Sunday, November 14, 2021

Sermon: "Holy Provocation", Numbers 20:1-5, 9-13/Hebrews 10:19-25 (November 14, 2021)


Families fight. This is a universal truth. It doesn’t matter if yours is connected by genetics or by choice; it makes no difference how healthy the dynamics between its members are. All families fight.

The Church likes to pretend that it’s exempt from this natural law—that because we have Jesus as our head, we meet conflict with a level of grace and humility that puts everyone else to shame. But come on; we all know that isn’t true. ALL. FAMILIES. FIGHT. And God’s family is no exception. From arguments about what color to paint the walls to full-blown denominational schisms, the Christian family has been fighting with each other since time immemorial. Our fights may not resemble the backset arguments of our childhood over who’s touching whom or the tension of a holiday dinner in an election year, but they’re just as inevitable.

Now, the thing about family—any family—is that when they fight, they know exactly which buttons to push to get under each other’s skin. And unlike our relationships with other people, we’re often less afraid to “poke the bear” when it comes to our siblings. In other words, few family fights happen by accident. We not only expect conflict with our family members; we often find ourselves actively provoking it. While human parents tend to have a low tolerance for siblings picking fights (and who can blame them?) God has a slightly more nuanced attitude about ecclesial family fights. Our motivation makes a difference; it matters to what end we antagonize one another. Because, it turns out, there’s actually a right way to provoke our siblings in Christ, and there’s a wrong way.

It will surprise no one to discover that human beings are far more adept at the latter. We always have been. The Israelite’s exodus from Egypt was the ancient equivalent of that childhood car ride that I mentioned a moment ago. It didn’t matter that God had literally delivered them out of slavery; it didn’t matter that they were on their way to the promised land (perhaps the ancient equivalent of Disney World?); it didn’t matter that God was providing for their every need. As soon as they settled into the metaphorical backseat of the car, they began bickering. The modern cries of, “Are we there yet?” aren’t recounted in scripture, but the far more dramatic, “I want to die!” certainly is, and apparently, the complaint of, “I’m hungry; I want a snack” is timeless.

This is a theme that repeats itself over and over again throughout Exodus and Numbers. The Israelites endlessly provoke Moses, God, and each another all along their wilderness journey. We can tell that this is the wrong kind of provocation because of its selfish nature. The Israelites’ complaints are unlikely to result in any actual change (since, remember, God is already providing them with everything they need). Instead, whether they realize it or not, their only purpose in complaining is to make someone else feel bad. Their provocation is motivated by anger, impatience, and pettiness.

But this isn’t an unusual occurrence in the post-Exodus journey. What makes this account of the Israelite’s terrible travel etiquette different from the others in the Hebrew Bible is that, in *this* one, the Israelites’ selfish provocation has some serious consequences. Usually, God is pretty tolerant (if annoyed by their bickering)—because remember, ALL FAMILIES FIGHT—but this time, they push Moses too far. This time, their antagonism provokes *him* to anger and impatience of his own. Instead of speaking to the rock, as God instructed him to, Moses lashes out at the Israelites and strikes the rock out of anger. For this reaction, Moses is punished: he won’t be permitted to enter Disney Worl—I mean, the promised land with his people. The best-case scenario of petty provocation is that nothing changes, but the worst-case is anger and frustration that perpetuates itself, ultimately leading to discord and division

But our reading from the book of Hebrews indicates that there’s another, better way to provoke our family. Tension and conflict don’t have to tear us apart; when approached faithfully, they can actually bind us closer together. The book of Hebrews was addressed to Jewish Christ-followers struggling with persecution and burnout. Things were really tough, and it wouldn’t have been surprising if the community had begun to bicker with one another like the Israelites did. But the writer of Hebrews (possibly Paul, but probably someone closer to the community) reminds them that they can’t afford to alienate one another.

Through Christ, all have equal access to God, but that doesn’t mean that they can go it alone. On the contrary, it means that they need one another more than ever. Since none of us is without sin, none of us understands God’s will perfectly. We need one another to help us with discernment and seeing the bigger picture. But because everyone in the family has equal access to God, it naturally opens the door for more perspectives of the divine than ever before. Some of our differing perspectives can coexist in tension with each other (like whether cake or cookies is a more appropriate snack for coffee hour), but others must be worked through in order to authentically honor God’s desires for humankind.

*All* of us will get *some* of it wrong. That’s where holy provocation comes in. The CEB tells us that we must consider one another “for the purpose of sparking love and good deeds”, but for once, I’m not a fan of this translation. The NRSV and KJV both translate the Greek “paroxusmon” as “provoke”: we must “consider how to *provoke* one another to love and good deeds.” This may not sound as collegial as other translations do (others implore us to “spark”, “stir up”, or “spur” love and good deeds) but it’s far more faithful to the original text. “Paroxusmon” is not gentle. It implies irritation, confrontation, and suddenness. It’s where we get the English word “paroxysm”—a sudden fit or attack of emotions, a violent outburst.

The difference, of course, between the provocation of the Israelites in the wilderness and this provocation endorsed by Hebrews is purpose. Both are uncomfortable, both are disruptive, both are difficult…but only one paves the way for God’s kindom. Only one results in a better understanding of God’s will. Only one is an act of love.

When we provoke one another towards acts of love, it gets us away from a lukewarm tolerance of sinful behavior, out of our comfort zone, and increases our chances of ACTUALLY living God’s commandments together. We need the Church, and the provocation of our kindred, to keep us from stagnating, and to make sure we’re moving in the right direction. When done correctly, it doesn’t divide us by inspiring shame or anger for its own sake; it pushes us to be better by insistenting upon loving and reconciling actions.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of great role models for this sort of behavior. Like I said, humanity is way better at petty provocation than holy provocation. But Jesus does offer us an example in one of his parables. In Luke 18(:2-5), he says, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him, asking, ‘Give me justice in this case against my adversary.’ For a while he refused but finally said to himself, ‘I don’t fear God or respect people, but I will give this widow justice because she keeps bothering me. Otherwise, there will be no end to her coming here and embarrassing me.’”

This parable was originally shared to explain God’s response to persistent prayer, but we can learn as much from the widow in this passage as from the unjust judge. THIS is what holy provocation looks like. It’s not mean, but it *is* insistent. It’s not self-righteous, but it *is* rooted in righteousness. And most importantly, it’s not comfortable, but it *is* an act of love. It’s less like yelling “Are we there yet??” from the backseat and more like shouting out that the driver is about to miss their turn. Nobody likes being provoked, but there are times when, in service to a greater good, it’s necessary.

Families fight. That’s inevitable. But when we (God’s children) fight, we need to ask ourselves, “To what end are we provoking one another?” Is it our own ends or God’s? Are we defending our privilege or standing up for the justice that God intends for humanity? Are we trying to make ourselves look good or trying to do what’s right? Are we attempting to create the Church in our own image, or are we reforming it to better reflect God’s?

We SHOULD be unsettled from time to time. There is zero chance that we’ve successfully achieved the kindom of God and are perfectly conforming to God’s will. All of us have been (and will be again) tempted away from holiness by selfishness or greed or fear. We rely on the gift of our Church family—and their holy provocation—to unsettle us into returning to the path of righteousness.

C. Melissa Snarr, Associate Professor of Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt Divinity School, describes the Church like this: “[It’s] is not a polite gathering, a lifestyle enclave, or even a liturgical affinity group; believers require a community of holy honesty, sacred risk, and audacious love.”[1] Holy honesty. Sacred risk. Audacious love. These things are not gentle. They are insistent, demanding, and exacting. But they are exactly the sort of provocation that we need. Friends, remember these principles each time we find ourselves in disagreement with one another—not just in our immediately community, but with the entire family of Christ and all of God’s children. Let us demand of one another the holy honesty, sacred risk, and audacious love that God requires of us. And when we provoke each another, may it always and only be towards the sacred ends of love and good deeds. Amen.


[1] Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship: Year B, volume 2. P. 485.

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