Proper 27, Year A – The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost

October 26, 2017 | by Bruce Epperly

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Joshua 24:1-31, 14-25 Psalm 78:1-7 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 Matthew 25:1-13

Today’s readings invite homiletical creativity as well as questioning.  They point us toward the Living God beyond the gods of our own making. God is always more than we can ask and imagine.  The immanent God is also transcendent.  Although process theology affirms God’s presence in the immediacy and intimacy of our lives, it also recognizes that the ever-present God is also the ever-infinite God, the deep mystery from which all blessings flow.

We will serve the True God alone, so says Joshua and his followers.  Seeking and serving the True God is challenging.  As Joshua notes, there are many other contenders for being our “god.”  John Calvin asserts that the human being is a factory of idol making, and that is certainly true in America today – the obvious gods are consumerism, materialism, political and theological ideology.  None of these can save us, and they may ultimately stand between us and God’s vision for our lives.

Traditional theology and spirituality distinguishes between the apophatic and the kataphatic visions of God.  The kataphatic vision is the fountainhead of divine imagery. In contrast, the apophatic approach reminds us that all images of God fall short of the one True God.  As the Zen Buddhists proclaim, we must always distinguish between the moon and the finger pointing to the moon, or as the apostle Paul asserts, we have this treasure, our doctrines, icons, images, and theologies, in earthen vessels. Idolatry is always a threat to true religion, and true religion – even the religion of Joshua and our own – is subject to err, and finite in relationship to the Infinite God.  Idolatry limits our awareness of divine possibility; openness to mystery awakens us to an array of divine possibilities, images, and energies.

Psalms 98 remind us to remember God.  In recollecting our Creator, distinguishing between our finitude and God’s infinity, we find our true security.  We are saved not by what we can control – the gods of our own making or ideologies – but by the Deep Mystery in whom we live and move and have our being.

The misuse of the words from I Thessalonians 4 point to the distinction between the gods we can control and the One True God insofar as they have employed for centuries to prooftext the dynamics of the Second Coming of Jesus.  Ultimately the passage is about the grounds for hope and not some far off – or soon to occur – event in which we will be caught up in the air to meet the coming Jesus. How many people have lost hope because of literal – “know it all” – interpretations of this passage?  How many people have falsely predicated the “signs of the times” and how many have been conned by such end of the world prognostications? 

Thessalonians 4 is about God’s faithfulness and sustaining presence in our finite and passing lives and not atmospheric scenarios or end of the world fantasies.  Our work is on Earth, bringing Heaven to Earth, and not escaping this one of a kind, glorious planet in search of solution to life’s problems and ambiguities.  The resurrected, living Jesus gives us inspiration for today and hope for tomorrow.  Resurrection is not a divine rescue operation but an affirmation that God’s word takes flesh, is embodied in our lives, and will be our companion in life and death and beyond.

Jesus’ parable about the wise and foolish bridesmaids reminds us to be prepared for God’s coming in our lives.  God comes to us in each millisecond, bringing us visions of possibility and providing us comfort in challenging times.  The parable is about self and divine awareness, mindfulness of God’s presence in the moment by moment unfolding of our lives. Stay awake, be aware, Christ is constantly coming in our lives.  This is good counsel in the immediacy of the moment as well as the long-term arc of our lives. 

Jesus’ parable reminds us that each moment can be an epiphany, a revealing of divinity.  Each moment can be a moment of decision, for or against God’s vision.  Yet, how do we remain awake to divinity.  The process preacher can counsel her or his congregants to open to God through spiritual practices such as meditation, lectio divinity, centering prayer, breath prayer, healing touch, and devotional reading. Moreover, in praying with our eyes open, we may discover the living God in the ups and downs of each moment’s experience.

Today’s passages counsel self-awareness.  Awareness of our finitude, our tendency to absolutize our finite viewpoints, and our inability to fathom God’s presence in moments of decision is necessary for healthy and hopeful religion.  We need to transcend polarization grounded in absolutizing our finite viewpoints as a foundation for life-supporting, world-affirming, and diversity-embracing faithfulness.

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.