Preached by the Rev. Dr. Lora Walsh
November 12, 2017 Proper 27, Year A
Therapists and doctors are familiar with the term “presenting problems.” “Presenting problems” are what patients identify as the reasons that we’re looking for help. They’re the most evident complaints we have about our lives—complaints like, “I can’t shake my anxiety,” “I’m bored with my life,” “my family member doesn’t support me,” “I can’t get along with my co-worker,” or simply, “my knee hurts.”
Skilled therapists and doctors take these presenting problems seriously. But they also look around, and dig deeper. A presenting problem isn’t always the same as the real problem—or the terrain where solutions might lie. Beneath our presenting problems, there’s a whole substratum of beliefs, habits, brain chemistry, and physiology to explore. Surrounding our presenting problems, there’s a whole web of relationships and social factors to take into account.
There’s a deep and wide world around all of our problems and symptoms. Our therapeutic relationships can help us treat our presenting problems with compassion, and explore the underlying and surrounding issues that might help us to heal.
Religious communities come up with presenting problems as well. They have questions and complaints about what God is like, about how faith treats grief and loss, and about who belongs to their communities—and who doesn’t. Treatment of these presenting problems usually takes a long time. Sometimes, leaders have only just begun that process by treating presenting problems with quick fixes and simplistic answers. But it’s our job to explore these problems more widely and deeply if we can.
All of our readings today address religious communities with classic presenting problems, and religious leaders like Joshua, Paul, and Matthew the evangelist start the treatment there.
The presenting problem for the people in today’s first reading is how to cope with a world of many gods. Joshua addresses the problem by telling the people that they have to choose one god from among many to be their own. Their choices are: the gods beyond the Euphrates river where their ancestors used to live; the gods of the Amorites, in whose land they live now; or the god who delivered them from Egypt . . . but he warns them that this last god is also jealous, unforgiving, and even harmful.
The presenting problem for the people in today’s second reading is that they grieve for the dead as if they have no hope. Paul writes to this community of Christians at Thessalonika, addressing their presenting problem with a quite specific prediction about the future of the dead. Paul claims that the Lord will come back very soon, the dead will rise, and those of us alive now will be caught up in the clouds to meet both Christ and the risen dead in mid-air. (This might be the only time you’ll hear preaching about “the rapture” from this pulpit.) Paul wants this answer to help Christians grieve differently from other people—not like those who have no hope, but like those who are sure they’ll see their loved ones and get raptured themselves any minute now.
The presenting problem for the people in today’s gospel is how to define who is “in” and who is “out” of the kingdom preached by Jesus. The gospel of Matthew addresses this problem by including many parables about dividing the righteous from the wicked. Most of these parables are exclusive to Matthew’s gospel: the weeds and the wheat, the good fish and the bad, the sheep and the goats, and the wise bridesmaids and the foolish bridesmaids we heard about today. The wheat gets gathered into barns and the weeds get burned, the good fish are put into baskets and the bad fish are thrown back, the sheep enter eternal life and the goats head for eternal punishment, and the wise bridesmaids get into the wedding banquet and the foolish bridesmaids find the door shut against them. Matthew’s gospel instructs some groups of Christians about how to find themselves “in” rather than “out” of the kingdom.
I believe that Joshua, Paul, and Matthew the evangelist wrestled mightily with the problems that their communities presented them with. But I think they only got the treatment started. Now it’s our job to use our own powers of inquiry, and our capacity for compassion, to move faithfully beyond these presenting problems to deeper concerns, wider contexts, and maybe the real healing that our world needs.
It won’t be easy, but we can give it a try:
First, to return to the “problem” of a world with many gods. Instead of dealing with this problem by rejecting our neighbors’ gods and choosing a jealous god for ourselves, we could acknowledge, with humility, that we live in a world of many lands and many ways of knowing the divine. And we could deepen our understanding of a god who isn’t the source of jealous harm but of love and goodwill.
Second, we have the problem of grieving without any sense of hope. Instead of dealing with this problem by setting a timeline for Jesus’s imminent return and a play-by-play account of the end times, we could simply sit longer and non-judgmentally with the griefs that we have. And we could invest more of our faith in the transformation of our own earth, full as it is with graves and bones buried before their time.
Third, we have the problem of knowing who’s in and who’s out of the kingdom. Instead of dealing with this problem by preparing for a definitive sorting process, perhaps we could simply open ourselves to the kingdom’s surprises and reversals. The kingdom isn’t something that settles the question of who’s in and who’s out once and for all. It’s something that should keep us on our toes, turning up in surprising times and places, unsettling our certainties about who’s included and who’s not, and always turning out to be larger than we thought.
Joshua, Paul, and Matthew the evangelist responded to the presenting problems of their communities. But as heirs to this particular expression of faith, we don’t have to treat their work as finished. Understanding, treatment, and healing are long processes, just waiting for us to carry on. Amen.