Joseph Wiesenfarth’s Homily, August 23, 2015

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Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18; Ephesians 6: 10-20, John 6:56-69

By Joseph Wiesenfarth

Joshua led the Israelites across the River Jordan into Canaan, the Promised Land, which had been inhabited by the Amorites, whom, the elders rightly say, “lived in this land.”  The reason that they don’t live there anymore is because Joshua either drove them out or  killed them.  He then divided Canaan among the twelve tribes, who were descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob.  They then proceeded to fight and kill each other.

The hitch is that we don’t know who wrote the Book of Joshua because it took a

few centuries to reach its final form.  The story it tells is questionable as history; its genre is indeterminate.  Should it be taken as part of prophecy (telling us what will be) or as law (telling us what must be)?  Joshua comes immediately after Deuteronomy,  “the second law,” in the Bible.  So only one thing is certain:  like each of the other of today’s readings, Joshua is about choosing to serve the one true God.

Next we read an excerpt from the letter to the Ephesians in which we encounter these words:  armor of God, forces of evil, cosmic powers, struggle, belt of truth, breastplate of righteousness, shield of faith, helmet of salvation, sword of the Spirit, and ambassador in chains.

The hitch here is that we don’t know whether Paul wrote these words or whether one or a few of his followers wrote them.   But two things are certain:  they were written by someone who was a prisoner and they reflect Paul’s teaching in others of his letters.

Finally we come to the Gospel of John where Jesus requires anyone who follows him to eat his flesh and drink his blood.  Many refuse to do this and leave him.  But the logic here is not that those who leave him reject cannibalism because they could not follow Jesus if they were literally eating his flesh and drinking his blood.  He would obviously be dead. So we are left here with a metaphor that suggests that those who do leave him refuse to follow the teachings of someone who puts them in such stark terms.

The hitch here is that the apostle John did not write the Gospel of John.  And, in the words of John Shelby Spong, who after reading every commentary on this gospel available to him, concludes, “I do not think that there is one word in the Johannine text that Jesus actually came close to saying” (Liberating the Gospels, p. 178).

Now one thing that is certain about today’s readings is that they are quite a belligerent, not to say a sanguinary, lot.  They make one wonder whether Jane Austen, whose father and two of whose brothers were Anglican clergymen, remembered these passages of Scripture before she wrote these engaging  words:  “There is no enjoyment like reading.”

Let me see whether I can find something that makes Jane Austen more acceptable  than not.  When I stop to think about today’s readings, I come back to the words of Peter to Jesus:  “Rabbi, to whom can we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”   And I also come back to words that I read recently in Garry Wills’ very long book Head and Heart: A History of Christianity in America, which runs some 626 pages should you be interested in something that is decidedly not beach reading.  It treats an exhausting variety of Christian denominations and beliefs from those of Cotton Mather’s day to those of Karl Rove’s day.  Wills divides the myriad versions of Christian faith he treats into two categories:  one that is ruled by the head and one that is ruled by the heart.

Enlightened religion professes a belief in “the laws of nature and of nature’s God.”  It holds that reason is the tool for understanding those laws, and that humane conduct is what those laws teach.  Evangelicals, by contrast, emphasize the experiential relationship with Jesus as their savior, along with biblical inerrancy and a mission to save others.  (p. 3)

A single incident in Wills’ recounting the history of the Quakers in their practice of an enlightened religion sticks in my mind.  That principle is that “If reason says slavery is wrong, then it is wrong no matter what the Bible says” (p.152).  This certainly is the principle that was practiced by Anthony Benezet (1713-1784).  He was a man who long before the Emancipation Proclamation condemned slavery and counted all African-Americans as his brothers and sisters, setting up schools for their children, incessantly soliciting money for their sustenance, and continuously writing petitions to those in government to recognize the equality of races.  In a word, he labored ceaselessly to secure their freedom from slave masters in every way conceivable to him.  We are told by his biographer Roberts Vaux that

When Benezet died, huge crowds conducted him to his burial, people high and low, white and black.

At the interment of Anthony Benezet’s remains, which took place two days after his death, the greatest concourse of people that had ever been witnessed on such an occasion in Philadelphia was present, being a collection of all ranks and professions among the inhabitants; thus manifesting the universal esteem in which he was held.  Among others who paid their last tribute of respect were many black people, testifying by their attendance and by their tears the grateful sense they entertained of his pious efforts on their behalf.  (pp. 151-52)

Nevertheless on his deathbed, Benezet said of himself, “I am dying and feel ashamed to meet the face of my Maker, I have done so little in his cause” (p. 152).   His contemporaries thought differently, for they saw, as Gerard Manley Hopkins would later write, that “the just man justices; / Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces” (“As kingfishers catch fire”).  And Garry Wills saw that too and dedicated his book to him, writing:  “Benezet seems to me the one unquestionably authentic American saint” (p. 152).  When I read about Anthony Benezet and meditated on the words of Hopkins and Wills, I returned to Jane Austen with greater peace of mind and soul:  “There is no enjoyment like reading.”

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