Proper 19

September 16, 2007
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
Reading 2: 
Psalm 14
Reading 3: 
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Reading 4: 
Luke 15:1-10
By Rick Marshall

Discussing the text
What a bleak assessment of the human condition! The Psalm and Jeremiah texts have the smell of hot desert wind and hopelessness. But look at the target of the Psalm in verse one: The Fool. Who is the fool? The fool is the one who says in his heart “there is no God.” The judgment of the Psalm is then spun out of this indictment of the fool. The observation is that a life lived out of alignment with God, and not righteous (or right relation), is corrupt, they do abominable deeds, they have all gone astray, there is none good, no not one. Yet, focusing on verse two leads the reader to believe that the assessment is about all people. Still, injustice is close at hand as the main concern of the Psalm. The fools, the evil doers are the ones “who eat up my people as they eat bread.” For “God is with the generation of the righteous. You would confound the plans of the poor, but the Lord is their refuge.” By the end of the Psalm, the reader is a little confused. The sense of bleakness is not about humanity in general, but the fool, the corrupt, the eater of the poor. The Psalm ends with a yearning for restoration to justice. Only then shall there be rejoicing.

The Jeremiah text is the blistering word of the prophet, so harsh and caustic that it could take paint off the sanctuary walls. “At that time it will be said to this people and to Jerusalem, ‘A hot wind from the bare heights in the desert toward the daughter of my people, not to winnow or cleanse, a wind too full for this comes for me. Now it is I who speak judgment upon them.’” The larger context is that both Judah and Jerusalem are under a dire threat from the north. Their very existence is at stake and where is God now? God is the one speaking words of judgment.

Both text from the Christian scriptures focus more on God’s way of dealing with “sinners.” One of the accusations against Jesus and his ministry was that “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” Luke 15:2. And the 1 Timothy text affirms the idea that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” 1:15.

But there seems to be some dispute in the use of the word “sinner” between what is implied in the Jewish texts and what is said plainly in the Christian texts. The sinners in Psalms and in Jeremiah are the ones who are not in right relation with God; they are the fools, the corrupt ones, and unjust who eat the poor. Whereas, in the Christian texts, the sinners are the outcasts, the poor, the sick, the disenfranchised. Of course, Jesus often plays with the idea of who is the sinner, the oppressed ones or the oppressors. The dispute in the idea of “sinner” might have been in the religious authorities’ minds all along. In what world would the poor and oppressed be portrayed as the sinner? Certainly not in the Kingdom of God, which is the point in the Luke text. In the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin, it is clear that the lost, the one‘s who are out of the fold and exposed and in danger, are sought after and returned to their proper place. What kind of “sinner” is the object of God‘s pursuit? In the Jewish texts, the Divine effort is toward the restoration of the people of Israel to a right relation with God, which requires a right relation with one another, which is a view of the problem from above, or from the point of view of the religious leaders. In the Christian texts, the Divine effort is restoring the poor and the oppressed to right relationship, which is a view from below, or from the point of view of those rejected. The same problem of the consequences of an unjust society is viewed from two perspectives, one from above, one from below. So who is the one who creates joy in God‘s heart? The simple answer is “The one who repents,” whoever needs to repent.

The emphasis in all the texts is that the initiative for any positive, restorative, action comes from God. Even judgment is seen as corrective. The Psalm ends with a wish for restoration. The Jeremiah text suggests just a hint of hope in verse 27 “The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end.” Just before this, in verse 29, “My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain! Oh, the walls of my heart! My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent; for I hear the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war.” The heart of Divine hurts over the foolishness of the creatures. The shepherd wants to find the lost sheep; the woman wants to find the lost coin. And what about the lost son?

Process Theology and the text
Most roads in the Bible lead back to the issue of the health of God’s creation and the human community. Questions of justice and the many ways it is violated implies an interconnected world, where one’s welfare affects everyone else’s welfare. This view is both deeply biblical and one which process theology affirms at the heart of its view of the world. The story of the shepherd who has lost a sheep says it simply. The safety and wholeness of the sheepfold depends upon restoring the lost one to its proper place. The harsh language of the Jewish texts is reserved for those who violate justice and inflict oppression on some of the most vulnerable of God’s children.

Preaching the text
The prophetic voice, the voice of Jeremiah, of Isaiah, the voice of Jesus, speaks on behalf of the invisibles, the poor, the disenfranchised, the innocents. Even though it might seem faddish to speak on behalf of the poor and oppressed--and some celebrities lend their names, money and time to good causes, and they receive admiration from many--to actually preach from the pulpit from the voice of the prophet is not only difficult, it is discouraged my many churches. What would it mean to preach from the prophetic voice in our world and in our particular situation? It would mean critiquing the powers of darkness that have become systems of oppression of the invisibles. Take the war in Iraq as a vivid example. Every month we hear of the number of soldiers who are killed. The total number rises and we all watch it with dread. Numbers of insurgents who are killed are tallied and produced as evidence of progress. But how many innocent people are killed? How many children and women and elderly and sick are either killed or displaced? The number of Iraqi refugees is in the millions and mounting. Just last month, July 2007, it was reported that over 1,800 civilian Iraqis were killed, many of them children and women and the helpless. The American war machine continues to mow and chew and destroy innocent lives in its effort to establish “security.” The question for the preacher, and for all of us, is what would the prophetic voice say about our country, supported by our tax dollars, with enough votes to sustain the war effort? What moral cost have we inflicted on innocent lives. We have been eating people as we eat bread. What would the prophetic voice say about the arrogance of our leaders who are responsible, the brutal grasp for power, the lies, the neglect of the consequence of their actions on the invisibles? What would the prophetic voice say about the destruction of webs of life. The prophetic pronouncement is “Fool.“ When the Iraqis suffer, God suffers. What happens to one of God’s children happens to us all. Where is the prophetic outrage over the violence and the abomination of arrogance the fuels this disaster unfolding on our TVs, newspapers, and on the streets of Iraq? In what world can one support this injustice and call it Christian? Only in a world that Jesus had to confront. Only in a world where a reluctant Jeremiah had to stand up and speak truth to power. The essence of the message we are called to speak to power is that the emperor has no clothes. The policies and values of the empire are not only corrupt, but deathly to all, even those inside the empire. Judgment will come, says the Lord.

The problem for the preacher in voicing the prophetic view is that we are embedded in the very system that perpetuates the powers that reign over us. The church is an organization, and churches are conservative in nature because they need to survive as organizations. Preachers who are paid by the people they preach to are beholden to keeping their people satisfied in order to maintain their position. Especially in these times when patriotism has reach a fevered pitch and infected many churches with its idolatry, how is it possible to speak truth to power? Where is it possible to hear the kind of preaching embodied in Jeremiah or Jesus?

Another approach to the Christian texts is to talk about what motivated the shepherd or the woman to seek the one thing that was lost? What did the loss mean for them? What were they trying to restore? And what would happen if they failed at their search and had to live with one sheep missing or one coin still lost. I think immediately of the trapped miners in Utah and how the dramatic and desperate efforts to save them failed. What happens now, especially for the families of those who were lost? It will be an untenable way for them to live. There has to be some way to resolve the loss or to interpret in such a way as to be able to go on. Hope is most meaningful in the face of threat.

Children and the text
We often talk about the fact that God loves us and how we are all God’s children. But do you think God ever gets angry? What do you think might make God angry? Why does God get angry? Ask similar questions about the children’s parents and what makes them angry and why? Talk about how anger is sometimes part of love. Talk about the common experience of a mother or father losing their child in a store and they have to look and look for their child and they get scared and worried. And then when they finally find their child they feel both relief and anger. If you wish, you can relate this discussion to some of the language from Jeremiah. Yes, God is angry, but why? See especially Jeremiah 4:19.

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.