Adventurous Lectionary – The Fourth Sunday in Lent – March 14, 2021
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Nearly a year after many congregations suspended public in-person worship, today’s passages raise a variety of questions about suffering and pain, and the divine quest for healing. Many of these questions have arisen over the past year, and given rise to both creative and compassionate and destructive and punitive theological reflection. Theological reflection has inspired social responsibility, compassion for neighbors, and support of the emerging science regarding COVID. Theological reflection has also led to congregational irresponsibility, COVID and science denial, and violence in the Capitol. (For my theological reflections on pandemic, see “Faith in a Time of Pandemic” and “Hope Beyond Pandemic.”)
The readings 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. We must ask, “is this same theological vision of God as pain-giver and healer present in some of our visions of the pandemic?”
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. Yet, God is best known by love and not fear, and this passage suggests that God is less moral than we are.
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, a daughter whose parent died alone from COVID, 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 spite of our imperfection, challenging us to be graceful ourselves. But, grace cannot be arbitrary: we may open or close to grace, but God’s grace must be universal if we are to trust in God’s abiding care.
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 suggests 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?
Ultimately we must trust that God loves the whole world, and is doing all God can do to heal not hurt, save not abandon, and redeem not condemn.
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 a pastor, professor, and author of over sixty books including, FAITH IN A TIME OF PANDEMIC; HOPE BEYOND PANDEMIC; LOVE IN A TIME OF CRISIS AND PANDEMIC (for children and their significant adults); WALKING WITH FRANCIS OF ASSISI: FROM PRIVILEGE TO ACTIVISM; MYSTICS IN ACTION: 12 SAINTS FOR TODAY; and PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S VISION OF CONTEMPLATIVE ACTIVISM.