The Adventurous Lectionary – The Second Sunday after Pentecost – June 6, 2021
I Samuel 8:4-20
II Corinthians 4:13-5:1
Theologians have debated whether there are “two kingdoms,” operating by different values, the city of God and the city of human governments, or there is just one world in which we seek to embody God’s realm “on earth as it is in heaven.” While Luther championed the two kingdom approach, leading to self-transcendence, and indifference about history, in the realm of faith and self-interest in politics, Luther’s vision of the priesthood of believers suggests that our political activity is sacred and subject to divine values and judgment. The question for us in liberal democracies is how we can best seek God’s realm in a pluralistic society in which there is no established religion. Moreover, we need to recognize the danger of theocracies – the unity of religion of government often leads to persecution of minorities and absolutism for the state. Theocracies, grounded in an absolute and sovereign God whose way promotes binary images of truth and salvation, promotes binary policies which are coercive toward all who oppose God’s/the leader’s way. We can see this approach in Muslim theocracies and also in today’s Trumpism, often motivated by religious absolutism and the conflation of religious and political viewpoints. (See Bruce Epperly, “One World: The Lord’s Prayer from a Process Perspective.”
Today’s reading from I Samuel might come with the motto, “the government that governs least governs best.” Dissatisfied with their current political situation, the people demand a king. Both God and Samuel object. Following a more theocratic and libertarian approach, they object to the people’s desire for an intermediary, a human leader, rather than God or a spiritual leader. The consequences of secular rule, even in a godly society, are power plays and self-interest among leaders, taxes, and loss of personal control. All these characterize most governments, sadly, but would we want a theocracy today, given the fanaticism and self-interest of those who claim to follow God, whether in Christian and Islamic communities? Throughout history, the unholy alliance of religion and government has led to violence, idolatry, and investing penultimate values with ultimate authority.
Secular political leadership is inevitable and often positive, especially in the United States. Still, ultimately, we need to trust God’s care for us above all earthly rulers. Governments are best when they recognize their penultimate status and, accordingly, recognize a variety of viewpoints, including those held by non-religious persons. In the spirit of Reinhold Niebuhr, we need to recognize the limitations of our positions and the truth within contrasting approaches. At their best, rulers and the rule of law are not to be placed above God and conscience. Accordingly, the reading from I Samuel is an invitation to follow God’s ways not just the patterns of government and society. The church is at its best when it is countercultural, that is, when it has a critical edge, judging governmental policies in light of God’s vision of Shalom. The church is faithful when it promotes justice, earth care, equality, and reconciliation. (For more on this approach, see Bruce Epperly, “Process Theology and Politics” and “Prophetic Healing: Howard Thurman’s Vision of Contemplative Activism.”)
Psalm 138 also addresses divine power and sees God’s power in moral rather than coercive terms. God’s power is revealed in steadfast love. The kings of the earth are subservient to God and rule best when they listen to divine wisdom in the promotion of their political and social policies. God cares for the poor and vulnerable. Those who seek to be faithful must put God first and honor God’s power made manifest in love; love not coercion should characterize their own political involvement. Our actions, accordingly, are inspired by God’s care for the least of these. In the pluralistic society, we must seek the same benefits – justice, equality, hospitality – for the other as for persons of our own faith tradition.
Paul invites his Corinthian listeners to trust in God’s everlasting promise. He wants them to trust that they are resurrection people, growing in grace despite life’s setbacks. In the midst of life’s personal and political challenges, our hope is in the unseen, in God’s vision for our lives. The resurrection transforms everything: failure cannot defeat God, imprisonment cannot defeat God, and aging cannot defeat God. Deeper spiritual growth is possible despite the limitations of age and illness. This is a life-transforming promise especially in our aging congregations. We are invited trust in God in all the seasons of life and to look for God’s movements in our lives. Whether we live or die, we belong to God; God’s eternity is our greatest hope. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. This does not turn us away from the world but gives us a foundation for social and political involvement and for patience with processes whose fruition may come to pass in years rather than days.
The world’s values are penultimate and need to be seen in light of God’s everlasting love. The world’s values need to be judged by the moral and spiritual arcs of the universe, which call into question every achievement in light of the horizon of God’s Shalom. Still, the vision of divine fidelity allows us to respond to evil courageously, knowing our times are in God’s care.
The Gospel reading describes Jesus in conflict with his family. No doubt, Jesus’ family has good intentions: they want to protect him; they are concerned that he has gone too far and will be hurt. They believe that he has gone off the spiritual and political deep end. Their prudence is justified, but misguided. The religious leaders also challenge Jesus’ spiritual wellness, suggesting that he is demon-possessed. In contrast to his family and the religious leaders, Jesus establishes his bona fides; he is speaking for God, he is not possessed by an evil spirit. In words that must have hurt his parents, Jesus asserts that his true family is made up of those who follow his pathway. He is claiming that a new kind of community is on the horizon, one that lives in accordance with God’s vision. This spiritual family includes the nuisances and nobodies, tax collectors and sinners, and not just the wise and righteous. In God’s realm, biological family is important but also penultimate and may be destructive when it becomes an ultimate concern.
While we love the creator by loving the creatures, our love for creatures needs to be placed in light of our fidelity to God. Attentiveness to God’s vision enables us to have life-giving attitudes not only toward the powers that be, but also toward the necessary losses accompanying aging and events beyond our control. The political is personal, and the personal is political, and this challenges us to political activism grounded in “prophetic healing,” care for our kin and also the other as God’s beloved children.
Bruce Epperly is a pastor, professor, and author of over sixty books including WALKING WITH FRANCIS OF ASSISI: FROM PRIVILEGE TO ACTIVISM; MYSTICS IN ACTION: TWELVE SAINTS FOR TODAY; PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S VISION OF CONTEMPLATIVE ACTIVISM; GOD ON LINE: A MYSTIC’S GUIDE TO THE INTERNET; and PROCESS THEOLOGY: EMBRACING ADVENTURE WITH GOD. He may be reached for seminars, retreats, and lectures at email@example.com.