The Adventurous Lectionary – September 4, 2022 – Pentecost 13
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
Today’s readings challenge, economics, and socially-accepted values. These texts turn our accepted values upside down and call us to repentance and sacrificial living. No preacher can feel entirely comfortable reading, writing, or preaching these texts. In some ways, the images of God are both engaging (Psalm 139) and challenging and problematic. (Jeremiah 18)
Jeremiah’s vision of the divine potter is both good news and bad news, theologically speaking. First, the good news: the vision of a divine potter focuses on issues of justice and national well-being. There is a consequence to injustice in the body politic. Nations that turn from God’s way face destruction, either by God’s hand or the impact of unjust actions. We reap what we sow in the natural order of things. Yet, as an example of divine omnipotence and vengeance, it has done a good deal of theological harm throughout the ages. It portrays a God of destruction, who can do evil against God’s chosen people disproportionate with their sins. It portrays a linear acts-consequences theology that has allowed a good deal of superficial public theology to proliferate.
Televangelists and would-be spokespersons for God have connected terrorist attacks and natural disasters with homosexuality, abortion, divorce, and acceptance of religious pluralism. Most of these teachers have forgotten that Jeremiah connected divine punishment with injustice, economic inequality, abandonment of the poor, and idolatry. There is a relationship between acts and consequences, but it is not linear, nor can we too clearly identify the evils that bring on the wrath of nature or social upheaval. Liberals and conservatives have their own list of deadly sins worthy of national punishment, and while there is wisdom in both sets, neither is all-inclusive nor is either list absolute.
The passage from Jeremiah recognizes that what we do matters to God, and God’s challenge of our particular sins can seem destructive, but God’s ultimate goal is creation and healing, not destruction and devastation. Our consumerism and anthropocentrism has led to forest fires and floods, extreme weather, collapsing glaciers, all symptoms of global climate change. Our greed has led to economic inequality. Our racism has led to “two Americas” and “dog whistle” politics that polarize rather than unite and render any forward movement an impossibility in the halls of Congress. We have created a culture of death, revealed in sexism, racism, abortion as birth control, militarism, and economic injustice. We have made the earth a garbage dump and have reaped plague and pestilence. God wants us to see the error of our ways, and while the celestial surgeon’s antidote may appear harsh, as we are forced to be downwardly mobile, it is aimed at the healing of creation and the transformation of the human heart from greed and alienation to generosity and compassion.
While we need to abandon the unempathetic and coercive image of the potter who can do what he wishes with the clay, there is nevertheless, in an interdependent universe, the reality of acts and consequences which can put our institutions, relationships, and spirits at risk. As a colleague of mine asserts, white nationalism hurts the souls of white people.
The Psalmist delights in being known by God. We want to be known and God’s knowledge affirms rather than judges. God, the Psalmist believes, knows the wholeness of my life and God’s knowledge is shaped by love. In being known by God, we come to know ourselves and discover where we need to mend our ways and receive the healing we need as persons and institutions. Wherever we are and what condition we experience, we remain in God’s hands, irrevocably and eternally.
God’s knowledge is that of a spiritual friend and lover, intended solely for our healing and wellbeing. In knowing that God knows us, and still loves us, we can awaken to self-awareness and confession, whether on a personal or national level.
The adventurous preacher could easily focus only on Paul’s Letter of Philemon and still have much to say. They are especially relevant as we consider the destructive impact of slavery, racial injustice, and white nationalism on the soul of our nation. While some preachers have used this short text as a bastion of the status quo, of encouraging slaves to obey their masters and masters to treat their slaves kindly while still seeing them as property, I believe Paul has another intention in writing to Philemon. Paul is asking Philemon to see Onesimus with new eyes, as a brother in Christ, and this has ethical and social implications. If Onesimus is a brother in Christ, he must be treated as a brother and that means he must be set free! Slaves can never be equals even in Christian community. There can be no slavery or separate status in the Christian community. All are part of the body of Christ. None can be abused, cheated, treated unjustly, or forced to live in poverty. Philemon’s wisdom invites us to see everyone as God’s beloved, worthy of care, hospitality, and support. There can be no ultimate inequality in the body of Christ.
I recall a former colleague having the following poster on his faculty office door: “Let us begin by not killing fellow Christians.” Philemon doesn’t say the final word on ethics, but it challenges us to “begin by ensuring every Christian is free and affirmed – politically, economically, and vocationally.” We cannot have anything to do with the exploitation of workers if we are to claim to be Christians. Christian employers must put a living wage and benefits, along with quality of life for fellow Christian employees, above profits. This, of course, leads to Christians insisting that all persons receive a living wage, family leave, and health care. Many people shout “family values” whose behavior focuses on rugged individualism and profits to the expense of the well-being of families. Many people cry out against abortion and oppose any care for children once they are born. Many claim to love children, but cut problems on children’s health and imprison children at USA borders. The Letter of Philemon challenges church and state alike to insure the well-being of every citizen. Philemon challenges us to be consistent in seeking justice for workers and vulnerable persons, regardless of their place of origin.
The gospel reading is equally challenging. There is no cheap grace, as Bonhoeffer asserts, in Jesus’ words. We must count the cost of discipleship and be willing to sacrifice our own comfort to follow the way of the cross. We must put loyalty of God above every other loyalty, including loyalty to our nation. Earth care and justice seeking can’t occur from an armchair, nor is it optional for those who seek to follow the way of Jesus. We need to be willing to sacrifice so that others may live. The realm of God requires a changed lifestyle, a life of faithfulness, sacrifice, and solidarity. Although grace and joy abound, they will be found when we let go of ownership and place our lives at God’s disposal. This is a difficult word for pastor and congregant alike. It challenges what we consider prudent, and asks us how we can balance our well-being with the well-being of others, moving from individual, family, and national self-interest to world loyalty.
Today’s readings are filled with provocative possibilities as well as theological challenges. Each scripture could form the basis of a sermon. But, together they challenge our sense of comfort and false security, and place justice at the forefront of Christian life. They challenge us to be, as Thomas Merton confesses, to be guilty bystanders, who recognize that we are part of systems that perpetuate suffering and injustice, and that we need to amend our practices to bring healing to our fellow humans and the planet.
Bruce Epperly is a pastor, professor, spiritual guide, and author of over seventy books, including THE ELEPHANT IS RUNNING: PROCESS AND OPEN AND RELATIONAL THEOLOGY AND RELIGIOUS PLURALISM; PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S VISION OF CONTEMPLATIVE ACTIVISM; MYSTIC’S IN ACTION: TWELVE SAINTS FOR TODAY; WALKING WITH SAINT FRANCIS: FROM PRIVILEGE TO ACTIVISM; 101 SOUL SEEDS FOR GRANDPARENTS WORKING FOR A BETTER WORLD; and PROCESS THEOLOGY: EMBRACING ADVENTURE WITH GOD. He can be reached for seminars and talks at firstname.lastname@example.org.