The Adventurous Lectionary – November 4, 2012 – Twenty Third Sunday after Pentecost
This Sunday’s lectionary readings are appropriate for the Sunday before Election Day in the USA. They provide an alternative to the current xenophobia and divisiveness that characterizes much of todays’ fear-based political dialogue. It has been said that the opposite of love is fear and we are hearing a lot of fear language in our public discourse – persons of color are targeted as “illegal aliens” by Arizona legislators and law enforcement officers, the Affordable Health Care Act (moderate in its intentions) is labeled as “socialist” (the new communist in some circles), hype over the demise of Social Security and Medicare is evident on both sides of the political aisle, and – despite the obvious fact that the nation continues to be safe under the leadership of an African American Christian president – some still harbor racist inclinations and label the president as a Muslim. While this Sunday’s lectionary readings won’t solve today’s challenges, they present a vision that emphasizes love rather than fear and inclusion instead of exclusion.
The narrative from Ruth 1:1-18 portrays history-shaping border crossings. Naomi, her husband, and two boys journey from Judah to Moab during a time of drought and economic uncertainty. Implied in the storyline is the welcome these foreigners receive in Moab. They make a new home in Moab, the sons marry local non-Jewish women, and they live – at least for a while – a happy life. Tragedy strikes: father and sons die, and the women are left relationally, if not economically, bereft. Naomi does the wise thing relationally and economically; she chooses to return home to her kinfolk. Hospitality, even to a lost-lost relative, demands that they provide an economic safety net for her. But, to her surprise and despite her objections, Ruth chooses to go with her. Love is stronger than fear or unfamiliarity. Ruth the Moabite chooses a new people and honors its God, despite economic and relational risks. Once again, there is a border crossing. Now, Ruth will be the stranger in a foreign land, depending on the kindness of strangers from a different ethnic and religious background.
Ruth’s and Naomi’s border crossings are remarkable. Strangers find a home. But, more importantly, from the marriage of Ruth the Moabite and Boaz the Jew, a line that leads to David and eventually to Jesus is established. From aliens and immigrants comes a great kingdom and salvation to humankind.
On the eve of USA Election Day, Psalm 146 admonishes “do not put your trust in princes.” Nations and leaders will pass away – all human achievement is temporary – while God alone is trustworthy. This is not a counsel to be politically apathetic, but rather to put our political life in perspective. It is important, but not all-important. Placing God at the center of our political and personal lives reminds us that no party or position is ultimate, nor is any national border or empire. Vote, yes! But, don’t make an idol of your political system, nation, or way of life. All nations, social mores, governments are relative and imperfect in light of the grandeur and goodness of God.
Recently, an ad, purporting to come from Billy Graham, urged voters to consider biblical values in the polling place. My conservative friends considered this a victory for George Romney. But, was it? What if Graham’s readers actually read their bibles! Would they assume a clear path leading to the Republican Party? I suspect only if they risked being idolaters. Relativity of all political and, dare I say, ethical positions is at the heart of biblical spirituality. The strongest biblical calls involve the wealthy dealing justly with the poor, care for vulnerable people, and welcoming the outsider. This is hardly the Republican platform, and it goes well beyond the agenda of today’s Democratic Party as well. What would a society built on biblical principles look like? While we can’t absolutize such a vision, it surely would embrace the poor and vulnerable and chastise the wealthy who see profit-making as their primary motivation for business; it would welcome immigrants and provide shelter for the homeless.
The reading from Hebrews is challenging insofar as it centers on blood sacrifice, a practice alien to modern religion and repulsive to many when it is identified with substitutionary atonement, God’s requirement that Jesus die so that we might receive forgiveness for our sins. Jesus sacrifices his life, but is his death demanded by a God whose sovereignty requires constant affirmation by his subjects? The greatest of all realities has little need of ego-boosting or honor-protecting. Progressive pastors, if they choose to read the Hebrews passages at all, need to remind their congregants of alternative visions of atonement that do not require violence or death to appease an angry or dishonored God. Jesus’ atonement can be seen as much in his sacrificial life as his preordained death. In fact, Jesus’ sacrifice – his willingness to die for his cause – calls us to be faithful to our values, but does not require suffering on our part to be faithful to God. In the long history of atonement theory, Jesus’ death has been used to encourage battered spouses to stay in violent marriages, oppressed people to follow Christ’s way of suffering rather than seek justice in this lifetime, and powerless people to accept restrictive structures in light of their eternal reward beyond this lifetime. Atonement theory is intended to reflect God’s love and care for our wholeness, not support injustice and oppression. Jesus’ quest for abundant life (John 10:10) is at the heart of atonement theory: Jesus – and God – want us to rejoice in life, to experience healing, and explore the many possibilities of human fulfillment.
Jesus’ response to a faithful scribe (Mark 12:28-34) captures the dynamic nature of God’s call and our response. The greatest commandment is holistic in nature. In loving God, we truly love our neighbors. In truly loving our neighbors, we love God. Loving God and neighbor nurture our own self-affirmation. God doesn’t want us to “play small,” but to “think big.” God doesn’t want us to embrace pain sacrificially or in imitation of Jesus, but to live and love fully and this abundance may involve sacrifice of some interests that greater goods may be embodied. Following Christ’s way encourages the formation of self-aware people, committed to abundance for others and themselves even if this means suffering. The dynamic interplay of love of God, self, and neighbor affirms that our love of self and neighbor makes a difference to God. God experiences our lives, feeling both our pain and celebration. From this perspective, we cannot separate love of God from love of creation and creatures. In a theocentric approach to ethics and spirituality, our lives are our gifts to God. When we affirm the “least of these,” we are affirming God; we are giving God a more beautiful world.
A theocentric ethic has no outsiders. Our care for our neighbor and the stranger is our contribution to the quality of God’s experience. Our harm of our neighbor and the stranger detracts from the beauty of God’s experience. Aligned with God’s vision, our love of self and stranger as well as neighbor enables God to be more active in this world and for our world more fully to reflect Jesus’ prayer, “on earth as it is in heaven.”
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. His most recent text is Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He is currently serving as Visiting Professor of Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for lectures, workshops, and retreats.