Proper 17

September 2, 2007
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Jeremiah 2:4-13
Reading 2: 
Psalm 81:1, 10-16
Reading 3: 
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Reading 4: 
Luke 14:1, 7-14
By Rick Marshall

The value of using the lectionary
The comedian Jonathan Winters had a variety show years ago and one of the most memorable (to me) parts of the show was when he was given an object and then developed, on the spot, a routine based on the object. For example, he was given a belt and then gave a free association riff on all the things the belt could be. He was able to go “under” the literalness of the object to its metaphorical meanings and make creative connections to other ideas in such a way that he transformed our understanding of the object. What’s more, in some weird way, the viewer participated in the creative exercise by thinking of ways the belt can be used. It became a shared activity. The viewer helped him develop the routine as it unfolded. No matter what the object he was given, it became a trigger for his creativity. He was a master of his medium.

In a similar way, preachers are handed (the lectionary) a set of texts which we use to develop a sermon, a riff, on the underlying themes the texts suggest. We can go “under” the literal meaning of the texts to their metaphorical meanings and make connections to other ideas and thereby not only understand the texts, but transform ourselves and our listeners in the process. They can be a trigger for our creativity, no matter what the texts may be. Further, the texts can become vehicles of transformation. One of the reason I like using the lectionary is because I am challenged by being “handed” these texts to make something of them and transform them into something shared, alive and relevant. There can be a creative process in “rising” to the challenge of the imposed texts.

Discussing the text
The texts for this Sunday seem to align themselves in two sets, the first set in the Hebrew scriptures extending to insights and affirmations of the second set in the Christian scriptures. The Psalm and Jeremiah texts, in similar voice, lay out the fundamental choice of following the Divine will or following human will. It’s a variation on the common theme of the ultimate existential choice: choose life or choose death. The Psalm puts it so vividly: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of Egypt. Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it.” A simple reminder that God provided for them in the past and wants to continue to provide for them. The Divine will is simple: to provide. But, the familiar choice is made: “But my people did not listen to my voice; they would have none of me.”

The Jeremiah text sounds similar to the Psalms text but more like an indictment, with the threat that “the Lord will content with you and with your children’s children.” The problem is ongoing and will continue into the distant future. The indictment begins with the question “What wrong did your fathers find in me that they went far from me and went after worthlessness, and became worthless?” The text ends by answering its own question: “For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that hold no water.”

In both texts the voice of the Lord is filled with pathos. God wants to do good for the beloved. The Divine desire for well-being is thwarted and yearns to express love. There is profound heartbreak about the Divine love rejected by the beloved.

In the Luke text, Jesus finds himself in a world that is constructed based on rejection of the Divine offer for well-being. Management of human affairs has been in the custody of human beings for a long time; the results are disastrous and clear to anyone who cares to see. The social structure that prefers the rich and rationalizes fractured community is in full effect. The system is rigged in favor of the rich and against the poor. Coercive power is having its way at every level. Jesus focuses on social hierarchy and undercuts it with one of the primary voices of his scripture: justice is a measure of the health of a society. Attending to the poor and the outcast is an indication of how well a society is doing. Of course, in a hierarchical society, this idea seems threatening and the fear of those in power is that Jesus will turn everything up-side down. “For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” He follows that statement with the admonition to invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind to your banquet. Instead, Jesus thinks everything is up-side down already and wants to turn the social order right-side up, his understanding of righteousness, as in, right relationship.

The Hebrews text sums it up so well: ”Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers.” It goes on to remind the reader to remember the poor.

Neither Jesus nor the writer of Hebrews is saying anything new, but both are reminding us ultimately about the nature of God’s power, how God wants to bless everyone, and that how we treat the stranger and the poor is the measure of success. The Christian texts affirm what the Hebrew scriptures have known for a long time.

Process Theology and the text
Where did the idea come from that God is impassive? That somehow God is beyond being affected by what the creatures do? That God does not feel or does not change? These ideas emanate from one of the most profound theological mistakes the church has made and that is the idea of God’s omnipotence. The texts speak otherwise. The texts portray a God whose heart is being broken by the willful rejection by the beloved. God wants to be in harmony with creation and desires well-being for all creatures. If there is any Divine plan, it is well-being for all. In Jeremiah, God is the fountain of living waters, the very source of life itself. Why would anyone want to turn away from the source of life? It doesn’t make rational sense. But sin is the irrationality of human fear, trying to grasp its own future into its own hands and managing things on its own terms. “Thanks God, but we’ll take it from here.”

All the texts are highly relational, throwing the reader into the maelstrom of Divine grief over a broken creation. All I can say, as a parent of five daughters, is that I understand the profound dilemma of loving and letting go in order to love. Grasping, hanging on, dictating, controlling, are all antithetical to any loving relationship. Why would it be any different with God, if God is love?

Preaching the text
The Divine pathos and broken-heartedness is at the center of these texts. A sermon should address this biblical reality. God is in tears over creation. Who wouldn’t identify with this kind of brokenness?

Just these past few weeks, I’ve watched my sister go through the motherly pain of helplessly watching her son, who was in prison in Texas, on parole in Oregon, casually and stupidly break his parole in an act of violence. He was doing so well, and now… Her presence is with him, sitting on his bed in his cell. His father and grandparents are there with him, too, and everyone who loves him is there in tears. Today is my other sister’s birthday, the wayward sister who is homeless and drifting. My mother, as I write these words, is tracking her down to simply tell her that she loves her. Everyone who loves my sister, roams the streets with her in tears. Next week I will officiate at a funeral of a young man who took his own life. His parents are stunned, shocked. These situation are nothing out of the ordinary. Who can’t identify with the Divine heartbreak? If someone can’t, then there is nothing to say to them.

God is in dynamic relationship with the unfolding of creation. God’s happiness is intimately tied to the state of creation. This is profoundly biblical.

Another sermon could be more prophetic and address the state of the world which is a result of humans taking their future into their own hands. How’s that working so far? We’ve hewed out cisterns for ourselves, broken cisterns, that hold no water. What would Jeremiah, or Jesus, say about the state of affairs now in this country? The widening gap between the rich and the poor, the perpetration of violence on others in the name of patriotism and security. The depth of corruption and lying at the highest levels of our society. A preacher could raise the question about our economic system. Is it a broken cistern that holds no water. How about our welfare system? Our health care system? Our military and belligerent president and vice president? How’s our stewardship of the earth? And how about those who call themselves Christian, who cheer on the violence and the lies and the corruption? God has given us over to our own stubborn hearts, to follow our own counsels. Psalm 81:12. We continually make the choice between life and death, between the Divine will to well-being and our own dark counsel of security and fear.

Even as I write these words, the president is on TV affirming that old lie that violence will bring peace and the newer version of that lie, that coercion will produce democracy. God has given him over to his own stubborn heart, to follow his own counsels. Broken, empty cisterns. His words are as dry as the desert wind, as withering as a summer day in the valley of the dead. And just because he asks for God’s blessing on his endeavors doesn’t mean a blessing will come. There will be hell to pay. He will probably get the apocalypse he so desires. The arrogance of the human heart! “Your wickedness will chasten you, and your apostasy will reprove you. Know and see that it is evil and bitter for you to forsake the Lord your God; the fear of me is not in you, says the Lord of hosts.” Jer. 2:19

Children and the text
The theme of a children’s sermon could be brokenness.

Bring a boiled egg. Begin by asking the children if they have heard the story of Humpty-Dumpty. Retell it simply. While telling the story, keep tossing the egg into the air and  catching it. Be a little reckless with it. Ask about how things get broken. Toys and other objects. How can we fix them. What would happen if I droped this egg? How could we fix it? We can’t because some things can‘t be fixed. We would have to make and omelet. Drop the egg to reveal that it is boiled. Speculate on what if it wasn’t boiled. What a mess. Can other things get broken too, like friendships? Relationships? How would we fix them?

Talk about how God feels about the broken relationship with human beings. What’s wrong? Humans don’t want to be friends with God. Can you make someone be your friend? You could try. What do you think God wants from us? To be friends. God wants to help us do well.

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.