Proper 4

June 1, 2008
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Genesis 6:9-22, 7:24, 8:14-19
Reading 2: 
Psalm 46
Reading 3: 
Romans 1:16-17, 3:22b-28, (29-31)
Reading 4: 
Matthew 7:21-29
By Rick Marshall

Discussing the text
All the assigned texts, taken together, point to a basic biblical claim that all things ultimately depend upon God and that God’s intentions for creation are good and protective.

The psalm is a familiar one and expresses the claim vividly: “God is our refuge and strength a very present help in trouble.” Based on that claim, the psalm says, “Therefore we will not be afraid.” Even though the world seems to fall apart, God provides stability. The images the psalmist uses to describe God are active and robust. “God is our refuge.” “God is in the midst.” “God will help.” “The Lord is with us.” These are the foundational claims upon which all our faith and hope in the future rest. For our part, we are called to “Be still, and know that I am God.” The psalmist is encouraging us to take a deep breath and not react to the troubles of life out of fear and panic, but to trust in divine presence and guidance.

There is some measure of tension between the state of peaceful rest in God in the psalm and the story of Noah in the Genesis text. To appreciate the assigned text, the whole story must be well in hand, Genesis 6:5-9:19. Taken as a whole, the story is about the tension within God as God looks upon creation and is dismayed and regrets creating humans. God resolves to destroy everything and begin anew. The main indictment, other than wickedness and corruption, which is vague, is the problem of violence. It is mentioned more than once. Oddly, God decides to use violence to solve the problem. “I will destroy.” “I will blot out.” And that’s what happens in the story. God destroys everything except for Noah and those on the Ark. Notice that, by the end of the story, the only character who changes is God. God learns that violence, retribution, retaliation and revenge will not solve anything. God learns the lesson and resolves: “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.” Noah didn’t learn anything; humans didn’t learn anything; creation didn’t learn anything except to be afraid of this angry childlike God who lashes out almost on impulse. There is no doubt that the story of divine destruction shows God behaving badly. The human heart remains the same; God decides to deal with it differently and makes a covenant that reflects God’s change of heart.

Paul’s claim in Romans is that the good news is God’s power for salvation for everyone. I can’t help but think that this great Christian claim is a result of divine lessons learned. God chooses to deal with creation in transformative ways. When Paul says that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” he is making the same point that God learned in Genesis 8:21. If we wait for the human heart to change, we will be disappointed. If any initiative is required that moves creation toward transformation, resurrection and hope, it must come from God. Someone in the relationship between God and humans has to be the adult, and God has decided it must be God, because humans are not able to step up to the task. God takes the constructive role in the relationship through Jesus Christ. Jesus, as God’s Anointed One, embodies in his teaching, his life, death and resurrection, the way that God has decided to deal with creation, through the power of creating, transforming love and not through violence and revenge. That’s the good news! The issue in the relationship then becomes a matter of trust, as it does in any covenantal relationship. Paul says “We believe a person is justified by faith (trust).”

Jesus, in the Matthew text, tells us to think seriously about this relationship with God. The assigned text comes at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus says, in effect, “think about how I have described the way God works in this life and what that implies for how we treat one another and God.” He says, “Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise person.” Notice the emphasis upon hearing and doing. Putting these teachings into practice comes down to treating others with respect, and treating God with respect, the essence of the two great commandments.

Process Theology and the Text
If the texts tell us anything, they describe how God’s strength comes from an inner dynamic in God’s own experience. Based on God’s own real relationship with creation, there is a divine inner resolve to deal with creation through creating, transforming love rather than through violence. It is a divine choice and God comes down on the side of peace and life.

There are many stories in the Bible that show God changing God’s mind, amending God’s ways, regretting, resolving, being jealous, angry, and loving. God is in dynamic relationship with creation. The Bible acknowledges that creatures have true power for self-determination. This means that creatures can respond to God positively or negatively. God continually adjusts the divine response to creation, based on the creatures’ decisions from moment to moment.

There is a sense of growth in God. God takes into God’s own experience all that happens in creation and then responds to creation with new possibilities and then once again receives all that happens in creation and so on. Each creature, by its very existence, adds to God’s experience.

The ideas of divine impassivity (changeless) and omnipotence (all-power) don’t ring true with the way many of the biblical stories portray God. The Bible portrays God in relational terms.

Preaching the text
At the heart of the Sermon on the Mount is the repudiation of retaliation and revenge as ways of responding to threat and harm. “Love your enemy,” is the measure of how far this repudiation goes. “Turn the other cheek,” is another measure. To say that Jesus’ message is one of pacifism might seem to turn it into a political statement. Jesus’ point about violence is primarily theological. Persuasive love is the nature of God’s power, not coercion. If persuasive power is the primary category that describes God’s nature, then to be made in God’s image implies embodying persuasive power and repudiating coercion and violence. This logic is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. Resurrection power goes beyond political categories, national allegiances, and religious commitments. It is the fundamental description of how God’s power works in the world.

A sermon could focus on how violence is often used as a strategy to counter a perceived threat or respond to harm. Begin by simply telling the Noah story. Another story that makes a similar point about violence is Cain and Abel. The use of violence is a choice. There are consequences. If violence is used, it takes on its own dark power in the perpetrator. The consequences of violence can be seen in God in the Noah story and in Cain in the other story. Violence is a capitulation to fear and the opposite of trust. The psalm is a stark contrast to the cautionary tales of the Noah story and the Cain and Abel story.

Or a sermon could focus on the consequences and “fallout” of the use of violence. War is the ultimate form of retaliation. Murder is another. But there are many other, subtler, forms of violence that fall short of literally taking a life. Forms of oppression and injustice, racism and sexism, poverty and exclusion from services are forms of violence against others.

The lesson of the Noah story for the reader is that if God tried revenge and retaliation and it didn’t work, why do we think it will work for us? How do we decide to respond to the threat of harm? In the face of threat and potential harm, how do we attain the peace expressed in the psalm? Trust in the presence and guidance of God is the path to true peace and life.

Another sermon could focus on Paul’s understanding of sin in the Romans text. He is clear and sharp about the nature of the power of sin. Later in Romans, Paul quotes his own scriptures in conclusion of his indictment: “None is righteous, no not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God. All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong; no one does good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave, they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood, in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they do not know. There is no fear of God before their eyes.” Romans 3:10-18. The litany makes the ears burn. He goes on to say, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested… through faith in Jesus Christ.” We are called to trust the divine power that was manifested in Jesus teaching, life, death, and resurrection. Furthermore, trust in this divine power then creates a different community. The new community stands against organized forms of violence, injustice and oppression. It stands for peace, reconciliation, and treating others with respect. There are two forms of community organization: one is based on self-protection against threat, which is motivated by fear, the other is based on trust in God’s transforming power.

Whatever sermon is preached, it could end with the assurance of God’s presence and guidance the psalm.

Children and the text
Have something that would be heavy for one of the children to lift, maybe a large brick or rock or box filled with heavy paper. Begin the discussion by asking who is strong enough to lift this thing? Many hands will go up. Ask one of the smaller ones to struggle with the object. Ask other larger kids then to pick up the object. Comment on how strong they are to be able to pick up this object. Does that make you the strongest? Who is the strongest? Of course the one who could pick it up. Playfully disagree with their conclusion. Actually, I’m the strongest one here because I lifted the box without even trying. I got you to lift it for me.

Who is the strongest, the one who makes you do something against your will, or someone who persuades you to do something on your own?

What kind of power do you think God has?

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.