Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Preaching for August 23, 2009

Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18
Psalm 34:15-22
Ephesians 6:10-20
John 6:56-69

Once again, I am skipping over the bread imagery in John 6. Since a significant majority of Lutheran pastors I know preach on the Gospel lesson somewhere near 90 percent of the time or more, I'm guessing that any congregation where I preach to give a pastor a break will have already heard about Jesus and bread imagery ad nauseum.

I'm not enamored with the image of the "whole armor of God" in Ephesians, either. I understand the good connections with this imagery, like preparation and struggle for a community in the Christian life. However, I think this passage was almost ruined for me as it has been used in connection with a reason for military build up. I once associated this quote with Ronald Reagan, but I could not find a quote where he directly used this passage. It says something about how fleeting memory can be and that propeganda is subversive. Though the text has its merits, this text represents damaged goods, and I don't think I can preach it faithfully.

As a Lutheran Christian, I have a mixed relationship with this text from Joshua. The text is used as a biblical foundation for a book on marriage by Walt Wangerin. My dear wife and I read this in preparation for our marriage. Though we don't explicitly reference the Wangerin book as part of strengthening our marriage today, the book has some foundational qualities about how the depths of human existence and our relationship with God through that relationship. Our lives are formed by Christian vocation. Almost every decision we make has a relationship to Christian vocation. Therefore, I make a connection between this text and the gift of marriage. Though Joshua is not specifically speaking about marriage in this text, the practical application between God and relationships doesn't appear to be an unfaithful one. The uneasiness with the text comes from weighting the interpretation more toward the choice of Joshua than the action of God. Anyone familiar with Lutheran theology and life knows that generally speaking are uneasy with any proclamation glorifying any choice by humanity--corporate or individual, because human beings are flawed creatures, therefore human choices are fraught with peril. This doesn't mean I feel the need to beat myself down or my fellow human beings, nor do I have to live a jaded life. I am skeptical, however, about trumpeting human choice. The classic text referenced in this idea is from Jesus in John 15: "You did not choose me, but I chose you."

What is a Christian or one considering the Christian life to make of choice? Choice is a buzz word and concept in our day to day life. Think of all the topics upon which choice is debated. Abortion (pro-choice), health care (choice of coverage), war (we have a volunteer armed forces in the United States) reveal that the concept of choice is the fulcrum of many topics of public discourse. The United States economy thrives on the availability of choice. For those who want to expand choices or restrict choices--someone always ends up choosing. Where will the line be drawn for choice? Libertarians seem to thrive in this discussions. Conservatives tend to want to restrict moral choices for the sake of societal morality, liberals tend to want to restrict economic choices for the sake of societal justice. Any restrictions on choice from either end of the continuum, according to Libertarians lead to societal problems as well.

Humans really don't know what to do with choice. I remember reflecting on the philosophy of Neil Peart and his 1980 song, "Freewill". I loved the line "If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice." I didn't ponder this song so much theologically as a teenager--though I recognized it had theological ramifications, my epiphany was that my choices had consequences, and that not choosing was a choice in itself. I still ponder that idea today, and that pondering is made more cool by one of my favorite bass solos by Geddy Lee (or of any bass player) of all time.

After returning from living in Denmark for a year, I remember the shock over returning to an American retail establishment and being overwhelmed by the amount of choice. I missed having some choices while living there, but I also saw that choice can be crippling. Is choice the source of goodness in the world? I wasn't so sure.

With one more year of seminary and a new congregational ministry call, I was able to place some deeper theological context on my reflections on choice. In my first congregation in Wisconsin I realized my shallowness of knowledge in Lutheran theology by grappling with the notion of choice to the point of foolishly saying that humans really had no choice at all--an idea I quickly retracted when I realized the ramifications of that line of thinking. But I recognized that choice is tenuous--in terms of human relationship with God, Luther called this "the bondage of the will." Some people in my congregation recognized my theological grappling, and took up with me the discussion about free will and whether it exists on any level. I had one intelligent person write me a paper on his argument against Luther's "Bondage of the Will." I deeply admired the fact he respected me enough to gather his thoughts, share them with me in a coherent fashion, and valued his faith enough that this was a good investment of his time and energy.

At best I can say that choice is tenuous, and that Joshua is really stating that we need to look at the work of God in the biblical witness and our own lives and compare that work with the other paths and gods. Choice may be tenuous--but God is faithful.

Is this Gospel? If so, will it preach? Usually I know this by this point of the sermon preparation, but at this point, I am under some pressure, I have the ubiquitous sermon title to create. Even if I choose not to choose a sermon title, I still have made a choice.

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