The Adventurous Lectionary – The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 18, 2019
Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19
Two weeks after El Paso and Dayton, what are we to do with this week’s readings? Can texts over two thousand years old speak to our current national waywardness? Isaiah speaks of the land being overrun by enemies due the impact of injustice, causing God to withdraw God’s protective care. Jesus speaks of division among those who disagree over his authority and message. Are these passages appropriate in the context of our national incivility and inhospitality toward strangers and those whose viewpoints differ from our own? There is already enough polarization, and these readings seem to fuel the flames. Once irenic and relational, Facebook has become a battleground for opposing viewpoints. Name calling and bullying have become the norm among those who disagree, and Christians are leading the way with invective and justification of traumatizing children and unrestrained gun ownership, despite the facts of gun violence and white supremacy.
The reading from Luke doesn’t seem to help matters. Jesus appears to be the ultimate divider. There appears to be no room for moderation, compromise, or ecumenism; the issue is black and white, truth and false, in and out, and, dare we say, saved and unsaved. No common ground exists between the faithful and infidel. Luke’s Jesus asserts that 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 or exclusion from Gentile or Jewish families or friends, but does this mean today when families split over their attitudes toward Donald Trump?
There is no way to soften the words of any of these scriptures. But, these words shouldn’t be used to condemn those who oppose us, or those with whom we differ theologically or politically. I have seen Jesus’ words from Luke weaponized by Christian exceptionalists, who assume that their beliefs, lifestyle, and biblical interpretation trump any other approaches to truth, scripture, or behavior. While we don’t know exactly the audience Jesus has in mind, we best beware that we are not “hypocrites.” We need to recognize that God is God and not us, and that we have our beliefs in earthen, imperfect, vessels. Humility and repentance are appropriate responses from the “children of light” and “the children of darkness.” 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. Surely the time, as Jesus says, is one of reckoning for those who turn their backs on the birth of God’s heavenly realm in our world.
How shall we preach this passage? Preachers 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 in contrast to the darkness of their opponents. 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, creating divisions and dangers 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 stated that 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 to our nation’s well-being and relationship to God – 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. As Alfred North Whitehead asserts, God’s vision for us and the world is always the best for “that impasse,” ourselves and our unique context. 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 the relationship between our actions and God’s presence in our lives and the world, 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, and constantly surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, we may discern a way where there appears to be no way forward.
This has been a tough two weeks, and an agonizing thirty months. 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, working for justice and protesting injustice. 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 imperfections of our congregations.
Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of over fifty books, including “One World: The Lord’s Prayer from a Process Perspective,” “Jonah: When God Changes,” “Ruth and Esther: Women of Agency and Adventure,” and “Become Fire: Guideposts for Interspiritual Pilgrim.”