Proper 11A, Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – July 17, 2011
|Reading 1:||Reading 2:||Reading 3:||Reading 4:|
|Isaiah 4:4:6-8||Psalm 86:11-17||Romans 8:12-25||Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43|
By Jeanyne B Slettom
In a world where human beings seek security in all the wrong places, these verses remind us that the only security—the only rock—is God. When we are anchored in this reality, there is no need to fear, or be afraid—which makes one wonder why some Christians use fear to motivate others. And it should make us all think carefully about politicians from either side who use fear to attract voters or attack legislation. In the context of this text, to be led by fear is to be led by something other than God. This is consistent with the process understanding of self-determination, which enables us to turn from God’s prompting. Self-determination, from moment to moment, is influenced by our subjective feelings. If fear is our dominant affect, then fear will direct our choices.
Simply by putting the emphasis on one word, “Teach me your way, O God,” this text reinforces the point that the way of God is not, as noted above, the way of fear. A divided heart may waver, confusing the way of God with ways promoted by the world; i.e., wealth and power, but an undivided heart seeks one way, and finds comfort from, the way of God. This is accomplished by being open to God—in process terms, open to God’s initial aim, which is present and guiding us in every moment. Fear diminishes our awareness of God. Our world shrinks; our choices become more limited. God is not absent, but God is not felt or experienced as vividly. “Teach me your way” describes an openness to God’s prompting that opens up more possibilities to us, possibilities that are both a help and comfort to us in times of need. This opening to God is the basis for a process spirituality. As John Cobb has written, “To love God is to attend to what God is doing in the world and especially in ourselves. It also means to open ourselves so that God may work more effectively in us.”
In these verses, the admonition is again not to live in fear. Fear is equated with slavery (so again, why do some Christians use fear to motivate others?) There is also a repetition of the idea of two ways—Paul uses “flesh” and “spirit,” but in broad strokes these refer to living according to the values of the world (in this context, the Roman Empire) or living according to the values of Jesus, which point directly to God. To live in fear is to be enslaved; to be led by the Spirit is to be a child of God. In fearful situations (of which there are many) we do not cry out in fear; we cry out to God. And in a wonderful metaphysical twist, Paul writes that the very thing that calls out from within us is the Spirit of God bearing witness with our own spirit. In Eugene Peterson’s translation, “God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are” (The Message, Rom. 8:16).
“Who we really are” is the crucial point here, because it is the realization that we are children of God that will propel us into new life. The idea of “new life” can be approached in three ways: in eschatological, evolutionary, or this-worldly terms. Each is full of promise. The images speak of impending birth and both the waiting and the longing associated with that. As anyone who has given or been present at the birth of child can testify, everything changes the moment that child enters the world. Words like “new” and “beginning” don’t begin to describe it.
The question, then, is what is this pregnant time and what is this new birth? In each case, the pregnant period is where we are now as we await what is to come. Eschatologically speaking, the new birth is the eternal life we will enjoy with Christ after we die. In an evolutionary context, the new birth is the next phase of human and planetary development. From a this-worldly perspective, the realization of who we are—children of God—will change our present lives, so that new birth or transformation are experienced in the here and now. In each case, creation itself is waiting for our gestation period to be completed, because creation itself will benefit from our new being. The implication is that when we know, really know, who we are as children of God, we will act differently, and creation itself will be set free from its bondage—a condition resulting from the Fall, or, stated differently, from our misuse and exploitation. This is a theme that lends itself well to a sermon on care of the Earth.
However we interpret this paragraph, the bottom line is hope, and hope is the opposite of fear. The future is unknown to us, but we have a choice as to how we approach it. If we know ourselves to be God’s own, then hope will triumph over fear.
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Once again, Jesus himself has provided the explanation to the parable. Leaving aside the allusion to the Final Judgment (the Jesus Seminar does not believe these are the words of Jesus), what can be usefully extracted from this parable? The task is not an easy one, because the biggest pitfall is that preaching against those who judge is itself a judgment on those people. Even lifting up what it means to be the “good seed,” or “children of the kingdom” leads inescapably to judgment, because it creates a “we” who are the good seed, and a “they” who are not, and as the parable states, who are we to determine who falls into which category?
With those caveats in mind, one way to approach this text is simply to bypass any reference to the weeds and focus on what it means to be “children of the kingdom.” This approach opens up a wide range of ethical teachings from Jesus, including references back to the Sermon on the Mount.
Preaching the texts
The first three texts speak eloquently to the problem of fear, and fear is what many people are currently experiencing. The huge forces of economy and ecology are beyond any single person’s control, but they are felt very intimately by many of our parishioners. Process theology cannot promise a God who will step in and magically fix everything, but it can promise a God who is intimately present and actively at work in our lives, taking what is and steadfastly aiming at what can be. This process of transformation is not always something we can see, but something we can trust. And trust, like hope, is the divine alternative to fear.
Jeanyne B. Slettom is the director of Process & Faith. She received her PhD from Claremont Graduate University. She is an adjunct professor at the Claremont School of Theology and United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, and also co- pastor of Brea Congregational (UCC) Church in Brea, CA. She is the editor of Creative Transformation, managing editor of Process Studies, and editor of The Process Perspective, by John B. Cobb, Jr., and The Process Perspective II.