21st Sunday in Ordinary Time reflection by Paul Nicholson
On the eve of World War II an effort was made by the British government to bolster the resolve of the population to prepare for and endure the inevitable confrontation with Nazi Germany. People were terrified and deeply distressed by the possibility of massive air raids and the use of poison gas on their cities, and many thought only of escape to safety. A poster was created, bright red background, white type (ITC Johnston), and a crown above it saying simply: KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON. The message was meant to acknowledge the ever-present risk of war and the best way to respond to it – stick together. Over 2 million copies of the poster were printed but were hardly ever displayed. After the war was over it was mostly forgotten until a copy was discovered in 2000. Today it is a cultural meme found on our clothing, the Internet, our coffee mugs, just about anywhere you look. I’m sure you’ve seen someone sporting some variation on the theme: the punster – KEEP CALM AND CARRION, the individualist – KEEP CALM AND DIY, the consumer – KEEP CALM AND GO SHOPPING, or, as a Mac-user, one of my favorites – KEEP CALM AND USE FORCE QUIT.
It’s interesting how all three of the scripture readings for today present some sort of relational challenge. In the Old Testament reading we enter the narrative mid-stream; God has wiped out all of the enemies of Israel and the prophet Joshua is in his twilight years, taking this opportunity to deliver his will and testament and admonishing the people to remember what God has done for them and to remain true. The reading picks up as Joshua tells the elders to hold fast to the teachings and precepts God has established and not to waver or go after the gods of other nations. There is almost a scolding tone, an "I dare you to disobey" in Joshua’s address as though he knew the people were thinking about a life lived apart from God and so needed a stern warning and some serious what-if anxiety to keep them in line. STAY TRUE AND THE GOOD THINGS WILL CONTINUE.
Paul’s advice to the Ephesians is especially challenging as I read with 21st century eyes. I am extremely uncomfortable with, even embarrassed by, his hierarchical, male-dominated orientation toward women in marriage. It doesn’t help that he blankets the whole thing with the observation that “this is a great mystery.” Really? Is that supposed to help with understanding? Or is this some sort of excuse for such a provocative statement? I read and re-read this passage and am entirely of the same opinion the disciples express in the Gospel reading: this saying is hard, who can accept it? I would love to respond to Paul directly and ask “are you intentionally trying to drive people away? Is this your idea of attracting people to God?” BE OBEDIENT AND DON’T BOTHER WITH EXPLANATIONS.
The words of Jesus some disciples found difficult actually were read last week. Jesus told them, “…unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.” Another mystery statement; difficult if not impossible to comprehend. At this point in the readings my mind is in melt-down mode. All of these passages are pointing toward relationships that make no sense to my do-it-yourself, take-no-prisoners approach, and in that is, I think, the opportunity to reconsider a deeper, richer meaning. Maybe what Joshua and Paul and Jesus are getting at is an invitation to consider relationship with God not so much as something to be managed from within, entirely by the self, but a way of living that engages the "other" and that is rooted in community; less of the DIY and more of the “we’re in this together” way of being. Maybe the message is about connection, connection with Creation and with our neighbor. Maybe the meme would read STAY CALM AND STAY CONNECTED.