The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 28-C), 17 November 2019


November 17, 2019

Reading 1Reading 2Reading 3Reading 4Reading 1 AltReading 2 Alt
Isaiah 65:17-25Isaiah 12:1-62 Thessalonians 3:6-13Luke 21:5-19Malachi 4:1-2aPsalm 98

by David Grant Smith

Isaiah 65:17-25
In the NRSV translation of the Bible, this section has been given the title “The Glorious New Creation.” In the first two verses alone of this passage, the prophet uses the word “create/creating” three times, and the word “new” twice. This passage is like an epic hymn to creativity and novelty, which belong to what Alfred North Whitehead calls “The Category of the Ultimate” in which he introduces the notion that “The many become one, and are increased by one” [Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 21]. Whitehead viewed creativity and novelty as being “ultimate” because the entire process metaphysic is built around the idea of how reality is not about substance and matter, but about becoming and relationship. As Marjorie Suchocki notes:

In order to account for relational existence, the one and the many must be complemented by a third term, creativity. How else can we understand the reality that many influences are unified, producing one individual? Unification must be a process of feeling many influences, evaluating them, and selectively integrating them according to one’s own purposes. This is creativity. This creative process is the emergence of one from many. “One,” “many,” and “creativity” are all essential terms for understanding relational existence. [Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, God Christ Church: A Practical Guide to Process Theology, New Revised Edition (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1982, 1989, 1997), p. 9]

At the same time that the poetry here works to form this hymn to creativity and novelty, it is also an ode to the relational interdependence between God and humanity; God’s creative intentions depend on human activity and our willing participation. The second half of the poem celebrates the fact that humans will join God in co-creating this new reality — they will build houses, plant vineyards, do fruitful labor, bear children, live life, call out, and speak. And when they do these things, it will be as if they are doing so in a way that is very different than the way things are the present moment. But there is also one notable element which will remain true in both the present tense context and that of the hoped-for vision of the future: God’s presence with humanity is a constant given.

It’s important to note that this passage is not a celebration of a fait accompli. Rather, it is a nod to the possibilities which exist in the open future, and in the interdependent relationship between God and humanity. One of the crucial aspects of this poem is that it not only provides a vision for what could be in the future, but it also identifies the way things are in the present difficulty in which the prophet’s people were situated. This is how God operates and participates in creative transformation. “God works with the world as it is in order to lead it to where it can be” [Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, In God’s Presence: Theological Reflections on Prayer (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 1996), p. 53]. The transformation which takes place needs to come from a present reality (“as it is”) in order to bring about future possibilities (“where it can be”).

Another aspect about creativity and novelty is that they are both dependent upon, but not necessarily determined by, what lies in the past at any given present-tense moment. Each “as it is” reality comes from a particular past-tense combination of particularities. And one’s decision to introduce novelty into any one moment will also necessitate one’s decision as to how much of (or even whether) particular past occasions will be woven into a present-tense situation in order to creatively bring about something new. At the same time, one needs to decide to what degree (if any) the Divine lure of God’s initial aim will also be woven into the present-tense moment. The prophetic author of this passage skillfully weaved past-tense realities into present-tense moments, with an eye cast toward certain potentials which may lie ahead in the open future. And the author made a decision to use poetic symbolism to recast the future possible reality in entirely new terms — there will be a new Eden which will differ from the former Eden in significant ways. 

The final verses of this passage echo an earlier Isaiah passage often referred to as the “Peaceable Kingdom” (11:6-9) — a future-tense possible reality where wolves don’t eat lambs (as they do in the present-tense reality), but all the creatures will live in harmony without bloodshed or violence. But here in the poem of Isaiah 65, a new twist is added to the vision; the serpent, which is an animal purportedly tied to the condition of all humanity due to its crafty nature in the biblical foundation myth of Genesis, is given a limiting circumstance from the get-go, so that there can be no way of beguiling humanity into wayward living ever again. “In the old Eden, the serpent was condemned to eat dust after Adam’s and Eve’s transgressions (Gen 3:14), whereas in the new Eden, this curse is imposed on the serpent from the beginning; thus the new Eden cannot suffer its predecessor’s fate by falling victim to the snake’s craftiness” [Susan Ackerman, New Interpreter’s Study Bible, Isaiah 65:25]. Isaiah’s vision of this future potential reality became a hook on which his community could hang their hope; and hope would be their constant companion as they worked together with God to co-create a transformed and transforming world.

 

Isaiah 12:1-6
This is one of those rare occasions when the response to the first reading in the Revised Common Lectionary doesn’t come from the book of Psalms. Instead, this week’s response is a canticle from Isaiah; some denominations refer to this passage as a “Song of Isaiah” in their compendia  of liturgical responses to readings and/or include it as an option for use as a hymn of praise. There are also a number of hymnals which contain metrical paraphrases of this passage as a hymn text, usually set to vibrant and energetic tunes. Since the text itself contains an admonition “sing,” singing the text as a response to the first reading would be highly appropriate!

This text is uniquely suited to be a response to the vision of Isaiah 65:17-25 because it also is a hymn of anticipatory joy for what is believed to be coming in the open future. It celebrates a potential reality of things to come. Susan Ackerman aptly describes this passage as a “psalm of thanksgiving, appropriately appended by some editor to the promises of ideal kingship and restoration found in the preceding chapter” [Susan Ackerman, New Interpreter’s Study Bible, Isaiah 12:1-6].

Although this Song of Isaiah, like Isaiah 65, is a poetic hymn of anticipatory joy of what may become reality in the future, it has a slightly different tone (especially when used in a Christian context) than the reading from Isaiah 65. This different tone is present because of the use of the Hebrew word yeshua (ישׁוּעָֽה), which is translated as “salvation.” The Hebrew word “salvation” is also the name Joshua, which renders in English as Jesus. Because of this linguistic connection between these proper names and the word for “salvation,” and because from the Early Church onward there has been an appropriation of Isaiah and other texts of the Hebrew Bible to have them become texts about Jesus (rather than their original contexts centruies before Jesus of Nazareth was born), the word “salvation” can become a slippery slope for Christians in passages like this. To be clear, Isaiah and the other Hebrew prophets were not “predicting” Jesus — prophets do not predict the future — they were speaking truth to power and proclaiming hope to the afflicted. Another layer to the complexity of this word “salvation” is that the Church has been projecting a doctrine of “original sin” backwards into Hebrew Scriptures, even though it is a concept which is neither present in Hebrew Scripture nor in Judaism as a whole.

So what’s a Christian preacher to do with this Hebrew word for salvation? One possibility is to approach it from a process-relational perspective. Because of the process assertion of God’s omnipresence, there is never any kind of separation of humanity from God. This isn’t to say that humanity, either individually or collectively, has never strayed from God’s purposes; that has happened many times, is happening now, and will continue to do so from time to time. But, as Psalm 139 and other texts proclaim, whether we go to height or depth, east coast or west coast, the grave or the heavens, we cannot ever be away from God’s presence. What can (and does) happen is that humans feel as though they are separated from God because we are not always attentive to (and/or we intentionally ignore and work against) God’s lure towards best outcomes and creative transformation. When this happens, we experience a loss of potential and opportunity — those particular moments of potential transformation and co-creation with God have been missed, and we won’t ever experience those exact moments of opportunity again.

The good news, though, is that God is always and forever luring us toward best potential outcomes. If we miss, ignore, or rebel against the initial aim in one moment, in the very next moment, God’s persuasive and loving invitation to transformation is still being offered to us. In a process perspective, salvation isn’t about being delivered from original sin but it’s about knowing that we are valued and loved by God. Because God and humanity enjoy an interdependent relationship, we are always in the process of being saved from the potential loss of opportunity because God loves us and needs us to work with God to help transform the world. In this way God is our salvation. And because of this loving interdependent relationship we have with God, we are always in the process of becoming saved. That’s reason enough to shout and sing!

 

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
“Idle hands are the devil’s workshop!” This is something my grandmother frequently said to me, my siblings, and my cousins if she saw us just sitting around and not doing anything which would result in what she could recognize as productivity. It would seem that the author of the Second Letter to the Thessalonians had a similar view. Idleness was seen as being contrary to “the tradition that they received.” It would seem that working was understood to be part of the tradition which had been passed on to the Thessalonians. [For a process exploration of the general concept of tradition itself, see last week’s commentary on 2 Thessalonians 2:13-17.] The Letter’s author gets very specific about what this tradition expects of the members of this community by stating a bottom-line ultimatum: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (3:10b).

This verse, and similar texts like it in the canon of Christian Scripture, when lifted out of its particular context, can be (and has been) used to vilify, objectify, judge, and further marginalize people who live in poverty and who rely on public assistance in order to feed themselves and their families. To be clear, this is not what this passage is about. I haven’t done a count, but by my estimation, for every single verse like this one there are probably dozens of verses/passages in the Bible which speak of the necessity/commandment to see to it that people in poverty are fed, housed, and cared for. The overwhelming majority of the biblical narrative is aimed to creating a society in which poverty is brought to and end, so that everyone can eat, be healthy, have a roof over their heads, and everything else needed in order to thrive.

If this passage is read in Christian worship, it would be crucial to make sure that this slippery slope is explored fully, so that nobody leaves with the idea that Christian Scripture is opposed to caring for people who live in poverty. The context into which this assertion to “work for your supper” has been placed is that there were those within the Thessalonians community who had “decided to take it easy because the coming of the Lord is at hand” [Raymond F. Collins, New Interpreter’s Study Bible, 2 Thessalonians 3:6]. As was suggested in last week’s commentary on 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, the author of this Letter probably didn’t want the Thessalonians to be too concerned about the coming of the Day of the Lord, because there was plenty else to be concerned about in the present-tense moment. So the admonition isn’t so much about not feeding people who are out of work, but rather about how important it is to continue to work with God to help co-create a world in which transformation takes place, aimed at the common good. To that end, the author aptly adds a final summary word to this section of the Letter: “do not be weary in doing what is right” (3:13) — words to live by!

 

Luke 21:5-9
As the Revised Common Lectionary for the Church Year reaches the penultimate Sunday for the current year, the eschatological tension reaches a fevered pitch — Jesus and his disciples have a conversation about apocalyptic events. Most shocking for the people of his Jewish context, Jesus speaks about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. There is much speculation as to whether Jesus was predicting the temple’s doom before it eventually was destroyed by the Roman army in 70 ce, or if the words were put in Jesus’ mouth by the author of Luke in order to highlight the tensions between the Jewish people and Rome which Jesus would have known intimately. I tend to think that it was the latter; but whatever a preacher’s own perspective on that would be, one must be aware that there will more than likely be people on either side of that fence sitting in a worship service. There is a process-relational precedent for affirming that things need not always be either/or propositions — that there are sometimes both/and ways of looking at things. Jesus may not have known in advance that the temple would be destroyed by a particular set of events; but he did know that the temple represented the spiritual and cultural center of the world for his people, and that the Roman Empire held nothing sacred except for its ability to increase its own power, subjugation, and domination of the known world. Any symbol which was set over and against the idea that the power of Rome, and the power of Rome alone, was sacred would eventually need to be brought to an end in order for Rome to continue being Rome.

Two things which the message of Jesus holds in common with the message of the Buddha are found in this passage (at least the beginning portions of it): the impermanence of all things and the fact that suffering is always present in life. The way Jesus teaches impermanence in this passage is a bit jarring. But it’s effective. Process theology and philosophy affirm the idea of impermanence in what Whitehead refers to as “perpetual perishing” — the idea that because reality is understood in terms of process and occasion (not matter and substance), there is a constant “dying” which happens moment by moment in everything and everyone’s process of becoming. As each moment of the many becoming one takes place, that moment passes away to become part of the becoming of the next moment, and so forth. Living life with an intentional awareness given over to this understanding — that the present-tense moment is precious and fleeting — can lead us into such spiritual disciplines as gratitude and mindfulness.

Jesus’ teaching about the presence of suffering seems to be a forecasting of a sequence of events which will necessitate a particular time when doom will come to the temple. However, when looking at the larger trajectory of his ministry and teaching, it would be just as hermeneutically sound to assert that his intent was to say that, because suffering is always present, we just never know when bad things may happen to us or to those we love. Has there ever been a time in human history when there were no wars or uprisings, no international crises, no natural disasters, no epidemic diseases? No. It would seem that the time is always ripe for us to experience suffering, which will only heighten our awareness of the fact that nothing is permanent.

The final section of this week’s passage (21:12-19) is another bit of teaching which one wonders was something Jesus said in anticipation of the eventual persecution and martyrdom of his disciples, or if it was put on the lips of Jesus by the author of Luke-Acts to inspire and comfort the community for which this gospel was written in an era when such persecutions had already begun in some places around the Roman Empire. Either way, the passage speaks about the impermanence which exists in the relationships we have with other people — sometimes those relationships crumble when those we love betray our trust as they choose to collude with forces of oppression. Yet, even in the midst of betrayal, Jesus assures us, there is one relationship on which the disciples may always depend — the relationship between the disciples themselves and Jesus (and the God whom Jesus calls “Abba”). “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict,” he tells them (21:15). The divine lure of the initial aim will always be present with them, no matter the calamity they face.

I can’t help but think that Jesus (or the author of Luke-Acts) may have even chuckled while offering the words of these last verses in this passage — “…and they will put some of you to death… But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” There is a certain irony in the idea that death may be part of the deal, but that our hair will still be in place! Yet, at the same time, there is a certain poignancy in the idea that persecution and death will not have the final say, even (and perhaps especially) in the midst of calamity and turmoil. Jesus, just like the prophets before him, continues to make the claim that in all circumstances (even very bad ones) there is always creativity and novelty which can be called upon to create new possibilities in the present-tense realities as we look forward to future-tense possibilities. As was explored in the commentary on All Saints’ Day at the beginning of the month, my take on the Gospel of Luke is that it is framed by the idea that the life of Jesus is centered on the theme of God right-side-upping the world. Following on that theme, we see in this passage another glimpse of that process of right-side-upping — death doesn’t lead to nothingness, but it is paving the road to resurrection. New life, new possibilities, new options, new creations, and new transformations are forever being born out of the perpetual perishing of every moment.


The Rev. David Grant Smith is a priest in the Episcopal Church, and is presently pursuing the D.Min. degree at Claremont School of Theology, focusing his studies on process theology as a resource for parish ministry and spiritual care. While at CST, David is thrilled to be currently working as the Process & Faith Coordinator at the Center for Process Studies. He has served in both parish ministry (Episcopal Diocese of Rochester) and as a hospital chaplain (Christiana Hospital in Newark, DE; and the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, MD). Prior to ordination, David worked for many years as a lay professional, serving as pastoral associate, choir director, organist, and minister of music. In addition to his interests in weaving Process Theology in and through preaching, liturgy, teaching, and pastoral care, David enjoys travel, writing, tea, wine, and spending time with family & friends.

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