The scripture passages we have received today remind me of the relatively modern invention of the Choose Your Own Adventure books. If you have not experienced this genre of children’s literature, each book has a central theme and puts the reader as a first person narrator in the story. At certain points the reader must choose what to do next and turn to the corresponding page (which is not necessarily the next page). The story continues until another choice is required, and the same pattern continues until you reach the end of a story line – whether by peril or success – depending on your choices as the reader.
I tell you this because I think there is a fairly simplistic story line that can be read out of these passages, and there are more complex threads to find if you are willing to “follow the white rabbit” as both Lewis Carrol and the Matrix invite us to do. So, from this point forward, we’ll explore a basic storyline, and then we’ll see how far the rabbit hole can go (in the style of a Choose Your Own Adventure book).
The simple story line begins with an historical declaration about a certain group of people, the Southern Kingdom of Judah, who were mistreating the poor and received God’s comeuppance (death by the sword of foreign powers, nasty stuff). Tch-tch... too bad for them. Psalms even seems to say that they had it coming. The book of Hebrews tells us that we can be different from them if we place our hope and trust in the idea that God offers us an eternal kingdom. Not only that but if we have faith in that promise, we will receive the kingdom – because God really wants to give it to us. Then Jesus comforts our fears about the possibility of loss and reminds us to be generous to others so that God will be generous to us – both now and in the life to come.
All of that is true. Case closed. Makes sense. Amen.
Except...except that the people of Judah are not just straw people propped up to tear down for the story of Jesus. They are God’s beloved. Not only that, but the prophecies of God are not simply historical documents, and the words of the prophets are not just written for one certain people. They are living, breathing indictments in a world where stop lights don’t usually go up until an intersection bears a fatality. In this world, international conglomerates, and even local businesses, do not become concerned about worker safety until people are grievously injured or more often until they begin to die – and even then not until someone else notices.
And where is the church? Where is the prophetic voice of God in a state where 1 of every 86 adults are, or have been, imprisoned – many of them for non-violent crimes – in a system that breeds recidivism and tears apart families? Well, one might say that the prophetic voice of God is giving the church a royal and well deserved spanking! It is as if Isaiah is saying, “Do you think God cares whether or not you get things right in here when you have no impact out there? Yes, you support organizations that do, but what is the church doing? Does your arguing over who someone is allowed to love glorify God? Does your wrangling over correct or traditional or contemporary worship that is only relevant to the traditions of maybe 100 out of 2,000 years of Christian practice (let alone the historical faith of Judaism from whence you come) glorify God? As one commentary said, “Today’s critics of religion need to realize that the Bible has beaten them to it.”
And so the first step in our adventure is a challenge to consider what we truly believe in. Why are we doing what we are doing, and does it matter to the purposes of God? Are we trying to cover our tracks, or hold down the fort, or are we open to the actions of God that prune us and anticipate our willing risk of everything in order to care for the lonely and the lost – particularly the poor and the oppressed – simply because it is the right thing to do?
From there we move in our Choose Your Own Adventure story to the Psalms. Here we are reminded to choose wisely, and then we are led to a room filled with a community of believers pouring over a beloved letter. It is roughly a generation since this Rabbi named Jesus was said to have risen from the dead, and the Jerusalem temple has been destroyed. They are mostly Jews, and they know the story of Abraham and Sarah. They know that God chose Abraham and Sarah and used them to demonstrate God’s active presence in a new way. This is the God that created a “sent people.” This is the God that is both the reason for moving on and the purpose for being.
As a person in that room we would have heard the soothing words of the letter to the Hebrews telling us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.” These Hellenistic Jews most likely spoke Greek, but from inside our book we can hear it in our own language. They probably heard these words in a way that meant something like “faith gives substance to things unseen.” As a people of the God who spoke creation into being this made sense. Faith is not about asking for things really, really passionately. Faith is about becoming open to eternal things – things that cannot be revealed in any other way during our lifetimes. And now another choice in our story stands before us. Do we accept the belief that we are receiving a promise that we may never see in fullness?
In the next page we flash forward to the labs of scientists and physicists studying forces of gravity, subatomic particles, and dark matter in the far reaches of space. Indeed, we finally realize, “that which is seen is made from things unseen.” From here we see images of far off planets that could bear life. This inspires us to look more deeply into our own humanity, and on the next page we find ourselves in the home of a single parent who lives just down the street. 45% of all children in Louisiana are born to unwed mothers, and her three are more than she can handle.
She is crying herself to sleep because she just doesn’t know how to make it. She wakes the next day, and resolves to believe that she will make it through that day. You can call it faith or tenacity, but there is not much hope. There is only a will to survive.
From here we turn to Jesus, because right about now we really need to hear him say, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Of course we are immediately met with the challenge to sell all that we possess and give alms to the poor. While this is both confronting and confusing (becoming poor does not alleviate poverty), the parables that follow interpret the sayings of Jesus. While deeply concerned for the poor, Jesus is equally concerned about our priorities. Jesus wants us to know that our priorities must be rooted in our faith, our trust, and our hope in the coming and present Kingdom of God.
The story about the King who serves his faithful people and the thief in the night certainly offer encouragement for being ready, but the greater issue is about being willing. Service and possessions given in response to God’s love are so much more fulfilling than waiting until the end and realizing that you just can’t take it with you.
And so the final choice in our Choose Your Own Adventure story for today is whether or not we will live as members of the Kingdom of God here and now. The final choice is to decide how you will glorify God in all of your choices. The final choice is to recognize the things that are unseen that make up the substance of our world – things like compassion, relationships, and the recognition of those who suffer needlessly.
We cannot fix the world. Only God can do that. We can live as a people who express forgiveness and reconciliation. We can live as a people who see our hopes fulfilled in the Kingdom that God is ushering in. That is why we say that we have faith. Not because we expect God to do stuff in a certain way that will benefit us and those we love, but because we can see what God is doing. We can live in a way that is not attached to stuff but instead demonstrates the stuff of life. We can be a part of what God is doing. In fact, if we want to experience the Kingdom of God, we must be a part of what God is doing – both here and now, and there and then. And may God be glorified in all of our stories, and even more so in the one we are writing together. Amen!