The Adventurous Lectionary – July 30, 2017 – Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

The Adventurous Lectionary – July 30, 2017 – Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Bruce Epperly
Psalm 119:129-136
I Kings 3:5-12
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Pentecost is the season of divine revelation. Spirit moves in all things. God’s abundance is strewn everywhere, for all to have, in every time and place and those who are attentive to it will experience wisdom and the ability to discern their vocation in life. They will discover gifts aplenty to serve the world. They will find, as Solomon did, personal fulfillment and from that they will bring justice and abundance to the world. Politicians and citizens alike – pay heed – your gifts are not your own, nor are they for a select few – the wealthy and wise – to enjoy. Our gifts our for the world. Our fulfillment is to bring beauty to the world and, accordingly, to God.

The Psalmist pleas for divine enlightenment. He rejoices in the wonders of God’s wisdom and creativity. God’s light helps us to see light. God’s light inspires our ordering of the world. God’s law is just and embraces the well-being of all. All can find God, but our commitments to follow God’s law create a field of force that enables others to experience grace and the economic and physical necessities essential for spiritual growth. No one is excluded, although attentiveness enables God’s light to shine more brightly in our lives. The Psalmist’s affirmation invites progressive Christians to explore what it would mean to seek intimacy with God and live with a sense of wonder at God’s presence in the world. How can living by our theological visions bring beauty and justice to the world?

Does God give us what we want? Does God speak personally to us, inviting us to share our deepest desires and then receive our heart’s desires? Does God truly reach out intimately to us, inviting us to deeper levels of faith? Awed by the task ahead of him as king, Solomon dreams of a divine visitation in which God asks the new sovereign to share his deepest desire. Solomon’s response is to ask God to give him an understanding and discerning heart. Rather than power or wealth, Solomon asks for wisdom, for the ability to experience God’s guidance in his leadership. Apart from divine guidance, his reign will be a failure. With divine guidance, he can go beyond his own self-interest to discern and seek the needs of the nation.

Solomon’s dream models our own spiritual adventures. Just as Charles Sheldon once asked, “What would Jesus do?” (In His Steps), we would do well to live in constant awareness of God’s wisdom in our lives. Divine wisdom is both long haul and moment by moment in nature. Congregants might be challenged to constantly ask for divine wisdom and understanding. Certainly this might deliver us from the temptation to focus on our well-being rather than the well-being of the whole. Wisdom focuses on both details and the big picture, and these days we need to be delivered from thinking small and living small in terms of our communal responsibilities. We need to join individual growth with world loyalty. (For more on the ecology of healing, embracing individual and planet, see Bruce Epperly, “Praying with Process Theology: Spiritual Practices for Personal and Planetary Healing,” River Lane Press, 2017.)

Solomon’s dream invites congregants also to consider whether or not they can receive nocturnal messages from God, welling up from the unconscious. An ever-present God surely communicates through every aspect of our being. Can we ask for divine guidance through dreams and visions?

Solomon’s dream also challenges the body politic to seek wisdom and self-transcendence. Clearing the swamp is not enough if what takes its place is greed, environmental degradation, a preferential option for the wealthy, and dishonesty and egocentrism at the highest levels of government. Citizens need to pray for their leaders, but also call them to account: are you putting ideology ahead of human and non-human well-being? Is greed and consumption your primary value or liberty and justice for all? Is winning at any cost more important than care for the least of these? Our politicians need to be convicted – and to repent – of their turning from justice, substituting tweets for transformation and loyalty for compassion and justice.

Today’s reading from Roman’s has at least three sermons embedded in it. First, Paul describes the inner wisdom of God’s Spirit. We don’t always know what’s best, but the Spirit intercedes for us in sighs too deep for words, guiding and enlightening us. The Spirit is the inner voice of God, but it is not private. God’s Spirit, as last week’s passage from Romans asserts, joins the human and non-human. Our deepest prayers have global as well as personal implications.
Similar to the Psalmist’s experience, God communicates beneath consciousness in preverbal ways – intuitions, dreams, and inclinations – as well as consciously through scripture and insight.

This Spirit-centered passage reminds us that God’s wisdom trumps our own. We often don’t know what’s best and need to open through prayer and meditation to a greater wisdom and a higher power.

Second, and I prefer this translation, “in all things God works for good” to “all this work together for God.” This translation suggests a wide open universe, characterized by a divine-human melody of call and response. Though divine wisdom precedes our response, God does not determine all things, and yet is present in all things as the force of healing and fulfillment. There is a hint of predestination in the passage, and if we interpret this in a strong sense most of humanity is excluded, contrary to the spirit of the first half of Romans and its implicit universalism. The divine decision includes all creation and when we turn toward God, the goodness of life bursts forth in our lives. Predestination must be global to be congruent with God’s love. Predestination is not ultimately about power or exclusion – and focus on power necessarily excludes those we deem as “others” – but providential care, mated with respect for creaturely agency, that all be saved and healed.

Finally, Paul proclaims that we are more than conquers and that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Our relationship with God includes all of life’s “unfixables” (Alan Jones) and “necessary losses” (Judith Viorst). People we love die of cancer, parents and spouses grieve the loss of loved ones, and we face our own mortality. These are all part of God’s world and inevitable. Still, we can experience God’s presence and peace in the midst of all the threats of life. The peace that passes all understanding is born of a heart of wisdom that experiences God’s own wisdom embracing all of our beginnings and endings.

The gospel reading also speaks of the inner energy of God that enables seeds to grow to great plants and guides us toward surprising moments of grace. Grace gives life and nurtures. The only appropriate responses are joy, gratitude, and service.

The final section of today’s lesson, however, is a spiritual buzzkill – there is a sense of total destruction and abandonment for those who fall away. Some will be irreparably lost. If you choose to read this, you must preach about it. Is this destruction final or is it a pruning or refining enabling us to grow spiritually? Does God turn God’s back on wayward humanity, condemning backsliders to eternal damnation for finite sinfulness? Or, is the fiery furnace a purifying crucible that peels that which stands in the way of our relationship with God, so that we and the whole earth may experience divine blessing?

Today’s passages invite pastor and congregants alike to bathe themselves in God’s ubiquitous wisdom. Help is on the way and wisdom emerges sufficient for today’s challenges. We don’t need to depend on our political leaders for our moral compass; follow God’s vision, we have all the wisdom we need to call them to a higher morality. God speaks to us in scripture, worship, prayer and meditation, dreams, and intuition, and all encounters can become messages of God. It is up to us to listen, follow, and respond in ways that b

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