The Adventurous Lectionary – The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 14, 2016
Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19
What are we to do with this week’s readings? There is already enough polarization, and these readings seem to fuel the flame. People argue and condemn each other on social media. A handful of Sanders and Clinton people are still going after one another, questioning each other’s loyalty to the cause. Trump supporters go ballistic over any irenic or factual comment made by Clinton supporters or neutral observers, and the candidate bullies anyone who challenges him. If we agree 95% of the time on major issues, but disagree 5% of the time on less important issues, we vilify one another. Do these readings provide any counsel or hope?
Jesus doesn’t seem to help matters. He appears to be the ultimate divider. There is no room for moderation or ecumenism; the issue is black and white, truth and false, in and out, and, dare we say, saved and unsaved. Families will split over their relationship with him. No doubt this was true in the early years of the Christian movement. Following Jesus meant the possibility of condemnation from Gentile or Jewish families or friends. Ego strength, indeed spiritual warfare, may be needed to stay strong when others condemn you.
There is no way to soften the words of any of these scriptures. But, these shouldn’t be used to condemn those who oppose us, or those whom we critique. While we don’t know exactly the audience Jesus has in mind, we best beware that we are not “hypocrites.” We need to be aware of what time it is and the limitations of our belief systems, institutions, and spiritual authorities, including scripture and doctrine.
How shall we preach this passage? Pastors who are firebrands may get solace from these passages. They may feel justified in railing against their congregation’s lukewarm attitudes on social or theological issues. They may feel justified in claiming the rightness of their own position. These passages can encourage a type of absoluteness we see in “true believers” and ideologues of both the left and the right. Such pastors may perceive themselves in the right, but they may soon find that their righteousness is destructive to their congregations, divisions, and dangerous to their own pastoral positions.
Frankly, I am not sure how to preach Jesus words in ways that do not provoke either divisiveness or self-righteousness, unless I assume that they are directed at me as well as those with whom I disagree. Recently, I have found myself on occasion succumbing to Facebook self-righteousness: while my posts are generally irenic and polite, there are times I just want to set those ignoramuses right about issues of faith and politics. Their obtuseness, ignorance, and prejudices irritate me, and I want to point out the error of their ways. Though I seldom respond, I feel the “burn” of alienation and polarization. My fire is more heat than light, even though I affirm the rightness of my view.I have learned to take a breath, lest I focus on the trivial or fixate on the speck in my neighbor’s eye and miss the log in my own! I need to see these moments of anger and polarization in myself as a call to spiritual stature, lest I be a hypocrite, too, hating others’ absolutizing and absolutizing my own relative positions.
The passages from Isaiah and the Psalms aren’t any easier and can lend themselves in polarizing theology and preaching as well. Does God tear down God’s wall of protection as a result of our wrongdoing? Certainly, a lot of religious spokespersons say 9/11 and Katrina – and other natural disasters and terrorist acts – are a result of divine withdrawal. Can we forfeit God’s good will as a result of our actions, or do our actions limit what God can do in our lives and nation? And, which actions are destructive – is it acceptance of homosexuality or persecution of GLBTQ persons that leads to divine withdrawal or might it be our inhospitality to refugees, complacency with economic injustice, or persecution of the GLBTQ community?
My own sense is that God is always on our side, but that our moving away from God limits what God can do. Openness to God enables God to be more decisive in our lives. Failure to attend to God’s vision diminishes the energy of grace in our lives and this can have negative social and economic impacts that touch even the self-righteous. (For more on divine limitation, see Bruce Epperly, Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God and Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed.)
The passage from Hebrews realistically recognizes that our faith does not insure instant gratification. Faithful people still look toward the horizon, prayerfully hoping for God’s promises to be fulfilled, and they may wait a lifetime! Yet, God has something more for us than finite promises. God promises us life abundance and joy everlasting. Jesus’ own suffering reminds us to faithfully wait for the gifts God has in mind for us. This is not passivity but patience and trust that enable us to walk the walk and keep the faith even when the odds are against us. God will have the final word.
This is a tough week. We need to recognize that challenge as well as consolation may come from following Jesus. We need to sit loose with our own viewpoints, even as we seek to manifest them in the world. We need to look for truth in positions with which we disagree and recognize that our own viewpoints have limitations, and may seem false to persons of good faith. Still, we continue the journey, trusting that God is at work in our lives, that our openness to God will give us new insights, and that our futures are in God’s hands, despite our imperfection and the imperfection of our congregations.