The Adventurous Lectionary – Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Today’s readings are about divine generosity and recovery. We recognize that there is an ethical calculus in the universe: though injustice reaps rewards quickly, eventually those who are unjust will experience, as Amos says, a famine of hearing God’s word and will reap the whirlwind of social chaos and disorder. Eventually they will be deposed. Those who forget future generations, inspired by power and greed, will suffer alienation from nature and will see their profits swallowed up and their children at risk from human-caused climate change. Politicians who foment hate will strut and fret at political rallies, but their legacies will be consigned to the ash heap of history. While these are not direct results of divine punishment, in order of things, both personal and social, we do reap what we sow. The victims are not to be blamed, nor the poor and vulnerable maligned. In fact, the greatest danger to the soul is to be rich and powerful, and heedless to God’s way.
In the interdependence of sin, recovery, and divine care, the lens through which on which I am focusing is Jesus’ description of God’s relationship with the world found in Luke 11:13: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” These words point us toward healthy theological reflection and serve as an antidote to demonic images of God, even those which come from Christian ministers. These words chart a relational theology that gives birth to relational and affirmative ethics, embracing the vulnerable and giving voice to the voiceless.
“God gives good gifts to God’s children!” Jesus asserts that “evil” [read “imperfect” or “ambiguous, loving and sometimes impatient”] parents want the best for their children. Accordingly, won’t the perfect Parent, God, want to give you more? When I ask congregants what God is like, most respond with words like “loving,” “forgiving,” “creative,” “universal.” Few say, “punitive,” “angry,” “vindictive,” or “hateful.” Yet, such descriptors are regularly spewed forth from local church pastors, televangelists, and major figures in conservative Christianity. Some of these religious leaders have identified war, pestilence, AIDS, natural disaster and even mass shootings as divine punishment for America’s waywardness. These preachers suggested that God was behind storms or mass shootings that leave dozens injured or dead. Their congregants or media listeners nod their heads without recognizing the theological inconsistency of talking about God’s love, on the one hand, and God’s ruthless destruction, on the other. Today’s scripture would say such comments are blasphemy and should never be invoked from the pulpit or on Facebook. In fact, many people glibly assume God would perform certain actions – let loose viruses, destroy cities with storms, or initiate massacres – that would be considered hate crimes, punishable by imprisonment, if performed by a human. Their God is more like a narcissistic demon than the sacrificial and welcoming healer from Nazareth.
It is important that we ask the question, “Is your vision of God as moral as you are? Is God is good as you are?” “Of course,” they respond. And, then, I ask them to review the sordid and violent images associated with divine power and punishment. Once again they are surprised that demonic images of God supported in scripture as well as popular dialogue. As theologian Thomas Oord asserts, many theologians exalt power over love in describing God, and if they had to abandon one concept, they would jettison love before they would let go of power.
In Luke 11, Jesus describes God as the Loving Father. It is fully appropriate to use the term “Mother” as well. There is an implicit – perhaps, explicit – ethic in divine parenting. God seeks a world in which God’s will or vision be enacted on earth as it is in heaven. In other words, God wants the world to be defined by loving, welcoming, going the second mile, and accepting diversity spiritual habits. If God is loving, then are calling is to be as loving as God. When we hear the cries of 70,000,000 refugees, the pain inflicted on species as a result of human-caused climate change, or the despair of children our leaders have incarcerated on the borderlands, we must respond. They are the “friend at night” whose needs must trump our comfort.
The readings from Hosea and the Psalms recognize, as I noted earlier, that there is cause and effect in the universe. Bad lifestyle habits increase our possibility of life-threatening illness. Materialism and greed make us oblivious to beauty and diminish our spirits. Injustice leads to social unrest. Trusting in guns not God for our ultimate security leaves in its wake unprecedented violence in our homes as well as neighborhoods. Still, despite the justice built into reality, God wants us to aspire to become as much like Christ as possible. God’s ultimate aim is healing not harm. Made alive in Christ, we can embody Jesus’ message and mission. We can become “little Christs,” as Luther said. This is the spiritual-ethical meaning of the passage form Colossians: “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him.” We are “full of Christ” and our vocation is to let that fullness, that never ending stream of love, flow from us to the world.
The readings challenge us to invoke God’s name only in ways that bring greater beauty and love to the world. There is too much loose talk about divinity in our time, especially when we assume God is on our side or reflects our values and prejudices. Such a God is compassionate to us, but violent to our foes, and justifies good Christian people telling those who disagree with them “to go back where they came from” and blithely accept racism and cruelty in our government’s policies. A Loving Parent inspires loving actions in the personal and political realm. We become like the God we worship. Let us claim a Loving Parent, Mother and Father, and mirror our Parent in our personal and political lives.
Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of over fifty books, including “Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God,” “One World: The Lord’s Prayer from a Process Perspective,” “The Mystic in You: Discovering a God-filled Universe,” and “Become Fire: Guideposts for Interspiritual Christians.”