Proper 17

August 29, 2010
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Jeremiah 2:4-13
Reading 2: 
Psalm 81:1,10-16
Reading 3: 
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Reading 4: 
Luke 14:1, 7-14
By Rick Marshall

Reflecting on preaching
Sometimes, when I’m in a quiet place and trying to be in the present moment, I am aware of the mental chatter of my mind that pulls me in so many different directions. The description of the mind’s chatter is aptly called “monkey mind. I have found that simple breathing techniques help me tune into the present moment, in spite of my mind’s own agenda. I find myself listening to the sounds around me, and to my mind that is chattering away. I observe and listen and focus on breathing.

Listening is a difficult thing to do. When I am with another person in conversation, I often find myself preparing for the next thing I want to say and only secondarily actually listening. I believe, and have been taught in seminary and in CPE (clinical pastoral education) that listening is the most important thing we can do as pastors and preachers.

I think listening is just as important when we are dealing with a text in order to preach it. It’s harder than it should be for me to read the text and listen to it for what it has to say and not already be making my mind up on how to preach it and thus not giving it a chance to speak to me. Focusing on a text long enough to get out of its way and allowing its voice to be heard is a form of meditation for me. I like to linger with a text, read it several times, read it aloud, and maybe use it as a prayer. Different ways of being present with it allows for a richer and deeper relationship between the text and the preacher. I like to give texts room to breathe. I see the preaching event as giving voice to the text. If I give the text a proper hearing, then it is more likely that the congregation will hear it. This is ideal, but because we live very busy lives, it is not always possible.

This Sunday’s set of texts is no different from other any other Sunday’s texts. They ask to be heard.

Discussing the texts
God calls Jeremiah to be a prophet to the nations and other kingdoms. It doesn’t take long, though, to realize that God is focused on the northern kingdoms and the “whole land—against the king of Judah, its princes, its priests, and the people of the land” (1:18). God gathered them at Jerusalem to accuse them. The relational breakdown between God and Israel is the main business of the text, and Jeremiah is the one to bring it to the leaders. God warns Jeremiah that “They will fight against you; but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, says the Lord, to deliver you” (1:19). It’s a gathering of the people in order to hear judgment against them. They have forsaken God and “they have made offerings to other gods, and worshiped the works of their own hands” (1:16).

There is a collective forgetting of God. It is spelled out in Psalm 81: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt . . . But my people did not listen to my voice; Israel would not submit to me. So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts to follow their own counsels. O that my people would listen to me.” (Compare with Paul’s argument in the early chapters of Romans.)

To be fair, it works in the other direction, as well: Some have begged God to remember them. Noah thought God had forgotten him and the text says: “But God remembered Noah” (Gen. 8:1). Prophets thought God had forgotten them. Even Jesus, on the cross, thought he was abandoned by God.

God sends the prophets to give voice to God’s call to remember. The response has been to reject or mistreat or even kill the messenger. The people say, “We’re fine on our own; we don’t need any help.”

Jeremiah begins in earnest in chapter 2 with the specifics of the indictment by God against the people. There is deep trouble in the relationship between the people and God. God fondly remembers how their relationship was in the beginning. The indictment is simply put at the end of the text: “My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.”

Water is often seen as life-giving and, as a metaphor, is carried over into the Jesus story. In the Gospel of John, Jesus uses a cluster of metaphors to describe God’s power. Water is a complex symbol of chaos and order, danger and life. Water was a precious commodity in ancient times and still is in many parts of the world. Without water, life is not possible. The abundance of life is a result of the life-giving power of an abundance of water. Water remains a powerful symbol for Christianity in baptism: life going down into the water to death and rising out of the water to new life. Jesus preached while in a boat on water (Mark 6). He invited his listeners to go to the other side. They followed in boats and ran right into a fierce storm. They feared for their lives. Jesus calmed the storm. They were amazed. After his crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus appeared to several of his disciples as they came in from a night of fishing with nothing to show for it. He tells them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat and they pull out of the water an abundance of fish.

The image of God’s offer of a “fountain of living water,” in contrast with the people’s effort to “dig out cisterns for themselves,” is the root of the conflicted relationship between God and God’s people. In a similar way, the writer of Hebrews makes the counter-claim of trust in God instead of trust in human beings. This is a summary statement of the Gospel, the Good News, in a nutshell:

            The Lord is my helper;
            I will not be afraid.
            What can anyone do to me?

If we were to express the Gospel in the shortest, most direct way, it would be these three affirmations. Most of the Bible is an elaboration in poetry and narrative of this three-part statement.

It reminds me of Ernest Hemingway’s shortest story: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." This is the narrative backbone of many stories. The short quote from Hebrews is similarly the backbone of many stories, especially the story of Jesus’ embodiment of God’s promise to us. It might look something like this:

            Even though Jesus was condemned to die (dark place).
            He trusted God’s life-giving power (he was not afraid).
            His death was transformed into new life (he experienced divine help).

It is expressed powerfully in the middle of Psalm 23.

            Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
            I fear no evil;
            For you (God) are with me.

Any of these sets of three affirmations could be used in meditation and prayer.

As is often the case when God laments the disloyalty of God’s people, we hear pain in the divine complaint; we feel the divine pathos. In Jeremiah we get a sense of God’s abandonment by God’s people.

Pathos is at the core of much of the prophetic stories about God. God is often disappointed in the relationship, embarrassed by it, heartbroken. God calls out for loyalty and love.

The theme of hospitality is picked up also in the Luke text. Jesus said to those who had invited him to a meal, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors . . .  But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed.” There are calculations of value connected with inviting to dinner those who can reciprocate. Where are the calculations of value when the poor are invited or the crippled or the blind—people who can’t engage in social standing, hierarchy, and calculation?

The love of God is manifest in the teachings of Jesus and embodied in those who follow the Way. The community of Jesus reflects mutual love and compassion, not only for one another, but for the outcast, those who are vulnerable, the sick and the poor. As is so often the case, these texts focus on issues of justice, compassion, peace, and hospitality. The Hebrews and the Luke texts speak directly to hospitality.

Process theology and the texts
If we are to take seriously that everything is related to everything else, and God is a central part of this relational world, then we can look at the prophets as describing a deeply dysfunctional relationship between God and human beings. We hear over and over the accusations and the lawsuits and the court proceedings that have lain bare the human failure in this relationship. Our disloyalty and the act of going our own way are well documented in the Bible and especially in the prophets’ writings. As a covenant partner, there is no doubt that we need to find a way toward relational healing.

The troubled relationship that is the main conflict in the prophets is often seen in legal terms, as if God is bringing charges against us in a court of law. But is that the only metaphor in which to address this relationship? What would happen in a marriage if it is deeply dysfunctional? Divorce is an option. Couples therapy would certainly be preferable.

Any relationship involves two parties. If there is a problem in the relationship, systems theory suggests both parties participate in the dysfunction and both need to look at their own participation in the conflict. In classical theology, God often acts like the aggrieved party, bringing accusations and judgments. Sometimes God’s reactions seem shockingly childish or adolescent and male.

What about God as a covenant partner? What would happen if we put the God of classical theology on the couch? What kind of relational therapy would be required if God wanted to continue and repair the relationship? How do we think about God’s experience and God’s contribution to this relationship? How would this covenant relationship be understood within different disciplines? How would a family systems therapist work with the two parties? How about psychiatrists? How would a Freudian or Jungian see the relationship? What would healing look like? How do we assess this relationship that has caused so much grief to both parties?

As a thought experiment, let’s take the claims of classical theology seriously, that God is omnipotent, omniscient, impassive. From this perspective, what does God’s part in the brokenness look like? How is God going to change? What does God need to work on to make this relationship better? If God is seen as a dominate male, then traditional thinking will let him off the hook. People ask: “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:10. “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” (Psalm 13:1). There are many other texts that accuse God of not listening and forgetting us. Many of God’s reactions, as reported in the Bible, seem like traditional male attributes of silence, moodiness, complaining, blaming and other passive-aggressive behaviors. The psalmists don’t let God off the hook so easily. Through many of the psalms, the people often demand to be heard by God; they get angry with God and vent their frustrations in hymns and poetry.

The role that God plays and the role that humans play in this sad relationship seems steeped in traditional values of male and female roles. In traditional Christian theology, God is seen as male, with coercive power, who does not feel the feelings of others, and is aggrieved by the lack of love and devotion and loyalty of the more submissive female (us) companion role. Divine anger often leads to violence and horrible damage. The female is expected to cater to the dominant male’s needs, or else. God seems not to handle feelings very well, or rejection. God is quick to bring things to court and level legal accusations against us. God is let off the hook so quickly by traditional theology because those in the ancient world and in parts of our world still see God only in dominant male terms, and we are cast in the female role as submissive. This is a formula for abuse.

But what happens when we equalize the roles and ask God what God is willing to do to repair the relationship? There are many Christians who would say that Jesus’ sacrifice is God’s adjustment to the fragile relationship. What would happen if we were to bring charges against God, not in a courtroom where the male had all the power, but in a therapist’s office?

God learned a costly lesson in the Great Flood as described in Genesis. So many people died, and death was all pervasive, but the text says that only one person learned anything, only one person changed, and it was God. It’s like God had a tantrum that destroyed all living things on the earth except for those on the ark. Whenever a big, powerful person has a tantrum and takes it out on others in the form of violence, we call it tyranny, oppression, abuse. God learned something about God’s own behavior, and it came at a heavy cost to creation. We have a word for the dominant one in a relationship who behaves violently with the partner, we call it abuse. Does God need anger management? It was a hard lesson; God says in effect that God will not use violence again and will struggle with the dysfunctional relationship in other ways. But are these the promises of an abuser who feels bad about beating the submissive one and vows to never do it again--until the next time?

The potential for abuse increases, the more unequal the power is between the covenantal partners. The more negative male values, such as control, violence, insecurity, and passive aggressive behavior, are embodied by the male role, the more abusive it becomes. The human role, when seen in more traditional female values of submission, loyalty, and deference is easily abused. Moreover, with this unequal power in the relationship, there is less chance for male abuse to be addressed and more change for it to continue.  

It would be very difficult to raise these issues about God’s response to the damaged relationship. I’m not sure people will be open to such ideas, unless they are passed through the prism of the psalms or other biblical narratives. Process theology helps us to understand and account for the volatility of our relationship with God. Jesus is seen as God’s response to abusive power, because Jesus embodied a different kind of power; instead of seeing God as having coercive power, Jesus describes God as having persuasive power. That is the kind of power that leads to healthy relationships. The solution to the Aggressor-Abusive-God of traditional Christian theology is to change the philosophy upon which it has been built. It’s a problem to hang onto traditional theology while describing God as love. A loving God makes no sense from a traditional worldview.

Within a process-relational perspective, these questions of God’s involvement with the unfolding of everything make sense. And if we are co-creators with God, then the language of relationship can be used. The power equation is more balanced and healthier. When we say God loves the world, it means that God takes the risk of opening God’s self to us and to the dynamics of love and pain, risk and joy. Any loving relationship is alive and dynamic and holds great potential for joy and suffering. If God is love, how else are we to understand love than how we experience it?

Preaching the texts
One idea for a sermon that is based on the Luke text is to unpack the usual social structure of our church, which tends to slip into Jesus’ admonition of what not to do. Why not start at home? “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or relatives or neighbors.” Many churches that believe they are friendly are friendly to those they know and care about. Often, a stranger can come to a “friendly” church which believes in hospitality, yet remain unseen in the midst of the congregation. As an experiment, a couple I know wanted to see how a church would greet them as visitors if they stayed for coffee hour after worship. They stood apart and waited to see if anyone would make contact with them. Someone did, but most people were busy being friends with one another and did not “see” my friends. Most of us do this and many churches are this way. It takes a conscious effort to engage the stranger, to see the poor person, to welcome the cripple and the blind. There’s no grand conspiracy going on; it’s just the nature of community. It takes outsiders a great deal of energy, time, and persistence to push through to community.

A sermon could focus on hospitality, first in the Hebrews and Luke texts, as a basic biblical practice. Many examples of hospitality could be used.  

Another idea for the sermon would be to focus on the examples of the sets of three affirmations discussed above. The goal of a sermon is to help people understand the simple logic of being right with God and being right with one another.

Another sermon could use the metaphor from the Jeremiah text of God being “the fountain of living water,” and what it looks like to “dig out a cistern that is cracked and can’t hold water.” A sermon could play with all the possibilities of something that can’t hold water, then focus on what it would mean that God is the fountain of living water. This would easily be supported from the gospels and how Jesus talked about this living water in the Gospel of John and other places. Attention could be drawn to baptism and the meaning of going down into death and rising up to new life.

Children and the texts
The theme: The importance of friends and how difficult it is to feel outside, with no friends; also, the importance of reaching out to those outside the circle and bringing them in.

Do you have friends? Most of us have friends. We know them and we have fun together. It’s usually easy to have friends. What about people with whom you are not friends? Do you notice them? Sometimes a person doesn’t have any friends and they might feel lonely. Have you felt lonely when you didn’t have friends?

One thing we try to practice at our church is to bring in people we don’t know and try to get to know them. Maybe they can become good friends. That’s part of what our church is about, wanting to make new friends. We want to welcome anyone who comes here. Do you have friends here at church? That makes it easier to come to church because we know our friends will be there.

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.