Proper 19

September 12, 2010
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
Reading 2: 
Psalm 14
Reading 3: 
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Reading 4: 
Luke 15:1-10
Alt Reading 2: 
Psalm 51:1-10
Alt Reading 1: 
Exodus 32:7-14
By Rick Marshall

Discussing the texts
This Sunday’s texts are a bleak assessment of the human condition. Before discussing them, it is useful to recall the Noah story in Genesis. This story tells us that God, after destroying all life in the great flood, learned that violence is not a solution to the human predicament. After the waters subsided, Noah built an altar to God. “And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done’” (Gen. 8:21). Is there divine regret for destroying everything? Certainly. Is the divine lesson learned—never again? Yes. Is the problem solved? No. God is resigned to the state of the human heart. The problem for God is now what—where do we go from here? The answer begins with Abram and Sari. It is a re-commitment to work the relationship and to do what it takes to re-balance, to “right” the relationship that is headed again for the rocks. Yes, the divine/human relationship is on the rocks. How to steer it back on course? How to be “right” with God is the issue. Thus begins the open, loving, frustrating divine engagement with human beings. The promise is made to Abram and Sari. Eventually a covenant is formed with Abraham’s descendants, and the two parties sign on to work on the relationship.

This is not an easy relationship. You would think it should be easy, given that one partner is God the Creator. And you would think that human beings would want to value and honor such a relationship. But no, problems of infidelity continue. The bleak assessment of the human situation flows out in the voices of the prophets: judgements, lawsuits, lawyers, and courtrooms, punishment. Who will be the judge in this courtroom? God, of course. But there is a huge problem with this: God should be in the role of plaintiff, not judge. God is the aggrieved party bringing the case to court. What would happen if a marriage partner brought a divorce to court and that same person was the judge, too? That would be unjust. We expect a judge to be impartial to the parties and to rule on the merits of the case according to the law. How can God be a judge in these proceedings? Why would God not recuse God’s self because of conflict of interest?

But the prophets say: God is the plaintiff and the judge. But who else could judge? This is a real bind for God. God sends the prophets as deputies of the court. Jeremiah brings God’s charges: “A hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights in the desert toward my poor people, not to winnow or cleanse—a wind too strong for that. Now it is I who speak in judgment against them” (4:11-12). The voice of God continues: “My people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good” (4:22). Then, “For thus says the Lord: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end” (4:27). And so the judgment from the Lord is hard and heavy, yet— technically—keeps the prior promise to Noah to not completely destroy everything.

There are even hymns about God’s bleak assessment of human beings. Psalm 14 says, “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good. The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God. They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one” (1-3).

There is no one who does good, no, not one. No, not one. Period. The end. Okay, we got it.

Of course, the classic scene of human failure is the Exodus text for this Sunday, the story of the Golden Calf.

Moses had been up on the mountain with God for a long time. The mountain was shrouded with God’s brooding darkness. The people thought Moses would not survive this direct meeting with God. If Moses is gone, who will lead the people? Is it their fate to die in the wilderness? The reader is privy to part of the conversation between God and Moses. They talk about keeping the sabbath as a sign of the relationship between God and the people. There are rules and boundaries to be observed in this relationship. Moreover, God institutes death for those who do not keep the sabbath. God reaffirms the creation, six days of work, one day of rest, the sabbath. Meantime, at the bottom of the mountain, the people have given up hope and approached Aaron, asking him to “make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him” (1). Thus a golden calf was fashioned by Aaron, and he fully participated in every step that the people took in this story. “The people rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel” (6).

Of course, God gets wind of this and orders Moses to go back down the mountain and deal with these people. “They have acted perversely.” “The Lord says to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.” Moses implores God. “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people? Turn your face from this wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.” Moses reminds God of God’s own promise to Abraham and his children. “And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”

When Moses descended from the mountain and saw his people’s behavior, his own anger grew hot. Aaron tried to intervene with Moses in the same way that Moses intervened when God’s anger grew hot and dangerous. Now Moses is angry and dangerous. By the end of the story, three thousand people were slaughtered because of Moses’ anger.

How will God deal with human beings? This is the existential problem for human beings and, even more so, for God. What is at stake for human beings if the relationship fails? Certainly death, as we hear over and over. But what is at stake for God? Why is God so determined to continually force the troubled relationship? Would a failed relationship somehow diminish God? It seems so. How will God relate to people who God knows are now, and will continue to be, disloyal? How are human beings to survive God’s dangerous anger?

It is not difficult to realize why the people of Israel didn’t want to be God’s chosen people. This is the worst relationship ever. I’m not sure that even Dr. Phil can handle this couple, nor Dr. Oz, nor Dr. Drew, nor Dr. Laura. There is no rehab, no marriage encounter, no medication or therapy of any kind that can address these divine/human existential issues.

Where to begin?

The first step is in the words of Psalm 51. We come to God in an attitude of confession: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love, according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin” (1-2).

For human beings, confession of sin is the first step back to a relationship with God. It’s like the first step in Alcoholics Anonymous: admit that you are a sinner and powerless to control it. We can confess and ask for mercy. “Mercy” is God still welcoming us home, yet acknowledging what God has known all along: the human heart is dark and capable of going its own devious ways and mis-managing its own affairs. It seems that God realized that a change in God’s own heart is required, too. Something about beating your head against a wall, expecting different results. We must keep in mind that God has had a very steep learning curve. God is the one who has changed in attitude and in behavior. The shift has primarily been in the kind of power God uses in the relationship. Has God been part of the problem? It seems so. Has God’s anger worked in the past? No. Maybe God should have remembered the story of Cain and Abel and that anger turned into violence is not a solution. Something new has to happen.

The divine lesson learned is this: anger, violence, revenge, and retribution, do not work in a so-called loving relationship. The divine attitude has changed from harsh judgement and dangerous anger to forgiveness, mercy, grace, and love.

What happens when God’s eyes soften toward God’s beloved?

The teachings, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as Messiah come as God’s response to the existential problem that human beings face with their Creator. The Luke text is Jesus describing a very different kind of divine power. God will not harm nor judge, but will pursue the lost and wayward partner.

The context  for Jesus’ words was this: “And the religious leaders were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” Jesus said, in reaction to the grumbling, I have a story for you. “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” The pragmatic answer is, “No one would do that. Leaving all ninety-nine so vulnerable in order to go after and save the one lost sheep? Are you crazy?” If there was a price on each sheep’s head, it wouldn’t be practical to jeopardize the ninety-nine for the one.

But people are not sheep and people don’t have a price on their heads, not, at least, in God’s kingdom. God doesn’t value the same way we do; God values all human beings as God’s children. Would a good parent put a price on one of their children’s heads? It goes against everything we understand about love and value. In the world, people are generally valued by what they produce. We often work for a company or organization that pays us for our time and energy. Some are paid more than others. There is a whole weird calculous about the value of human beings in our world. The world is skewed in favor of the rich and against the poor. Remember, Jesus is talking to the religious leaders about why he welcomes sinners and eats with them. The world into which Jesus spoke had a pretty clear idea of human value. Those who are sinners, the poor, the orphaned, the vulnerable, are not as valuable as others like the religious authorities themselves, who probably think they are most valuable to God. They have no trouble assigning value to people. People are either righteous or they are not. And they are confident because that’s the way they read their scriptures. They make judgements about the value of people because they think they are doing God’s work.

Of course, Jesus disagrees. The sabbath is for people. God loves the whole world.

Process theology and the texts
Who, after reading these texts, can make an honest claim that God is remote and unchanging? Quite the opposite is true: God is deeply involved in an ongoing relationship with human beings and with the rest of creation. God gets hurt and gets angry and loves and changes God’s mind. Moses negotiated with God. In fact, God got so angry at the people’s behavior with the Golden Calf incident that God decided to destroy all of them. Where have we heard that before (Noah)? We thought God had learned that violence was not a solution. Yet, we see that God faces temptation, too. It seems that God doesn’t know beforehand what human beings will decide until they decide. And the future is not known by God in the same way that God knows the past. The future is truly open—for us, and for God. If God could control us, as some people believe, would that be a mutually satisfied relationship? With an omnipotent God, there are no other free agents. And free agency is require for any understanding of love. An omnipotent God might as well build a robot that can be programed to react to God in a pre-determined way. But that’s not love.

I’ve been through divorce myself and it can be hurtful beyond words and for a long time, especially if there are young children involved. All the hopes and dreams, a future together, all gone in a moment. I tell people who are not happy in their relationships, and who want to leave them, to think carefully. Of course there are reasons for divorce, especially relationships that involve violence or abuse. Divorce is a solution of last resort. Sometimes it is difficult to know who is wrong and who is right because a relationship involves two people who, together, create a relationship. To love is to take a risk, inviting someone into our life, into our heart, not knowing beforehand if it will work out. When we love another person, we are, by definition, a risk-taker. If God is love, then God is a risk-taker, too. How could it be otherwise?

Yet, it is precisely this kind of hurt that provides a window into God’s own heart. We get a glimpse at the end of the Noah story. We get a glimpse in the book of Hosea and in many other stories. Stories of promises and hurt, lost dreams and accusations, infidelity and acts of harm and reconciliation. The human heart is a mystery even to ourselves, but also to God. God’s heart is also a mystery to us. Love, empathy, impatience, healing, peace, anger, jealousy are in God’s heart, too.

Preaching the texts
For preachers, it is important that we be aware of the culture in which we speak. 

One of the ideas that seems to be carried around in people’s psyches, like the measles virus that is quietly present in most people’s bodies, is the idea that God is omnipotent and controls everything in the world. It’s a stubborn part of our collective cultural imagination. An omnipotent God is seen as existing outside of creation, and God views the future in the same way as the past, all at once, in a divine panorama. God is remote and cannot be changed by anything that happens in this world. This world, it seems, is a place from which to be saved, a world of sorrow and death. According to some, God will ultimately destroy this world as a final act of salvation, which seems like a contradiction to much of Jesus’ teaching and the biblical affirmations that God’s creation is good and God loves the world. But that doesn’t stop many Christians from believing that we are near the end times, which will involve the Second Coming of Messiah Jesus in vengeance to judge the wicked world and destroy all enemies of God.

The idea that the ultimate act of God will be to destroy the earth has been like some laboratory-engineered germ, accidently released into the world. It has become a toxin in our minds, eating away at the foundation of our world, all the way into the center of our collective nightmares of self-hatred and revenge and dangerous anger. It is said that God is interested only in the afterlife and that earthly life is a veil of tears that we must endure before we pass over the “River Jordan” to where we will finally experience peace and joy in the presence of God. Some want the apocalypse to come to trigger the return of Jesus Messiah, cheering on the destruction of the earth. There are enough texts in the Bible to make this seem plausible, even logical.

A further implication of this toxic religious view is that we have no value to an omnipotent, unchangeable, God. We contribute nothing to God and are helplessly lost and doomed, alone in the world. Ironically, by embracing revenge, divine violence, and the worst of human fears and dread, this view nullifies everything that God has created. It has drowned out the biblical call to stewardship of the earth, to working to preserve the environment, and to engage the world in constructive ways by working for justice now, for promoting peace now. Instead, this fevered view of God and the world leads to an ethic of every-man-for-himself. If God sees no value in this world and its creatures, then why should we?

This nihilistic world view is not only nonbiblical, but it is deeply disrespectful of God, of life, of beauty, of Jesus’ teaching, of everything that God created and said was good. This view of God and the world seems pandemic in Christian culture. Destroying others in the name of God, or asking for God’s blessing for acts of violence, is evil.

These are ideas are busy chattering in our culture and eating away at its soul. As preachers, we can push back on these destructive religious ideas by using the Bible and speaking a clear proclamation of the good news of Messiah Jesus. The shift has been made from coercive power to persuasive power.

To the preaching task
I see at least two interesting ways of entering into this set of texts for a sermon. One is to start with the Golden Calf story and take it directly into the assessment of the relationship between God and human beings. This is a wonderfully dramatic story that says the heart of sin is the human act of turning away. It is the disloyalty of going our own way, without regard for God. The text from Jeremiah could echo the problem.

Another sermon could start with the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. Here Jesus demonstrates that God’s way of valuing human beings is different from the world’s calculous of human value. Unfortunately, the lectionary selection leaves out the parable of the Loving Father, which makes the strongest case for God’s attitude toward human value. The practice of hospitality is receiving the long-lost-one back into the arms and life of the loving Father or the loving Mother. Here is God’s way of solving the relational dilemma: to simply receive the one who comes back to the loving parent. After all the sound and the fury, it comes to the simple gesture of receiving, welcoming back, forgiving with mercy and grace. It is the ultimate act of love. But who would keep receiving an abuser or a sociopath back into their lives? Well, that’s hard, maybe too hard for most of us, but not for God. God is able to receive the wayward and the long-lost one over and over again.

Notice that there is little legal language attributed to Jesus. Most of his parables do not speak from the legal environment. God’s power is not imposed like a law, but comes from within, like an ever-flowing well. He says in the Gospel of John to the woman at the well, “Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” Jn 4:14 Jesus’ language is more at home in the give-and-take of relationships. His stories are often organic and involve images ready at hand: fishing, planting, growing, reaping, trees and birds, and old women and children, and seasons, and things going into the ground in death and yet rising to new life.

Children and the text
The idea of value can be a focal point of this time with the children. Talk about all the things we buy. Some things cost a lot and other things are cheap. What are some things that cost a lot? The house you live in, the car your parents drive. Food, clothing, gas, school. Most of us work for others and we are paid money for our time and energy. How much are you worth? If somebody paid money for you, how much should it cost someone? How much are you worth to your friends? How about those people who might not like you. How much are you worth to your parents? How much are you worth to God? Talk about the difference in value between what the world would pay for us and how much our parents pay for us. It will cost your parents money to raise you. Some people say that it will cost parents about $300,000 to raise you all the way through college. That’s a lot of money, isn’t it. I’m a parent and I would pay any amount of money for my children. That’s how most parents are. How much are we worth to God?

I often play a game with my grandchildren. I say to our two-and-a-half year old grandchildren, “how much does papa love you? This much?” holding a space between my hands of about 6 inches. “No,” I say. “How about this much?” moving my hands farther apart. “No,” I say again. Then I cast my hands as far apart as I can in a dramatic gesture, and say, “I love you WAY MUCH.” And they giggle and I ask them how much papa loves them and they “say papa loves me WAY MUCH.” I will do the same with my other grandchildren.

The same simple game could be played with the children, only asking how much does God loves you. Way much. You could end by saying loudly and playfully, “How much does God love you? WAY MUCH!!!”

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.