The Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 5), June 11, 2023

June 2, 2023 | by Thomas Hermans-Webster

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Genesis 12:1-9 Psalm 50:7-15 Romans 4:13-25 Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26 Hosea 5:15-6:6 Psalm 33:1-12

One of the first aspects of process theology that I remember learning was the radical openness of the future. While probabilities certainly influence which possible moments concresce into the present-that-could-be, process theological approaches to the future are decidedly anti-deterministic. An old mentor of mine was fond of saying, “It’s possible that I could take an airplane to Paris tomorrow. It’s highly improbable, though, given my past decisions that don’t include purchasing a ticket, my present condition of being in this conversation instead of packing or purchasing a ticket, and my desires to show up for class tomorrow about the same time that I would need to be at the airport with my ticket.”

The good news for the preacher, indeed for all of us, is this: facing an undetermined future, we, like Abram, are not left adrift or alone. The Genesis story in today’s readings is a story of journey, of accompaniment, of faithfulness, and of covenant. Approaching this reading through a process theological lens, the presence of relatives and the passage of time shine. The relationship between God and Abram beckons Abram beyond his present place and moment. In partnership with God, Abram is called to adventure into a new way of life with his family, including their slaves and other-than-human possessions. Do not ignore Abram’s slave-owning status, and do not try to coat it in tropes of compassionate slaveholding. The Genesis text in two-weeks’ time attends particularly to the wilderness experience of Hagar and Ishmael.

From a process lens, the end of the previous chapter of Genesis is crucial for today’s reading. Neither God’s call on Abram nor Abram’s preparation for this journey to Canaan come ex nihilo. Following the death of one of his sons, Terah, Abram’s father, journeyed with Abram, Sarai, and Lot, grandson of Terah through the deceased son, to Canaan from Ur of the Chaldeans, the land of their birth. Together, they went as far as Haran (not to be confused with Haran, the son of Terah and father of Lot, who had died in Ur). Genesis 11 tells us that they settled there, and Terah lived the remainder of his days in Haran.

Obviously, they were in Haran for long enough to establish themselves and acquire possessions and people. Nonetheless, the Lord was not speaking to someone who was unfamiliar with journeying into uncertain futures and unknown places when God called Abram. Process theologies do not approach Abram’s journey as a faithful example of unquestioning obedience to an omnipotent and deterministically omniscient deity. Instead, this passage encourages us to ask questions about our own journeys as societies, as a society of societies, as people in relationship with one another, our creaturely kindred, and God. What experiences have prepared your people, your congregation, your community to recognize God’s call and presence into uncertainty and unknowns? As I hinted at above, the radical openness of the future in process theology does not describe the transcendent–transcendent time like the future and/or transcendent space like new lands and places of life–as something for which we are unprepared. Visioning beyond the now-here with all our relations, human and other-than-human, must include truth-telling about our pasts, truth-telling about who we have been, where we have been, how we have been, and how we have been gifted with experiences, skills, and questions.

Another key feature of Abram’s journey is God’s promise to give the land of Canaan to Abram’s offspring, those who will bless Abram and become a great nation. The epistle lesson from Paul’s Letter to the Romans focuses on this promise and how the descendants of Abraham have lived into the promise “through the righteousness of faith” (Rom 4:13). This passage is full of the Pauline tension between grace/faith and works/Law. In some Protestant traditions, this distinction has become a bedrock for understanding Christian identity and salvation, with faith and grace becoming prerequisite substances and activities that free the Christian from bondage to Jewish Law and a strict legalistic practice. A dangerous anti-Semitism flows through and is reinforced by these interpretations.

The preacher who discusses today’s epistle must remember the context of Paul’s remarks in the letter. Paul was an apostle to the Gentiles, so he’s deeply concerned to articulate the significance of Jesus Christ, his life, ministry, death, and resurrection, for people beyond the scope of Israel’s salvific relationship with the one who Jesus called “Abba.” In the section of the chapter that precedes today’s reading, Paul asks about when “faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it reckoned to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before,” Paul writes (Rom 4:9-10). Paul interprets Abraham’s circumcision and the circumcisions of his descendants “as a seal of the righteousness that [Abraham] had by faith while he was still uncircumcised” (Rom 4: 11). Today’s reading, then, is an effort to show how inclusive God’s journey is with Abram.

Process thinking delights in such inclusivity while it also resists substance-based and mechanistic interpretations of this passage, and that resistance troubles the waters of the grace/faith and works/Law distinction for some Protestant communities. Instead of thinking of grace and righteousness as substances, as unmerited things that were given to faithful humans from God, imitate Paul’s exhortation to “follow the example of the faith that our ancestor Abraham had before he was circumcised” (Rom 4:12).

Today’s Genesis reading shows that Abraham’s faith, that Abram’s faith, was not some intellectualized consent to some or all of a shopping list of propositions. Abram’s faith was an active and intimate journey with God into an uncertain future. God didn’t hand Abram a substance called “grace” at some point along this journey or at its end. Rather, God lured Abram and Sarai onward into transcendent and zesty adventure, disclosing possibilities and highlighting past experiences in their meaningfulness in the present. In our own lives, seeking “grace” as a substance that comes as a reward to or launching for our “faith” that unquestioningly, obediently consents to propositional statements about God, it seems, misses the point entirely.

Instead of seeking a thing called “grace,” the epistle and Genesis story come together to inspire (literally, to-be-filled-with-Spirit) each of us to recognize the world that goes on around us and  without us, making space for us and our faithful journey with God and one another. It is gracious that we have been called and can journey together. It is gracious that we can live into righteousness and love. It is gracious that people, the Great Cloud of Witnesses and others, have come before us to make a way where there were no ways for us to experience and live into the Love who weaves and lures the cosmos.

When we begin to approach grace and faith through such a lens, the gospel lesson takes on a fresh vibrancy. Instead of handing them neatly wrapped packages of salvation, Jesus made space and time for sinners at the table, recognizing the holy beauty of a community who was largely excluded from “faithful” religious practice at the time. As the spacetime-making activity of Loving, grace enlivens community life. Sometimes, it restores outcast and excluded people to community. Other times, grace challenges the “in-group” to acknowledge the deep community that already exists among those who are excluded, revealing and enacting holy love that convicts exclusion, calls for repentance, and shows mercy to the humbled penitent.

Resist mechanistic interpretations that render the fringe of Jesus’s cloak nothing more than a vending machine for healing as long as you put the correct amount of faith in the coin slot. Likewise, Jesus telling the woman that her faith has made her well is not a gold star sticker to reward the woman’s verbal intellectual assent. Unclean from her hemorrhaging, this is the second episode in today’s gospel between Jesus and an unclean person or group of people. As with the sinners and tax collectors, Jesus made space and time for her healing, recognizing her journey into the unknown possibility of healing as a holy journey. It is gracious that her faith inspired her into this encounter with Love. It is gracious that she experienced healing. It is gracious that Jesus continues to with the business of timespace-making-Loving for the life of the world.

If you haven’t gotten the theme of the gospel lesson yet, the lectionary gives one more opportunity, one more episode of Jesus making sacred spacetime with an unclean person or group of people. “Come and lay your hand on” this dead girl, a leader of the synagogue says to Jesus. Touching a dead body is a ritually defiling act, but the man claims that, with the touch of Jesus, she will live. If, as process theologians, we resist mechanistic reduction, if the fringe of Jesus’s cloak is not a dispensary, then neither can his hand be a magic touch if but the right words are spoken or actions performed. Through the other experiences with uncleanliness, the gospeller teaches us to pay attention to a fuller picture of Jesus’s life and ministry. Living into God’s desire for mercy, not sacrifice (and into the second Psalm in today’s reading cycle!), Jesus goes with the leader to his house, showing mercy to the grieving father. Indeed, in the girl and the father’s day of trouble, Jesus delivered them, recognizing the girl’s reality and making space and time for her to flourish.

Where are the dying, dead, and unclean in your congregation, community, and bioregion? How can you as a member of the Body of Christ and y’all as the Body of Christ live into grace and become gracious in those times, spaces, places, lives, and realities? Wrestling with these discernment questions is faith-in-action, for you are looking to the past with honesty to account for the capacities that you have in the present to make spacetime for a loving future in which life flourishes, in which you live into your vows with God, in which steadfast love characterizes your every relationship.

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.