The formula is now concretized to the point that it takes almost no imagination to preach or teach the “return to God” sermon. Here’s how it goes (as if I need to explain it to you): 1. The world/culture/country is in terrible shape. 2. Here are all the aspects where the world/culture/country are out-of-whack. 3. It didn’t use to be this way when I was a kid. We used to have a better world/culture/country. 4. Here’s a list of all the people responsible for the shoddy state of contemporary world/culture/country. 5. The only way to fix it is for our world/culture/country to “return to God” (which, just coincidentally, coincides with “the way things used to be when I was a kid”).
You’ve heard this sermon? If not, I can send you some URL’s. As a matter of fact, my ears were recently assaulted by a sermon by someone stating when he grew up he didn’t know any gay people (and no, it was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad).
One reason you’ve heard this sermon before is because nearly every motivator is deployed. First, selective nostalgia drawn from fuzzy memories — which all memories are — are employed as the ideal world. Second, disdain for cultural phenomenons we dislike or don’t understand, are positioned as evil on the basis of our own lack of understanding. Third, a clearly identified enemy (which is never the hearer, but always “those people”) is at fault. And finally, the power of God is offered as the magic wand for everything the speaker dislikes.
Without reflection, this sounds like a pretty good homily. In fact, in certain circles, this sermon formula produces a defined and predictable response: standing ovations. After all, who doesn’t have a fairly good list of things they wish are different about our world? I do. And what a relief to know that if enough of us performed the right religious dance steps everything would return to the way we think we remember it.
But there’s a problem: This sermon formula mocks God.
We Should Have Learned This Already
In 1 Samuel 4, the Israelites are fighting their archenemies, the Philistines. We use the word Philistine as an insult, the truth is they were an advanced nation whose chief business was metal-work. That means the Israelites were fighting with sticks and stones against an army using swords and spears.
[In those days, the Philistines warred against Israel,] and the warriors of Israel went out to fight them. They camped at Ebenezer while the Philistine forces made camp at Aphek. The Philistines lined up against Israel; and when they advanced, they defeated Israel, killing about 4,000 of Israel’s warriors on the battlefield. 1 Samuel 4:1b–2
The Israelites go out to war and get CRUSHED! In the aftermath, the generals get together to recalibrate.