21st Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 23, 2015

The room that serves as our worship space here at All Saints is oddly proportioned. When we installed the glass storefront windows, some of you noted that the double doors into the side bays looked off-center. The doors are centered across the openings into the side bays, but they appear off-center because the ceiling lines in this worship space are asymmetrical.

The worship space is also very long and narrow, and its narrow length makes it very difficult to do anything sensible with the space. Someone told me that, in the past, the Youth Group held skating parties in here. I believe it. As a church, this room would make a good skating rink.

The new arrangement of Altar, Ambo and congregational seating is experimental. We’ll try it for a while, and see how well it works out. My objectives for this re-arrangement were to make the room a little more inviting to new members (those who haven’t grown accustomed to the weirdness that is All Saints), and to make the Offertory Collection and Communion Rite move along more smoothly.

This isn’t the best possible design for a church building, but it’s about as good as is possible in this room and under these circumstances. All of us want the best, but often, the best isn’t possible. I think that this new arrangement is an improvement, but I know it’s not going to be satisfying to everyone. Such is life. Oftentimes, the only reasonable solution to a dilemma is less than ideal.

Western culture tells us that we should seek and find immediate, satisfying resolutions to everything. Because this is an impossibility we turn everything into an answer; this, too, is an impossibility. The most important things in life are not answers to our problems. Experiences like love and fidelity are themselves problems rather than answers; they make sense only when pursued for their own sake rather than for some benefit we can derive from them.

Religion is often portrayed as an answer to a problem, but I’m not convinced that it’s helpful to view God or human existence as problems to be resolved. The first reading is an example of what religion ought to be. Religion doesn’t exist primarily to solve problems or give answers; religion exists in order that we might make a lifelong commitment. This selection from the Book of Joshua is a good reminder that sometimes religion doesn’t even make an attempt to offer answers to our problems.

Today’s first reading is a record of an ancient Covenant renewal liturgy. Joshua said to the assembly, “choose today whom you will serve.” (Joshua 24:15) It might sound as if the people have the option of rejecting the Covenant, but in fact, this is a ritualized communal act of re-commitment. Joshua wasn’t really asking the assembly a question; he was reminding them of their Covenant commitment. He said, “Now, therefore, fear the Lord and serve him completely and sincerely.” (Joshua 24:14)

There is a ritual in Catholicism that offers a parallel, and a good comparison to, this ritual in the Book of Joshua. It is common for married couples to renew their vows of marriage. In a renewal of vows each person is asked whether they take the other to be their spouse, to have and to hold, forsaking all others, from this day forward, as long as they both shall live. It might sound as if there is a choice to be made, but in actual fact, the choice was made long ago; the repeating of vows is a renewal rather than an election.

There would be no point to do a renewal of vows if one or both parties did not fully intend to say, “I do.” Can you imagine what might result from a negative response to the questions that comprise marriage vows? A married person contemplating the possibility of opting out of the marriage wouldn’t do that at a renewal of vows; the embarrassment would be overwhelming, and the consequences dire.

The people in the first reading were not choosing between God and false gods; they had already made a choice to be faithful to the Covenant. Nor were they merely choosing to imitate Joshua’s choice, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15) Rather, they were renewing their commitment to be God’s own People. It was an act of faith, done solely because of the enduring value of fidelity. Their faithfulness to God did not preserve them from trouble; nor did it offer answers to their problems. Faith and love are choices made for their own sake.

We set ourselves up for disappointment when we expect religion to resolve our troubles. Despite what our culture says about this, prayer and spirituality are not problem-solving exercises. They are necessary parts of maintaining a faith relationship with God, a relationship that exists for its own sake rather than for some utilitarian purpose.

Faithfulness to God is no guarantee of a trouble-free life, not any more than fidelity in marriage is a guarantee of a trouble-free relationship. This should come as a surprise to no one. Faithfulness and commitment don’t exist in order to solve problems; they exist for their own sake.

We commit ourselves fully to God, not in order to get solutions to our problems, but as an act of faith. Many of the problematic aspects of life in this world have no solution. This is the point of having faith; we trust that God, on the Day of Resurrection, will re-create the world as free from sin and death. In the meantime, we have no choice but to live with some intractable issues. However, we do have the choice to live faithfully, and that choice makes all the difference in the world.


A note on the Scriptures

The shorter form of the second reading was used at Mass this weekend. Occasionally I preach on this reading from Ephesians that says, “Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:22) As I did not plan to address it in my homily this weekend I asked the readers to use the shorter form. This line from Ephesians is very often a source of grave misunderstanding today, but it is a misunderstanding that is easily corrected.

In ancient Hellenistic culture it was commonplace to use standardized lists of good and bad behavior as teaching tools to train young people to be good citizens and faithful members of a family. These lists were called “household codes.” Household codes were generalized ethical instruction that was intended to apply to the widest possible spectrum of society and the widest possible set of circumstances.

Today, vestiges of that ancient practice remain. There was an article in last Sunday’s newspaper about the corporate culture at Amazon, the online retailer. Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, has summarized his vision for the company in a list of fourteen rules that every employee is expected to practice daily. He expects his employees to leave behind the bad habits they acquired at previous jobs, find ways to overcome obstacles to excellent performance and to look for innovative ways to serve their customers.

Many corporations have Values Statements similar to Amazon’s. These serve the same purpose as ancient household codes served; they create an unique social climate within the workplace. The household code in the second reading today was adapted by the author of the Letter to the Ephesians in order to instruct newly baptized members about the unique community environment that existed in the congregation at Ephesus. The author of the Letter gave the adapted household code a title, “Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 5:21)

As I mentioned above, this section of the Letter to the Ephesians is often misunderstood. The misunderstanding derives from modern readers’ unfamiliarity with ancient Hellenistic culture. The author of the Letter went to great lengths to re-interpret common wisdom from the ancient world in order to teach a timeless lesson about faith.

The author divided a pre-existing teaching about marriage into smaller segments; the beginning of verses 22, 23, 24 and 25 represent the remnants of the original household code. Each of those excised phrases is paired with a reference to the life of Baptism. The conclusions of those verses reflect the Scriptural use of marriage as a metaphor for the relationship between God and God’s People. Beginning with verse 28 the author upends the original content of the household code, and reinterprets the marital relationship as one in which the primary responsibility is the husband’s love for his wife. As a result, the reinterpreted household code becomes a description of the primacy of God’s initiative in the work of salvation (which the newly baptized had just experienced in Baptism).

Just as in the Scriptures, marriage is used here as a metaphor for the life of faith. The focus of the Letter’s household code isn’t the “subordinate” relationship of wife to husband that was common in the ancient world. Rather, all members of the church community are instructed to be subordinate to Christ and to one another. (Ephesians 5:21) The reverence for Christ, and the deference that believers give one another, create a social environment that acknowledges the primacy of God’s Grace. Just as a husband’s primary role is to love his wife, God is the One whose primary desire is to be in a love relationship with God’s People.

Some people today might question the propriety of the author’s use of a source that encouraged the subjection of a wife to her husband, but to focus on that modern cultural value is to misunderstand the author. The author of the Letter to the Ephesians was imitating Jesus’ teaching style by using a familiar secular example in order to teach an unfamiliar religious lesson.

Jesus used sheep, shepherds, fishermen, farmers, crops and other created things that would have been very familiar to his hearers. He used quotidian images to communicate the proximity of God’s Reign. The images served a dual purpose. Firstly, they were easy to understand because they were drawn from daily life. Secondly, their familiarity communicated a shocking message about God, namely, that God wants an intimate, familiar relationship with God’s People.

The author of the Letter to the Ephesians used a household code of pagan Hellenistic origin because his readers would have been very familiar with the purpose it served in Hellenistic culture. However, the author re-interpreted the household code to create a lesson about the appropriate social dynamic in a church community, “Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 5:21)

The use of a household code demonstrates a particular genius: it was not only familiar to the readers, but it was also a lesson about social interaction. Using a familiar secular example of appropriate social interaction in the ancient world the author described the nature of appropriate social interaction within a church community, a set of values that would have been new and unfamiliar to the recently baptized.

If we modern readers can put aside our cultural prejudices we can see the actual focus of this instruction was to encourage harmony with one another in our church communities based on our baptismal union with the Risen Christ. Often, I wonder if our modern aversion to statements such as “wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22), has little to do with our concern about gender equality and everything to do with our unwillingness to follow anyone’s will but our own.

The simple truth is that the Baptismal Covenant is one in which we choose freely to subject our will to the Divine will. We do so because there is ample evidence to indicate that our will is often self-destructive while God’s will is always redemptive.