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We Belong to God

The mood has become uneasy for the disciples and the crowd that has gathered around Jesus. Imagine with me, for a minute, being part of that crowd. You have heard about this man who talks a good game. He has a knack for weaving together challenging, yet somehow brilliant stories about withering fig trees, wicked tenants, and grace-filled banquets. He has even reportedly given sight to the blind. And now, rumor has it that he can match wits with with the hypocritical scribes and Pharisees, besting them in their challenges to his knowledge of Scripture and his spiritual authority. You like that. Despite your attempt to hold on to your skepticism, Jesus has captured your interest, and maybe even a bit of your heart. He just might be the one to take it all the way, you think. He might be the catalyst we need to begin a revolution to overthrow the greedy and brutal Romans once and for all. But now, you're not so sure.

Jesus's words today are unsettling--more introspective than inspirational. He has begun to talk about the "end of the age," and the destruction of the sacred Temple in Jerusalem. And his predictions don't end well, at least not the way you had hoped they might. You're starting to get the sense that Jesus wants something different--something more--from you than your righteous anger and your pitchfork. He seems to be appealing to more than your emotion, or even your intellect. He is reaching deeper. He's interested your relationship with God--your spirituality, and your behavior among others. You're not sure you like that. Looking inward is never easy. You want to turn away, to go seek out another prophet, one whose priorities fit with your own and not the other way around. But you don't. You stay and you listen. Your gut tells you you're in the right place.

Ok, you can stop imagining now. Step away from that ancient crowd and rejoin our gathering today, but hold on to that unsettled feeling. Retain that sense of dis-ease for a minute, that uncomfortable reminder that Jesus's agenda is not necessarily our own. He guides us down a path towards a "peace that passes all understanding," yes, and yet along that path we continually stumble--upon ourselves much of the time--and are invited to gaze inward and reorder our passions before continuing the trek. And that, I propose, is what today's passage from Matthew is about. Take a moment to consider what has your attention today. There are a wide variety of causes out there clamoring for your allegiance. Do they have your attention, or does God? In the words of the Gospel, "wake up."

The parable of the ten bridesmaids is known as an apocalyptic text, one in which Jesus warns about the coming end of days. On the one hand you have the bridesmaids who are prepared for the arrival of the bridegroom, having filled their lamps with oil, and then there are those who have not, only to find themselves scrambling at the last minute and ultimately shut out of the heavenly wedding banquet when the time comes. Taken face value, this text has long stricken fear in the hearts of discerning Christians. Words like "rapture" come to mind, as well as phrases like "weeping and gnashing of teeth." You can't deny there is an urgency in this story. Jesus is serious here. There are indeed consequences for those who do not heed his warning to "keep awake." But what does it mean, exactly, to "keep awake?"

There is a long history in the Christian philosophical tradition that encourages "attentiveness." Early desert monks like Antony of Egypt and Stoic philosophers like Marcus Aurelius were constantly harping on the benefits of something called prosoche [pro-sosh] which means, in the words of Pierre Hadot, "attention to oneself and vigilance at every instant ... A person who is 'awake' is always perfectly conscious not only of what he does but to what he is. In other words, he is aware of his place in the universe and his relationship to God" (Hadot 130). So, in the Gospel, when Jesus warns us to "keep awake," he is asking that we not simply remain aware of our physical surroundings but also be aware of to whom it is we belong. And, as Christians, if we belong to God that naturally affects how we see and interact with the world around us. If we belong to God our priority shifts from "getting our way," to discovering the presence of Christ in our neighbor, regardless of what our neighbor looks like, how much money they have, what side of the street they live on, or who they voted for. Like the five bridesmaids who were awake and looking for God at all times and in all places, we can expect to find that peace along Jesus' path. But, if we insist on distancing ourselves from one another and seeking out reasons to devalue our neighbor, we can expect to find frustration and pain, the only fruits this worldly game produces.

Let's jump back into the Gospel again and imagine ourselves among the crowd listening to Jesus. Remember that unsettled feeling Jesus is casting, encouraging his listeners to look inward and evaluate their priorities, and the high stakes involved. I suspect that "unsettled" is not such a difficult feeling to imagine given recent national events. Maybe our candidate didn't win, and we are left to wonder what this means for our nation's future. Or, maybe our candidate did win, but we're not sure what to make of the razor thin margins. The Gospel, however, reminds us to keep awake, to remember to whom it is we belong, and it's certainly not either of those candidates. We belong to God.

I think feeling unsettled is right, but not because of the politics. Rather, because Jesus is reminding us that his agenda is not our own. He is trying to pull us away from the zero-sum worldly game and back onto his path towards peace. We are unsettled because we don't want to let go of the sense of control we think we have, or the worldly outcomes we think we deserve. We want what we want. But if we belong to God, the priorities are crystal clear: love your neighbor, regardless of what they look like, how much money they have, what side of the street they live on, or who they voted for. And this, my friends, is what will change the world.

The Rev. Canon Jason Alexander
St. John's, Helena | November 8, 2020
Proper 27, Year A

References

Hadot, Pierre, and Arnold I. Davidson. Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1995.

Signs of Faithfulness

I am struck, today, by the passage from the Hebrew Bible. Last week the lectionary recalled for us the story of Moses and the burning bush, when he was called out by God to lead the Exodus from Egypt—to help enact God’s desire to free the Hebrew people from slavery and bondage. Fast forward nine chapters and nine horrible plagues, and we find ourselves at the night of the first passover.

You can imagine the scene in each household—just how strung out everyone is, Egyptian and Hebrew alike. I can’t imagine that any of them has ever witnessed such powerful and bizarre supernatural forces: frogs, gnats, flies, dead livestock, storms, disease, even the Nile River turning to blood. Emotionally and physically exhausted, and no-doubt beginning to take their fear, grief, and frustration out on one another, Moses tells them that there is a final plague to come—the worst of them all. During the night, God will sweep over the land of Egypt, visiting each household to take the life of every firstborn. To avoid this fate, however, the Hebrews were to undertake a particular set of actions, including smearing the posts and lintel of their doors with the blood of a lamb they were to have ritually prepared for dinner. God would see this blood on the doorposts as a sign of faithfulness, of dedication, of appreciation of God’s promise of freedom, and pass over the household. The consequences of this final plague proved too much for Pharaoh, and the Hebrew people were sent on their way to freedom.

I know there is a lot to unpack here, but let’s just focus on this idea of faithfulness today. If you’re like me, you probably drew some parallels between the exhaustion of the characters in this story to your own exhaustion in the midst of our modern plagues. As “virtual school” has begun in the Alexander household, I can’t help but feel a little bit strung out myself. There have been a few moments I’m not proud of. I know my kids are feeling it too, and certainly so are their teachers. I’ve heard the exasperation in their voices over Zoom calls as they try to make the best of a less-than-ideal situation. You get to a point where you just can’t make out the silver lining anymore, you know? It’s just plain hard. You get tired of “working on your attitude,” and “taking deep breaths” just don’t quite cut it. So, what then is left? How about faithfulness?

Now, before you dismiss it and say, “oh, I’ve tried to be faithful, but I just can’t get past the idea of a God that would allow all this to happen in the first place,” let’s take a minute to understand the concept of faithfulness a little more. Having faith is not the same as “working on your attitude,” “taking deep breaths, ” or having your theological conundrums solved. Having faith is not a self-help strategy that aims to improve your mood. Rather, faith “involves a decision to trust rather than a logic that verifies” (Sheldrake 297). Again, faith “involves a decision to trust rather than a logic that verifies.” To be logical you have to have your wits about you. It’s hard to be logical when you’re yelling at your kids for not doing their homework, or when you’re just shy of throwing your iPad across the room for not letting you open a document…again. Do you think that the Hebrew people, after feeling the crippling effects of nine plagues, reasoned that it still made sound logical sense to believe Moses’s stories and this promise of freedom that seemed to never come? No, they were just doing their best to get out of bed in the morning. So, even if they didn’t have the mental space to “logic” their way out of this situation, they could still make a decision…they could choose to trust in the goodness of God, or they could choose to give up.

And here’s the key. For the Hebrews, the decision to trust—or faithfulness—was lived out in the form of concrete action. As Moses instructed them, they painted blood on their doorposts, they prepared a meal in a particular way, and they ate together as families. There was probably some yelling across the dinner table as they took out the day’s frustrations on one another, but through these ritual actions they demonstrated their hope for the fulfillment of God’s promise, and their love for one another.

Theologian Michael Paul Gallagher writes that faith is “more a drama of companionship and vision than a theory, more of an event than a philosophy. It is a lived adventure…” (Sheldrake 298). Living faithfully during this challenging time in our lives has less to do with logic, rationalization, or mood, and more to do with concrete action. We demonstrate our trust in God and love for one another by praying together (even if it is through Zoom), or by sharing a meal together (even it is by delivering homemade cookies to your neighbor while wearing a mask), or by virtually showing up for school, (even if you know its not going to be the educational experience you had hoped for). Doing these things are signs of faithfulness, and God recognizes them when God passes over.

How do you paint your doorposts today? How is your faithfulness less about mood and more about action? And how do you demonstrate this faithfulness to a world that desperately needs to see it? For, if the stories in Exodus are to be believed, it is faithfulness that will lead us to the parting waters and reveal a clear path ahead.

The Rev. Canon Jason Alexander
St. Nicholas’, Maumelle | September 6, 2020
Proper 18, Year A

References

Sheldrake, Philip. The New Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality. Louisville: WJK = Westminster John Knox Press, 2013.