postmodern preaching

Independence Day: July Fourth (USA)

  • Deuteronomy 10: 17-21

In Deuteronomy, Yahweh is no longer the greatest god among gods, God is God of all creation, who inexplicably chose the descendants of Abraham and Sarah for a unique relationship.  As Robert Alter explains, this God is the absolute guarantor  of perfect justice, untouchable by “bribes” or any other human influences.  This God is obsessed with the fate of those most exposed to the vagaries of human society.  In particular, this God reminds the chosen to be especially open to “aliens,” because they are themselves aliens.  They have been and are eye-witnesses to God’s ways.  (See The Fives Books of Moses, pp 933-934)

  • Psalm 145

Vv 1-13 re-cap the attributes of God’s sovereignty: grandeur, power, goodness, generosity, kindness, mercy, faithfulness.  This sovereignty is for all humankind, for all human history.  Vv 14-21 present even more reasons to praise God.  God’s passion for justice, attentiveness to those in the greatest need and a prejudice in favor of the weakest.

  • Hebrews 11:8-16

The unknown writer is in the middle of a review of the heroines and heroes of faith.  In this excerpt, the emphasis is on the extraordinary and exemplary response of Sarah and Abraham.  They were called in their old age to leave everything familiar– family, culture, society, religion– and to go “on faith,” “not knowing where they were going.”  In the new country, where they are now aliens, they are rootless, “living in  tents.”  The author of this “letter”  avers that they “looked forward to the [heavenly/ideal] city… whose architect and builder is God.”  Although they were both long past their childbearing capacity, they did have progeny, ultimately “as many as the stars of heaven….”  It is essential to remember the examples of Sarah and Abraham, he writes, because they had the imagination and faithfulness to trust in a “city” only God could imagine and offer.

  • Matthew 5:43-48

In her commentary on “the sermon on the mount,” Prof. Amy-Jill Levine characterizes this message by Jesus as an intentional reminder of the first revelation of God on Mt. Sinai.  She writes:  “And just as the first law was given to a community of homeless slaves, so Jesus’ interpretation of the law addresses the descendants of those fugitives.”  And the message is clear: God’s attention always goes to those who in human society have been “disenfranchised.”  (The Women’s Bible Commentary, p. 255)

Both testaments, the first and the second, witness to God’s perfect, absolute justice.  God finds ways to insert this justice, which is unlike any human justice, into the messiness of the lives of individuals and all of human history.  God’s first attempt is the word– the Law and the prophets; the second is the the Word made flesh.  Each in its distinctive way consistently conveys the same message: an obsession with the “disenfranchised,” to use Professor Levine’s shorthand.  These are the people, no matter the current political and social structure, who are exposed and vulnerable– children, the poor, the sick and the weak, the elderly, those not able bodied, the homeless, and, in the restlessness of humanity, the alien– those who arrive in a new place with little or no support and under suspicion.  These are the people throughout all human history who, in some specific time and place,  are rootless, without a network, unfamiliar with local customs, ripe for the unscrupulous who prey on their vulnerability.

In a brilliant twist on being an alien that runs throughout human history, the scriptures make it  an originating and central theme.  The founding mother and father of faith, Sarah and Abraham, are invited by God to voluntarily leave behind– in their old age– all that was familiar and supportive and set out on a journey.  It will be their willingness to accept this invitation and the subsequent wandering they undertake that will take them not just to a new location where a new life can be built, but will reveal something about God and about the nature of faith that is essential.  They will become “aliens” so that they never forget what it is like to be an “alien!”  They will learn a deep compassion and an obsession for the vulnerable that will serve them for centuries, wherever human history dislocates them and their heirs.  Christian writers will transpose this essential lesson into seeking ” the heavenly city… whose architect and builder is God.”   Which is an image open to interpreting as a future arrival after human time and an arrival within human time and human history, beginning with the arrival of Jesus, the Christ.  The arrival of Jesus into human history is both recognizable as a continuation of how God operated in the past, with a peculiar obsession with justice, and something new, too. 

You have been told all your lives, Jesus says, to love your neighbor and hate your enemies, but I say to you, love your enemies as well!  Jesus ups the ante.

There is a particular lineage of writers called postmodern who are captured by the unique biblical passion for justice.   It usually includes such writers as Kierkegaard, Levinas, Derrida, John Caputo, and more recently,  Richard Kearney.  For such writers, faith becomes most real in ethics/justice, in particular when the stranger, the alien, “the other” impinges on me.  Compassion or empathy among one’s own family, friends and those similar to me is nothing more than routine decency; and that is required as justice, especially for the most vulnerable.    But the person or people who are least like me, even one’s “enemy” as identified by Jesus, requires my “love.”   God’s people, because of their own history as “aliens” and nomads ought to be advocates for those who arrive as aliens.  Theologian Catherine Keller regards the interaction with the one who is least like us to be the “that sacred moment of radical opening and hosting”  when there is the potential to “learn divinity.”  She writes:

We learn our divinity from the other not from ourselves, not alone but always in relation, in response to the [stranger] in front of u: the one who calls each of us to divinity by asking us to become the host to a guest, to become a  giver of gifts, of food and water.  As with Abraham and the strangers under the Mamre tree– the inaugural epiphany of the Abrahamic tradition.  Or as, again, with Matthew 25, where Christ returns five times as  the stranger  (hospes) who asks for food and water.  In this passage, Christ is not first the one who gives food and water, as one might expect: he is the one who calls us to give food and water, and in so doing to become Christ as giver of life, as ongoing host.”  (Reimagining the Sacred, Richard Kearney, p. 63)

It is the “alien,” the “dis-enfranchised” who are the greatest challenge and the greatest opportunity to individuals and to nations.  For God’s people, having originally been homeless interlopers and then slaves, there ought to be a lasting awareness of what it means to be alien in a strange place.  For a nation of emigrants and those brought here against their will and those who lost their native land,  there should be a knowing understanding of the dynamics that bind them together.  It must be an intentional, ongoing project; an “experiment,” as the founders called it.






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