all, Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a wedding banquet, not a funeral.