Proper 13

August 1, 2010
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Hosea 11:1-11
Reading 2: 
Psalm 107:1-9, 43
Reading 3: 
Colossians 3:1-11
Reading 4: 
Luke 12:13-21
Alt Reading 2: 
Psalm 49:1-12
Alt Reading 1: 
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
By Rick Marshall

Reflecting on preaching
Note: My reflection in this section is a statement against traditional Christian theology. It is my reaction to the texts assigned for this Sunday (in fact, much of the Bible). Those who don’t want to hear it can skip to the next section.

Much of what passes for Christian theology depends on the use of guilt, hate, or fear to motivate people in a promise for private salvation in the next world. Some churches and religious organizations use guilt, fear, or hate to manipulate people into support of some kind of financial or political agenda. But this makes sense, given the philosophical support for this kind of Christianity. Traditional Christian theology sees God as impassive, that is, unmoved or unaffected by anything. In this view God is omnipotent, that is, having all power and in control of every detail in the world. Creation has little power of self-determination. In other words, God’s power is coercive. The status quo, or the way things are, according to traditional Christian theology, is intended by divine will. This view of God often results in projecting that kind of power (coercive) onto our leaders. This kind of theology supports, legitimizes, and rationalizes the powers that be. To put it simply, traditional Christian theology is used to manipulate people into depending upon the promises of empire for security and comfort. We will see how some of the texts assigned for this Sunday describe God in very different terms. The texts speak of, or assume, a deep, loving, and painful relationship between God and creation in general and with humans in particular.

The only conclusion based on many biblical texts is that traditional Christian theology is Empire Theology and is used to subvert the moral teachings of the Bible in both the Jewish and the Christian texts. Empire religion is preached in pulpits all over the world. It oppresses people and insidiously teaches that our ultimate concern is the next life, and that the world is as it is because God wills it. This kind of theology works against hospitality, justice, and peace. Since God is interested only in the afterlife, creation has instrumental value (God is going to destroy creation anyway) and has little intrinsic value. By degrading the value of creation, this theology gives permission to plunder creation for personal profit. This theology is also against the common good by emphasizing only personal and private relationships with God, and that salvation comes in the form of continued life after the death of our bodies. If there is any punishment for sin, it will come in the hereafter.

This traditional theological use of the Bible goes to support the policies of empire and the use of violence against innocent people and feeds nationalism and even fascism. In the name of Jesus Christ, traditional Christian theology needs to be called out for what it is: a disastrous plague upon the world and deeply sinful. Because of its worship of coercive power, it is a theology of violence and death. This is a call for a more organic, natural theology based on the Bible. God’s voice in the Bible is a call to life, not to death.

I think it’s fair to say that Jesus didn’t teach anything new. Most of what he taught was straight out of his scriptures. The only moral rule he taught was treating others with radical respect. His life became the primary example of how God’s loving, creative transformation (i.e. persuasive) power is seen in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as the Messiah. It is the same kind of power that is working quietly in every present moment. God’s power is continually working to create new life out of all of our experiences of death. How did the Bible get hijacked for the purposes of empire (coercive power) when it is against empire?

There are some churches that do not use fear, hate, or guilt as a motivation. They emphasize the obvious: this world is the only world we know and where God is actively present every moment, everywhere. Using trust in God’s creative, transforming power as the motivating principle is the harder road, the narrow and difficult path. Some preachers seek resonance with those who look for a religion that refuses to use guilt, hate, or fear. Many people are tired and turned off by Christianity and for good reason. Some people consider themselves either agnostic or atheist because of the abusive practices of traditional Christian theology. I do not believe in the God of traditional Christian theology.

To treat these texts as anything but relational is to misrepresent them.

Preaching trust in God’s creating, transforming power is natural to the Bible. The Bible is the proper environment for showing what trust in the loving power of God looks like. Trust in God’s persuasive power lends itself much more readily to the way the Bible describes the human dilemma and the nature of God’s power as it stand against empire. Let’s look at the texts for this Sunday.

Discussing the texts
This familiar text from Hosea 11:1-11 is powerfully evocative, infused with feelings of love and dread, disappointment and hope: all emotional expressions that the text attributes to the divine nature. Most readers would identify these responses as deeply human as well. This text is above all a story about the dynamic, changeable, and troubled relationship that God has with creation—mostly with humans. It is a relationship that is fraught with hope and difficulties. The relationship is cast as the yearning love of a father (or mother) who is hurting because of a wayward child. What parent cannot identify with the pain of this text? People who have children can sympathize with the dilemma of a parent longing for their child to return home. There may also be a tinge of victim language. How many times have mothers or fathers said to their child, “After all I’ve done for you, you do this? You’re breaking my heart.” Disloyalty to the family is painful and harsh, and here it is seen in the large scale of divine angst. This is a parent’s gut-wrenching dilemma of dealing with a troubled child—loving them and yet holding them accountable. God says, “I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.” God wants to lash out and punish, but then thinks “How can I give you up, how can I hand you over? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.” In this text we are privy to the anguished heart of God. We are in the presence of a confused, aching, angry lover. All this is the stuff of drama, but in this case, the divine drama. This description of God in ways that are familiar to us is also an expression of what it means to be made in the image of God, only working from human experience and extrapolating to the divine experience.

Psalm 107:1-9 speaks of God’s steadfast love, which is offered as the central divine attribute. God is called good because of God’s love. The word “steadfast” gives depth and meaning to God’s love. God is a loyal friend, faithful, committed, devoted, dedicated, dependable, reliable, steady, true, constant. This is a description of the most highly prized relationship possible. Who wouldn’t want family members or friends to embody these qualities? These are characteristics that many struggle to embody yet, as imperfect creatures, we often fail. We aspire, and are called to, relationships of wholeness.

Colossians 3:1-11 Even this text is relational to its core. The language of the text, focusing life on things above and not on things below, is couched negatively in relational terms in behaviors that we must renounce: anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language, lying to one another. These are values and behaviors that harm relationships. There are other values that support healthy relationships: peacemaking, compassion, generosity, hospitality, respect, affection, love.

The parable of the rich fool in Luke 12:13-21 is a cautionary tale about greed and accountability for what we have and how we behave in the world. The rich man is held up as a person who thinks only of himself. He wants more, not taking into account that his wanting is actually taking from others. Greed is not an abstract idea, it is the particular abuse of relationships: greed takes. The story offers the rich man as an embodiment of a lack of concern for the common good.

Process Theology and the texts
The act of preaching can be interpreted, in itself, as an emerging actual occasion as understood in process theology. An emerging occasion is the process of becoming actual or real. The preaching event (for the preacher) emerges from the past, which must be taken into account, and includes sermon preparation. The sermon is a response to the divine lure into the present moment by responding to relevant possibilities (ideas or propositions) for its own becoming as a preaching event and then, when completed or reaching satisfaction, passes on to become part of the next actual occasion of experience and so on. The sermon is the emergence of an event that takes account of the past, responds to a lure which can be a text or an idea, and becomes concrete in the act of preaching. The preaching event then becomes something that listeners take into account in their emergence as actualizing occasions. The sermon is offered to listeners as part of the data of their own context of becoming, depending on how they choose to incorporate the sermon into their experience. The sermon then becomes part of, and incorporated into, other people’s emerging actuality. That’s why I like to call a sermon a preaching event. Often, after the sermon is preached, it continues to be actively unfolding in my continuing experience, responding to new possibilities. In this way, preaching is a process, and it is fundamentally relational. Preaching can be a conscious introduction of new possibilities which become an integral part of others.

All the texts discussed above are deeply relational and include God as one who is in relationship with everything. In fact, much of the Bible is relational and goes to the central idea that God is love. To love is to be, by definition, relational.

To say that God is love can often be trite and so vague as to be of limited value as a statement. At its worst theological expression, it can be destructive of people, of cultures, and of environments. Moreover, there is a categorical conflict between how traditional Christian theology describes God’s love and how the Bible describes God’s love—and especially how we describe our own experience of love. The traditional Christian view is that God cannot change (i.e., if God changes it can be only an improvement, but if God can improve, it implies that God was less then perfect before the change) and therefore cannot be affected or influenced by anything, especially human beings. God’s power is coercive and God imposes God’s will on creation. God’s love is one-way and stern and arbitrary (i.e., we cannot know the mind of God). God’s love is often described as testing people’s faith by sending hurt and suffering. When something bad happens to a person, God’s involvement in that event is mysteriously causal. To avoid blaming God, a “higher purpose” is invoked. God is, by definition, non-relational. Faith then is to trust this arbitrary, powerful God against all reason. Faith is conceding to the contractions that traditional Christian theology creates. In the traditional Christian view, God’s love is of a kind we do not recognize. Furthermore, it describes a God that is not worthy of worship. If parents treated their children in this way, it would be reprehensible by any definition of the word “love.”

When we think about God’s love in the only terms we know—human love—then the statement that God is love can take on a depth of meaning that can be surprising and yet familiar. Our experience of love, as limited as it is, can be key to understanding how God is love. God is love by actually loving.

In process thought, there are two types of relationships, external and internal. Traditional Christian theology grants to God only external relations. In internal relations we literally become part of one another through feelings, but these are not attributed to God because of the prior commitment to the idea that God cannot change. But love is primarily a category of feeling and internal relations, and process thought holds that even divine love is defined by internal relations. In some respects (not all) God changes. God will always be the power of creative transformation and will always work toward life—these attributes will not change. But God is in relationship with the world and human beings, and God loves us, which means God responds to the decisions actual occasions make moment by moment. Every relationship is dynamic and fluid. A static relationship is a dead relationship.

If love is one of the defining characteristics of the divine nature, then the only way we can understand “love” is in our own human experience. We know that love is the way human beings are connected through relationships. Love is categorically and by nature a relational word. It is a deeply human experience. We are defined by our relationships, the choices that we make, and how we respond to new possibilities. We become, literally, part of one another. As Paul observed, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it. If one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Cor. 12:26). Paul is talking about how all members are joined together like a body. The image of the body is organic and highly relational—relational by definition.

My own experience of loving particular people involves very complicated feelings and is so dynamic as to be impossible to pin down what I mean when I use the word love. I define love by the way I love this child or that child, this friend or that grandchild. The love I have for a variety of people is very complicated and is particular to each person I love. Love is complicated: it can bring great joy and sorrow. Love seems to be easy when we are young, but eventually we understand that loving another person is very risky and makes us vulnerable. Another trite statement is “love hurts.” Again, love can hurt me when someone I love is hurt, or treats me badly or is at risk somehow.

What other way is there to talk about God’s love than to speak of it in human terms? God loves creation, and love is risky for God too. God opens the divine heart to us taking the risk of being hurt, as we see in the Hosea text.

Preaching the texts
In the same way that the phrase “God is love” can be so general and abstract as to be useless, so a sermon might want to go in that same abstract direction. It’s easy for someone to say “I love everybody in the world.” It sounds altruistic, but it is completely vacuous, ethically dubious, and utter nonsense. We love particular people and things. I love my wife. I love my daughters. I have friends I care deeply about, but it is not the case that I love all people. I love very few people because I don’t know everyone (who could?).

One way to approach a sermon on divine love is to particularize love, which is what the Hosea text does. The move can be made from understanding our experience of love to God’s experience of love. A sermon could remind the congregation that love always has a context; it would not exist if not for relationships. The Bible describes God’s love through words, sayings, and stories, which all provide a context. Without context, texts become abstract puzzles and static ciphers.

I would start a sermon using concrete examples from my own life of how my love for others and their love for me has not only changed me, but has created me. Having children is a great example of how our lives get changed by raising them. Many parents who have had teenagers can empathize with Hosea’s dilemma. So can those who have been divorced. Marriage is another rich example of two people who love one another choose to become life-partners. Living with someone in marriage is satisfying and difficult, and it changes us in so many ways. Divorce is also a relational experience that changes those who once loved each other but no longer do. It’s hard to think about our own life without all the relationships that have formed us. It seem that if we took all our relationships away, we would not exist.

I’ve been through a divorce and understand the emotional dynamics that went on in the breakup of that relationship. That experience helps me to understand the Hosea text more deeply. A wayward marriage partner was world changing (of my personal world) and committed us and our children to a very different world had the divorce not occurred. If we understand the risks, joys, and griefs of our loves, then we can understand God’s dilemma. The kind of loving God the texts describe is a God worthy of our love, devotion, and worship. If we are in touch with the emotional costs of loving, then we begin to understand the cost of the divine loving a wayward partner.

Children and the texts
The goal with the children is to talk about human love and then talk about how God’s love is like human love.

Ask the children: What do you think love is? Play with them about the meaning of love. Then describe a person who thinks about himself or herself all the time: they can be disrespectful, rude, and don’t care about anyone else. Is this someone who is easy to love? No, of course not. What if your mom or dad was like this person? You would be very unlucky. What would happen if your parents ignored you all the time, didn’t take care of you, and didn’t notice when you are hurt? And then they would say that they love you. Would you believe them? Of course not. Some people think that God is like that person, who doesn’t feel anything and who keeps track of everything bad that you did and would sometimes do good things for you and sometimes bad things, but you never knew why. Would you call God loving? Of course not. That’s not what the Bible says about God anyway. Describe how God would be loving. When you hurt, it would matter to God. God would be happy when you are happy and say when you are sad.

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.