Proper 16

August 22, 2010
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Jeremiah 1:4-10
Reading 2: 
Psalm 71:1-6
Reading 3: 
Hebrews 12:18-29
Reading 4: 
Luke 13:10-17
Alt Reading 1: 
Isaiah 58:9b-14
By Rick Marshall

Reflecting on preaching
Sometimes people tell me that the church they are attending makes them feel manipulated, guilty, fearful, or controlled. I tell them that is because they are being manipulated and controlled. Churches often use guilt or fear, anger or hate, to motivate people. Political parties use these motivators. The media, especially some cable news shows, use these motivators. Magazines. Web-sites. Some radio and cable news personalities use these motivators to increase their ratings. Companies advertising their products often use these motivators to sell. Much of our culture appeals to the most debasing part of human nature: fear, insecurity, revenge, retaliation, hate. These motivators are used because they are so effective. When Jesus describes the Kingdom of God in the gospels, he encourages different motivators: trust, compassion, love, respect. Jesus’ teachings renounce the use of anger, hate, fear or guilt. He said, when it comes to the Kingdom of God, don’t be afraid, trust the creating, transforming power of God. Jesus used stories, aphorisms, and parables to describe the Kingdom of God as a life lived in active trust in the ever emerging power of God. Trust should be the primary motivator in a church. This is to take the narrow, more difficult path. Preaching is an opportunity to call a community together to stand out in the world by using this different ethical worldview.

Its always dicey to preach from the prophetic books. Their message is clear: justice is a measure of the health of a society. Injustice results in violence, domination, and oppression. How many sermons can be preached about this simple message without sounding like a one-note Johnny? The temptation is to scold or politicize in the sermon. Sometimes an indirect approach to the prophets’ message is best, using stories or examples of what a trusting life would look like in an actual person’s life. Examples would be effective; for example, Martin Luther King Jr. and others less known. A church’s actual programs of peace and justice can be used as examples.

Discussing the texts
I like the plain language of the Isaiah text from Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Bible called The Message:

If you get rid of unfair practices,
   quit blaming victims,
   quit gossiping about other people's sins,
If you are generous with the hungry
   and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out,
Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness,
   your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.
I will always show you where to go.
   I'll give you a full life in the emptiest of places—
   firm muscles, strong bones.
You'll be like a well-watered garden,
   a gurgling spring that never runs dry.
You'll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew,
   rebuild the foundations from out of your past.
You'll be known as those who can fix anything,
   restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate,
   make the community livable again.
If you watch your step on the Sabbath
   and don't use my holy day for personal advantage,
If you treat the Sabbath as a day of joy,
   God's holy day as a celebration,
If you honor it by refusing “business as usual,”
   making money, running here and there—
Then you'll be free to enjoy God!
   Oh, I'll make you ride high and soar above it all.
I'll make you feast on the inheritance of your ancestor Jacob.
   Yes! God says so!

This text comes near the end of the book of Isaiah and is set up in conditional statements. It is clear that the text calls us to life and not to death or “business as usual.” The text is a critique of that life. But what is “business as usual”? The NRSV puts it well: “If you honor (the sabbath), not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs. Then you shall take delight in the Lord...” Sin is doing your own thing without regard for the welfare of others or for God. This puts sin in a different light. Many of us who were raised in traditional Christian churches were told that sinners were obvious because they weren’t like us, they were reprobates and derelicts, people who were shifty and dirty and had low moral values, people you couldn’t trust--bums, street people, prostitutes, and alcoholics. But seen in the light of the prophetic texts, you could be a very nice, upstanding, decent person, neighborly, with shiny character and straight, white teeth, a member of the PTA, and embody the best of qualities and benign attributes, and still be a sinner.

Some of the greatest sinners are the ones who perpetuate an empire and wage war for reasons unclear. Sinners are oppressors and those who use people for personal gain. They create systems of injustice and don’t take into account the welfare of the common good. They create shelter from responsibility and violate the environment for short-term gain. They poison lakes and rivers and despoil traditions and cultures. They are the ones who call us to trust them as they build larger and larger reasons for the use of violence to promise security in the name of God. The death of a village in Pakistan is one mouse-click away in a secured military, industrial-strength killing machine in Colorado or Florida. Drones raining indiscriminately on the heads of women and old men and children, all sacrificed for the terrorist among them. Sometimes the status quo is deeply sinful: structures of oppression, domination, a patriotism of the fearful and powers of retaliation and all the money shape-shifting, flowing from one dark corner to another in this massive, bloated empire machine.

This house of cards almost came down in the fall of 2008 when the policies of the empire brought the whole system to the brink of colossal collapse and “required" nightmare-driven gifts to banks and money brokers and technicians of “business as usual.” More barns for more grain; bigger sanctuaries dedicated to the Creature. Forget about the Creator; there is no Creator; the Creature is Creator. Is creature worship not the handmaiden of fascism, some monolithic patriotic nightmare where God and flag are synonymous? We are all implicated? As we have heard from St. Paul himself, we are all sinners.

The Apostle Paul makes the case in Romans. In the first chapter, Paul describes what Jews have been accusing the Gentile of doing and that is, “following the lusts of their own hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:24-25). That’s it! This is the nub of it all: worshipping and serving the creature rather than the Creator. This is the holy grail of the darkness of the human heart, the key to the dungeon. This is the sin that is recapitulated in every generation, all the way back to the original sin, the genesis of “business as usual”: Adam and Eve deciding to go their own way. It seemed so innocuous at the time. Paul makes a convincing case that doing your own thing without regard for anyone else--the common good, or God--is “business as usual.” God gave them up, and what they thought was freedom was actually entrapment in a self-creating and self-perpetuating system of greed and injustice, avarice, and dark deals. And all of this in the name of God!

Trusting and serving the creature rather than the Creator, we sing loud the national anthem of domination. Sinning is simply going our own way. We are all implicated. We are all entrapped by the rationale and theology of empire religion. This is why God is against empire because it is humans going their own way and doing their own thing. Sin is communicated through the gossamer network of soothing words of security and comfort and the empire way. It's the empire-dream that comes out of Pandora’s box of unintended consequences. All of this results in values and promises of well-being and safety that cannot be attained. Paul’s case is built upon the prophetic understanding of what results from serving the creature rather that the Creator. This is sin. The way of “business as usual” leads to death, the the Kingdom of God leads to life.

The reason for this rant is the same reason that some of the prophetic books are so long. The logic, the technique of unraveling and extricating ourselves from “business as usual,” is to pile on, to sharpen. The prophets are driven to inflammatory words in hot anger toward the fabricators of this sad empire, the saddest of them all, because of so many squandered possibilities. Coercive power is the foundation of an empire that is laid in sand. The description of the empire’s ways must fit the height and depth of the sin.

The Gospel, the Good News, is that we don’t have to live this way. There is another Way. What does the prophet say about not doing business as usual? This text from Isaiah implies a strong, coherent, ethical point of view; namely, serving the common good, caring for the sick and the poor, tending to the oppressed and the outsiders, treating with respect all creatures and the Creator. Justice and mercy, grace and forgiveness, are the values of doing things another way.

Doing “religious business as usual” is candles and rote prayers, incense and blessing the status quo, giving religious permission to the Domination System of empire. It uses religious texts not to free people but to abuse them. It is ignoring justice and hospitality, peace and mercy.

These are hard, unpopular words. God’s value system of life goes against “business as usual.” It goes against the religious guard of the status quo. Prophets are preachers of the kingdom of God using defiant words of indictment against the religious establishment and the empire’s ways. When everyone is mindlessly committed to maintaing the status quo at any cost, how will God’s preachers fare?

Jeremiah faced the problem of being the voice of the prophetic message. “The word of the Lord came to me (Jeremiah), saying...I appoint you a prophet (preacher) to the nations.” Who would want to step up to this task? Certainly not Jeremiah. “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak (where have we heard this excuse before?), for I am only a boy.” God said, “That’s no excuse. You will go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.” We know what people have done to the prophets. We know what the empire did to Messiah Jesus. We all know the ways of empire. No wonder Jeremiah didn’t want the job. Nor did Jonah, nor Moses, nor any of the other prophets. They all suffered for preaching God’s word. Does God deliver them? Really? How? The Lord touched Jeremiah’s mouth, “now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to built and to plant.” This gives a context for Jesus difficult words from last Sunday’s text, Luke 12:49-56: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” Well, who wants the job? Jesus didn’t either. Remember his prayer in the garden: Let this cup pass from me.

The Luke text for this Sunday makes the point of how dangerous it is to be the one to bring the voice of God in the context of a religion that has been co-opted by the empire of the day. Jesus, obviously (to the reader) is doing God’s work by healing a woman who had been crippled for eighteen years. She was bent and Jesus made her stand straight. If this is not the work of God, then what is? The leader of the religious community was indignant that Jesus did this on the Sabbath. The conflict is between the religious establishment that is entrenched in empire support, and God’s power for life. Jesus calls them hypocrites because their logic is that they will take care of their animals on the sabbath, but not this woman. There will be a price for Jesus for coming head-on with the empire religion of the day.

The Psalm for this Sunday could be the prayer that Jeremiah prayed, or Jesus, or innumerable people who side with God, those who don’t want to carry on with “business as usual.” “In you, O Lord, I take refuge; let me never be put to shame. In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me, incline your ear to me and save me.” There are times when the faithful must stand up to those who are doing the empire’s bidding in the name of God. Whose God? The empire’s god who sanctifies policies of war and violence and oppression? “Be to me a rock of refuge, a strong fortress, to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress.” How many times have prayers like this been spoken by the faithful who are forced to their knees by empire? The ultimate prayer of the faithful is “Don’t forget me, God.”

Process theology and the texts
This text from Isaiah is one that seems overtly process oriented.

You'll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew,
   rebuild the foundations from out of your past.
You'll be known as those who can fix anything,
   restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate,
   make the community livable again.

This text reflects a world where everything is dynamically related to everything else. There is a real presence of the past in every actual occasion of experience. The idea of the past being brought into the present, emerging moment is a principle idea of process theology. We must account for the past. It is how the present moment emerges: by choosing how and what to use from the past in such a way that the decision is made in light of the (divine) possibilities that are relevant in that emerging moment. The past is the lumber and nails of creating the present moment. God is the source of the possibilities that are available to use the past and to synthesize it in such a way as to create truly new forms of life and beauty. In this way, God is the source of novelty and restlessness. If not for novelty, the past would simply be repeated each moment to everlasting monotony. We choose, in the present moment, how we will embody elements from the past, in response to God’s lure. Our choice matters, because we often choose less than what is possible, which is a form of sin. We choose how to become in the present moment, and in this way we are co-creators with God.

The idea of making the community livable again is a relational view of life. It is what Christian community is at its best. A “living body,” as Paul would describe it. As a community, we can be aware of responding to God’s “call” in our life together, to be a community that embodies justice, peace, hospitality, and a trust in God’s invitation to move into our unknown future. That is the light that shines in the darkness (of business as usual).

Preaching the texts
We live in fearful times. Our forefathers and foremothers have lived in even more dire times. I think the God that must be heard is the God who will be there after the apocalypse: the God who was there after the Egyptian captivity, the One who led the people through the wilderness and brought them safely home, the One who stood with the people after the Babylonian captivity and the Assyrian and the Roman domination system. This is the God who was with Jesus after his death, and the God who will be there after the American Empire apocalypse. This God is the one who can be trusted, the one in whom we move and have our being.

In light of the world and its headlong rush to self-management with more and more dire consequences, the preaching event must sing the song of Psalm 71. It is a hymn to the God after the apocalypse. It sings of true security, a place of refuge and rescue. This is the God of hope when there is no hope, the God who creates a way out of no way. This is not the God of the status quo. This is not the God that can be used by empires to bless their wars and systems of control.

Another sermon could focus on the the Luke text and the kind of healing power Jesus had. How is this healing power different from the power of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day? The text speaks about a woman who had been bent over “with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years.” In the presence of Jesus’ power, she was able to stand up straight. The metaphor of standing up straight speaks of empowerment. What does the metaphor suggest of a bent life, one that is overburdened, used, and oppressed? A bent life is not a full life. A person in that position would find it difficult to look up at the sky, the sun, and the beauty of creation, to look at someone in the eyes. Bending is a painful position. What is this “spirit” that had crippled her? How does this reflect a social disorder, one where the burden rests fully on the shoulders of the powerless, the marginalized? The bent person in the story is a woman, a person with little power in her world, even if she wasn’t bent. The status quo creates a “crippling spirit” of oppression and burden. It is the spirit of empire religion. Where are the religious authorities in the story? The event happens in a synagogue; it could happen just as easily in a church or temple or mosque. How do the authorities respond to the woman? They don’t, and that’s the point. She doesn’t exist for them. Because of her “ailment,” she was most likely pushed out of the community, her condition a sign of God’s judgment on her. The religion of the status quo doesn’t see bent people. What are the implications of their self-imposed blindness, their non-response to this woman, for our own time?

Some people see the church as the last place they would go to experience healing. Sometimes people are abused by religious authority. The current issue of California’s Prop 8, the ban on same gender marriage, was supported by many churches. Why are some churches participating in disempowering people? Why do they blame those who have been overburdened by the domination system? The story of the woman healed by Jesus is obviously a justice issue. Where would Jesus be in the church today? What would Jesus say about the injustice of the church’s backing of such a discriminatory ban? There is a lot of room for several sermons in this text.

For example, immigration is another justice issue. The focus currently is on illegal aliens. “Wetbacks” is a current version of “a spirit that cripples.” Illegal immigrants come seeking jobs in this country, and because they are not seen, they take the lowest paid jobs. They are without rights as human beings. They are more vulnerable to oppression and abuse because they are unseen and therefore not protected. They are burdened with a spirit that cripples. The empire has ways of depersonalizing those they hate or fear.

Another example is human trafficking. Another is, in a global economy, what does “fair trade” mean for those living in the so-called third world countries? Another is to ask the question: Who benefits from war? What would Jesus say about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? What would be his view of the enormous wealth--trillions of dollars--tied up in the military-industrial complex machine? How could that money be used toward a different kind of power in the world? How could a nation use its resources for healing and reconciliation in the world? How does the status quo put burdens on people so that their lives are bent and crippled? We see wounded soldiers coming home literally crippled by the empire’s policies of domination with violence in other countries. We see them, but we must avert our eyes because we don’t want to see the consequences of the empire we are all ensnared in.

What burdens people in our world? What keeps them bent and not able to stand up straight? We come back to the issue of justice. Who is bent in our society? What would it mean for them to stand on their own two feet?

Children and the texts
Ask the children if they are the favorite in their family, but don’t linger on the question, because it could cause harm if, in fact, they are or are not favored. Talk about the problems of favoritism.

My mother used to tell each grandchild privately--she had more than 30--they they were her favorite. On their birthday, each grandchild could spend the night with grandma and grandpa and get special treatment. They all felt loved by their grandma and grandpa. My brother has 11 children. I wonder if they have favorites. They love all their children. I try to treat my children and grandchildren equally. It’s important because each one is part of the family.

Do you think God has favorites? What would the world be like if God did have favorites? Talk about the problems of thinking that God is on our side and against everyone else. If a country feels that way, then they think that God will be on their side, even when they do terrible things. We're all part of the family of God and God treats us equally. God loves us all; each one of us is special to God.

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.