The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7), June 25, 2023

June 2, 2023 | by Thomas Hermans-Webster

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Genesis 21:8-21 Psalm 69:7-18 Romans 6:1b-11 Matthew 10:24-39 Jeremiah 20:7-13 Psalm 86:1-10

I must confess that, having read the gospel lesson in today’s reading many times in preparation for this commentary and having heard and read it countless times before now in my life, I sit perplexed with Matthew’s gospel today. Maybe I am perplexed with what Jesus is saying. Maybe I’m perplexed with how scattered or disjointed it seems. Maybe I’m perplexed with how I think the good news of Jesus should sound, feel, look, read, or signify a Reign of God and how I don’t know if I’m seeing those thoughts in this gospel.

Through process and relational lenses of Christian theology, “one’s foes will be members of one’s own household” strikes me odd, and “whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven” strikes me as painful to a ridiculous degree. So badly, I want to lean forward in the conversation and ask, “but that doesn’t seem loving, does it? Jesus? What?” I want to cry with the Psalmist, “Answer me, O LORD, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy, turn to me. Do not hide your face from your servant, for I am in distress – make haste to answer me!” (Psalm 69:16-17) But maybe my perplexed reclining is driven by a desire for a nicer Jesus or any easier gospel than the one remembered in Matthew; maybe such a desire inherits aspects of White US and British expectations of propriety that fester within process theologies emerging from Whitehead and others.

The Genesis reading for today may very well uncover some of these insidious aspects and help the preacher re-approach the Gospel lesson along with its complexity.

Hagar, with her son, is sent away, sent into the wilderness. Sarah conceived the plan. God confirmed the plan. Abraham executed the plan. Hagar and her son suffered the plan. Since it was published in 1993, Delores Williams’s Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-talk (Orbis, 1993) has been a foundational theological text for engaging this story in particular. While I won’t rehearse Williams’s arguments here, I commend the book to the preacher’s reading again in preparation for this sermon.

For the process and relational theologian and preacher, I want us to consider our own house in light of Williams’s–among others–work. Quite plainly, the Genesis text and the Matthew text alike for this week may leave the preacher considering their character. Abraham? Sarah? God? Disciple? Teacher? Slave? Master? Two sparrows? Child set against parent? Foe even at home? Comfortable at home? Lover of their child more than Jesus? Acknowledger? Denier? One whose hair is counted?

Who are you, preacher? Who are we, colleague?

For good reasons, people have found opportunities for healing, abundant life, forgiveness, and transformation in the perspective-shifting approaches that process theologians bring to the Christian gospel. Wrestling with the so-called “Problem of Evil” is one of the entry points into process and relational theologies for many Christians. Questions about the relationship between theological, philosophical, and scientific insights in our evolutionary and quantum paradigm serve as entries for others. These pastoral and interdisciplinary concerns characterize a lot of process theology and spirituality in the Christian tradition.

But deconstructing the Classical Problem of Evil or reckoning with physics and biology seems unsatisfactory when God confirms a plan made by a chosen spouse, executed by a chosen traveler, and suffered by an enslaved woman and her son (sired by the chosen traveler). Likewise, I find it difficult to get beyond dominant interpretations of Jesus’s admonition to lose life for his sake, when losing life or taking up a cross has so often been used to reiterate societal oppressions and uphold hegemonic power. Where is the Galilean Vision when Caesar has so thoroughly taken up the throne?

Encouraged by Sisters in the Wilderness, I think we must recognize that a lot of our theologies—in our preaching, our teaching, our research, our writing–have attended to the wonder and fascinating complexity of the God of all creation while at the same time ignoring that the God of all creation is the God of the oppressed. Neoclassical theologian Theodore Walker, Jr., challenges us to recognize this reality as woven into the cosmo-theological visions of neoclassical-process-relational Christianity. When we recognize that the God of all creation is the God of the oppressed, we then confront the stark reality that God’s life in, with, and for the life of the world is aiming toward liberation and that the oppressions and systems of oppression in our present age are themselves contingent realities.

Simply, process theologies must recognize that oppression is not necessary for the world. Another world than one in which a Patriarch exiles both the enslaved mother of his child and his child to the wilderness is possible, for the oppressions and sufferings that Hagar experienced are not necessary. And yet she suffered them, and more suffer them today than not. When Caesar and imperial theologies reign, the Galilean Vision of God and the Body of Christ calls the preacher and the congregation away from the pleasures of the palace, the household where familial connections afford status, comfort, and sometimes wealth. Though oppression is not necessary for this world, its continued reality shows that we have work to do with God who makes ways out of no ways for the abundant beloved life of the world. “Take up your cross” need not be a reiteration of individualist, individualizing, and individual suffering that isolates and further reifies hierarchical systems of oppression. Those of us who have life to lose must lose it as we join the Risen Jesus and the Body of Christ in the struggle to dismantle all powers and principalities that thrive on taking life. Process theology, as invested as we are in the mysterious beauty of God who stretched the spangled heavens, must animate our efforts to join the God of the oppressed, who struggles for abundant life by creating and co-creating otherwise worlds with those blessed people who refuse to die in the wildernesses of the world.

Our work, our struggle, is not predestined to demise. Another world is possible, for gracious love is inherent to the world and to God’s life with us as we are lured into adventurous cocreativity.

Tom is the son of Alabama Methodists whose experiences of Christianity have led him to ordination and ministry in theological education. He earned his PhD from Boston University School of Theology, where he developed a process theology of Holy Communion in a sacramental ecotheology from Norman Pittenger, Theodore Walker, Jr., Monica Coleman, Karen Baker-Fletcher, Mary Elizabeth Moore, and others. Currently, he serves as the Acquiring Editor at Orbis Books in Maryknoll, New York, and on the steering committee of the Open and Relational Theologies Unit of the AAR.