The Adventurous Lectionary for August 18, 2013: Divine Withdrawal and Human Suffering

Lectionary Reflections for August 18, 2013

Isaiah 5:1-7

Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19

Hebrews 11:19-12:2

Luke 12:49-56

What is God’s role in natural disasters that devastate whole cities and nations?  It seems that every time there is a human-made or natural disaster, certain televangelists and conservative spiritual leaders have a field day.  They directly inform us why innocent lives were destroyed and the source is usually God.  Remember 9/11?   A number of public preachers identified the terrorist attack with God’s withholding of protection from the USA as a result of the country’s support of the homosexual lifestyle.  The same reasoning was invoked for Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans, even though the notorious French Quarter was spared!  Not to be outdone, Pat Robertson asserted that the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti resulted from a nineteenth century pact with the devil to achieve national independence.  The role of those whose lives were forever changed was, however, never mentioned.

Certainly today’s passages from the Psalms and Isaiah inspire such thinking.  According to Isaiah, once God planted and nurtured a vineyard; God protected it with a wall.  But, when the vineyard didn’t produce, God destroyed the wall and allowed the vineyard to be overrun.  Of course, the vineyard is God’s chosen nation, Israel.  God raised up and led the nation, but has now initiated its destruction by withdrawing divine protection and letting its enemies overrun the land.  There is a clear cause and effect relationship: when the people turn from God’s vision, succumbing to infidelity and injustice, God turns on the people, provoking its enemies, and destroying its defenses.  (See my companion lectionary at Process and Faith –

http://processandfaith.org/resources/lectionary-commentary/yearc/2013-08-18/proper-15)

While there are obvious consequences to economic and political injustice and poor personal and corporate decision-making, these passages beg the questions: “Do our actions condition God’s response?  Does fidelity insure success?  If we turn from God, does God turn away from us, letting events that destroy the nation take their course?  Is God source of destruction as well as creation, retribution as well as grace?  Does God act unilaterally or relationally?”

Today, most preachers have softened the rewards-punishments, acts-consequences, calculus that plays a significant role in Old Testament/First Testament theology.  If God is active in our world, then the events of persons and nations must reflect, to a greater or lesser degree, divine agency or different levels of divine intensity or absence.  The form God’s presence takes in guiding personal and historical events will remain mysterious.  The acts-consequences approach can be perceived in unilateral ways: either karma or God absolutely determines the impact of our events.  Righteousness leads to success and support, while unrighteousness leads to failure and punishment.  Personally speaking, then, cancer or heart disease are viewed as entirely our doing.  Our actions and attitudes lead to clear consequences; neither God nor causation plays dice.

We cannot eliminate some aspects of acts-consequences relationally.  Greed and irresponsible lending practices led, along with other forms of economic malpractice, led to the 2008 economic meltdown.  The war in Iraq contributed to expanding the national debt.  Smoking and obesity are factors in disease and death.  But, are they wholly determinative or is there free play?

Process theology suggests a symbiotic relationship between God and the world.  As the most moved mover, God is touched by all things.  God’s movements in the world are always concrete and contextual.  The nature of God’s actions in the world is shaped by our actions in the dynamic call and response of life.  When we turn from justice to injustice, or community to self-interested greed, God’s range of actions is limited.  Our actions have consequences.  While it is unlikely that God can erect protective force fields around persons and nations, just and beautiful actions create a synergetic field that promotes greater beauty and justice.  Conversely, a society turned away from the divine compounds the presence of injustice, alienation, and violence.

Hebrews realistically recognizes the open-endedness of the creative process.  There are no guarantees that the faithful will thrive.  They may be the objects of persecution and violence, but even in adverse situations, their hearts and minds are focused on God’s realm.  This may minimize the emotional impact of persecution.

In the maelstrom of conflicting positions and cultural divisions, Jesus challenges us to interpret the signs of the times.  Awareness opens us to see the connection between injustice and violence and consumerism and ecological destruction.  The causal network has a degree of inexorability: although we are agents who shape the world, we do reap what we sow.

Adventurous theological reflection challenges images of God as unilateral punisher and bully.  These images are unworthy of Jesus of Nazareth.  They also encourage bullying, objectifying, and violence against those we assume as “other.”  God may be a factor in the inexorability of the causation, and in this dynamic interdependence, God’s aims are at wholeness and reconciliation.  As Jeremiah proclaims, God has planned good for us, not evil, and opens us to a future and hope in the rough and tumble world of economics, politics, and international relationships.

About Bruce Epperly

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, and Pastor of South Congregational United Church of Christ, Centerville (Cape Cod), Massachusetts. He is the author of twenty five books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study,The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age, and Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He has served as chaplain, professor, and administrator at Georgetown University, Lancaster Theological Seminary, Wesley School of Theology, and Claremont School of Theology. He may be reached at drbruceepperly@aol.com for lectures, workshops, and retreats. His latest book is Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel (Energion).


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X