Lectionary Reflections for November 17, 2013
Divine Creativity and Human Agency
Taken together today’s lectionary readings proclaim that God is active and innovative, working toward a realm of wholeness encompassing humanity and the non-human world and so should we. God is involved in world-transformation, and so should we. God’s agency inspires our own agency and creativity. We are God’s partners in promoting the realm of Shalom. An active God says “all hands on deck. Let’s get to work. Together we can bring healing to the world, part and whole.”
Isaiah asserts that there is a new world coming. God is creating a new heavens and a new earth. The days of scarcity, exile, and oppression are over. Economic injustice and infidelity are things of the past: the New Jerusalem is coming and with it laughter, health, and prosperity. Isaiah’s dream remains unfulfilled: but his report of the divine aim of history still empowers other dreamers who seek new creation in the life of persons and nations.
The question emerges: If God promises a new heavens and a new earth, why hasn’t it come? It didn’t come to Jerusalem, and our world for all its advances is also ambiguous in terms of economic justice and overall well-being. Swords are in great supply and millions go hungry. The holy mountain of Jerusalem is still at risk: Israel’s enemies still threaten the nation’s existence. Are God’s promises empty? Is God waiting for us to do our work? If so, what shall we do? How can we best play our role in bringing wholeness to our families, congregations, and the world? The heaviness of the past locks us into habits that defy new creation in ourselves and our institutions. Without a radical leap in consciousness and compassion, what can we expect from our world?
The Psalm also speaks of a now and a not yet. We rejoice in God’s victory. The whole earth rejoices. Order has triumphed over chaos; healing has triumphed over disease; justice has been victorious over greed and inequality. Yet, this also seems a dream to us today, as the gap between the wealthy and the middle class expands, not to mention the marginalization of the poor, and opposition to any initiatives that put the most vulnerable citizens at the head of the line in social services. God’s realm of Shalom is not faring well in USA or global politics and economics, and those who assert that they are on God’s side appear to be the most adamant in gutting programs for the poor and marginalized.
The passage from Thessalonians urges action and agency. We don’t exactly know who it is aimed at: Were there members of the community needlessly depending on the generosity of others? Or, were some so involved in end-time expectation that they quit their jobs, thus putting a strain on the community? The Second Coming is no excuse for passivity in our everyday economic and relational lives. We must be responsible harbingers of God’s Shalom by being healthy and affirmative members of the body of Christ, fulfilling our vocation as long as we have breath.
The pastor needs to be careful in the reading of this passage. Many will hear only: “Anyone who is unwilling to work should not eat.” Passages such as these have been used to blame the poor for their poverty and slash programs for vulnerable adults and their children. This passage cannot be used as a war against the poor. First of all, the author was unfamiliar with or is not addressing the negative impact of depression, PTSD, and certain physiological issues on productivity. Moreover, he is not addressing patterns of poverty created by the exploitation of the poor by the rich. This passage must be read affirmatively: we all have a place in God’s realm of Shalom and should use whatever agency we have to achieve it. The goal of healthy communities is to promote healthy agency by whatever means we can. We must enable all the members of the community to realize their concrete and limited vocations by creating conditions that promote joyful responsibility and agency. What we do matters to God and the well-being of our congregational and global community.
The Gospel reading is apocalyptic in nature. It speaks of the signs of the times, but gives us no chronological hint in terms of when these signs will come to pass. The signs of the times are evident in every age. Could it be that every age is a time of crisis in which we must prepare through awareness and agency? In these times, we must be willing to give testimony to our faith and values. We may feel inept, but God will give us words of wisdom. God is still speaking and will give us guidance in responding to the crises of our times.
This passage is not a call to persecution complex or some sense that we need to revolt against the end of Christendom by some form of Christian dominion theology. USA Christians are still, for the most part, privileged by government, taxation, and social affirmation. The Christian Yellow Pages and Christian Mingle and the extravagant lifestyles of certain megachurch pastors and televangelists are testimony to the economic benefits of being a Christian in the USA today. That we share governmental benefits and limitations on an equal basis with other faiths and non-believers is not perseuctuion but justice in a pluralistic age.
The Gospel counsels awareness and openness to God’s transformation. In every season of life, especially in times of personal, institutional, and global crisis, divine wisdom is available to those who ask, listen, and respond.