Proper 13C: An Ever-Changing, Gracious God

An Ever-Changing God.jpgFIRST LESSON:  Hosea 11:1-11

Read the Old Testament passage

This week’s Lectionary passage is similar to last week’s in that it offers a depiction of the gracious, merciful, and always-loving character of God.  But here the metaphor changes from marriage to parenting.  It alludes to the exodus, in which Israel is delivered from oppression and captivity by Egypt in an act of love and the covenant with God is established.  But Israel has continually proven to be a wayward child.  Essentially, Israel fails to know the importance of knowing God.

The passage emphasizes the parent-child relationship and a portrayal of God as a nurturing (or nursing) mother.  We then read of the articulation of the well-deserved punishment of a disobedient child and a return to oppression and captivity (probably in the face of the Assyrian invasion in 733 BCE).  But then the tone changes and it seems that the punishment will either cease or never happen at all.  The reason has nothing to do with any change in the people’s heart and mind but rather the heart and mind of God.  God agonizes over the future of the people that God loves do deeply.

According to the Law of Torah, rebellious sons are to be stoned to death.  So, in that mode, Israel deserves destruction but apparently God cannot bring the Divine Self to do that.  God is willing even to break the Laws of Torah to save the life of the beloved children of God.  God’s compassion prevails over further destruction, demonstrating forgiveness rather than punishment.  This grace calls for a fundamental change in the understanding of holiness.  No longer is holiness separation from the sinner.  God is the Holy One in your midst, bearing the burden of the people’s sin.  Holiness is the turning of God, rather than repentance of the sinner.  It is God who repents.  Such extraordinary compassion, such suffering-with, such amazing grace is what makes life and hope possible.

The mention of Egypt and Assyria suggests that Israel’s infidelity had somewhat “punishing” circumstances.  Infidelity almost always does.  But that is not the determining factor in Israel’s future.  God’s grace intervenes and overwhelms and is beyond anything that we can do.  God’s grace overcomes any dark side of God that we can imagine.

This is a strong depiction of the feminine side of God and the use of feminine imagery for the Creator.  It is a depiction of a broken-hearted God, who wants his or her children to succeed and be near so badly, that they become more important than any rules or laws that may have been laid down.  It is a God who has loved and nurtured and wanted the very best for the children of God but who is continually rejected by those same children.  And yet, God will do anything.  Maybe the depth of God’s compassion is the reason that we see God’s moods run such a range.  God wants the best, envisions the best, and offers the best for these children.  But if that doesn’t work, God will change.

It is a depiction of a God who lays everything aside and is willing to actually change to fit the needs of the child.  I think it defies the image of an “unchanging” God.  God is always moving and changing so that we can find our way.  Wrath and revenge are not part of who God is and so can never be ours.  In order that we might become the image of God, we must change too.  Maybe that change in and of itself IS a part of that image of God to which we are all called to be.

I actually think that I like this image better.  After all, do you want a God who stands in ready defiance until you give in and come to where God is standing?  Or do you like the image of this God who loves you so much that She would weave the world around the life that has already been envisioned for you, a God who loves you so much that the rules and the traditions and the way things “should be” can easily go by the wayside if they are better for you, a God who loves you so much that he or she would move or change or even die if it is what you need for your real life, a God who loves you so much that the unchangeable, omnipotent, immovable Divine would actually come to you?

 

1)      What is your response to this passage?

2)      What does this image of God as mother and nurturer mean for you?

3)      What does this image of God as “broken-hearted” mean for you?

4)      What does it mean to dispel the thinking of the “unchanging God”?

5)      What does it mean, then, to become the image of God in which you were made?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT:  Colossians 3: 1-11

Read the Epistle passage

In this week’s reading, the writer strongly exhorts the Colossian believers to live in newness.  It is, once again, a call to a change in perspective.  The Colossians were being pulled away from the focus of Christ by growing religious syncretism that espoused faith as of our doing rather than Christ.  More than likely, it was some form of pagan Gnosticism, with a totally removed God and some types of lesser gods in the world.  They were also continually dealing with the pervasive legalism of the faith.

So the writer reminds the readers that they have been raised with Christ, the power and the wisdom of God, the one who became righteousness, sanctification and redemption, the cornerstone of our faith the Bible calls it, and the first fruits from the dead. We have been raised with Christ in the waters of our baptism. That becomes very clear.

God comes to us to help us do just that.  No longer a removed and inaccessible deity, God comes to us in the Water and the Word and offers life and renewal.  The “hiddenness” of God is not inaccessibility, but mystery.  We have to shed what we have created to enter the mystery that is created by God.  So, we are reminded to “put to death in you whatever is earthly”.  It is not a literal exhortation, but a spiritual one.  The call is to let go of those things that get in the way of our relationship with God, that claim to give our life meaning and instead strip us from the meaning and identity that is given us in Christ.

The truth is, the people of Colossae were wrestling with the same questions and problems that we do.  Who is Christ?  What are we called to do?  How can we fit that into our lives on this earth and in this society?  The writer of the letter to the Colossian believers is clear that our focus is one-fold.  We cannot mix and match as it is convenient or comfortable.  It is a hard message.  It is hard to imagine letting ALL the old go and taking on ALL the new (rather than picking and choosing what to keep from Column A and what to keep from Column B).  It is hard to imagine letting go of those comfortable idols to which we hold.  No longer can we live being politically correct or socially acceptable or morally expedient.  Our purpose and focus is the way of Christ.  It’s pretty extreme.  We’re called to die to self and live in Christ.  You can’t have it both ways.  You have to let go of the old to let the new be.

Ahhh…God bless mulch piles.  For any of you gardeners out there, you know the magic of a mulch pile:  a place where smelly fish carcasses and eggshells transform into rich, dark dirt, dirt that gives life to things like aromatic lavender and brilliantly colored daylilies…Who knew the Apostle Paul was a gardener?  “Get rid of all such things–anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth (which is, of course, the “trash”) and cloth yourself in something new.”  Two thousand years later, Paul reaches out and asks us all: 

  • What trash–what anger, fear, shame, or jealousy–do you need to throw on the mulch pile? 
  • And what beautiful new things will you grow in its place?

 

It’s a very simple concept and because of that, I think the mulch pile metaphor makes a lot of sense…Mary Oliver, wrote:  “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  If you care about this “wild and precious life,” then you have to ask yourself:  What trash do I need to throw on the mulch pile and what beautiful things will I grow in its place?  Don’t waste this life on trash that brings you down and stinks up your house.  As Paul says, get rid of these things.  Take out the trash, throw it on the mulch pile and clothe yourself in something healing and wonderful and new. (From “The Mulch Pie”, a sermon by Rev. Susan Sparks, August 14, 2011, available at http://day1.org/3045-the_mulch_pile, accessed 25 July, 2013)

 

1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      How does this message speak to us today?

3)      What are the “idols” and vices that get in the way of your own way of following Christ?

4)      What is the hardest part of accepting this thought of dying to self?

 

 

GOSPEL: Luke 12:13-21

Read the Gospel passage

This passage is typically Lukan, dealing with justice and egalitarianism as only this Gospel writer could master.  It begins with an assumption of the pervading culture of the time.  The question regarding inheritance was well-known in the Hebrew tradition and it was not improper for a rabbi to render an opinion on the issue.  Presumably, the person making the request is a younger brother.  In Hebrew society of that time, the oldest brother would inherit the lion’s share of his father’s estate.  This younger brother seems to assume that Jesus would decide in his favor.  Perhaps the man has been listening to Jesus’ egalitarian sermons and supposes that family inheritances should be treated in a similarly egalitarian way.  Jesus responds by saying that he is not in a position to render a judgment.  Then, he issues an exhortation on the subject of greed and the meaning of abundance and begins to tell the familiar parable.

Jesus was telling this story, keep in mind, in a world where 90% of the people lived at the level of bare subsistence.  A big landowner with big barns holding “much goods” is not likely to generate much sympathy in a world where many people were losing what little land they had and many others were driven into destitution and homelessness.  The rich man talks only to himself, and thinks only of himself.  He makes no consideration for his neighbors, nearly all of whom are peasants.  Moreover, in disregarding his neighbors, he also disregards God.

And then, almost comically, he says, “I will say to my soul, “Soul”.”  In our culture today, the expression “I will say to myself, Self”–which is the same thing–is something of a cross between a lame joke and a lame cliche.  The man is not only talking to himself, he’s actually addressing himself, as if he were outside his own body.  He’s not only disconnected from his neighbors, he’s also detached from his own self!  And so God calls him a fool, a sort of nitwit.  After all, he is losing his life in just a few hours.  What good, really, is everything that he has amassed going to do him?  It is interesting that this is the only New Testament parable in which God is an actor.  Perhaps God intervenes because the man has shut everyone else out of his life.

This is hard for us, the ones who live in one of the richest nations in the world even in a down economy.  So much of our lives is about amassing, either for prosperity or safety or both.  We build barn after barn, or closet after closet, or storage facility after storage facility.  How do we make sure that we keep it all in perspective?  Why do we need so much stuff?  What does it say about us?

And yet, I don’t think this was Jesus’ way of depicting money as evil or wealth as bad.  The parable is a reminder to keep it all in perspective, to not get pulled into putting our trust in something other than God.  Like today’s reading from Colossians says, we need to be aware of those things that we make into idols, those things that without us even realizing it sometimes, seep into that holy space between us and God.  When we look to the wealth we have or the wealth we desire for our salvation or our redemption or our life, we have missed the mark.  When we think that we cannot live without it, when we think our lives will be better “when” we have something, and when we find ourselves holding on to more than we really need in spite of the need around us, we have probably lost perspective.  Greed is sneaky.  Stuff is sneaky.  Sometimes we don’t even realize what’s happened.  In other words, we may be the rich fool, building more and more barns to house things that we don’t even need.

You surround yourself with the things that define you.   And hopefully, that’s more than a bunch of stuff.  Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t think God calls us to live some sort of stoic life that is totally devoid of things that we enjoy.   The created world holds too much beauty for that.   William Morris once advised to “have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”  It is a way of putting it all in perspective.  It is a way of receiving and yet still appreciating everything that God gives us.  Perhaps we are all called to have a conversation with ourselves. But rather than just telling our souls the way we have justified what we do in our lives, we also need to listen to our deepest yearnings.  We need to listen to that thing that is at the very core of our being, that is the very essence of who God created us to be, for it is guiding us to use those gifts from God in the ways that we are called to use them.

 

1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      How uncomfortable does this passage make you?  Why?

3)      In what ways are our “things” idols that get in the way of our relationship with God?

4)      What does it mean to keep it all in perspective?

5)      What does it mean to be “rich toward God”, as the passage says?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

When we are no longer able to change situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.  (Victor Frankl)

We would rather be ruined than changed; We would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the moment and let our illusions die. (W. H. Auden)

Gratitude is the intention to count your blessing every day, every minute, while avoiding, whenever possible, the belief that you need or deserve different circumstances.  (Timothy Miller)

 

 

Closing

Jesu, thy boundless love to me no thought can reach, no tongue declare; O knit my thankful heart to thee and reign without a rival there.  Thine wholly, thine alone, I am; be thou alone my constant flame.  O grant that nothing in my soul may dwell, but thy pure love alone!  O may thy love possess me whole, my joy, my treasure, and my crown.  Strange flames far from my soul remove, my every act, word, thought, be love.  Amen. (Paul Gerhardt, trans. by John Wesley, The United Methodist Hymnal,  183)

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