Proper 5

June 8, 2008
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Genesis 12:1-9
Reading 2: 
Psalm 33:1-12
Reading 3: 
Romans 4:13-25
Reading 4: 
Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26
By Rick Marshall

Discussing the text
A strong theme that is building in the texts for Pentecost this year is the reminder that God is Creator and that our ultimate loyalty, allegiance and trust are due God and not to any creature. The temptation for humans is to find ultimate commitment in a creature, which is the definition of idolatry. Paul puts his finger on the true center of sin in Romans 1:25 where humans “exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped the creature rather than the Creator.”

Misplaced trust is front and center in the texts for this Sunday. The foundational story of Abrams’ call is a defining moment for both the Jewish scriptures and the Christian scriptures. Being right with God (righteousness) is based on trust in God and not on anything else. There are no other qualifications or standards that define righteousness. Human sin wants to create legal requirements to be right with God. This is the issue with Paul in Romans, the (mis)use of the law in determining who is righteous. Paul says if you use that standard then no one qualifies because no one can possibly keep the law. If you live by the law, you die by the law. The use of the law as a measure of righteousness is to precisely misunderstand the nature of the gospel and what it means to be a follower of Jesus as the Christ. And here we come to the heart of the Gospel and what it means to be a Christian: we are right with God based on entrusting our lives into God’s hands. God calls, we respond. Any other qualification undermines this relationship.

Jesus intentionally reached out to the outsider, the disenfranchised, those excluded by the law. In the Matthew text, Jesus calls a tax collector to be one of his disciples, and he is accused of eating with sinners. The religious authorities immediately confront him with the weight of the law and the belief that keeping the law is what makes one right with God. Jesus, in his vague teaching style, says to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go figure out what this means.” Then he says he doesn’t call the righteous anyway, but sinners. It’s easy to imagine the religious authorities being offended by the seemingly flippant attitude of Jesus and how he undercuts the force of their accusations.

Inclusiveness is grace put into practice and Jesus practiced radical inclusiveness. How the widow, the orphan, the sick, and the poor are treated—in other words, justice--is the measure of a healthy relationship with God. All Jesus’ teachings and practices go back to the two commandments to treat others and God with respect, without qualification.

Paul emphasizes the point that there is to be no qualification placed on God’s grace. It is not something that can be earned or achieved through birth or rationalized or justified in any way. There is no human control that can be placed on God’s grace; otherwise, it wouldn’t be grace. Being right with God is simply trusting God. Paul uses the example of Abram to make the point.

The Genesis text clearly specifies that God called Abram for no apparent reason, other than God’s determination, and Abram responded in trust, which is the theological point. God called, Abram responded in trust. That’s all there is to it and this is the definition of being right with God. Humans like to tack on qualifiers: one must be good, one must keep the rules, one must be in good standing in a house of worship, one must be of the right clan or tribe or nation, one must be the right color or the right sexual orientation. Paul resists all such qualifications. He uses the example of Abram to make his case in the letter to the Romans.

Who would Jesus exclude? Who falls outside God’s grace?

Process Theology and the text
The idea of radical inclusiveness becomes theological as it is used to describe the nature of God. In the process view, God takes everything into God’s own experience from moment to moment. God experiences the totality of the world as it unfolds, transforms all of that into God’s own experience, and then gives back to the world new possibilities for becoming in the next moment. This means that God takes in the good and the bad and is able to redeem everything—everything--in God’s experience. This is the nature of grace.

Furthermore, inclusiveness opens the possibility of enrichment of experience, variety, complexity and the possibility of greater depth and beauty. It also runs the risk of chaos, disharmony and hurt. But exclusion guarantees poverty of experience; triviality is a form of sin. We take a risk in love when we reach out to another, opening ourselves to the other, with the possibility of being enriched by them. They can also reject us or harm us. God takes a similar risk in loving the world. For God, loving the world means the possibility of enrichment of divine experience and greater depth and beauty. It also means that God is open to hurt as well.

Preaching the text
The greatest resistance to civil rights often comes from the church and church people. It is quite shocking how Christians will use their scriptures, contrary to the teachings of Jesus and Paul, and try to judge others based on law and other qualifiers, to excluded people from the kingdom of God. The level of biblical illiteracy is astounding in this country. Ignorance of what the Bible actually says thinly masks prejudice and hatred of the stranger. Such ignorance enshrines fear, shame and guilt as primary religious motivators. Even when the gospel is clearly articulated, people still oppose it and willfully disregard the teachings of Jesus and Paul. The reason often given is that Jesus’ teachings are not practical or they aren’t meant for the real world or they are just too extreme and difficult to practice. We shouldn’t be surprised, because Jesus and Paul battled religious people of their day for doing the very same thing. Prejudice, bigotry, exclusion, and hatred are given a religious face and used to commit horrible crimes against others, all in the name of God.

If a preacher is going to be true to the gospel, to the teachings of Jesus and Paul, then the greatest resistance can be expected to come from other Christians.

Case in point: the battle over homosexual rights. In light of the teachings of Jesus and Paul, gays and lesbians would be welcome at Jesus’ table. He welcomed those defined by the law as outsiders. But, in spite of the gospel, some Christians use scriptures to exclude people who Jesus would specifically include. Gay rights is more than a civil rights issue, it is a theological issue. The gospel is at stake. By denying loving, committed relationships using a standard of fear and misunderstanding countermands Jesus’ teachings. The larger Christian church has a terrible history of excluding people. The sermon for this Sunday could easily focus on Jesus practice of inclusiveness and what that means theologically. Who did he invite to the table? Who would he exclude?

Another sermon could focus on Paul’s simple yet radical understanding of grace and what it means to be right with God. What is the basis of righteousness? If faith is the only basis, then why are people being excluded based on other factors? The law seems to keep creeping back into the church. A sermon could imagine a world where radical inclusiveness was practiced. A world could be described where the simple practice of treating others with respect was the norm, where the stranger was welcomed, and where resources were focused on the common good, and where the poor and needy were cared for. That world would be called the kingdom of God. Is that world so far fetched? Divine grace would then be reflected in human community.

Children and the text
Is it better to have too many friends or not enough friends? Sometimes I think I would like to just go off by myself and be alone. Live alone, not talk to anyone or not have to be responsible or accountable to anyone. Wouldn’t that be nice? I could do anything I wanted. I think that also sounds pretty lonely. Does it to you, too? I guess I prefer having people around me.

Is it better to have friends who are all the same? They look the same color, they have the same clothes and toys, and they act the same. Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone I knew was just like me? Or maybe that sounds a little boring. Come to think about it, I have lots of friends and they are all different—from me and from one another. I like to have different kinds of friends. It makes my life more interesting.

Do you think God wants everyone to be the same? Probably not. It might be boring for God. I think God likes differences. Look at all the different kinds of animals and flowers and trees there are. I think God likes variety.

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.