Proper 26, Year A – The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

October 26, 2017 | by Bruce Epperly

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Joshua 3:7-17 Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13 Matthew 23:1-12 Micah 3:5-12

I must admit that I find this Sunday’s lectionary readings somewhat uneven.  As I look ahead a few weeks to the time when this comes up in the lectionary cycle, I am tempted to preach topically.  But, in the spirit of process thought, the preacher needs to look for the “best” option for a particular impasse, recognizing that in the dynamic interplay of study, scripture, prayer, and preaching, inspiration will emerge and the creative preacher will be able to find a morsel of wisdom to respond to the community’s needs in the present moment.

The reading from Joshua is problematic, as far as I am concerned.  In it, God is urging the people to cross the Jordan River – they won’t even get wet as a result of divine intervention – solely for the purpose of “driving out” the indigenous peoples.  How often have we heard this story, and frankly I cannot commend the behavior of the people or the urging of God. How would the story have be written from a Canaanite’s point of view?  Passages such as this have undergirded manifest destiny and ethnic and racial privilege, especially among the peoples of European descent.  Shall we preach the Bible against the Bible? Or, use this passage as opportunity to challenge exceptionalism and conquest in the name of God?  Or do we take a pass and see if the Gospel and Epistle are relevant to our congregation’s needs?

The Psalm recounts God’s care for persons in need, including the Israelites who wandered in the desert.  The Psalmist’s words are a confession of faith in God’s steadfast love, protection, and providence.  If we are to make these words “real” today, we must assume that they are addressed to humankind as a whole and not to a privileged group.  We must also assume that, in the context of conflict and inequality, the church’s calling is to embody God’s steadfast love for those who seem to have missed out on divine providence.  We cannot claim good fortune as a blessing unless we are able to share that same fortune with others, most particularly the dispossessed, vulnerable, and mistreated in our society and world.

If you choose Micah as alternative to Joshua, life doesn’t get any easier for the preacher or her or his congregation’s leadership.  Micah is challenging but in a different way.  The prophet exposes every paid priestly leader, including today’s clergy, inviting us to spiritually examine our motivations.  Many churches are in the midst of fall pledge season, and of course, the pastor’s salary and benefits are connected with the success of the pledge campaign.  Are we prophets or hired hands?  Do we preach that everything is alright to maintain our own professional security?  These days, given the hair-trigger nature of USA politics, pastors can be called out for partisanship even when they are doing their best to be non-partisan.  Micah had the benefit of being “self-employed.” Congregational pastors have to sympathize with the objects of Micah’s wrath and have to ask ourselves whether we “water down” the gospel or preach “good news” just to avoid conflict.  Of course, many preachers err on the opposite extreme – they too closely align God’s opinions with their own, whether they speak with the intonations of a Jerry Falwell, Jr., or Franklin Graham, or a divisive progressive message.  We need to listen to our pastoral conscience, and we also need to challenge our dearest political and religious viewpoints.  At the very least, Micah challenges us to separate as much as possible self-interest from our lives as Christians.  Following God may mean working against our own self-interest to achieve a greater good.  Faith, to paraphrase Alfred North Whitehead, challenges us to move from self-interest to world loyalty.  True peace comes from expanding our sense of well-being to embrace the greater good of our communities.  False preaching eventually leads to spiritual darkness among both the clergy and their communities.

The reading from I Thessalonians initially seems a bit boastful.  Do the evangelists really need to tout their morality, integrity, and transparency?  Do they protest to much? Or do they outline their high standards as way of encouraging the local leaders to embody the highest moral virtues.  But, beyond the apparent boastfulness is the mandate to live a life worthy of God.  While we can’t exactly specify what such “worthiness” means, nor can we break it down into a legal formula, the author’s intention is turn the people toward the life of Jesus and to be Christlike in their relationships.  A constant prayer for us might be “God, show me the way” or “Help me find my mission in this situation,” or “help me live a life of service?”

Jesus’ words challenge people in authority to see themselves as servants rather than rulers of the community.  Jesus critiques those who preach one way and act another along with those who presume they are special and set apart because of their title.  Integrity means joining the inner life with outer behavior, and practicing what we preach.  While we are tempted to hypocrisy – and all have some ethical blind spots – Jesus words challenge us to examine our motives.  Are we faithful to the communities that we lead?  Do we ask of others what we are unwilling to do ourselves?  Our calling is to be servant leaders, women and men identified with the community, whose professional and intellectual skills are for the benefit of the community and not self-aggrandizement. Status must take backseat to the well-being of the community and the affirmation of its “lesser” members.

Is there any grace in today’s readings?  It is easy for them to sound overly legalistic or condemnatory of our communities.  Perhaps the grace comes in our intentionality, our desire to live a life worthy of God’s gracefulness.  In seeking to serve, we may discover Christ in the least of these and find a deeper meaning to our lives as pastors, congregants, and citizens.

Bruce Epperly is Pastor and Teacher at South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Centerville, MA. and a professor in the D.Min program of Wesley Theological Seminary.  He is the author of over 40 books, including Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed, Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God, Becoming Fire: Spiritual Practices for Global Christians; and Praying with Process Theology: Spiritual Practices for Personal and Global Healing.