The Adventurous Lectionary – July 9, 2023 – Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Psalm 45:10-17; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
We are anxious people in need of God’s peace. We are an unsettled church and nation in need of a unified and cooperative spirit. We need words of grace that calm and inspire as we face the challenges of post-Covid church, national disunity, and planetary threat.
“Come to me all who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” These
words from Jesus serve as God’s response to Paul’s, and our own, inner turmoil and ethical and spiritual angst. Jesus speaks out of his unique relationship with God – as God’s beloved child in full alignment with God’s vision – to provide us with wisdom and guidance as we seek to follow God’s path in our lives despite our anxiety, faithlessness, and ambivalence. Opening to God opens us to synchronous and providential encounters as witnessed in the Genesis story of Rebekah’s calling to be Isaac’s life partner. Grace abounds even if our lives remain unresolved and the future uncertain personally or corporately.
The Apostle Paul’s words could be spoken by virtually any of us: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” Paul’s confession can be connected to the obvious inner struggles many of us have with substance abuse, food addictions, workaholic behaviors, and personal ambivalence. They relate to our ambivalence and fear, as well as the impact of trauma that prevents us from being fully alive. We have a vision of what life can be, God’s abundant life for us and creation, and yet struggle with the resolution to live out the vision we’ve been given.
We are all the victims of our compulsions and addictions, and irrational powers greater than ourselves. In everyday life, we struggle to stay on the right track and often fail miserably to be the disciples we hope to be. We want to be patient with our loved ones or have equanimity in responding to what is beyond our control, and yet we are impatient, angry, and sometimes behave less than admirably. No one fully knows our worries and cares and sense of struggle, but they matter to us, and often leave us feeling impotent and spiritually weak. Like Paul, we seek assistance and assurance, and cry out “Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
While we may not share Paul’s understanding of sin as a force that possesses us, warring in us contrary to our highest desires, we recognize the reality of sin, embodied in the interplay of family of origin, genetics, environment, economics, gender and sexuality, and personal decision-making. The heaviness of the past, confirmed by thousands of habitual experiences and responses, can seem to overcome our best intentions. We want to lose weight, but we can’t help ourselves from enjoying a coffee roll or piece of cake. We want to exercise, but we can’t motivate ourselves to get up a half hour earlier each morning. We want to stay sober or virtuous, but the lure of alcohol or pornography or illicit relationships is overwhelming. We want to be non-anxious in our leadership but we succumb to fear. We want to spend time with our children or spouse, but the lure of work entraps us, and we immerse ourselves in email correspondence to the neglect of the ones who need us most. We want to reach out to the poor and vulnerable, but we worry about the time or money it may entail. We struggle with how to respond to feelings of white privilege or economic privilege. And the list goes on; we are a bundle of ambivalent feelings. We feel trapped by ourselves and only grace can save us, only grace, the surprising transforming unexpected love of God that frees us to claim our imperfections and ambivalence as vehicles of God’s grace. Grace and grace alone can save, first, by the acceptance of who we are in our ambivalence, and then the energy and vision to move forward one step at a time trusting God and expecting great possibilities from ourselves.
Healing of mind, body, spirit, and relationships is never an individualistic enterprise. We need a beloved community of friends and family and the unmerited grace of God. Paul cries out, “Who will save me?” And, then, responds doxologically, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” We might also add, “Thanks be to God who places us in the body of Christ and among friends and loved ones who accept and challenge us!”
Today’s New Testament scriptures proclaim God’s life transforming grace. Grace does not diminish our agency but enables us to be active partners in healing the world. We may still experience inner conflict, fear of failure, and fall short of God’s vision for our lives, but we can take solace that God is here to deliver us from evils stronger than our personal will and set us on a right path to wholeness and mission.
Infants understand the realities of grace better than self-made individuals. The “wise” and “productive” believe they can make it on their own and don’t need anyone’s help to change their lives. Infants have no such illusions: they survive on mother’s milk, loving touch, gentle swabs, and caring arms that cuddle, carry, and comfort. Preaching about God’s grace and the importance of a power greater than ours to get us through is not intended to encourage passivity. In fact, the opposite is the case: lived and graceful interdependence invites us to a world of giving and receiving. Out of the bountiful grace we receive from God and beloved companions, we gain the wisdom and ability to give gracefully to others and work for justice for the marginalized and forgotten. Grace invites us to become God’s active companions in the work of salvation. Liberated from the paralyzing impact of ambivalence and inner turmoil, we can gracefully reach out to others. The inner angst may never cease but we now have the resources to live with ambiguity, trusting that even our ambiguity can be used for God’s greater good.
In the Genesis reading, Abraham’s servant experiences the grace of encountering his future master’s wife-to-be. In the midst of his prayers, Rebekah appears. She is an answer to prayer. Her coming is a synchronous encounter that changes Isaac’s life. When we pray, we open to unexpected divine synchronicities that we might miss if we depended solely on our own wisdom, and not the greater wisdom of a higher power. Providence guides our steps, but will we notice? We need to let go of our tight-fisted agenda to find the providence that emerges when we join our efforts with trust in God’s wisdom.
Today’s passages reflect our everyday experiences as fallible and broken people, worshipping in fallible and broken congregations. While we progressives focus on action and responsibility, and must be especially active in protesting injustice, racism, and the malevolence of political leaders, we need to remember that the spiritual journey is a constant process of falling down and getting back up again in the context of a grace that constantly embraces us. Recognizing our need for grace enables us to accept the brokenness of others and do what is in our power to be grace-givers and healers in companionship with our Graceful God.
Bruce Epperly is a pastor, professor, spiritual guide, and author of over seventy books, including JESUS – MYSTIC, HEALER, AND PROPHET; 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; MESSY INCARNATION: MEDITATIONS ON PROCESS CHRISTOLOGY, FROM COSMOS TO CRADLE: MEDITATIONS ON THE INCARNATION, and THE PROPHET AMOS SPEAKS TO AMERICA. His most recent books are PROCESS THEOLOGY AND THE REVIVAL WE NEED and TAKING A WALK WITH WHITEHEAD: MEDITATIONS WITH PROCESS-RELATIONAL THEOLOGY. He is currently serving as Bridge Minister at Westmoreland Congregational United Church of Christ in Bethesda, MD, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.