Proper 14, Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 11, 2013

Reading 1: Reading 2:Reading 3:Reading 4:
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16Luke 12:32-40

By Bruce G. Epperly

This week’s lectionary continues the quest for holistic spiritual practices. Isaiah proclaims the centrality of justice-seeking in worship, Hebrews explores the role of faith as opening up new dimensions of reality, and the Gospel challenges us to be awake and ready for God’s presence in our lives. Holistic spirituality embraces the whole of our lives, joining inner and outer, prayer and action, and personal and global. Well-being involves the interplay of the individual and communal. Even the wealthy and powerful are dependent on the overall health of the social order.

Isaiah’s vision centers on the relationship of worship and justice. Ritual and liturgy – the celebration of high holy days and the quality of worship – means nothing, according to the prophet, apart from care for the vulnerable. Israel’s spiritual, political, and economic leadership were interconnected in ways that are foreign to North American separation of church and state. The Temple depended on the economic largesse of political and economic leaders for its flourishing. No doubt some of the funds that supported the Temple came from explicitly dishonest economic dealings. Religious leaders were tempted to ignore the plight of the poor and oppressed since their programs and positions financially benefited from the injustice of the ruling classes.

While our North American religious situation is quite different, today’s congregations are challenged to explore their own collusion with the wealthy in the oppression of the poor. Are our congregations so closely aligned with the American way of life that they implicitly encourage injustice by their silence about economic practices that harm the most vulnerable members of society? Do we implicitly support tax benefits for the wealthy that widen the gap between rich and poor? Do we advocate for lower taxes even though the immediate impact is weakening the social safety net? Isaiah’s words challenge our own willingness to accept poverty, malnutrition, and second class status as norms rather than abominations to God’s vision of the beloved community.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke of the “divine pathos,” God’s attentiveness to and suffering with all those who suffer injustice. Alfred North Whitehead described God as the “fellow sufferer who understands” and Charles Hartshorne contrasted the unchanging, apathetic God of Aristotle with the “most moved mover” of process-relational theology. Even the smallest injustices are an affront to God; God is not aloof but hears the cries of the poor. Today’s congregants need to consider seriously Isaiah’s admonition to the political, economic, and religious leaders of Israel.

Learn to do good,

Seek justice,

Rescue the oppressed,

Defend the orphan,

Plead for the widow.

These words still convict us of our own apathy and comfort with economic injustice. While such spiritual counsel does not predispose us to just one approach to politics and economics, it inspires a holistic spirituality that will not tolerate intentional acts of injustice or neglect of the most vulnerable. Those who believe that lower taxes will stimulate the economy and improve peoples’ lots over the long haul must insure, first of all, Isaiah asserts, that no one is left behind and this means insuring more than minimal social safety nets, including the quest for full employment. Our relationships to the most vulnerable people matters not only to the health of our communities and to suffering individuals themselves but also to God. The empathetic God feels our pain: we care for the Creature by caring for the creator. Ethics hinges not only on interpersonal and social relations but also our relationship with God: Do we wish to give God a world of beauty or ugliness? Do we want to add to God’s joy or suffering as the “heart of the universe?”

Psalm 50 speaks of divine judgment for those who turn away from God’s vision of wholeness. The interdependence of life can be a curse as well as a blessing. Although those who benefit from injustice appear to flourish, their judgment comes as a result of their alienation from God. Our values shape the quality of our experience of God and God’s ability to be present in our lives.

Hebrews 11 speaks of faith as hope in the unseen. The eyes of faith see deeply into reality. Faith recognizes the limitations of concrete experience, but intuits deeper dimensions of insight, inspiration, and insight. Faith aligns us with God’s deeper presence, revealed – but often hidden – in the unconscious, in synchronous encounters, in answers to prayer, and in the subtle providence of the moral arc of history. Faith inspires fecundity in the midst of barrenness.

Faith enables us to trust in God’s presence and promise. This opens us to new dimensions of experience and enables God to be more active in our lives as source of possibilities, vision, encounters, and the energy to embrace God’s lively and transforming vision of Shalom in the concreteness of everyday life.

The Gospel joins our sense of value with our readiness for God’s presence. What is our treasure? Is it God’s vision or our own self-interest? Do we labor for what is unimportant and turn our backs on love? Our treasure opens or closes us to deeper realities of grace and energy. In turning from our highest good, we close the door to blessings God imagines and seeks for us.

We must also be ready to seize the moment. Every moment is potentially a theophany in a God-filled universe. God presents us with visions for this moment and the long haul. Readiness is awareness of divine possibilities in “just such a time as this.” We miss many of God’s moment by moment visions due to our failure to embrace the fullness of the interdependent “now.” While God continues to offer us possibilities, our lack of mindfulness diminishes the zest of life and precludes our experience of certain potentially life-changing encounters.

Today’s scriptures tell us to wake up and be ready. Our ability to experience God in vulnerable persons is related to our moment by moment awareness of God’s presence in our lives. When we, like Abraham, awaken to the deeper reality of God’s vision, this vision will shape our values, actions, and openness to the challenges and blessings of each moment.

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.