The Adventurous Lectionary – September 4, 2016 – Pentecost 16
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
Today’s readings are challenging to our theology as well as our economics and socially-accepted values. No preacher can feel entirely comfortable reading, writing, or preaching these texts.
Jeremiah’s vision of the divine potter has done a good deal of theological harm throughout the ages. It portrays a God of destruction, who can do evil against God’s chosen people disproportionate with their sins. It portrays a linear acts-consequences theology that has allowed a good deal of superficial public theology to proliferate. Televangelists and would be spokespersons for God have connected terrorist attacks and natural disasters with homosexuality, abortion, divorce, and acceptance of religious pluralism. Most of these teachers have forgotten that Jeremiah connected divine punishment with injustice, economic inequality, abandonment of the poor, and idolatry. There is a relationship between acts and consequences, but it is not linear, nor can we too clearly identify the evils that bring on the wrath of nature or social upheaval. Liberals and conservatives have their own list of deadly sins worthy of national punishment, and while there is wisdom in both sets, neither is all-inclusive nor is either list absolute.
What we do matters to God, and God’s challenge of our particular sins can seem destructive, but God’s ultimate goal is creation and healing, not destruction and devastation. Our consumerism and anthropocentrism has led to forest fires and floods, symptoms of global climate change. Our greed has led to economic inequality. Our racism has led to “two Americas” and “dog whistle” politics that polarize rather than unite and render any forward movement an impossibility in the halls of Congress. We have created a culture of death, revealed in sexism, racism, abortion as birth control, militarism, and economic injustice. We have made the earth a garbage dump and have reaped plague and pestilence. God wants us to see the error of our ways, and while the celestial surgeon’s antidote may appear harsh, as we are forced to be downwardly mobile, it is aimed at the healing of creation and the transformation of the human heart from greed and alienation to generosity and compassion.
The Psalmist delights in being known by God. God, the Psalmist believes, knows the wholeness of my life and God’s knowledge is shaped by love. In being known by God, we come to know ourselves and discover where we need to mend our ways and receive the healing we need as persons and institutions.
The adventurous preacher could easily focus only on Philemon and still have much to say. While some have used this short text as a bastion of the status quo, of encouraging slaves to obey their masters and masters to treat their slaves kindly while still seeing them as property, I believe Paul has another intention in writing to Philemon. Paul is asking Philemon to see Onesimus with new eyes, as a brother in Christ, and this has ethical and social implications. If Onesimus is a brother in Christ, he must be treated as a brother and that means he must be set free! Slaves can never be equals even in Christian community. There can be no slavery or separate status in the Christian community. All are part of the body of Christ. None can be abused, cheated, treated unjustly, or forced to live in poverty.I recall a former colleague having the following poster on his faculty office door: “Let us begin by not killing fellow Christians.” Philemon is not the final resting place for ethics, but it challenges us to “begin by insuring every Christian is free – politically, economically, and vocationally.” We cannot have anything to do with the exploitation of workers if we are to claim to be Christians. Christian employers must put a living wage and benefits, along with quality of life for fellow Christian employees, above profits. This, of course, leads to Christians insisting that all persons receive a living wage, family leave, and health care. Many people shout “family values” whose behavior focuses on rugged individualism and profits to the expense of the well-being of families. Many people cry out against abortion and oppose any care for children once they are born. The Letter of Philemon challenges church and state alike to insure the well-being of every citizen. Philemon challenges us to be consistent in seeking justice for workers and vulnerable persons.
The gospel reading is equally challenging. There is no cheap grace, as Bonhoeffer asserts, in Jesus’ words. We need to count the cost of discipleship and be willing to sacrifice our own comfort to follow the way of the cross. Earth care and justice seeking can’t occur from an armchair. We need to be willing to sacrifice so that others may live. The realm of God requires a changed lifestyle. Although grace and joy abound, they will be found when we let go of ownership and place our lives at God’s disposal. This is a difficult word for pastor and congregant alike. It challenges what we consider prudent, and asks us how we can balance our well-being with the well-being of others, moving from individual, family, and national self-interest to world loyalty.
Today’s readings are filled with provocative possibilities. Each scripture could form the basis of a sermon. But, together they challenge our sense of comfort and false security, and place justice at the forefront of Christian life. They challenge us to be, as Thomas Merton confesses, to be guilty bystanders, who recognize that we are part of systems that perpetuate suffering and injustice, and that we need to amend our practices to bring healing to our fellow humans and the planet.