Adventurous Lectionary – The Fourth Sunday in Lent – March 11, 2018
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Today’s passages raise a variety of questions. The describe an ambiguity in divinity. Though they speak of divine rescue and global love, they also suggest a dark side to divinity. God causes suffering and may be the source of punishment that far exceeds our misdeeds. These passages invite us to consider the relationship between grace, punishment, and personal responsibility. They also invite us to ask questions of God: Is God the source of punishment? Or, do certain behaviors lead to negative outcomes that alienate us from God’s vision for our lives? Or, in the spirit of Simone Weil’s understanding of affliction, does God’s orderly universe both harm and heal, such that we must accept both as coming from the hand of a loving God?
The Numbers reading could be titled “snakes in the assembly.” It is a rather curious passage – one that I am tempted to omit altogether from today’s readings. Once again, this passage is so problematic, that you must preach about it – and challenge it – if you read it in church. As the story goes, the wilderness people continue to misbehave, God gets impatient and angry, and God sends poisonous snakes among the people, whose bites cause several fatalities. The people confess their sin and ask Moses to intercede on their behalf. God relents and has Moses fashion a bronze serpent as an antidote. Despite God’s remedy, the snakes are still running loose and people are getting bitten, but if they gaze upon the bronze serpent, they will recover, no doubt after much discomfort and fear. God hurts and heals, and is somewhat arbitrary and unpredictable; such moral ambiguity whether in God, a national leader, or parent bounds on abuse, and this should be noted.
What are we to say about this divine torment or terrorism? Do finite sins deserve capital punishment? What sort of psychological aberration motivates a deity who says to the people, yes, I will continue to hurt you, but I also will provide an antidote? Surely the Hebrew parents were beside themselves in fear, trying to protect their children from divine vindictiveness. They feared God, reflective perhaps of patriarchal relationships, but could they trust or love God.
Could such an event have actually occurred? Or, was it some sort of “fictional” object lesson, aimed at keeping the community in line? In any event, taken literally, this passage is unworthy of the revelation of divine love in Jesus Christ, and unless it is critiqued, should be omitted from the worship service. Arbitrary and vindictive images of God shouldn’t be encouraged even if they come from scripture. Our failure to critique them encourages the proliferation of unexamined negative theology in our congregations. If there is any redemption of this passage, it comes in recognizing that an orderly universe can heal and hurt, and that our behaviors shape God’s responses to us, though not to the extent reported in these scriptures. (For more on an alternative vision of God, see Bruce Epperly, “Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God,” “Process Spirituality: Practicing Holy Adventure,” and “Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed.”)
Psalm 107 speaks of God’s steadfast love in times of trial and in the nature order of things. Yet, the Psalm also contains some problematic verses. The Psalm asserts that some persons became sick as a result of sinful ways. Obviously, our behaviors have consequences and our lifestyle can lead to illness. Still, not all illness has behavioral or ethical origins. How would this passage be heard by a parent whose child has just been diagnosed with cancer, or someone dealing with a chronic or untreatable illness, unrelated to lifestyle or behavior? It is important that we encourage personal responsibility and the importance of confession and transformation without implying that there is an exact one-to-one correspondence between acts and consequences and behaviors and outcomes.
Ephesians affirms that God’s grace revives us, restores us, and inspires us to do good works. Grace does not depend on our perfection, but grace comes to us by God’s good pleasure, apart from our moral or spiritual achievements. God’s grace is prior to our efforts, and comes in spire of our imperfection, challenging us to be graceful ourselves.
The passage from John’s Gospel is also theologically and ethically ambiguous. On the one hand, it proclaims God’s love for the world. God’s love is overwhelming in its expansiveness. God sacrifices so that we might find healing and salvation. God’s love extends beyond humankind to embrace the whole world. Yet, beyond the good news, there is threat. God does not send the Divine One to condemn; yet those who don’t believe are already condemned. This passage begs a number of questions: Is God the source of condemnation or does condemnation occur in the nature course of events in response to our actions? Can our love of darkness thwart God’s grace? What is the nature of this condemnation – is it a matter of inability to experience the fullness of God’s love or is it eternal in impact? Is there a limit to divine love and, if so, does it come from our side or our ability to say “no” to God?
Today’s passages require more than superficial treatment. The preacher can “cut and paste,” omitting offending or ambiguous passages, and focusing on the good news from Ephesians and John 3:16-17. This is an appropriate response. Another response is to preach scripture in all its ambiguity, exploring these problematic passages and trying to discern where they fit in our understanding of God and the world.
Bruce Epperly is Pastor and Teacher at South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Centerville, MA, and author of over forty books including “The Mystic in You: Discovering a God-filled World,” “Angels, Mysteries, and Miracles: A Progressive Vision,” and “Finding God in Suffering: A Journey with Job.”