July 31, 2016- Proper 13 (Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost)

July 25, 2016 | by Robert Gnuse

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Hosea 11:1-11 Psalm 107:1-9, 43 Colossians 3:1-11 Luke 12:13-21 Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23 Psalm 49:1-12

Hosea 11:1-11

The passion of God surfaces in this text in grand fashion. We hear the anguish of God: “The more I called to them, the more they went from me” (v. 2).” “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel?” (v. 8). “My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender” (v. 8). These are powerful words attributed by Hosea to the voice of God; these are powerful images of divine compassion.

A special feature of this text is the portrayal of God as the mother of Israel, a theme that many pious readers do not notice. In verses 3-4 God says, “Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; . . . I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love.” Mothers in ancient Israel taught toddlers how to walk by suspending them with soft cords of cloth under their armpits. In verse 4 God says, “I was to them like those who lift infants to their checks.” That is what mothers do. In verse 4 God says, “I bent down to them and fed them.” That refers to how a mother breast feeds a baby. What powerful imagery this is to apply to God. We must say both “he” and “she” when speaking of God, especially God in the Old Testament, for there are other passages like this.

The text provides powerful imagery for a process theologian. God is portrayed as being tearful in the divine pathos over Israel’s impending destruction. This imagery envisions God as intensely involved in the human process in deeply emotional fashion. This text portrays God as having deep emotions more than most any other text. Add to this the well developed feminine imagery of God teaching Israel to walk and lifting Israel up, which are very tender motherly symbols, and we have a very powerful text. For the Christian theologian in general, this imagery portrays the grace of God that is so intense that it can lead God to the death on a cross, the ultimate divine self-involvement in human existence.

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23

“Vanity of vanities” says the author. The hebrew word for “vanity” is hebel, and it means mist, dew, cloud, something transitory, and it is also Abel’s name in Genesis 4 (indicating that he will disappear from the stage shortly). All of life’s accomplishments are “vanity” (1:12-14). In chapter 2:18-23 our author has a monologue of despair: “I hated my toil” (v. 18). My wealth I “must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it” (v. 21), my ungrateful heirs. With startling frankness our author presents a pessimistic outlook worthy of Albert Camus.

The Christian theologian struggles with such pessimism and avoids this text for a sermon topic. In seminary we were advised not to dwell too long on the passages of this book in our meditation, study, or sermon presentation. But the book is truly a portrayal of our world and the dark things that so often happen in it. As I oft have said, “original sin is Christianity’s only empirical doctrine,” for humanity is so often disappointing. Mark Twain said that he would compare man to the rat, except he didn’t because of his respect for the rat. Though we acknowledge the truth of the dark message about humanity in Ecclesiastes, we Christians then look to the message of  hope which surfaces in the action of God in the mission of Jesus. The death and resurrection of Jesus becomes the trump card we throw across the dark despair of our world and human existence with its war, famine, disease, despair, and oppression. We declare that God has hope for our world and seeks to work within us to inspire hope to change the world.

The process theologian declares that as the future, or the “consequent body of God” unfolds, there is hope. God gives humanity the constant choice of options to move forward in life, and we must not despair, but freely choose those options which bring love, life, and  hope into the world. We must not be overwhelmed by the magnitude of evil throughout the world, but we must firmly say, “I will make my little corner of the world a better place!” 

Colossians 3:1-11

Paul and the Paulinists (one of whom may have written Colossians) did not give people a new law or set of laws by which to structure their lives, for they believed that people were free from the law, especially the particularities of Jewish law. But what they did do was to provide examples of good behavior by listing virtues and vices. The rendition of vice and virtue lists was a common literary device among Greek and Roman writers. This literary technique in the New Testament attempted to speak to the conscience of each individual Christian and say, “if you truly are a child of God and a follower of Christ, you will want to do the following actions (virtues) and avoid the following behavior (vices).

I have noticed that in vice lists, sometimes horrible vices are listed, such as killing your mother or father, and interspersed within those words are the common vices that all people have, such as gossip, greed, and envy. I believe that this is a subtle ploy by the New Testament authors to encourage people to take seriously those “little vices” of everyday life. Thus, in our text, a word like fornication, which literally means to have sex with a temple prostitute, is a more serious offense, while greed, anger, and slander (which is gossip) are rather commonly done by everyone, including those in a given Christian community. Our author is attempting to cause the listeners to reflect upon their lives and seek to improve their everyday behavior. The author reminds them and us that Christ is in all of us (v. 11).

Historically, theologians call this process of self-improvement, with the help of God, the activity of sanctification. Sanctification is our cooperative endeavor with God that is a loving response to the unconditional grace of God in saving us in the actions of the death and resurrection of Jesus, which we call justification. In our contemporary theology we might call sanctification a “process,” a movement, not perfect by any means, sometimes coming with setbacks, toward a lifestyle of Christian love and compassion. As process theologians we would especially stress the presence of God within us leading and “persuading” us to move forward in our lives.

Luke 12:13-21

This story is a warning both against greed and smugness with one’s accomplishments in life. There is also the final comment by Jesus that tells us to invest our life’s efforts in things that really matter.

The first scenario is one that is too often common in the lives of many people. Two brothers are fighting over the family inheritance. How often today are families torn apart by a contested will or a vaguely created set of guidelines for the heirs to follow? I have seen this too often in my life. (People need to write clearer wills and make changes in the will known to everyone in the family.) More importantly people need to realize that family is more valuable than the division of property.

The second scenario tells of a man who spent his life advancing his fortune and died before he could totally appreciate it. How often does that happen? He should have enjoyed life more along the way, and taken time to enjoy his family especially. The saying, “he who dies with the most toys, wins,” seems to be the unconscious mantra of too many in our age. The statement is not true, as the sarcasm and absurdity of the saying actually indicates. But too many people in middle-class America live their lives unaware that they are following this maxim.

The final point in this selection of sayings is that we should focus upon what is truly imortant. As we move through the process of life, God offers us options and choices again and again. For the process theologian, this is the experience of grace. We should choose wisely from among the choices God offers us.