Saturday, September 26, 2009

Today's Sermon: “Practical Theology”

There is a piece of me that wonders what set off the Apostle James when he wrote the part of his letter that we heard read this morning. There’s something in the tone of it that reminds me when all of my five kids were still at home and I had to say something like:

“Matt, stop taking Bryce’s Walkman. Bryce, if Matt takes it, you come tell me, you don’t just punch him. Chris, do your homework upstairs in Daddy’s office if Sam is practicing guitar in your room. Sam, don’t follow him around to serenade him. Allie, Mommy can’t make you cookies right now, and you’re not big enough yet to make them by yourself. We’ll make them later.”

James sounds harried, aggravated with the people’s problems, trying to get everything covered in one burst of instruction. It’s a practical theology, not a theoretical one. .It’s not academic – it’s how to survive. It gets to the heart of how we are supposed to live as followers of Christ.

And that is nothing new in Scripture. In the gospel, Jesus is doing the same thing: giving practical instruction in how to live as his followers, because, of course, the disciples have coming running to him with what they perceive as a big problem and he turns it into a teachable moment in practical theology.

We hear James and Jesus in these teaching moments, and we are amazed that they have the patience to put up with the followers, who try, bless their hearts, but just keep going off the rails.

There is something particularly wonderful about lessons in practical theology. We can spend hours pondering the nature of the Trinity, and how it was that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine at the same time, and whether we consider Joseph the father of Jesus even though he was conceived by the Holy Spirit….but that doesn’t always help us in how we live today. It is those moments of teaching practical theology that really show us where the rubber meets the road.

Take something as simple as water. We know Jesus told us something very practical having to do with water: “I was thirsty and you brought me a drink.” (Matt 25:35).

The Baptist pastor Clarence Jordan tells a story about it:
“Jesus said, ‘I expect from my followers a kind of life that identifies them. I was thirsty and you knew how to respond.’ Now this is the kind of thing the Christians, many times, seem to be so dumb about. When they see a man who's thirsty, they haven't got sense enough to give him water. They bring him a hymnal. Or, to take an even more ridiculous example, a Baptist church I know installed a $25,000 fountain on its front lawn. That thing has the capacity of a thousand gallons a minute. That's enough water for any Baptist. A thousand gallons a minute! We Baptists don't do things half way. And the people come and Jesus says, ‘I was thirsty.’ ‘Yeah, Lord, and we built you a circulatin' fountain.’ When some people don't even have runnin' water in their kitchens! Can you imagine people being that idiotic?”[1]

We could talk for several hours of a theology of water, all the ways water is a symbol in the Bible, water as a sign of rebirth, of cleansing, water used in ritual….you get the picture. But Jesus says something very simple, very practical: “I was thirsty and you brought me something to drink.” Simple. Necessary. Unambiguous. Practical.

Practical theology is what gets you through the day.

We’ve got a very different kind of practical theology in the Old Testament reading today, a harsh story. It’s about Queen Esther, the Jewish queen married to the Persian king, Ahasuerus – we might also know him as Xerxes. Now, Esther is a pretty interesting character. She is incredibly beautiful. She is a devout Jew. She has been chosen by Ahasuerus to be his wife from among all the beautiful women in his kingdom. She was the successor to Ahasuerus’ first wife Vashti, who aggravated him by not coming to his party from her part of the palace when he sent for her. He didn’t want to be seen as a king who couldn’t control his wife – what would all the other women in the kingdom do if he didn’t punish her? – so he banished Queen Vashti from the land. But then he needed a new queen, and after a very long process of preparation, he chose Esther (whose original Hebrew name was Hadassah, by the way) to be his new queen.
Now remember, she was a Jew. He was a Persian. We might be a little surprised that she would agree to marry a non-Jew…wasn’t that unclean? But with the guidance of her trusted uncle Mordecai, she went ahead with it, because it was an opportunity to advocate for her people. A little practical theology, turning around the rules to fit the context in which those Jews lived, as an oppressed minority in Persia.

There were many ground rules about living with the King, one of which was that no one approached the king; they simply responded when the king called them. And Esther complied with that rule, because those who broke it were killed for their disrespect. But she violated that rule when her uncle discovered a plot to murder the king and passed that information along to her. She saved her husband’s life, so he forgave her for breaking the rule.

In the meantime, there was a villain in the story – there always is, isn’t there? His name was Haman. You might consider him the Karl Rove or Rahm Emmanuel of the day, a powerful advisor to the king. He didn’t much like the Jews – the poor Jews always have someone who doesn’t like them in the Bible, don’t they? He noticed that Esther’s uncle Mordecai, who used to hang around the front of the palace gate, would not bow to the king. Another one of those Persian rules, you know. Mordecai was devoted to his God, and would only bow to him. Haman used that violation to say that all the Jews didn’t honor King Ahasuerus, and they all should be killed.

At this point in our little conversation about practical theology, we might say “why didn’t Mordecai just go ahead and bow to the king? Wouldn’t that be the practical thing to do? Then the Jews wouldn’t be killed, and that’s a good thing, right?”

Well, there’s a difference between pragmatic solutions that compromise your beliefs and practical theology, and this is where the difference shows up. It might have saved everybody if they just went ahead and bowed, but it didn’t solve the basic problem that they all really believed in their own God, the one true God, and bowing this time might save them in this moment, it might have been a pragmatic solution, but practical theology would say that to be true to their beliefs, they had to find a way to make the relationship shift, a way to get the permission of the king to allow them to worship as they pleased, not seeing it as a disrespect to the Persian monarchy.

And so Queen Esther heard about what was planned, and she did a very wise thing, an example of practical theology. She didn’t act immediately. She decided to throw a banquet to honor her husband. Lavish food and drink, entertainments, all to please him. The King promised her anything she asked for. Anything at all, even half of his kingdom. That must have been some banquet! And her request was an important one: she asked to save her people. , "If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me-- that is my petition-- and the lives of my people-- that is my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king."

The king hadn’t heard about this plan to kill the Jews – it was all Haman’s doing – and he was furious, because if all the Jews were to be killed, he would lose his beloved Esther as well. So when he found out that Haman had done this, he ordered that Haman be killed. And the Jews were saved, and Esther was a hero of her people as well as the beloved of the king.

Practical theology doesn’t mean denying your beliefs to get what you want, it means making it work in your time and place. It means hearing God’s Word as God means you to hear it today, here in this town, in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Are you going to have a dinner party to outwit your enemy and save your people? Most likely not, although I bet there have been such dinner parties in Washington this weekend.

Are you going to worry about those who are casting out demons in Jesus’ name, and wonder if you should do something about that, because they don’t seem to be a part of what you think is Christianity? Maybe not literally, but if we start judging the different flavors of religious experience as if we had the only right one, we might get a slap on the wrist by the Lord, as he did in today’s Gospel.

James does offer some very practical theology in a slightly brusque but effective way: it is a prescription for acts of piety. Prayer. Singing songs of praise. Anointing of the sick. More prayer. Confession of sin and asking for forgiveness form those whom you’ve wronged. More prayer. Helping those who have gone astray.

I doubt we will examine much of what we do in our day to day lives in terms of academic theology, but I believe that the way we live our lives is an expression of our practical theology, of living with God as God lives with us. We don’t always think out loud about it, but we live it. And we’re not always sure we’re on the right path. But God sees and knows and appreciates that we try to continue to perfect ourselves.

We live in this world that has been God’s gift to us, and God’s only requirement is that we believe in him and love him, and that we look to see a glimpse of God in those around us. That’s eminently practical, and joyful, too, and I believe we can do that today and every day, with God’s help.


[1] Jordan, Clarence. Cotton Patch Tales of Liberation

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