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)

Proper 23B: When Life Goes Without Answers

PotholesOLD TESTAMENT: Job 23: 1-9, 16-17

To read the text from Job

Once again we read from the Book of Job. Remember that the writer is unknown as well as the time in which it was written. This part of Job is probably the hardest to read. Our friend Job seems to be giving up. He wants desperately to talk to God and to know that God is hearing him. Now keep in mind that we’ve missed a lot of the book as our Lectionary readings jump from Chapter 1 to Chapter 23. We have missed most of the poetic account of the visits and dialogue between Job and his three well-meaning, if not bothersome, friends.

Job seems to move from apparent acceptance to what is happening to him to an out and out challenge of God and God’s power in his life. He demands answers now and sees justice as due to him. We identify with Job here. We want answers. Answers would make life easier. And we want answers NOW. But Job doesn’t even seem to be able to find God in order to register his complaint.

His complaint is not that he is suffering—he seems to have resolved himself to that. He doesn’t even seem to be questioning why God would do such a thing. Perhaps he is more comfortable with some of that mystery that is God than many of us. Job’s biggest complaint is that he feels God has deserted him. He feels that God is absent in his life. And yet he still holds his integrity, unwilling to sin before God. And then, jumping to verse 16, his tune changes a bit. He admits that he is a little afraid of God, afraid of what God will do. He wants desperately to vanish into darkness and away from God. His image of God is falling into one that could quash him, could crush him. He almost sees God as an enemy and, yet, is not willing to sin before God.

To understand how Job got here, we sort of have to look at what he’s been dealing with from his friends: First is his friend Eliphaz, who apparently sees God as “The Fixer”…”Come on, Job, if you just submit to God, if you have faith in God, God will fix it.” Then there’s Bildad, who sees God as “The Judge”…”Well, Job, you must have done SOMETHING wrong. After all, God is fair and just. God only gives you what you deserve.” And finally, we have Zophar. Zophar seems to see God as saying whatever it is that he’s saying…Job must be wrong, I must be right. We’ve all known these friends. Wouldn’t you rather just sit in the silence?

But the truth is, Job still desires God. He wants to connect with God, to know that God is there. Richard Rohr says it like this: But somehow, Job says, I can’t get through to him. “God has made my heart sink. Shaddai has filled me with fear. For darkness hides me from him, and the gloom veils his presence from me.” I can no longer “think God” or think it out at all. Job is being led beyond ideas and concepts to mere desire. He has been simplified by suffering, which is what suffering always does. He is reduced to pure desire. What we desire enough, we are likely to get. The all-important thing is to desire, and to desire deeply. What we desire is what we will become. What we have already desired is who we are right now. We must ask God to fill us with right desire. It’s our profound and long-lasting desires that will finally explain our lives, and will soon explain Job’s.(From Job and the Mystery of Suffering, by Richard Rohr, 123)

I know I don’t have a chance, Job is saying, I know God is right somehow; I just don’t understand in this instance how he’s right. But I’m willing to wait.

That’s the difference. He’s willing to wait in that space of nonanswer. That’s the space in which God creates faith. The counselors are not willing to live in that space where there is no answer, no conclusions. To this day, many people equate “religious answers” with “faith”. But faith does not mean having answers; it means being willing to live without answers. Cultural faith and civil religion tend to define faith poorly and narrowly as having certitudes and being able to hold religious formulas.

Such common religion is often an excuse for not having faith. Strange, isn’t it? Faith is having the security to be insecure, the security to live in another identity than our own and to find our value and significance in that larger union. (Rohr, 74.)

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. Why do we struggle with these seemed “silences” of God?
  3. What is it about us that needs to have answers so desperately?
  4. What does that say about our faith?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT: Hebrews 4: 12-16

To read the text from Hebrews

The beginning verse of this passage is familiar and is often quoted. It is actually a way of the author making the point that whatever it was that he just said, it is important. It is something to which we should listen. What it boils down to, is that faith is not easy. Entering a life of faith, a life of following Christ, will not give you answers or guarantee that your life will be filled with wealth and ease. It’s hard. So, here, we are admonished to pay attention to what we have heard and to avoid drifting away.

We know what God has done. We’ve seen it. We’ve heard it. But we must allow the double-edged sword of God’s living Word to cut through our illusions that are part of our lives. We are called to live differently. We are called to live with a different view of life.

Believing in God means believing in truth. It also means a certain nakedness, the willing to face up to who we really are and to stop pretending. When someone loves us as we are, it can be very challenging, because it means we need to face ourselves as we are. People who love like that are liable to get killed, metaphorically or literally – Jesus himself being a prime example. Love which goes along with pretence is no love at all.

At the heart of God’s calling to us, though, is grace. What may seem foolishness, weakness, and debasement in the world’s eyes is our true hope—God’s wisdom, power, and mercy. Before God we become fully known and we should enter that with boldness—because that is where we will come to know God. There will be an aspect of God that remains hidden from us. After all, if we fully knew God, we would BE God. No one ever promised us that! The writer of Hebrews, though, reminds us that Jesus as the Incarnation of the Living God lets us know that we are never hidden from God. In that Incarnation, in that way that God truly walked where we walk, we find something more than God pretending to be human. We find God experiencing everything about humanity that we do—even the very hiddenness and forsakenness of God. God has entered and continues to enter our experience to find us even when we cannot seem to find God in our lives.

  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. What does the image of the two-edged sword mean for you?
  3. What makes this passage difficult for us?
  4. What does it mean to you to “know God”?
  5. What is the difference between knowing God and knowing about God?

GOSPEL: Mark 10: 17-31

To read the Gospel text

All of us are thinking the same thing…there has got to be a way out of this one.  Surely Jesus didn’t mean ALL the man’s money.  How would he live?  What would he do?  More than that, what would WE do?  (Couldn’t resist…J) Princess Diana once said that “they say it’s better to be poor and happy than rich and miserable but what about compromising by being moderately wealthy and a little moody?”

In the passage, a rich man approaches Jesus with considerable reverence.  He did all the right things.  He asked all the right questions.  (He was righteous and blameless and upright.  Where have we heard that before?)  Even his question about eternal life displays a modicum of awareness that eternal life was what God promised.  He just wanted to know how to do it.  Jesus’ reply is a little abrupt.  In true Jesus fashion, he deflects attention from himself to God.  In essence, he is saying that there is no answer to that question.  God is God…Look at God…God alone.  As Jesus says, the man knows all that he needs to know.  Now just look and listen…

Then he challenges the man.  He tells him to do three things:  Keep the Commandments. Sell his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor.  Follow me.  The truth was, the man had missed the point.  He knew what the commandments were but he really didn’t understand the commandments.  He needed to get rid of the illusions that he had created and follow Jesus, which meant living in a different way.  Jesus was not saying that wealth was bad.  It was the fact that the man’s faith understanding was a little misdirected:  What can I gain?  How can I gain?  How can I get my reward?  He was missing the spirit of compassion for others that Jesus embodied.  His wealth and his own needs and wants had blinded him to it. Following Jesus is not the usual reward-punishment system.  The norms are subverted.  The first will be last and the last will be first.

The truth is that he wasn’t demeaning the man.  He loved him enough to be truthful.  He wasn’t calling him to an out and out abandonment of the physical world—just a new way of looking at it, with eyes that do not search for a way to buy ourselves in or buy ourselves out, with eyes that see love and compassion and grace as ways of life, and with a heart and a mind that is open to whatever God is saying or not saying.  Life is a gift.  Just see it that way.  It is more of that two-edged sword.  What does living your faith call you to abandon?

In 1981, I sat in the Riverside Church and listened to the Rev. Will Campbell preach. He is a white Baptist preacher who had been active in the Civil Rights movement. (Brother to a Dragonfly is his autobiography and memoir of some of that time.) I don’t remember the text Will was preaching; it might have been this week’s gospel (Mark 10:17-31). I was 19 years old and passionately interested in changing the world for the better.  I took a bus and the subway every week from my dorm room in Brooklyn to the Riverside Church because William Sloane Coffin’s preaching indicated to me that these people were interested in changing the world for the better too.

This is what I remember of Will Campbell’s sermon that Sunday. He looked out on that Upper West Side congregation dressed so well and sitting in the gothic cathedral that Rockefeller money built, and he said, “You have invited me here today to talk to you about ending racism, but I think what you actually want me to tell you is how you can end racism and keep all of this. [He gestured to the sanctuary and everything around him.] I am afraid I don’t have an answer for you.”

I remember nothing else of the sermon. Did the preacher get out of that corner he had painted himself into? Within the allotted time for the sermon, did he leave us with hope for “incremental change,” or something? I don’t remember, but I have never forgotten that lone comment from the sermon.  It seemed to me that he was saying, “You all want something you can’t have: justice not rolling down like waters, but justice practiced ‘in moderation.'”

“Seek me and live.” (Mary Hinkle, “Seeking”, available at http://maryhinkle.typepad.com/pilgrim_preaching/2003/10/seeking.html, accessed 6 October, 2009.)

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What is your reaction to this passage and your own life?
  3. What other things do we need to rid ourselves of to truly follow Christ?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

In his poetic eulogy “The World of Silence”, the French philosopher Max Picard says that silence is the central place of faith, where we give the Word back to the God from whom we first received it. Surrendering the Word, we surrender the medium of our creation. We unsay ourselves, voluntarily returning to the source of our being, where we must trust God to say us once again. In silence, we travel back in time to the day before the first day of Creation, when all being was still part of God’s body. It had not yet been said, and silence was the womb in which it slept. (Barbara Brown Taylor, When God is Silent)

If we live our spiritual lives only in fear of punishment or in hope of reward, rather than in the awareness of the One because of whom all life is worthwhile, we can be religious people, but we will never be holy people.  Then life is simply a series of tests and trials and scores, not the moment-by-moment revelation of God who is present in everything that happens to us, in everything we do…God is present in everything around us, in everything we do, wherever we are, and in whatever situations we find ourselves.  It is coming to a sense of the Presence of God that changes our attitude toward life.   (Joan Chittister, Becoming Fully Human)

To believe you can approach transcendence without drawing nearer in compassion to suffering humanity is to fool yourself.  There can be no genuine personal religious conversion without a change in social attitude. (William Sloane Coffin)

 

Closing

 

“Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.”  We are no strangers to the falling apart; We perpetrate against the center of our lives, and on some days it feels like an endless falling, like a deep threat, like rising water, like ruthless wind.  But you…you in the midst, you back in play, you rebuking and silencing and ordering, you creatingrestfulness in the very eyes of the storm.  You…be our center:  cause us not to lie about the danger, cause us not to resist your good order.  Be our God.  Be the God you promised, and we will be among those surely peaceable in your order.  We pray in the name of the one through whom all things hold together.  Amen.

 

From Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth: Prayers of Walter Brueggemann, 26.