Proper 13, Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 4, 2013

Reading 1: Reading 2:Reading 3:Reading 4:
Hosea 11:1-11Psalm 107:1-9, 43Colossians 3:1-11Luke 12:13-21

By Bruce G. Epperly

Recently in my Process Theology class at Wesley Theological Seminary, one of the class participants raised the issue of whether it is possible to talk about God at all. When the student rightly noted that all of our concepts of God are anthropomorphic, I responded in jest with “What do you expect? Is there anything we do that is not human in perspective and orientation?” All revelation is shaped by the receiver, including biblical revelation and process theology. Still, we can consider how we understand the process of revelation and various ways we can understand God’s nature, evaluating them in terms of their fruitfulness intellectually, morally, and spiritually. We can never avoid relativity, but we can aspire toward formulating the most insightful visions of God. Today’s lectionary readings abound in God talk and appropriately relate theological discourse to human values and experiences.

Theologians have traditionally sought to balance the kataphatic and apophatic ways of describing God. The kataphatic, “with images,” allows us to use human words meaningfully in our descriptions of God. From this perspective, we can legitimately use terms such as “father” and “mother,” “rock” and “shepherd.” We can even portray God as having an emotional life not unlike our own, utilizing language such as “love,” “mercy,” “anger,” “decision.” Without the balance of the apophatic, “without images,” kataphatic language can become too human centered, too anthropomorphic. Without the balance of the apophatic, images of God become the magnification of human impulses, most especially those that are destructive and judgmental.

Hosea’s descriptions of God’s relationship to Israel take anthropomorphic language to an extreme. God is portrayed as the parent of an infant and toddler, whose discipline reflects passionate love. Despite their waywardness, God will not abandon God’s chosen children. God will redeem and embrace them, restoring them to their former stature. But, first, the disobedient children must experience God’s abandonment. Hosea’s God does not micromanage, but – like a human parent – allows the young children to learn from experience, including hard knocks and conflict, intervening only when the child is at risk of harm. Still, God, like the best human parent, faithfully redeems God’s chosen people.

The insightful preacher must ask: How do Hosea’s parental images measure up to the best of human parenting? How do the best of parents – and best of Gods – deal with children whose lifestyle decisions turn them away from their parents’ values? Is Israel’s turning away from God simply a bit of adolescent rebellion and a natural form of differentiation? The problem, however, from Hosea’s and some parent’s perspectives emerges when adolescent rebellion is destructive of the child and others. Israel’s disobedience has led to injustice, injury, and devastation.

The Psalm continues this meditation on divine intimacy and interdependence. God will refresh and restore the thirsty nation. Apart from God, our activities lead us into the wasteland. Turning to the God who is seeking us, we are revived and strengthened for further adventures.

Colossians 3 describes Christ as our deepest reality. Resonating with Christ, our lives will be heavenly-oriented. Here “heaven” does not refer to otherworldliness and world denial, but to alignment with God’s vision of Shalom and wholeness. The author of Colossians challenges us to turn from earthly-mindedness to divine mindedness. While the author affirms the embodiment of God in earthly life, he points out the spiritual shortcomings of earthly-mindedness: objectification of others, alienation, greed, destruction. Earthly-mindedness seeks to exalt individual human experience, success, and well-being apart from consideration of God’s vision and the health of our neighbors and the planet. Ironically, the most spiritually minded persons, according to Colossians’ value system, are the best preservers and nurturers of the human and non-human worlds.

The author of Colossians imagines a world in which Christ is all in all. Although the author does not clarify what he means by “all in all,” I suspect he is pointing to a reality in which Christ is the primary inspiration of our decisions and actions. Christ brings everything together in a lively and supportive unity, in which we see ourselves and others as Christ-like in nature. Opening to Christ’s universal presence, the typical divisions based on ethnicity, religion, and race are overcome, leading to experiences of creative and life-supporting diversity.

Jesus tells a parable about a wealthy landowner who gains the world but is in danger of losing his soul. A popular bumper sticker in the Washington DC area reads: “Whoever dies with the most toys wins.” Death and possession are, however, at cross purposes. There is no way to enjoy our toys in the grave. The wealthy and vulnerable alike are mortal and no amount of wealth can protect us from unforeseen accidents, catastrophic illness, or incurable cancer.

We can, as Paul Tillich notes in his concept of “ultimate concern,” focus our lives on realities that fade away and cannot support us in times of crisis or we can center our lives around God’s way of life, rejoicing in the day and living interdependently with all creation. Our ultimate concern can make or break us: if we focus primarily on worldly success in its many forms, we will be left bereft when aging, illness, failure, and alienation disable or disillusion us. In seeing God as our ultimate concern, our lives focus on God’s moment by moment visions for us and our communities. We see our well-being intimately related to the well-being of others. Our largesse is merely a means to support the well-being of our loved ones and the larger community. The rich man is utterly devastated when his fortune slips, like sand, through his or her fingertips. But, even the wealthiest have an opportunity for creative transformation. They can place God’s visions ahead of greed, power, and comfort. They can become persons of spirit rather than consumers and materialists.

Today’s scriptures invite us to connect theological reflection with our values and life-style. The perceptive pastor can invite the congregation to consider how our visions of God shape our values, and conversely how our personal priorities shape our spiritual commitments. Will we focus solely on personal achievement, comfort, and power, or will we look toward the divine perspective, imperfectly, yet faithfully looking beyond self-interest to Christ-likeliness and global consciousness?

Bruce Epperly, Ph.D. is Pastor of South Congregational Church (United Church of Christ) in Centerville, MA, on Cape Cod. A United Church of Christ and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pastor, Dr. Epperly is the author of twenty-five books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed,Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s GospelTransforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles as a Twenty-first Century GospelTending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry, and Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. Over the past thirty years, Dr. Epperly has served as a seminary and university professor, university chaplain, congregational pastor, and seminary administrator.