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A post-homiletical discourse delivered by the Rev. Dr. James R. Beebe
Rector, St. Patrick’s Church, Incline Village, Nevada, November 6, 2011
It’s hard to find three passages from scripture that dichotomize folks into opposing camps more than our passages today from Joshua, First Thessalonians, and Matthew. It’s the good guys versus the bad guys. The prepared versus the unprepared. The wise versus the foolish.
In Joshua we have the final mission briefing before Joshua, Moses’ replacement, leads his people in the invasion of the Promised Land. It’s time to get everybody on the same page. “Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord,” says Joshua, “choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living.” Then comes the clincher: “But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Good guy or bad guy? You choose.
Then, in First Thessalonians, Paul performs a final mission briefing of a different kind. You see, Paul believes that the end of the world is at hand. Jesus, after all, had said that there were going to be people in his generation who would still be alive to witness it. Didn’t happen, of course – either in Jesus’ or Paul’s lifetimes. Paul tries his future-telling by saying that in that day, “we who are alive will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air.” So – gold team or brown team? You choose.
Finally, in Matthew, we have Jesus telling the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids. Unfortunately, the bridegroom was delayed, and five of the bridesmaids ran out of oil. Well, the “wise” bridesmaids were also, shall we say, “opportunistic,” and refused to share their lamp oil, so the foolish bridesmaids were out of luck. So – are you going to be prepared or unprepared? You choose.
Life is so much more convenient when there is only black and white: the virtuous and the malevolent. The nice and the snarky. You choose.
Here are two vignettes that illustrate what I mean by “dichotomy.” The first is from a real-life meeting of three intellectual heavyweights:
* Edmond Halley, English astronomer and mathematician, known for calculating the orbit of the comet that was to be named after him.
* Christopher Wren, English architect and one of the founders of the Royal Society – he was the one who designed St. Paul’s Cathedral.
* And Robert Hooke, natural philosopher and inventor who produced, among other things, the camera diaphragm, the universal joint (which was to be used later in virtually all motor vehicles), and coiner of the biological word, “cell.”
It was the early 1680’s when these three friends sat down together in a London coffeehouse. [Bill Bryson] Their friendly wager that evening would eventually result in Isaac Newton’s classic work, Principia, which laid out a new and dynamic mathematical physics which was able to account for the motions of celestial bodies. If nothing else, this convergence of genius represents humanity at its best.
Ironically, at the very same time some English sailors were doing something much less noble on Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean, some 800 miles off the east coast of Madagascar. There, one of the ship’s dogs was harassing a strange-looking bird called the Dodo. Here was a bird with a very trusting nature, which was unable to fly (or even run very fast). The sailors learned that if you caught one, it would start to squawk loudly, inducing every other dodo within earshot to run to the scene to check it out. So they began to catch them. And kill them. All of them. Just because they could.
As Bill Bryson, author of A Short History of Nearly Everything, said, you would be hard-pressed to find a better pairing of occurrences – the meeting of the geniuses and the slaughter of the Dodos – to illustrate the divine and felonious nature of the human being.
We are a species that is apparently capable of unlocking the deepest secrets of the heavens, while at the same time pounding into extinction, for no purpose at all, a creature that never did us any harm and wasn’t even remotely capable of understanding what we were doing to it. And that’s not an isolated incident. When human beings began to inhabit North America, some 10-20,000 years ago, thirty genera of large animals almost immediately disappeared. Australia lost no less than 95 per cent.
The question is, “Why?” There’s only so much food you can eat. So survival was not the issue. Something else was. Why is it that we kill for fun? Or, for that matter, for no reason at all?
In the movie, The Matrix, one of the cybercops reminded Orpheus that human beings were nothing better than a virus – a disease that inhabits and destroys everything they come across. But then again, that was science fiction…right? There is something massively and unmistakeably wrong with our species. That’s the reason that we need God’s grace. Left to our own devices, we’ll just screw things up.
Do you remember the story Jesus tells about a servant who owes his master more money than he could possibly repay? The servant begs for mercy. The king has pity on him, forgives his debt, and releases him. Well, it just so happens that someone else owes that same servant a much smaller amount of money. But, instead of forgiving the way he had just been forgiven, he throws the debtor into prison. Is his memory really that short, or is there something fundamentally wrong with that servant?
Well, Jesus told this parable to get people to realize that they have been forgiven much, so they needed to have the same attitude towards others. I wonder how it would have turned out if Joshua had realized that it’s not simply a matter of self-promoting as good guys and bad guys – as forever obedient or forever disobedient. Israel’s checkered history thereafter attests to this fact, of course. What if Joshua had said something like: “Whatever happens, we’re all in this together and we’ll deal with it. The only rule is that you have to learn to forgive each other.”
I wonder how it would have turned out if the wise bridesmaids had learned to share. It would have been a model of discipleship, but, of course, the parable would have lost its point.
As you yourselves know, some people forgive better than others. But, since we’re talking about dichotomies today, this I submit to you – the ability to forgive – or not to forgive – is the difference between our best and worst natures…
…and best of all, we can this day choose which it will be….