I’m going to start today by summing up both of our Scripture readings in one sentence: Get ready.
In Joshua, the question is whether the people are ready for the covenant. Are you ready for a relationship with this God? Are you ready for a religion that may cost you? Because if you commit to this God, your life is never going to be the same. Get ready.
In Matthew, the parable of the ten bridesmaids tell us of five who are prepared at all hours to fulfill their role, and five who are not. All of them wait. All of them sleep. But in the end, some of them are equipped with the oil they need when the bridegroom comes to begin the wedding feast, and five are off buying the oil they should have already had. Procrastinators beware! The banquet is closed to them, and the message left for all of us is that we similarly do not know when we will need to get up and follow Christ. Get ready.
Last week while we were here, spending time together in worship and fellowship, the people of the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs were trying to do the same – but that isn’t how their Sunday ended. Of their hundred-member congregation, twenty-five were killed and another twenty wounded in a mass shooting. I’ve been thinking a lot about the pastor of that congregation, Frank Pomeroy, who lost his own 14 year-old daughter, Annabelle, in the massacre. In addition to planning an unimaginable number of funerals, he’s holding a service today in a local community center. It’s too painful to worship in the old clapboard church, he has told the media. They are planning to demolish it.
All mass shootings are horrific, but I probably dwell more on the ones that happen in churches because that’s my world. I think about what it would be like to be the pastor of a congregation that suffered such a shocking act of violence. I think about what I would do in an active shooter situation, as the person in the pulpit.
This week it was suggested to me by multiple people that what I ought to do is go into the pulpit prepared, by which they meant with a gun. Or if I was not willing to be armed myself, they told me I should prepare my congregation by having at least some of you trained and armed during services. Many churches have already done this, I’ve learned. In those that haven’t, the reality is that there are people in the pews who are carrying. I would be very surprised if there is not at least one handgun in this room right now.
I have some friends on Facebook who span a pretty broad range of perspectives, and this week a couple of them were having a brief discussion of “sheepdog theory,” which was mentioned in the movie American Sniper but originated in a book by Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman called On Combat. Essentially it divides humans into three categories: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. Grossman writes, “If you have no capacity for violence then you are a healthy, productive citizen: a sheep. If you have a capacity for violence and no empathy for your fellow citizens, then you have defined an aggressive sociopath – a wolf. But what if you have a capacity for violence, and a deep love for your fellow citizens? Then you are a sheepdog, a warrior, someone who is walking the hero’s path.”
According to Grossman, the wolves will do anything they can to hurt sheep. The wolves are mass shooters, terrorists, criminals, gangsters, etc. And because of the wolves, no matter how much society fears its sheepdog protectors, the sheep need the sheepdogs. Therefore the sheepdog can never “take out its teeth,” which in gun rights terms means that a gun owner should never go anywhere without a firearm. “If you are a warrior who is legally authorized to carry a weapon and you step outside without that weapon, then you become a sheep, pretending that the bad man will not come today. If you want to be a sheepdog, you must make a conscious and moral decision every day to dedicate, equip, and prepare yourself to thrive in that moment when the wolf comes knocking at the door.” He’s not talking about if, he’s talking about when. Sheepdogs are people who constantly view their surroundings with fear and suspicion. Get ready.
I confess that there’s something about this that makes sense to me, that even appeals to me. I’ve been around guns most of my life. I’ve shot and owned guns. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was thinking about buying a target package at a local shooting range because I think it’s fun and stress relieving. But it goes deeper than that. I grew up with a whole lot more John Wayne than Jesus, and I am fiercely protective of people I care about. They say we all respond to fear by fighting, fleeing, or freezing, my instinct is almost always to fight. When I think about someone coming into this sanctuary and trying to kill members of my congregation, my first thought is that yes, absolutely, I would shoot that person in a heartbeat. That’s the kind of ready I want to be – when I’m acting from the values that surround me, those good old American values of self-sufficiency and self-defense, that ever-present instinct to meet violence with greater violence. Get ready.
But although those are the values that I grew up with, and the values of the culture that I live and breathe every day, I can find no evidence that they even remotely approximate any stance of Jesus. I cannot find a single verse in the Bible that suggests to me that the call of Christ is to carry a concealed handgun in my robe and stand ready to kill those who might threaten us. For Jesus, who taught and lived the value of turning the other cheek, of responding to hate with love, of not following our instinct to return violence with greater violence, I cannot imagine that training an armed guard for church would be the answer. This is not the kind of ready Christ wants for us.
These days we baptize young children most of the time, and our liturgies are mostly about the love of God and welcoming people to the community of faith. Lovely, but not terribly revolutionary. We forget that the earliest baptismal liturgies were a little more hardcore. They were a transfer of citizenship: a renunciation of the values and commitments of national identity, in order to embrace and be embraced by the values and commitments of the reign of God. They understood that this new citizenship would probably cost them; it may even cost their lives. But they understood that they had to say no to the values of the Empire in order to say yes to freedom in Christ.
Christianity has been comfortable in North America, and so we’ve tried to be dual citizens, to hold our passports equally in the United States and in the transcendent realm of Christ. We’ve said yes to everything, and so we’ve compromised everything – and we are ready for nothing.
We are living in a culture that values weapons over lives, that believes literally anything – even the lives of other humans – can and should be sacrificed to personal freedom and self-defense. Our society tells us to be ready for that by getting more guns and preparing to defend our lives. The Gospel tells us to get ready to lay down our lives. This is a different kind of ready. This is a ready that does not look at the world with fear and suspicion, even when it seems full of danger; it looks at the world with compassion. This is a ready that does not respond to violence by doubling down; it responds by resisting with loving creativity. This ready is less John Wayne and more Jesus. This is a ready that turns the other cheek, that perseveres, that insists on love, at all costs.
And sometimes it does cost us, to live into the values of the reign of God instead of the values of the world around us. But we cling to the hope that we follow a God who was killed and did not fight back, and who was resurrected so that nothing, even death, would have the final say over the life that God offers.
The readings for this week are not the easiest to digest. They’re a little more hardcore than we sometimes want to think of God as being. They are demanding. They involve consequences. Both Joshua 24 and Matthew 25 are clear that worshiping this God and being part of this realm requires a definitive and conscious choice not to be part of another. You choose this day to follow the LORD, or not. You are ready for the bridegroom, or you aren’t. You get into the feast, or you don’t. There is no split loyalty or dual citizenship.
We cannot follow Christ and bow down before violence and money and power. We have to start saying no to something, in order to fully say yes to something better. We have to choose how we respond to our own fear, because fear will surely come. But what kind of ready will we be? Will we be armed with the weapons of this world, ready to defend our lives, or armed with the hope we have in Christ, and ready to lay them down?