The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11-C), 21 July 2019


July 21, 2019

Reading 1Reading 2Reading 3Reading 4Reading 1 AltReading 2 Alt
Amos 8:1–12Psalm 52Colossians 1:15–28Luke 10:38–42Genesis 18:1–10aPsalm 15

by Robert McDonald

Discussion of the Texts:    
On this Sixth Sunday following Pentecost, we again have options to choose from regarding the readings from the Hebrew Bible: Amos 8 with Psalm 52, or Genesis 18 with Psalm 15. Following the same pattern of the last several weeks, the readings from the Christian New Testament continue to take us through Colossians 1 and Luke (chapter 10 this week).

In Amos 8 we read yet another vision given to the prophet: “This is what the Lord GOD showed me — a basket of summer fruit” (Amos 8:1). After asking Amos what he sees, God proceeds to condemn Israel for its iniquities, stating that “‘The end has come upon [the] people Israel . . . ’” (8:2). According to Theodore Hiebert, the connection with the fruit basket and the end of Israel seems to be a similarity between two words: qayits, or “summer fruit,” and qets, or “end” (Hiebert, “Amos,” The Access Bible, 1246). One of the reasons for this end is given as the vision continues: calling-out those who “trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land” (8:4). This is directed at those who swindle and deceive others for the sake of their own profit (8:5–6). The remainder of the vision consists of the punishments placed upon Israel: trembling of the land, likely a reference to earthquakes (8:7); lamentations and mourning throughout the land (8:10); and famine “of hearing the words of the LORD” (8:11). These are only a few examples.

The other option for the first reading this Sunday, Genesis 18:1–10a, recounts the visitation of the three strangers, or the epiphany, “to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre” (Gen. 18:1). Following Dennis T. Olson, this reading is part of the second section of Genesis when God chooses to work through the family of Abraham, after having tried to work “with all humanity to restore the broken relationships caused by human rebellion and disobedience” (Olson, “Genesis: Introduction,” The Access Bible, 47; see also Gen. 12:3). As all of us will recall, Abraham offers the strangers hospitality: the shade of the trees, water to wash and drink, cakes, curds and milk, and a calf (18:3–8). The reading ends with one of the three strangers saying to Abraham: “‘I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son’” (18:10a). As we all know, beyond the readings for today, Sarah laughs at this because of how she and Abraham are apparently too old to have any children (18:11–13). This brings us to the Psalm options for this Sunday: 52 or 15.

If the first reading selected is Amos, then let us consider Psalm 52. According to J. Clinton McCann Jr., Psalm 52 is multifaceted: it begins as a psalm of judgment (52:1–5), becomes a wisdom psalm (52:6–7), and concludes as a psalm of trust (52:8–9). The psalm begins as follows: “Why do you boast, O mighty one, of mischief done against the godly? All day long you are plotting destruction” (52:1). As McCann points out, this is directed toward Doeg the Edomite who, as recounted in 1 Samuel 22:9–19, slaughtered the priests of Nob, as well as all of the women, children, and livestock (McCann, “Psalm 52,” 779). The psalmist goes on to tell the enemy of God that “God will break you down forever,” along with several condemnations (Ps. 52:5). It is from this that the righteous will learn to continue following the ways of God (52:6), especially from those who put their trust in worldly wealth (52:7). The assurance of the psalmist comes from their trust in God’s “steadfast love,” for which the psalmist will express their gratitude “[i]n the presence of the faithful” (52:8–9).

If Genesis is selected, then we may turn to Psalm 15. Most likely used by worshippers as an entrance liturgy while they entered the Temple (McCann, “Psalm 15,” 745), the Psalm actually hearkens back to the readings of the previous week — specifically, Deuteronomy 30: “[T]he word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe” (Deut. 30: 14). In addition, it may be read as a fuller response to Psalm 52:1–4. Psalm 15 provides standards of behavior, deed and word, which are observed by those who love God: doing what is right and speaking the truth (Ps. 15:2); not committing slander, doing no evil against friends, and not reproaching neighbors (15:3); despising the wicked, honoring God, and remaining true to their word no matter what (15:4); and not lending at interest or taking bribes “against the innocent” (15:5). As the psalmist concludes, “[t]hose who do these things shall never be moved” (15:5).

Turning to the Christian New Testament, we begin by finishing the first chapter of Colossians. What remains of the chapter is “[a] hymn to the universal Christ . . . the cosmic agent of creation” (Abraham Smith, “Colossians,” The Access Bible, 1974). According to Smith, the origins of this hymn are unknown — but he speculates that it is possibly connected to a mystery religion, “a Jewish text about the Son of Man,” or some other Hellenistic Jewish text (Smith, “Colossians,” 1974). As the author says, Christ “is the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15); the one who is “before all things” and the one in whom “all things hold together” (1:17); the one in whom we find the fullness of God (1:19); and the one in whom God reconciled creation (1:20). The author then extols the readers to recall how Christ (in Jesus of Nazareth) reconciled all of creation to God (1:22–23). What remains is a personal testament of the author of Colossians regarding their personal suffering on behalf of the church. Turning then to the brevity of the gospel, from Luke, we read of Jesus entering the home of Martha and Mary (sisters of Lazarus). In this particular reading, we find Jesus rebuffing Martha for her concern regarding the Mary is not helping her attend to Jesus and his disciples: “‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her’” (Lk. 10:41–42).

Process Theology and the Texts
One possible point of process thought which may be found in the readings this week comes from Genesis 18. In fact, there are two points I would highlight, but I will begin with the most tenuous possibility: the three strangers. Similar to their tendency to read trinitarianism into Genesis 1:26–27 (confusing the royal we/us with a collective we/us), some Christian interpreters of Genesis 18:1–2 may tend to construe these three as representative of the Trinity. This may be one way to read the text, but is not necessarily the intent of the original author; in fact, Olson points out that the original text is ambiguous with regard to whether one of the three strangers is God, or all three symbolize God. Still, if we are to take the latter position regardless of our theological position(s) concerning the Trinity (i.e., traditional or progressive), one thing seems certain: deity is internally relational. This reading, while tenuous, does present a possible connection to process thought in both Teilhard and Whitehead.

This points us to the stronger relationship with process thought: the general relational deity, specifically relationality with and toward the world. This is why, as Olson points out, the entire book of Genesis tells stories of God seeking to heal the broken relationships of the world and with the world, be it through all of humanity or with one particular family. This in turn points us back to Genesis 1:26–27: the creation of humanity imago Dei. What I mean to say is that the relationality of God extends to the world insofar as the world is equally relational. This is a way we can read the behavior of Abraham toward the strangers — he saw himself as being in relation with them and acted upon this realization. In fact, this theme is one which is present, to some degree, within all of the readings.

Preaching the Texts:          
As I have said in my commentary for Proper 9, I keep returning to liberation theology as a similar to (but not identical with) process thought in several respects. I am not the first to do this: Ignacio Castuera and George Pixley frequently work with the Center for Process Studies (CPS) on their Latin America Project and continue to do similar work connecting (predominantly Whiteheadian) process thought with liberation theology (Center for Process Studies, “Projects,” para. 8; “Latin America Project,” para. 2).

This leads me to read today’s readings through a process/liberation lens. I would suggest that Genesis 18 can certainly be read this way. As I have pointed out above, the strongest process-oriented theme in Genesis 18 is that of relationality. The way this connects with liberation is that Abraham shows hospitality to the stranger — without question and without concern. He accepts the strangers into his home because they were in need or even may have been in need. He offered hospitality because he met three strangers traveling in his lands. Olson makes the point that Abraham tells the strangers he will fetch “a little water” and “a little bread,” but this was an understatement compared to the feast he and Sarah set before the strangers (Gen. 18:4–5; Olson, “Genesis,” 71). Abraham even went so far as to stand while they ate (18:8). This virtue of giving hospitality and serving others regardless of who they are, to not just give what may be needed but to give completely of ourselves to others, is a lesson many of us in positions of privilege need to learn.

If preaching on Amos, one point to consider would be that we do not hear the entire vision. Specifically, we do not read the last two verses of Amos 8: “In that day the beautiful young women and the young men shall faint for thirst. Those who swear by Ashimah of Samaria, and say ‘As your God lives, O Dan,’ and, ‘As the way of Beer-sheba lives’—they shall fall, and never rise again” (8:13–14). The importance of these verses is that they include the religious and political leaders of Israel within the condemnations of the merchants: Samaria was Israel’s capital at the time, and both Dan and Beer-sheba were two major religious centers. Hiebert notes that the use of Ashimah is a play on words, as well as being rendered differently by some scholars: Ashimah can literally mean “guilt,” a well as refer to a Syrian deity; Alternatively, it can be rendered as “Asherah,” the name of a Canaanite deity (Hiebert, “Amos,” 1247; see also 2 Kings 17:30 and 1 Kings 16:33, respectively). The jumping off point for this in terms of preaching would be to acknowledge economic, political, and especially religious corruption in our world today; but this is not the end. There remains hope for those who fight on behalf of those who are pushed to the margins or even ignored/erased from individual and public consciousness simply for who they are and how they identify. Examples would be our sisters and brothers who remain imprisoned and in limbo along the border, as well as our brothers, sisters, and gender non-conforming siblings within the LGBTQ+ community — many of whom face not only figurative erasure, but even violence and death.

If preaching on this (or a similar point from the readings), Psalm 52 — especially the first half — is an excellent source for emphasis: “Why do you boast, O mighty one, of mischief done against the godly? All day long you are plotting destruction” (52:1). In addition, Psalm 15 provides an excellent point of connection, as well. Primarily, Psalm 15 stipulates what it means to “walk blamelessly” before God (Ps. 15:2). Looking again to McCann, verses 3 through 5a are quite clear: “Speech and actions that oppress others are to be avoided, in accordance with God’s character, value, and activity” (McCann, “Psalm 15,” 745). As I have noted above, walking blamelessly does not mean that we do not make mistakes — that we do not sin against our sisters, brothers, and gender non-conforming siblings — but that we actively strive to live in a way which fosters life through love (which is a central component of Teilhardian process thought).

Another possible point to preach concerns a passage from Colossians which seems particularly apropos: “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:24). From a process perspective, this passage can read in few ways. From a strict Whiteheadian perspective, actual sufferings are objective facts which are prehended by occasions of experience (subjects) which are subsequently superjected into the future. One way to interpret this would be to say, along with Teilhard, that suffering is the fact of a universe in evolution (or process, for the Whiteheadian); however, the Teilhardian will take things a step farther: “Suffer and failure, tears and blood: so many by-products (often precious, moreover, and re-utilisable [sic]) begotten by the Noosphere on its way” (Teilhard, “Remarks on the Place and Part of Evil,” The Phenomenon of Man, 311). But herein lies the problem: the two present us with the possibility of either an ambivalence toward suffering or a glorification of suffering. Many who follow either Teilhard or Whitehead would likely object to interpreting either a theology of evolution or a philosophy of organism as being ambivalent toward or glorifying suffering — and perhaps rightly so: neither is wholly explicit in either case. Indeed, there are several authors, both philosophers and theologians, who would likely make the case against such a reading; however, they do so with different resources and experiences from these two. So, the danger remains, which is why we must move beyond Teilhard and Whitehead (albeit without losing the liberative insights they do provide).

The reason why we cannot be ambivalent toward suffering, and certainly ought not glorify it, is because there are various forms and degrees of suffering, much of which tends to be experienced by those who are forced to live on the margins — it is easy for those of us who experience positions of privilege to remain ambivalent to the suffering of others or to glorify our own experiences of suffering as if all persons ought to glorify suffering. Indeed, all of this should be heard as a call to all we can to help alleviate or even eliminate the suffering of others. As I have written before, we are called to work in solidarity with all who suffer, especially those who are pushed to the margins by systems/structures of oppression.

A final point which could be preached concerns the way Jesus responds to Martha in Luke 10. I will speak plainly: Jesus was wrong. Jesus should have been more understanding, especially if we hold a high Christology. We may recall that he is often interpreted as being a type of proto-feminist: he called women to be his disciple, and other women than those named likely traveled with him. This is enough, yes? No. It was easy for Jesus to have been patriarchal in this moment, as a man at the time, by indirectly disparaging Martha’s work and call for assistance/rest. Maybe Jesus was a “feminist” to Mary, but he was patriarchal toward Martha — he was a hypocrite because he discounted her work. What is more, he did not offer to alleviate her work (which was a fact of their culture): what he could have — should have — done was say the following to Martha: “I’m sorry Martha, you are right. Let me help with the work.” He was the so-called Servant to his apostles (Matthew 26:14–39; Lk. 22: 24–27; John, 13:1–17), yet he failed to serve Martha. My point is this: Jesus was a coward who imagined/pretended that Martha had the opportunity to choose “the better way” within a patriarchal culture which treated women as second class citizens.

These are a few ideas for preaching this week, and I am certain that others will find countless other themes to discuss within the contexts of their own worship communities.

 

Bibliography

Boff, Leonardo. Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor [Ecologia: Grito da Terra, Grito dos Pobres]. Translated by Phillip Berryman. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, [1995] 1997.

Center for Process Studies. “Projects.” Accessed June 13, 2019. https://ctr4process.org/our-work/projects/.

Center for Process Studies. “Latin America Project.” Accessed June 13, 2019. https://ctr4process.org/our-work/projects/latin-american-project/.

Cone, James H. Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2018.

Gebara, Ivone. Longing for Running Water: Ecofeminism and Liberation. Translated by David Molineaux. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1999.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo, and Gerhard Ludwig Müller. On the Side of the Poor: The Theology of Liberation [An der Seite der Armen: Theologie der Befreiung]. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, [2004] 2015.

Isasi-Díaz, Ada María. Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, [1996] 1999.

O’Day, Gail R., and David Petersen, ed. The Access Bible: New Revised Standard Version, with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, Updated Edition. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, [1999] 2011.

Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. “Appendix: Some Remarks on the Place and Part of Evil in a World of Evolution,” 309–11. The Phenomenon of Man [Le Phénomene Humain]. Translated by Bernard Wall. New York, NY: Harper & Row, [1955] 1959.

———. “The Spiritual Energy of Suffering.” In Activation of Energy [L’Activation de l’ Energei], 245–50. Translated by René Hague. London, UK: William Collins Sons & Co., [1963] 1970.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology. New York, NY: Harper & Row, [1929] 1957.

———. Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology, Corrected Edition. Edited by David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne. New York, NY: The Free Press, [1929, 1957] 1978.

 


Robert McDonald

Raised Roman Catholic, Rob is a second year PhD student with the Center for Process Studies at the Claremont School of Theology. Having studied philosophy, theology, history, and public policy/administration at the undergraduate and graduate levels at both Gannon University (Erie, PA) and Gonzaga University (Spokane, WA), his specific research interests with the Center and CST (to hopefully culminate in a dissertation) are the ethical implications (especially environmental and social) of a comparative analysis/integration of the lives/works of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ and Morihei Ueshiba (as well as the Kyoto School of philosophy and the traditions of the Ainu People of Japan), in light of Whiteheadian process thought. Rob is also the current English Coordinator for The Balkan Journal of Philosophy, Editorial Assistant with the Whitehead Research Project, and the 2018/19 Research Assistant for Philip Clayton.

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