Proper 14

August 8, 2010
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Reading 2: 
Psalm 50:1-8
Reading 3: 
Hebrews 11:1-3
Reading 4: 
Luke 12:32-40
Alt Reading 2: 
Psalm 33:12-22
Alt Reading 1: 
Genesis 15:1-6
By Rick Marshall

Reflecting on preaching
Preaching is, at its best, engaging the texts and the human condition in order to shed light on the human struggle to not only survive but to thrive in ways that bring beauty, justice, peace, and enjoyment to life. Using Bible texts intentionally to “stress test” our lives is to engage life. The act of preaching can present an example of what it looks like to speak to the human condition using texts from the Bible. To “know thyself, to be an authentic person, is an important goal of preaching and being in Christian community. One of the primary questions motivating (my) preaching is: What does it mean to be a Christian in a religious environment (empire religion) that works against the God of the Bible, and to struggle with what it means to be an authentic Christian living in a world that seems to be managing itself into disaster after disaster, without regard for the common good, or matters of peace and justice? Truly, we live in a “domination system,” and the Bible is often used by those in power to support and justify such a system.

On to these wonderfully powerful texts!

Discussing the texts
The theme of God as a parent yearning after a wayward child continues from last week in the opening verses of Isaiah. “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me” (1:2). But there is more anger here than there is in the Hosea text. This one is in the form of an indictment. The beginning of the text this week compares Israel to Sodom and Gomorrah, a clear accusation of breaking hospitality rules, resulting in much violence in that story. We soon learn that the issue is corruption and injustice. God says that whatever religious acts the people perform, they are meaningless as long as the people are engaged in injustice and oppression. However, they can become right with God: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (1: 16-17). To be right with God, the people need to be right with one another. The common good of all, especially the most vulnerable—the oppressed, the orphan, the widow—Is central. The choice is clear: “If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of Israel; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword” (1: 19-20). But of course, the political policies that create oppression, domination, and injustice require violence to enforce. No justice, no peace. This is a simple logic of the prophets.

The alternate text of Genesis is God’s call of Abram and the promise of many children. It is a promise of a future, which he and Sari didn’t have because they had no children. Abram believed God’s promise of children and a future, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. The story of Abram is, of course, the primary model of faith. It is used in this Sunday’s Hebrews text. It is famously used by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans where he talks about the limits of the law and the nature of grace. This proto-narrative is a simple call and response story, but the frequent references to it in other books make this a deeply embedded one in the Bible. The Abraham story is famous partly for its brevity. The narrative gives only the information that we need to understand it as a pure example of trust in God. The story resonates with the practices of the faithful and is powerfully existential.

The Hebrews text uses the Abraham story to call us to the same kind of faith as embodied in the righteous man, Abraham.

As a preacher, the opening verses of Hebrews chapter 11 intrigue me: "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it, those who have gone before us were affirmed by God. By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things that are not visible" (vss 10-3).

God is the power that brings new life out of all of our experiences of death. God creates a way out of no way. As preachers, we often call attention to the things that are not seen in life. Most things that are of value to us are invisible: love, peace, joy, well-being and so on. Language is our tool and the imagination is the source of power for preaching, and these words from Hebrews have deep resonance in my imagination.

As a preacher, it is helpful to recognize how God works in the world, through the power of creative transformation, but also how thin the boundary is between the world we have and the world we can hope for. As a philosopher, I am interested in what is occurring around us that we can’t detect with our five senses. The range of sound we can hear is very small in the spectrum of waves. What we can see with our eyes is also very limited in its range. Smell and touch are also very limited. Our five senses have evolved for the pragmatic task of survival in the world. But how much of the natural world goes on right next to us without our sensing it?

My aunt died just a few days ago. She had been in the grip of dementia. There were times when she reported to her husband that she had talked with her brother (my father), who has been dead for two years. Often people reach a place of liminal awareness in some altered state of mind. Drugs take us to that point sometimes. Illness and depression and near death experiences, too.

I lead two grief support groups twice a month at two local mortuaries. A common experience of people who are going through the death of a close loved one is that they have had experiences with their loved ones after their deaths. Some of the most sober minded, reality-grounded people have reported such experience in a moment of candor. They can’t tell their stories to most people because of fear of ridicule, but in an atmosphere of trust in the support group they feel free to speak. Such experiences are more common than people realize.

The point of these reports and observations it that there is more going on in the natural world around us—a lot more—than we can detect. The liminal is in the present moment and that is where life is lived—In the present moment that includes much more than we can directly perceive. I argue for an expanded natural theology. What are often called miracles might very well be the unperceived world impinging upon our limited sense-based experience. We don’t need miracles that suspend the laws of nature. I argue that our laws of nature are limited by our imaginations. Show me a traditional miracle story that requires the suspension of natural law, and I will argue that even those experiences are part of the natural world. Much of what is reported in the Bible depends on activities that are not available to our five senses. Just because we can’t sense something doesn’t mean it’s not real. That’s why it is easy for me to resonate with the words from Hebrews: “By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things that are not visible.”

Scientists talk about dark matter. It’s there, but they have no way of detecting it. In fact, it might make up the majority of “stuff” in the universe. In a similar way, our conscious awareness cannot detect the expansive created order that is beyond our ability to sense. It’s not that God creates out of nothing, but that the word of God creates what is seen from things that are not visible. God’s creativity is part of the natural world. If our conscious mind is but the tip of the iceberg of mostly unconscious experience, then why would we deny the existence of the majority of that which is submerged just because we can’t see it? We see its affects all the time in our life experience. In fact, much of the natural order might make up the majority of the “stuff” of life which we have no way of detecting.

The Luke text, which seems like a collection of loose thoughts, calls for readiness. Trust God; disentangle from worldly affairs; be ready. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (12:32).

Process Theology and the texts
What has been described above is highly relational. The influence of God, attracting us with new possibilities into our mostly unknown future, requires trust in this God. The world is deeply embedded in God’s experience and God is highly invested in ours because we contribute to God’s own experience. Love is the only way to describe this relationship. The relationship between the divine life and our life is so close that the Apostle Paul used the image of us as God’s body. The world is related to God in much the same way we are related to our bodies: intimately entwined, yet distinct. Our experience is dependent upon our body and intimately influenced by it, yet we are not the sum of our body. God loves the world in much the same way we love our own body.

Preaching the texts
So, how to approach the texts in forming ideas for a sermon? One clear and obvious angle is to use the Abraham and Sarah narrative to talk about the nature of faith. The supremacy of trust in the face of an unknown—especially an impossible—future would lend itself very well to the situation of each person in the worshipping community who is engaged with the sermon and thinking about their own life and the life of the congregation. The human situation has changed little since the times the texts were written. We still live in the present moment with a past we cannot change, a future that is unknown to us, and a call to entrust our lives to God to guide us from one moment into the next as we move into a continually unfolding future. The preacher could talk about how to make decisions in the present moment, given what we have and what we are called to be. It would be an act of discernment of God’s call in our own life. Psalm 23 is called to mind and especially the phrase “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will not be afraid because you are with me.” I think all of life is a riff on these words. The decision to live a life from fear or from trust is ever before us, a choice that never gets resolved, but comes fresh to us each moment of our lives.

Another sermon could focus on the Hebrews text as discussed above. The idea would be to give a broader context in which we can understand our lives. A sermon on God’s creative power would focus on how God calls a world into being. How can we see God’s activity as embedded in the world and in our experience of the world? The preacher could focus on the litany of examples of faith that the Hebrews text describes. We are “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (12:1). The dynamic quality of faith as active trust could be the focus of a sermon. A preacher could lift up (with prior consent) members of the congregation as examples of trust in God’s power to transform. There is a woman in our church who became sober a number of years ago and is in the daily practice (with the help of AA) of trusting her life to God, one day at a time. She has become a joyful, attractive, authentic human being who is aware of being in God’s grace each moment of her life. She inspires many who know her. She has blossomed and has become in our worshipping community a living example of how Abram and Sarai responded to the call of God in their lives. She will be the first to ay she is not perfect, a long way from it. But she practices the daily awareness of God’s call. There might be other individuals who can be lifted up as examples, while acknowledging the struggle that we all have in practicing the difficult, but deeply satisfying, narrow gate of trust in God’s call to life.

Children and the texts
Talk to the children about important things that we can’t see. Ask the question, do you love your parents? Ask them to prove it. How can you see love? They will probably talk about things they do for their mom or dad. Through action we show our love. Do you see the air your breathe? No, of course not. We can see what the wind does. How can you see the wind? The limbs of trees sway back and forth. It turns a wind mill. Air is really important, even though we can’t see it. Love is really important, though we can’t see it. The Bible says that God is like the wind in that way. We can’t see God, but we can see what God does.

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.