Proper 15

August 15, 2010
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Isaiah 5:1-7
Reading 2: 
Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19
Reading 3: 
Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Reading 4: 
Luke 12:49-56
Alt Reading 2: 
Psalm 82
Alt Reading 1: 
Jeremiah 23:23-29
By Rick Marshall

Reflecting on preaching
Often, when I look over the lectionary texts, I tend to choose those which resonate within me. It’s hard to be fully aware of where the resonance is until I dig deeply into the texts. It’s also how I want the sermon to be heard, with a resonance with those in the congregation. There is a mystery about what happens when we take seriously the synergy between the text, the preacher, and the congregation. I understand it as the work of the Holy Spirit. I was aware of this mysterious resonance when my wife and I were in Greece looking for a hand woven carpet in a shop that had carpets draped and laid out so that wherever the eye went, it went to a welter of colors and patterns. How do you choose one among so many?

When my daughter was very young, I took her to a toy store for her birthday and said, “You can pick out any toy you want?” She looked at all the toys and burst into tears. I thought she would be overjoyed, but instead she was overwhelmed. I realized that limitless choices can be overwhelming. That’s why I like restaurants with simple menus.

The owner of the carpet shop, noticing my wife’s dismay at too many choices, said, “You don’t choose the carpet; it chooses you.” We looked at each and exchanged a moment of disbelief. As the shop owner flipped through one carpet after another, suddenly my wife burst into tears. Sure enough, a carpet had picked her. We bought it, brought it home, and it is an important aesthetic centerpiece in our home. It’s also a reminder of how important resonance is.

I believe this is true with preaching. Does the preacher choose a text, or does a text choose the preacher. Probably both are true. If a preacher can preach a sermon in a way that resonates with something deep in the congregation, surprising feelings will burst forth; seeds will be planted; new connections and possibilities will emerge. I’m aware that preaching the sermon is an act of faith because once preached, the sermon has an independent affect in people, quite out of my control. I believe this is the work of the Holy Spirit.

Discussing the texts
You can’t get very far in the Bible without running into the issue of justice, especially in the prophets. Justice is a simple idea: When life together is equitable and fair, justice prevails. Justice is personified by a blindfolded woman holding scales and a sword. When the least and most vulnerable in society are cared for, justice prevails. The basis of a good life, or a right life, is to be in harmony with the common good and with God. Righteousness describes a life lived in accord with the covenant which states the nature of the relationship between God and creation. This is true for the individual, but even more so for the community. If any organization or community is set up with a structure that favors the few over the many, then injustice is a way of describing the imbalance. The degree of justice is the measure of the health of a society. Injustice is inherently and by definition against the common good and is against God.

The prophetic texts assigned for this Sunday make the point. The Isaiah text is especially heartbreaking in its assessment of the covenant relationship between God and God’s people. It is described in terms we understand: a loving, loyal, committed relationship with a lover has gone wrong. Like many other prophetic texts, Isaiah describes the wreckage of life without a healthy relationship with the Creator. The language used makes it even more poignant: “Let me sing for my beloved...” Justice describes a relational value. God’s intention for creation has always been life, not just for the individual, but life together. There is such tender care in the opening verses. A vineyard is a picture of well-being, providing sustainability for many. God’s intention is to create life, but instead, the vineyard grows wild grapes. The vineyard became weeds. The judgment comes, the vineyard will be destroyed. The last verses of the text make the metaphor plain: “The vineyard of God is the house of Israel and the people of Judah are what is planted.” Then to the point: “God expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry.” This is an indictment of the social organization in which these words were preached; the prophet was reading the times in light of God’s covenant.

Justice is not an abstract ideal in the Bible, but is the reality of a society being right with God and with creation. It’s about how people live with one another. When the wealth of a nation accrues to a few, the many suffer. When a small group of people accumulate wealth, it is at the expense of others. The poor are poor because a few disregard God and the covenant that creates life. Violence is the result because those who have much, must defend it. The ones who have much at the expense of the poor, want the status quo, because it is the way things are set up that makes it possible for the few to build wealth and to keep it. Often, religion is used to bless the status quo. So when the status quo creates injustice, violence of some kind is used to keep it all going. Of course, to the extent that a society is set up to benefit the few at the expense of the many, it is a violation of the covenant with God. Those who are in charge of an empire need to co-opt religion to bless the empire and to obscure the prevailing injustice and its consequences. Even those who call themselves ministers or pastors are called in to shield the rich from blame. One of the more egregious forms of religion in service of the empire is the “Gospel of Wealth” which is still preached in churches around the world. This, and many other forms of religion, are in blatant disregard of God and of God’s word in the Bible. The irony is that God is against empire of any kind. Willful religious ignorance seems to be rewarded by the empire.

Look at the Jeremiah text. He holds religious leaders accountable for a religion that does harm to the poor and to the covenant with God. “I have heard of what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name.” A prophet was a preacher. Just because someone is a preacher doesn’t mean that what they preach is true to God’s vision of creation. A good example is when the empire decides to go to war. The reasons for war are sold to the people as divinely required and that God is on “our side” and against our enemy. Religious people, preachers in pulpits, Christian in pews, cry out for revenge and violence in the name of God. Their prayer is for vindication through violence. How far away from God can a church be as it rationalizes and actively promotes violence as divinely mandated? Jeremiah and the other prophets would say that such a church is very far from God--it was the case during Jeremiah’s time, and it is the case in our time.

Looking at the problem of injustice as an issue in the remote past holds it at arm’s length. Of course we don’t live like old times described in the Bible. We believe we have progressed to a more enlightened state. We become superior to the Bible. We have banished injustice from the empire. Yet, in fact, injustice is deeply entrenched in our present time, so much so that people living in the empire, poor and rich, don’t see it for what it is and can’t envision any other kind of life. Yes, we have progressed beyond the Bible, but only to the extent that our world has made the empire invisible to its own people.

The church should be an alternative to empire and not its religious co-conspirator with the political system. Look at the recent case of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright being castigated for saying what the prophets have said for many generations. The idea that God blesses America in its use of violence and oppression should be resisted from every pulpit in the land. Pastor Wright was vilified quickly and effectively silenced by the empire. If God is against empire then, by definition, God is against the American Empire. He spoke a prophetic truth, and he was swiftly punished. But that is what people have always done to their prophets, which is one of the points of the Hebrew’s text. They all suffer at the hands of the religious-political establishment. The political and especially the religious reaction to Pastor Wright is a measure of how deeply committed the church is to supporting the current empire.

Luke says it is as clear as a gunshot that the gospel should be a hammer on a society that uses coercive power and policies of death to defend its wealth against the poor. Jesus doesn’t come to bless the powers that be, but to upend them. He said, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” Luke suggests it should be obvious to Christians that our society, submitted to the the standard of justice, is woefully unrighteous and unjust and is organized against the common good and the covenant with God. Will judgement come on the empire? The prophetic answer is: of course it will.

The Hebrews text offers a list of examples of people who have suffered because of their positive and committed response to God’s call in their lives. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who stood against the system of powerful investment in the status quo, or, as one current theologian says, the Domination System.

Process theology and the texts
The text from Jeremiah begins with these questions from God: “Am I a God near by and not a God far away? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? Do I not fill heaven and earth?” God is not remote, outside of the world. God is near, as near as our breath, as close as our heart beat. Not only Jeremiah, but much of the Bible describes God as involved with creation and in dynamic, present, relationship with all creatures. The idea of “covenant” is a relational reality. To be in covenant means to be in a relationship of promise and commitment. The traditional Christian understanding of God as omnipotent goes against the description of God in the Bible. The Bible, and process theology, affirms that God is very much involved in the unfolding of each moment. Responding to the call of God in the present moment, and the desire to be authentic in our trust in God, we often go against the grain of empire and call down the wrath of the religious establishment.

Faith is exemplified in particular people and worked out in individuals and supported by real faithful communities. Faith is not an abstract ideal. Even calling it “the faith” as many Christian communities do, is to objectify it and to keep it distant from our own lives. Faith is a life orientation. It is a commitment to live in the world in a particular way. Jesus is seen as the example of faith. As the Hebrews text says, “...we look to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith..” Faith is particularized in Jesus, it is made concrete in the list of examples from the Hebrews text. We are called to be the face of faith in the world. The way we embody values of respect, hospitality and peace, can be a challenge to those who support the ways of the status quo. Process thought suggests that God works against the status quo by offering novel possibilities that come into the world through us, sometimes undermining the status quo.

Preaching the texts
A daring sermon would take on the issue of the collusion of the church with the policies of the empire, using the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as a current example. Another example would be the involvement of church groups with political groups in the immigration issue on the southern border. The alliance and collaboration between political groups with religious groups should be called out in the name of God. Why do many Christians, pastors, and churches support the use of violence? Why would it seem Christian to bring guns into the sanctuary? The short answer is that such people worship a God of violence. For example, the idea of the Second Coming of Jesus is a violent image that some believe is biblically based. It raises the question of why some who believe in the Second Coming think that somehow Jesus failed the first time. Or is it that the King of Peace is not as appealing as a King of War who uses coercion and violence, revenge and retribution to do God’s will? Maybe the image of Jesus the Messiah embodying persuasive power is not “strong enough.” Who doesn’t want the guy on the white horse to come in at the last moment and rescue those in danger? The idea of Jesus coming back in revenge and judgment goes against the very nature of Jesus Christ described in the Gospels, and in Paul’s writing.

The fundamental issue is this: What kind of power does God have? Is it coercive and manipulative, or persuasive and loving? Another important question is this: What kind of power should the church emulate, embody, and deploy in service of the Kingdom of God? Another question: What does it mean to win or conquer?

The rote recitation of the pledge of allegiance to the empire, or the simple-minded display of the 10 commandments in public places, the issue of prayer in public schools, or the presidential sign-off at the end of every speech “God bless America,” does not address the deep injustices that are at the very heart of our country. It is clear that America is an Empire and as such it uses violence to gain and maintain the advantage of the few. Those in power want the church to lip-sync the hymns of allegiance in the name of God in order to go to war.

Often to be a person of faith, trusting the creating transforming power of God, puts us at odds with the world around us. The power of the gun seems far more effective than a non-violent act. Renouncing retaliation and revenge seems weak in the eyes of the world. How does the NRA pray and to what God do they pray?

Preaching requires balance between themes of comfort and words of the prophetic. We might wonder what prophetic word would be appropriate for our times. We see the prophets and what they had to endure as they held firm to their trust in God. They faced ridicule, physical and psychological harm, humiliation and death. We can read the list of abuses in the Hebrews text. How could a true prophet expect to be treated any differently than the prophets of old?

A sermon could focus on the list of the faithful in the Hebrews text and tease out the common thread that put them onto the Hebrews list.

Using this week’s texts to cast light on current events would be effective. A preacher could almost at random pick a newspaper story to make the point of how deeply we are all involved in the American Empire. Stories of war, violence, corruption in business and government, abound. Such examples are so pervasive, we hardly notice the larger picture that an empire is, by its nature, based on human arrogance, greed and trust in the promises of the empire that we hardly notice the signs of the times The problem for the faithful is to be in the world but not of the world, to be shaped by the ethic of trust in God, or to be shaped by the promises and policies of the empire.

Another idea for a sermon would be to understand how to hear the hard words of Jesus in the Luke text. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” How does this relate to Jesus Messiah as the Prince of Peace?

Children and the texts
One way to focus the texts with the children is to talk about telling the truth and how hard that can be sometimes. Start with innocuous examples like telling mom or dad something that wasn’t true. Then talk about what would happen if an teacher lied to us, or a parent, or the president or a person at the bank. Trust is very important, that’s why we must tell the truth even though it is sometimes painful. Talk then about a prophet as someone who preached the truth and got into trouble. Tell the story of one of the prophets like Jeremiah, who didn’t want to be a prophet because of the trouble he would get into.

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.