The Adventurous Lectionary – The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 27, 2020
Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32
It has been said that the question, “do you believe in God?” is less important than “what kind of God do you believe in?” Our images of God shape our understanding of our personal agency, hope for the future, authority, approach to diversity, and political perspectives. Some images of God may promote violence, passivity, and authoritarian approaches to religion and governance.
The biblical tradition proclaims that God is faithful, providing a way where there is no way, and giving us the energy to grow in freedom and creativity at every stage of life. God is the source of provocative possibilities that move us from slavery to freedom and fear to love. Faithful agency, responsive to God’s vision of possibilities and the ever-present energy to reach for them, opens the floodgates of divine refreshment and energy, enabling us to do what we previously imagined as impossible. In redefining power in terms of relationship and affirmation, God invites us to extend the scope of our personal and institutional creativity and freedom in our world. Faithful creativity answers God’s call and embodies God’s vision for the world. God doesn’t compete with us, but wants us to live abundantly, doing greater things than we can imagine. (John 14:12) God is on our side, but also makes the sun shine and rain fall on our opponents and persons of other ethnicities and faith traditions.
How difficult it is to be patient when you haven’t immediately gotten what you want! How difficult it is to wait for God’s promises to come to fruition! Many of us are like children on a road trip, constantly asking, “Are we there yet?” when we still have miles to go to our destination and are being transported by a loving parent or grandparent. Despite previous examples of divine care, we want God’s responses to our requests right now without delay, or else we begin to doubt God’s faithfulness. In the reading from Exodus, once again, the Israelites fear that God has abandoned them. Despite God’s mighty signs, they are ready to turn back to the familiar enslavement in Egypt. They cry out against Moses, threatening to kill him in response to the delay, who then helplessly cries out to God. God responds by commanding Moses to strike the stone with his staff, and an ever-flowing stream bursts forth.
Today’s Exodus reading could easily apply to our personal and congregational lives. We perceive scarcity all around us; in panic, we assume that diminishment and death are around the corner, when we are, in fact, surrounded by resources necessary for our well-being and mission. What we need is already here, even in a time of pandemic.
We need to remember God’s wondrous movements in our lives as we ask: Where has God made a way where there was no way? Where have divine resources emerged to insure our well-being? In recounting God’s positive actions in our lives, we awaken to streams of possibility and go from scarcity to abundance thinking. While we do not need to tamp down our anxieties or settle for false promises of politicians, we can place them in perspective, by considering God’s Gentle Providence moving in and through our lives.
Philippians 2:1-13 is chockfull of theological, spiritual, and practical guidance. It is a wellspring of profound affirmations about God, Christ, and us. First, it proclaims that we can have the mind of Christ. Our whole lives can be guided by Christ’s vision; Christ can be the center of our decision-making process; and indeed we can embody the spirit, energy, and power that characterized Christ’s mission. We can – in the spirit of Christ’s kenotic incarnation – let go of the cramped self-interest of the ego and awaken to the spaciousness of God’s vision for the world. Second, open to and guided by the mind of Christ, we experience solidarity with all creation and have a sense of unity with our brothers and sisters in faith. Our ego becomes identified with Christ’s spacious spirit and we come to dwell in a world in which abundance and love are the norm for human interactions and decision-making. Third, we discover a divine-human synergy: we can work out our salvation with fear and trembling – or, as I prefer to say, awe and energy – for God is at work in us to embody God’s vision. We can be the embodiment of God’s vision on earth. We can channel the energy of the big bang and Jesus healing touch. This enhances, rather than diminishes, our agency, freedom, and creativity.
Philippians also makes some of the most profound theological statements about God’s nature and Christ’s presence in the world, reflective perhaps of an early Christological hymn. One of my teachers Bernard Loomer spoke of two kinds of power: unilateral and relational. Paul’s Philippian readers would have understood this distinction well as he contrasts the power of Lord Caesar and Lord Christ. Caesar rules by domination and fear; we bow to escape punishment and death. Jesus rules by relationship and empathy. Jesus is one of us, experiencing our joys and sorrows. He breaks down the barriers between human and divine to uplift humankind. Jesus wants us to grow in creativity, freedom, and agency. In his solidarity with us, there is no competition. There is no zero sum relationship between God and us; the more we achieve the more God is praised; the more creative agency we embody, the greater opportunity for God’s vision to be achieved in the world. Moreover, when Paul says “every knee shall bow,” this is the obedience grounded in love and gratitude not fear. I believe there is an implied universalism. If Christ comes in solidarity, then Christ’s reign is all-inclusive and will find a way to embrace even those – like Caesar – who turn away initially from Christ’s Shalom vision.
Matthew’s gospel challenges us to walk the talk. Theological correctness – orthodoxy – is secondary to fidelity. You can have what others believe to be the wrong theology or a checkered past and yet embody God’s vision in today’s world. Jesus is not intending to undermine solid theology, congregational participation, or spiritual practices, or encourage lax morality; he is opening the door to serving God at any stage of our lives. Nothing bars the door from faithful discipleship, including past history, theological ineptness, economic status, ethnicity, or gender. Any person can say “yes” to God’s vision and follow Christ’s path. Yet, we may find the most unexpected people answering the call of God’s vision of Shalom. Those we consider sinners may end up being the most faithful. Past is not always – completely – prologue. Despite the impact of the past, we can be born anew – and so can others – and the hope of the world hinges on unexpected creative transformation that awakens us to new possibilities, far beyond what we might have expected from past behaviors.
Today’s passages are hopeful encouraging our agency and fidelity. God is constantly giving us second chances and urging us forward despite our failures and imperfections. The “best for that impasse,” as Whitehead says, may not be great but even in its modesty, it is the springboard for the embodiment of future possibilities in the divine-human synergy. God is in solidarity with us. God is ready to respond to our needs and inspire us to discover personal and congregational resources beyond our wildest imaginings. Right now, amid our feelings of impatience and scarcity, our feelings of unworthiness and anxiety, we may discover God’s vision of what we may become. Right now, with COVID-limited activities, we can be God’s partners in healing the world.
Bruce Epperly is a pastor, professor, and author of over 50 books, including PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S CONTEMPLATIVE ACTIVISM, GOD ONLINE: A MYSTIC’S GUIDE TO THE INTERNET, and HOPE BEYOND PANDEMIC.