The Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 5), 10 June 2018

June 10, 2018 | by Nathan Mattox

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Genesis 3: 8-15 Pslam 138 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1 Mark 3: 20-35

Genesis 3: 8-15

There are a several tantalizing phrases in this familiar passage from the Creation story. One could emerge from this text in a number of different directions: God searching for us, the nakedness of shame, the pervasive nature of blame, the relational impact of curse. The theme that seems to be most harmonious with the themes presented in the Gospel passage are the resolution of the relational curses in the person and work of Jesus, “their sins will be forgiven them,” and also the pervasive nature of blame, “a house divided against itself shall not stand.”

I find it hard to resist dwelling on the beauty of the passage about God searching for Adam and Eve “at the time of the evening breeze.” Why that narrative elaboration? I sat on the porch on this beautiful Spring evening in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where we frequently have evening breezes, and sometimes more than breezes, to discern what could be the purpose in the text telling me that God was heard walking in the garden “at the time of the evening breeze.” Often the springtime sounds so magnificently alive because we’ve grown accustomed to the silence of the winter, so the tree-frogs and insects are noticeable. The worldview of Process theology, with a strong affirmation of God’s immanence in the world, is not as threatened by the folksy picture of God walking around in the garden “in the evening breeze” as our classical theistic forebears, who certainly took issue with such a passage of scripture with a theological concept of God as utterly transcendent and impassible. In Process Theology, we proclaim the immanent God who is concerned about the whereabouts of a couple who were created free—free enough to hide from God even in the Garden of Eden.

Also, as any mention of “breeze” in the scriptures should clue us into, what is translated here might connote the same Holy Spirit that is involved in the Creation narrative in the first creation story, as well as elsewhere throughout the Bible. The Ruach, (wind, breeze, breath, Spirit) is one way that we might be able to translate the meaning of what is happening in this text to hearers of our sermon who might smirk a little at the idea of an omniscient God walking around searching for Adam and Eve. The Breeze blowing might just be one and the same of “God walking” and “God speaking” to Adam and Eve, who know they have trespassed upon God’s commandments. As Sally McFague has stated in Models of God, this Pneuma/Ruach/Spirit might be the best way of conceptualizing God in a way that connects humans to non-human creation (which is certainly an element of the curses that are uttered later in this passage.)

Furthermore, the fact that God is portrayed searching for Adam and Eve describes a divine relationship with humanity in which God is actively pursuing us. God is concerned with our well- being, our location in life, and offering us the best possible outcome for each scenario. In this case, that scenario involves a break in trust, and therefore God describes the curse and fractured relationship that arises out of that break in trust.

Pslam 138

On the day I called, you answered me, you increased my strength of soul.” (v. 3) I like this image. I called, you answered, you increased my strength of soul. This is the Divine lure, for our souls to grow stronger and stronger, and thus strengthen the soul of the world and the soul that persuades and delights and enjoys the universe. One theme of the texts this week is the immanence of God. As the Psalm says, “For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly; but the haughty he perceives from far away. Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies; you stretch out your hand, and your right hand delivers me. The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands.” (6-8). As the excellent study guide for Process Theology written by Paul Nancarrow says, (available on Process and Faith’s website) “God is both transcendent over the world, but also immanent in the world.”  Charles Hartshorne identified, though it is the presumption of classical theology that we need not elevate one aspect of God and denigrate the other. God mustn’t be only transcendent, but instead can be supremely transcendent and supremely immanent.

It is the Biblical witness that God is supremely immanent especially in the experience of the sufferer, the oppressed, and the desperate. “He regards the lowly, but perceives the haughty from afar.” The lowly are strengthened, the haughty are alone in their haughtiness. God’s aim is to uplift the downtrodden and “knock the mighty from their seat” as Mary later proclaims. God persuades toward an equalization of power, and locating that power within the self-perpetuating good of the universe.

2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1

The presence of the Spirit is a theme of the lectionary on this day. This is the Spirit of God’s presence, which the text hopes for at the resurrection. It is in this Spirit that Paul speaks to the church, “I believed, and so I spoke.” What is it that compels the human spirit to speak words of encouragement and healing of fractured relationship, but the Spirit of God, who seeks this reconciliation for all creation.

“Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day” resonates with the “you increased my strength of soul” in the Psalm. This is an image that is friendly to the Process perspective.  God works persuasively through our spirits, luring us toward a greater actuality.

We look not at what can be seen, but what cannot be seen, for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. The Divine Lure calls us to the not yet. The process of discerning the divine lure and taking hold of it is the ultimate endeavor of all creation. What is seen and observed is temporary, what cannot be seen, the Divine Aim, what is hoped for, is eternal.

This hope is grounded in the experience of being cared for and guided by the Divine Lure. In the face of difficulties and evil, strength is found in the persistence of God’s goodness and presence. “No matter how great the evil in the world, God acts persuasively upon the wreckage to bring from it whatever good is possible. [Process Theism] asserts that this persuasive power with its infinite persistence is in fact the greatest of all powers.” (Cobb and Griffin, Process Theology, and Introductory Exposition, Louisville, KY, Westminster John Knox Press, 118).

Mark 3: 20-35

This week’s reading falls on the heels of some vibrant, fast paced action: a style for which Mark is well known. Jesus has been gleaning some wheat for a snack and then healing a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath (last week’s reading). After that, he is then pictured healing a multitude of people, such that he had to escape for fear of being crushed (3: 9-10), hushing up some impure spirits (3:11), then deciding to delegate the power of exorcism to twelve apostles (3:13-19). After this whirlwind of activity, Jesus returns home (3:20), where he is met with suspicion. His family seems somewhat embarrassed, since the word around town is that Jesus has lost his mind, and the scribes have an even more scandalous charge: he’s filled with the Beelzebub, Lord of the Flies, since according to their logic, only the ruler of demons can cast out demons. Jesus has the decency to entertain the charges of the scribes, and counters their logic with his own, woven into parables. “If a kingdom is divided against itself, it cannot stand, and if a house is divided against itself, it cannot stand, And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.”

Though it is not Jesus’ intent to be making a political argument, the Process preacher may take the phrase as a lure to speak about our current divisive cultural and political climate in the United States, even though the comparison here between a “kingdom” and “Satan’s kingdom” is implied by Jesus. Jesus’ parable puts him and his followers on the side of the plunderers, making their way into the house of the “Strong man,” and binding him, so that he and his followers can plunder the property. Since our political climate has witnessed a resurgence of “strong man” fascism around the world, and a political electorate which seems enamored with the possibilities such a “strong man” might provide for a group of people politically engineered to feel victimized and hunkered down in a bunker mentality, both here and abroad, perhaps it is of interest to us that Jesus quite clearly positions himself on the side of the plunderers in this parable. How might an exorcist with a plan to “bind the strong man and plunder the property” be the torchbearer of followers of Christ in this political climate?

The Genesis passage portrays the emergence of sin in the human story. This Gospel passage portrays Jesus declaring that all sins will be forgiven, save one: blaspheming the Holy Spirit. Jesus is relating this sin to his own experience of feeling debased by the scribes who are describing his work and words and ministry as arising out of an unholy Spirit. In relation to the Genesis passage, we might also infer that this blaspheming the Holy Spirit is breaking trust with the one who is searching for us. If God comes walking in the evening breeze, it is denying in which way the wind blows.

In the first years of my ministry, a woman who was quite enthusiastic about her experience of God and what God had done for her (given her a Cadillac) liked to worship with my congregation. She worshiped in a way that was a little more ostentatious than was the norm in our rural Oklahoma main-line congregation. That was okay by me, and okay by the congregation as far as I could tell. But she didn’t feel that way. She came to me one day in my office complaining that the congregation all looked at her when she raised her hands in praise or shouted an Amen. I told her that I have a pretty good view of people while worship is happening, and I had never noticed that happening. She told me, that in any case, she was convinced that the Spirit was not in our church. I told her that she should take great care when issuing that charge, since Jesus tells us that the only unforgiveable sin is blaspheming the Holy Spirit, and what can that mean but denying the Holy Spirit’s existence and presence where it is in fact, present. I suggested that perhaps she was simply not acquainted with the unique way the Spirit was working among our congregation, much like she was convinced the congregation was not acquainted with how the Holy Spirit was working in her. In any case, it became clear to me when I spoke these prophetic words (I say prophetic since I usually steer clear of conflict or of making anyone feel like they are being judged, and not naturally inclined to that kind of thing) that perhaps the unforgiveable sin is, quite simply, denying the work of the Holy Spirit in something we don’t understand. It seems pretty clear that’s how Jesus intends for it to be known, and it is a pretty clear stance that would shut us off from prehending the lure toward the Divine Aim. If we can’t imagine or simply deny the fact that “She Moves in Mysterious Ways” as the band I’m going to see open their 2018 tour here in Tulsa tomorrow night said in a fantastic song from 1992, we might just be setting down a path of sameness that leaves the world unchanged and our souls unchangeable. By the way, the woman I counseled seemed somewhat convicted by the words I said, I’m glad to say. I told her it was probably best she find another place to worship since our congregation had been something of a burr in her saddle, and she seemed more comfortable in Pentecostal expressions of worship.

Rev. M. Nathan Mattox graduated with an MDiv from Claremont School of Theology in 2005, and has since served United Methodist congregations in Arkansas and Oklahoma, most recently University United Methodist Church in Tulsa since 2011. A fellow of the Fund for Theological Education, National Council of Churches Ecological Justice Young Adult fellowship, Collegeville Writer’s Workshop, and the Hendix Institute for Clergy Civic Engagement, he also started the University Church Network, a collaborative resource for churches on or adjacent to university campuses. Nathan has been blending a family since July of 2017 with his wife Myranda, and enjoys the company of four chidren, a dog and a cat.