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postmodern preaching

Proper 5 Year A

  • Genesis 12: 1-9

Abram [and Sara] are called to go on a journey with God.  The destination is the future– future generations, future nations and future blessing.  It requires faith.  Despite their old age, Abram and Sara leave their home and begin the journey.  Their response is inspiring and instructive about the way God relates to humankind.

  • Psalm 33: 1-12

The psalmist is struck with a renewed awe at creation and calls for the composition of a new anthem: praise the God who created all that is and whose heart holds dear “all generations.”

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  • Hosea 5: 15-6:6

Hosea proffers a conversation God has with god: the people I have chosen seem to think of me like the gods of their neighbors who can be influenced by ritual or other human actions; but I want their “steadfast love.”

  • Psalm 50: 7-15

Isaiah and Micah also explicitly  rejected the assumption that blood sacrifice could sway God. Now the psalmist, too, rejects the notion that God needs our rituals.  God prefers our “vows.”

  • Romans 4: 13-18

Writing to Christians in Rome, Paul honors the Law for what it is, but insists that “the righteousness of faith” precedes and supersedes the Law.  He offers Abraham [and Sarah] as exemplars of faith.  Long before the Law had even been given to Moses. Abram and Sara, “hoping against hope,” heard God’s call, responded and we — so many generations later– are still benefiting from their faithfulness.

  • Matthew 9: 9-13, 18-26

Jesus contrasts those who take a chance on what he has been teaching with those whose practice of religion seems more conventional, reasonable, practical, understandable and manageable.  “The Pharisees” in this excerpt are the religious traditionalists who love the Law and attempt to  fulfill it in every detail.  In stark contrast are the low-life, like Matthew, who has just accepted Jesus’ invitation,  and his ilk, with whom Jesus eats and parties.  Two very unlikely people demonstrate the response Jesus prefers.  One is a leader of the local synagogue.  A personal tragedy– the death of his daughter– has overwhelmed him and called into question all that he had trusted throughout his life.  He reaches out to Jesus who promises that his daughter “will live.”  The other is a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years.  She takes the risk that if she could just brush against Jesus’ clothing, she would be healed.  She was.  Jesus tells her, “your faith has made you well.”  Both of these people act out of desperation and because familiar, traditional assumptions about God had proven to be inadequate.  They are open to something new.  Both reached out to Jesus.  Both are restored.

Right from the very beginning of his work, Martin Heidegger focused on the failure of what he called “ontotheology,” the tendency in the West to conceptualize God as an extension of human understanding, which makes God comprehensible and predictable.  That insight has been pursued by, among others, Levinas, Derrida and Marion.  Whether operating from overtly religious concerns or not, the results of their work has been the same and it is pivotal to the postmodern thought regarding Western religion:  God is wholly Other and is not merely an extension of human experience; scripture is not concept, principles, plan, rules or fortune-teller, it is narratives of various individuals and groups who respond to this God who is wholly Other; the obvious conclusion that can be drawn from this odd but life-giving relationship is that we are beneficiaries of total “gift, which is beyond human conceptualization or manipulation; these biblical narratives are about relationship– affective trust/faith to God and moral obligation to one another.

Conventional assumptions are in stark contrast to biblical claims.  In Hosea’s time, it was those who thought God could be influenced by pious ritual sacrifice as the gods of their neighbors seemed to be.  In Jesus’ day it was those who loved and followed all the venerable traditions, who put their ‘faith’ in what seemed to common sense religion.  In his time, Paul was always coping in the church with the ‘insiders’  those who, because  they had been born and raised in the same religious heritage as Jesus and the first disciples, assumed they had a privileged  perspective on God’s ways over the newcomers, who came from pagan backgrounds.  The quest to figure out how God works or the assumption that we already know and can predict or even manipulate God is ageless.  But, the God of scriptural testimony could not be further from such preconceptions and conventional assumptions.

Hosea reports that God said: “I have killed them by the words of my mouth, my judgement goes forth as light.”  When the God of biblical texts speaks, no preconceived ideas, practices, assumptions, no matter how pious or venerable, can withstand the blast and searing light.  Only after all our preconceptions or practices are smashed to smithereens are we ready for what God actually wants– faith/journey/relationship/”vows”/”steadfast love.”  Like the religious leader who was ready for something new when all his tried and true assumptions about God no longer worked or the woman who was so desperate she would try just brushing against Jesus, so the biblical texts continue to scramble conventional assumptions about religion and to present something that is simultaneously more liberating and more binding.

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