Proper 3

May 25, 2008
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Isaiah 49:8-16a
Reading 2: 
Psalm 131
Reading 3: 
1 Corinthians 4:1-5
Reading 4: 
Matthew 6:24-34
By Rick Marshall

Discussing the text
Both texts from the Jewish scriptures assure us of God’s love. The image of an infant sucking at the mother’s breast is a vital metaphor for the love of God. The tenderness, the care, the love and commitment are immediately apprehended in this simple image. God’s love is like this; no further explanation is required. Psalm 131 describes the ease of the heart at peaceful rest. The writer’s heart is not focused on lofty things, but is content and at ease, “like a child quieted at its mother’s breast; like a child that is quieted is my soul.” The psalm reflects a place of peace in the soul.

The Isaiah text uses the same mother/infant image. After a lengthier description of God’s help based on covenant, the question of God leaving us or forgetting us is answered: “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should have no compassion on the child of her womb?” Even a human mother might forget or fall short. “Yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have graven you on the palms of my hands.” God’s love and compassion and commitment to us is as if we are tattooed on God’s hand, a sign of permanence.

Both texts address the fear of abandonment, being forgotten by God. God could no more forget us than a mother could forget her own infant. Each one of us is a child of God.

The 1 Corinthians text offers another metaphor, that of servant. Master/slave or master/servant images no longer work for us in our world. Yet, the writer uses the metaphor of servant to describe an important Christian virtue: humility. This same virtue is described in Psalm 131. “O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.” The peace of God is a result of humility. Jesus is often sharper on the point: the self, or ego driven self-preoccupation, must die. But the 1 Corinthian author implies something even more specific: “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” We are called to be trustworthy caretakers of the mysteries of God. And what are the mysteries of God? That Christ represents the creating, transforming power of God among us. And that power is what Jesus embodied--the loving, reconciling, compassionate seeker of justice, the “servant” who trusts the resurrecting God.

The Matthew text comes toward the end of the Sermon on the Mount and therefore must be read in its light. The Sermon on the Mount describes an alternative world view and ethic than that which is offered by “the World.” The world view Jesus taught was one based on humility, love for justice, and peacemaking in the face of great opposition. It is a call to a higher (or different) righteousness than that which is offered by those in power. Jesus repudiates retaliation and revenge and says to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” This world view is summarized by the Golden Rule, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets.” Such a world view leads to peace and a lack of anxiety, which brings us to the text for this Sunday.

Taken together, the logic of the texts connects us to the covenant relationship between God and creation, to the loving care of the divine guidance in life, to a call to embody that same spirit in the way we treat others.

Process Theology and the text
How to describe God’s love? The Bible offers many images, but “parent” is the most powerful: father and son, mother and infant, the good parent, the loving, compassionate, committed, suffering parent whose memory of the child does not fade. God’s love is relational.

Traditional theology focuses on a few metaphors that simply don’t work and are not in tune with the biblical view of the divine nature. The idea that God is in complete control of everything, with creation having no power, plays into the idea that God is outside creation, manipulating it from “above.” Much of traditional theology is based on an out-dated view of the world, which sees the world as a large machine, which, by extension of the metaphor, requires an Engineer. This idea was formed when science first used substance philosophy to describe the world. It was thought that God controls the world as if it was a large machine. God’s relationship to creation is one way. God creates, period. There is nothing in creation that could affect God because if God was open to change, it would imply that God could only change for the better, which implies that God was lass than perfect. Therefore God cannot be changed and must retain all power. God must be omnipotent. The logic is solid if loopy.

If God is omnipotent, and the nature of that divine power is coercive, it leads to metaphors of a unilateral “strong” God, a Dictator, a Warrior, an Emperor, one who uses force, even violence, as a means to divine ends. If one is called to represent and emulate this God in the world, it then means to embody this kind of coercive power that leads to wars and rumors of wars. An ultimate religious act can then be often an act of violence. Waging a war in God’s name, or harming another in God’s name is often justified as an act in tune with God’s nature. Of course this is a caricature of male power. The traditional theology view of God has become part of the problem of our world. Bullets and missiles and phalanxes of troops “inserting’ themselves, “dominating” the enemy, “penetrating” into hostile land; “Shock and Awe” is the measure of success. It is a patriarchal world where domination is the rule. Male over female, master over slave, adult over child, rich over poor, human over creation, Father God over the world. It creates a world filled with fear and anxiety. The language and metaphors of traditional theology feed the cycle of violence. If we are to realize the kind of peace that Jesus talked about, this traditional view of God must be abandoned for more biblical, relational, metaphors.

Process thought believes female power is equally as important as male power and both kinds of power describe the divine nature. There are aspects of God’s power that are asserting, injecting, and there are aspects of God’s power that are receiving. Process thought rejects the idea that divine power is coercive. Divine power is defined as persuasive, which leads to more relational metaphors, like the one in the texts for this Sunday.

Preaching the text
If preaching on the mother/infant metaphor, it is interesting how our society reacts so negatively and fearfully of the sight of a mother breast feeding her child in public. Laws have been passed to prohibit such offending behavior. What evokes such repulsion and fear of the female breast, fear of the female? It’s odd that an act which is the very definition of intimacy—the relation between a mother and her child while breast feeding—evokes fear.

The preacher can talk about the male fear of the female. There is plenty of material in the Bible where the female is seen as property, as second-class, as object. In our society, the female breast has become an important focus of the objectivity of the female and how the female, as a sex object, is used to sell products. The value of the female as a sex object is so embedded in our culture that it might be a challenge to our corporate dominated world for the female to be seen as primarily a nurturing mother, whose intimacy is focused on a child in a mother/child bond and not focused on intimacy as primarily a bond (bondage) between a man and a woman in a sexual relationship. The unbalance view that male power is more important than female power continues the cycle of violence against women and children.

If God is seen exclusively as a dominant male, then this hierarchy of value with God the Father on top, then male, then women as property, then children, then animals, and then the rest of the environment on “down,” continues. This is a theological problem of the first order. If God is seen as Dominant Male, Engineer, Warrior, who uses coercive power as the most effective way of divine control over creation, then the cycle of violence and death, will continue.

As the title of one of Charles Hartshorne’s books declares “Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes,” divine omnipotence is a serious problem for the world. A sermon could focus on changing the metaphors we use to describe God’s nature. Metaphors are important because each leads to a different world view and different ethical principles. What world view endorses a belief that “Greed is good.”? Or, on the other hand, what world view supports the belief that justice for the poor and oppressed is important?

Or a sermon could begin with the problem of anxiety and work out what anxiety is and what it does to us. Not only does anxiety create stress and fear in us, but it implies our continuing fiction that we have power to control the future. Anxiety is an indicator of failure of trust in God. Jesus often encouraged others not to be afraid but to trust the transforming power of God. Such a sermon could end with Psalm 131 and its sense of peace and assurance of God’s tender loving care for us.

Or another sermon could focus on the idea of being servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. This could be a “stewardship” sermon of a different sort. Tending to, caring for, and promoting the mysteries of God as embodied in the teachings, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are called to nurture and care for these mysteries in order for them to be a healthy alternative to a sinful world. The mysteries of God are mean to confront and transform the world.

Children and the text
The Bible helps us to understand God by giving us little pictures, called metaphors, of what God is like.

If you could imagine God, what would God look like? Be playful with the children. Would God look like a tree? A mountain? A military general? Some think that God is like a father. What kind of father would God be like? In one place, the Bible says that God is like a jealous husband. Or in another place, the Bible says that God is like a hen, looking after her chicks. Or that God is like an eagle. Or others say that God is like a mother. If God is a mother, what would God be like? In a few places the Bible says God is like a mother breast feeding her baby. What does that say about God’s love for us? Imagine the best kind of mother.

Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for more than 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.