Proper 18B: Bridging the Gaps

BridgeOLD TESTAMENT: Proverbs 22: 1-2, 8-9, 22-23

Read the Old Testament Passage

The proverb belongs to a basic wisdom genre that comes under the heading of the Hebrew term masal, which refers to literary forms such as popular sayings, aphorisms, riddles, allegories, and discourses. It conveys notions of a sort of “ruling word” and makes analogies between items of daily life. The Greek translation of masal is parabole, so you can see the similarity with our “parables. A proverb is a short saying that expresses a complete thought and implies a traditional value or a practical wisdom. This wisdom is not merely to make us better people, but to form a better society. In the Hebrew tradition, Proverbs, along with the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes, are attributed to Solomon. While it is doubtful that this is the case, the rabbinical lore says that he wrote the Song of Songs as an amorous youth, Proverbs as a middle-aged man, and Ecclesiastes as a disillusioned older man.

In our passage today, the lectionary includes several noncontinuous verses from Proverbs 22, following a long-standing tradition that the book is an anthology of isolated sayings. The order of them is thought to be random, or at least not theologically connected, so this is one time where it’s probably not even a problem to just “pick and choose” the verses.

These sayings that are listed in this week’s reading are primarily directed toward the formation of persons in regard to their participation in the larger society, especially those who will have considerable influence in public life. In other words, character formation tends to focus on the individual and whether he or she is a “good person” or a “bad person”. This genre of literature is meant, rather, to focus on a sort of practical wisdom and to lead one to the way to live out one’s life in the larger society. This is difficult for us. We tend to look upon faith and virtue as private. This is much, much more than simply moral character. It is more about social order, about society, about the Kingdom of God. It is about fullness of life and that offering to each and every person. It is said that a preacher is called to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Perhaps that is what Proverbs does for us. There is definitely a pastoral assurance that God will take up the case of the poor but there is also a call for those of us who are not poor to be a part of God’s love and God’s reaching out. God does not call us to be moral or good; God calls us to build the Kingdom of God based on God’s vision of what that is.

“Good favor” means good reputation or high esteem here. It is not fame but is rather earned reputation over many years. It implies integrity, honesty, and responsibility. The reading holds out the issue of poverty in the public social arena, and creates a tension between poverty and wealth from which will hopefully come a clearer vision of participation in the Reign of God. The verses assume that YHWH is the one who pleads the case for the poor and that God as “redeemer” of those calls people to advocate for the same thing. Wealth is not addressed here as evil, but its importance is relativized and held out as belonging to all.

It is also interesting that the generous are blessed not in their “giving”, not in their charitable acts, but in “sharing”. When you think about it, sharing is much more connected, more a part of each other than just giving something away and walking off. Sharing is about opening what one has to another, about sitting down together and sharing a meal. (Hmmm! That sounds familiar! J)


  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What do we miss by taking Proverbs as a tool for character formation rather than to form a better society?
  3. So what type of person does this string of proverbs call us to be?
  4. How do these verses speak to our own society?
  5. What would change if we understood generosity as “sharing” rather than “giving”?


NEW TESTAMENT: James 2: 1-10, (11-13), 14-17

Read the Lectionary Epistle passage

Like Proverbs, the Book of James also offers questions to shape one’s life as a Christian. Where the first chapter of the epistle talked about the wisdom of ensuring that one’s faith was about more than just religion, chapter two challenges the readers to make connections, to make one’s behavior an outcome of one’s faith and not just something that is required or good. Many people want to reduce faith to a series of statements that people profess to believe, but here faith is what is operative in a person’s life.

Social class is the issue that James uses to get at this question (2:1-7). He points out the common human tendency to show deference to those who show visible signs of wealth and disdain for those who seem to be lower class. This illustration implies, then, that this was a commonplace occurrence. Attention to social class was part of the world in which the epistle of James was written. Wealth and influence typically went together, and those who had wealth expected to be welcomed and to receive certain privileges. It was widely understood that lower class people did not deserve the same respect. So James is raising a wisdom that is countercultural to that society, presenting a case that            defied the “wealth-good / poor-bad” assumption.

He calls readers back to a familiar teaching: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The writer claims that if you truly live within this tenet, how can someone on a different social scale be anything less? It just wouldn’t make sense. For this writer, if faith is reduced to some simple beliefs and not lived out, then it is too small and does not bring meaning to our lives. Essentially, what does it mean to live as a child of God?

At The Fund for Theological Education, we offer a program for young people who participate through fourteen different faith-based, year-long service programs.  At a recent gathering of these young people, one young woman told me a bit of her story, about how she was raised in an upper-middle class home, about how success–while often couched in the language of a meaningful life–always had a strong sense of financial wealth as a part of it, about how living on $100 a month had been a tremendous struggle, about how much she had to “un-learn” about the rich and the poor.  She said that after the first few months, she was really angry about all the wealth in this country and the persistence of homelessness, hunger, and poverty.  In time, however, she realized she could not have known these things if she didn’t take time to stand in a very different place, to give a year of her life not only to her volunteer program but, more importantly, to those whom the program serves.  She realizes that she knows how to move among the rich and the poor now, and that perhaps her call is to bring the two together.  She has come to believe that while wealthy folks may have many temptations and that poor people may have many challenges, it is her call to introduce them to one another, for it is through such relationships that true change can occur. 

This is James’ call to us–not to simply critique the rich.  Not to simply empathize with the poor.  We are called to stand in what Parker Parmer calls “the tragic gap,” the space between what is and what should be, the place between rich and poor, the place between the privileged few and the alien masses.  It is the place where we are called to stand, for it is the place of the cross…James calls us not to choose between rich and poor, not to choose between black and white, not to choose between young and old, first world and third world, free and imprisoned, sick and healthy, naked and clothed, hungry and fed.  In the end, these are all false dichotomies, for we are all children of God.  James calls us to stand with the cross of Jesus Christ–to take up residence in the tragic gap between what is and what should be.  To profess a faith that stands anywhere else is to profess death. (From “Standing in the Tragic Gap”, a sermon by Rev. Dr. Trace Haythorn, available at, accessed 1 September, 2009.)


  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. Why is it that social class still gets in the way of our living out our faith?
  3. What does the writer’s claim of the meaning of “Love your neighbor as yourself” mean for you?
  4. So what does this passage call us to do? How does it call us to live?
  5. What is it about your faith that shapes your life?
  6. What DOES it mean to live a child of God in the context of the society in which we live?

GOSPEL: Mark 7: 24-37

Read the Lectionary Gospel passage

In the next three week’s of Lectionary readings, we’ll read texts that depict a person or a group coming to Jesus with a request or a demand. In the first healing story in this week’s passage, the Syro-Phoenician woman wants her daughter to be healed. She not only breaks into Jesus’ retreat in the house but also breaks a number of Jewish conventions, including (and perhaps especially) when she touches him. That would have been a problem for the Jewish male who was touched by an “unclean” Gentile woman. So we have borders and boundaries of more than one kind being crossed here, and the audience, already a little ill at ease with all of the conventions that Jesus is overturning, must be even more uncomfortable with this conversation between their teacher and a foreign woman.

The comment about the dogs is always bothersome to us. (Many commentators characterize it as inauthentic.) We want Jesus to always be the compassionate, loving person that we know and, yet, in spite of what we dog lovers would like to think, this was NOT a nice thing to say.

You know, I think that this story depicts the broadening even of Jesus’ understanding. After all, Jesus had thought he was here for the Jews and then all of a sudden, the walls built by centuries of rules and “right” behavior came crashing down just because this woman had the audacity to dare to have faith in Christ. What do we do with that? Does that mean we just let anyone in just because they WANT to come in??? Well, yeah, I THINK that may be the point. So either this was transformative for the mission as well as for Jesus OR he saw it as the impetus to push the well-meaning morality police known as his Disciples into another realm, into transformation into the Kingdom of God. Either way, Jesus’ power was not diminished but was expanded. Jesus’ power is not diminished but is rather expanded. God is no longer seen as unchanging or unresponsive but compassionate and merciful. This poor, foreign, nameless immigrant (yes, that was on purpose) gives voice to all poor, foreign, nameless ones who come after her. She dared to claim her crumb at the table. So, what do we do with that?

The story illustrates the new inclusiveness of the gospel. Faced with human need Jesus is persuaded that people matter most. No one can be excluded. All must be given food. None can be treated like dogs. The story celebrates this reality. There are many ‘dogs’ in our community who know what it is like to be shut out, told to wait, given second best. (Maynard, the black lab, is not one of those, I will tell you. He is very clear that he is in charge.) But, back to the story…Calling them cute puppies or ‘the blessed poor’ does not address the issue, as long as they are treated like dogs. They have been treated as dogs so much so that it had become natural to treat them that way and to ignore their plight and our often naive prejudice – until the Syro-Phoenician woman gives them a voice. Jesus listened to that voice. Those voices are still to be heard, for those with ears to hear.

The second healing account takes this whole idea of hearing a bit further, implying that speaking and hearing are indeed connected. The healing is done in private, using saliva. First, Jesus told the man to be quiet, but he did just the opposite. For the writer of Mark, there is more a concern of pointing to this as evidence of how the news of Jesus spread through the Gentile community. The use of saliva was a common healing agent. Jesus utilizes it in this story and the healing of the blind man in the next chapter of Mark. Both of these stories belong to the portrayal of what was to come—the blind shall see and the deaf shall hear. Once again, Jesus has taken the “cultural norm” and turned it around—the door is open, the table is set, and all are invited. Stanley Hauerwas said that “Christianity is not a set of beliefs or doctrines one believes in order to be Christian, but rather it is to have one’s body shaped, one’s habits determined, in such a way that the worship of God is unavoidable.”

A clergy friend of mine sent me an illustrative link to a video. It shows what happens if you google the words “Why are Christians so…” I tried it. I put in the search “why are Christians so…” to see what the top searches were. In this order, the top searches are judgmental, mean, stupid, ignorant, annoying, hateful, hypocritical, fake, and illogical. (Look at ) What does that say about who we are? What does that say about who we invite to the table?   “Christianity is not a set of beliefs or doctrines one believes in order to be Christian, but rather it is to have one’s body shaped, one’s habits determined, in such a way that the worship of God is unavoidable.”


  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. How does the inclusiveness of these stories speak to you?
  3. In what ways do we still react in the way that most people reacted to these acts in Jesus’ time?
  4. How do you think the world sees us?
  5. In what ways are we called to be shaped by these stories?


Some Quotes for Further Reflection:


If thy heart were right, then every creature would be a mirror of life and a book of holy doctrine. There is no creature so small and abject, but it reflects the goodness of God. (Thomas a’ Kempis)

To belong to a community is to begin to be about more than myself. (Joan Chittister)

We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s within everyone. And as we let our light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others. (Nelson Mandela)





Flame-dancing Spirit, Come sweep us off our feet and dance us through our days. Surprise us with Your rhythms; dare us to try new steps, explore new patterns and new partnerships. Release us from old routines to swing in abandoned joy and fearful adventure. And in the intervals, rest us in Your Still Centre. Amen. (Esther de Waal, Lost in Wonder, 161)

Proper 17B: Beloved

Grass and Sky (DTF301137)OLD TESTAMENT: Song of Solomon 2: 8-13

Read the Old Testament Lectionary passage

This week we are continuing our theme of wisdom by looking at one of the Wisdom Writings. The writing known as the Song of Solomon, or the Hebrew title the Song of Songs, is not the usual fare for Scripture. Essentially, it is a love song between lovers full of what can be characterized as erotic imagery and many are surprised that it is included in the Bible at all. In fact, the language could almost be considered secular, with no mention of God at all. Its inclusion in the canon produced what could be considered a great debate among rabbis in the first century. Some considered it little more than a drinking song. The matter was settled by Rabbi Akiba, the great teacher and mystic, who said, “The whole world is not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the Scriptures are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.” (Mishnah Yadayim 3: 5)

Because while modern scholars often view the writing as a celebration of sexual love between a man and a woman, both Jewish and Christian theologians of previous centuries claimed that it described the deep and abiding mutual love between God and Israel or Christ and the Church. Mystics illustrate the power of the book to shape our understanding of our life with God—a deep yearning that knows only the language of intimate communion.

This week’s passage is the only text from the writing that is in the Lectionary. It describes a love marked by fidelity and mutuality. The lovers are faithful to each other. They have eyes for no one else. The love is one that is mutual and equal. (In fact, the woman speaks more than the man! She is in no way passive or submissive.) Commentator Ellen Davis argues that in a reversal of the punishment of Eve in Genesis 3 (“your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you.”), the woman in the song declares “I am my beloved’s and his desire is for me.” She says that there is an abiding mutuality that repairs the rupture and places the lovers (and love) back in the Garden.

Human love and Divine love are not mutually exclusive. They are not unrelated. Human love, at its best, is a reflection of God’s love. So, before my grandmother becomes offended at the implication that there is a part of the Holy Bible that is part of the tradition of erotica, remember that we are dealing with a God in Christ whose love for us is both shocking to our sensibilities and seeking to shock us out of all the ties to the ways of death, including our own prejudices and our own “proper” ways. We are called not only to love God but to be “in love” with God. Implicit in this poem is a sort of pining absence, a longing so deep that the poet cannot be complete without the One that is loved. I think that’s the way we’re called to be. I mean, think about it, we were created in the image of God, made with a shape and a sense into which only God fits. And we struggle. We struggle to find what fits into that shape. And in the absence, in the longing, we finally find that Presence of God, we finally find that One in whom we are destined to fall in love. Seventeenth century mathematician, Blaise Pascal spoke of it as a “God-shaped vacuum” in every human, a hole that only God could fill. It’s like being in love.

Perhaps it is the language that makes us bristle, that makes us squirm a bit in our pews. Perhaps we are even a bit uncomfortable with a God who is so intimate, so a part of us, that falling in love is all we can do. Perhaps we really haven’t thought through what it means to be created in the image of someone else. It means that we have to let ourselves go, that we have to become who God called us to be, that we have to realize that there is something more, that WE are something more, that we are created in the image of our Beloved, that we are created to fall in love with God. It is about completion; it is about wholeness; it is about being who we were created to be. It is about falling in love with God and falling into God.

Our lectionary does not include the rest of the poem. I want to read the next four verses. Here’s how they go:

O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely. Catch us the foxes, the little foxes, that ruin the vineyards— for our vineyards are in blossom.”   My beloved is mine and I am his; he pastures his flock among the lilies.  Until the day breathes and the shadows flee, turn, my beloved, be like a gazelle or a young stag on the cleft mountains.

We know that God transforms.  We know that Jesus Christ redeems.   We know the Holy Spirit walks with us each and every day.  Do we know what that means?  Do we understand that that depicts the most intimate relationship imaginable?  It is more than loving God.  It is rather understanding that we are called to fill ourselves with God, to fill that God-shaped hole in our being with the very Spirit, the very One in which we live and move and have our being.  We are  not just called to love and support and figure God out in this endeavor but rather to fall in love with God.

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What is your understanding of the relationship between God and us that is represented here?
  3. What does it mean for you to “fall in love” with God?
  4. Why do we have such a hard time understanding that type of love in terms of our relationship with God?



NEW TESTAMENT: James 1: 17-27

Read the New Testament Lectionary passage

The book of James was once called the “epistle of straw” by Martin Luther. Apparently he did not like it. But the letter offers driving questions concerning the shape of the Christian life. The author is aware that people sometimes limit their understanding of faith to a simple set of claims. For the writer, this is inadequate. Here, the faith that counts is the faith that is active in one’s life, the faith that shapes one’s life and brings one closer to God.

The verses for this week first explore the question, “Who is God?” For the writer, God is identified by what God gives. Every perfect gift comes from God. Every perfect truth is of God. The second question is, “Who are you?” The writer speaks of a lack of connection and correspondence between hearing and doing, between what one should be and what one does. For me, I think the main word here is “be”. We are not just called to listen; we are not just called to do; we are called to “be”.

The passage calls us to look at our lives, to look at ourselves in light of this God of Lights who has shone a light of illumination as to who we are called to be. This is where we see ourselves. This is how God creates us to be. Why do we miss that? This epistle is often seen as a sort of “Christian Wisdom letter”. Faith and works are not opposed to each other, as Luther claimed. They’re not even disconnected. The truly wise will live the way they believe. In the understanding of the writer of James, that is “pure”religion.

As Eugene Peterson puts it, “Wisdom is not primarily knowing the truth, although it certainly includes that; it is skill in living. For what good is a truth if we don’t know how to live it? What good is an intention if we can’t sustain it?” True holiness is not so much an absence of bad things. It is presence of compassion. It is about the way we treat others, the way we treat Creation, the way we live our lives.

You know, the church could do worse than be an “inner beauty” shop–a place where love is shared and truth is told and the beauty of becoming is the work of the community.  For plain old mirrors are incredibly unreliable witnesses and companions–we can get stuck all by ourselves like Narcissus.  Or like the person in James, we can look in the mirror by ourselves and then rush away and forget not just what we look like but who we are.  For when we look into the mirror by ourselves, we don’t see us.  Not the real me or the real you–who are so much deeper and more interesting and real and eternal than what we can see by ourselves in even the clearest light with the finest silvered glass.  To know and to love the real me and the real you–we need each other–to look into the Christ mirror of human being and say when I see you, I see power.  I see compassion, creativity, bravery, humor, loyalty, endurance, forgiveness, wisdom, abundance.  I see potential.  When I look with you in the mirror of Christ, I see the beauty of our belovedness beyond the telling. When is the last time you looked in a mirror?  Do you remember who you saw?  Do you need someone to look with you?  I do. (From “Looking in the Mirror”, by Rev. Martha Sterne, August 30, 2009, available at, accessed 29 August, 2012)

Every desirable and beneficial gift comes out of heaven. The gifts are rivers of light cascading down from the Father of Light. There is nothing deceitful in God, nothing two-faced, nothing fickle. He brought us to life using the true Word, showing us off as the crown of all his creatures.

Post this at all the intersections, dear friends: Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear. God’s righteousness doesn’t grow from human anger. So throw all spoiled virtue and cancerous evil in the garbage. In simple humility, let our gardener, God, landscape you with the Word, making a salvation-garden of your life.

Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you are a listener when you are anything but, letting the Word go in one ear and out the other. Act on what you hear! Those who hear and don’t act are like those who glance in the mirror, walk away, and two minutes later have no idea who they are, what they look like.

But whoever catches a glimpse of the revealed counsel of God—the free life!—even out of the corner of his eye, and sticks with it, it no distracted scatterbrain but a man or woman of action. That person will find delight and affirmation in the action.

Anyone who sets himself up as “religious” by talking a good game is self-deceived. This kind of religion is hot air and only hot air. Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless on their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world. (Eugene Peterson, The Message / Remix”, p. 2206.)



  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. Why is it so hard for us to keep “hearing” and “doing” connected?
  3. How do we typically understand truth and what does that say about our faith?
  4. What does this passage say to you about wisdom?
  5. What does this passage say to you about who you are and what you are called to be?

GOSPEL: Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Read the Lectionary Gospel passage

This passage gives us a look at how Jesus dealt with the predominant culture in which he lived. The issue of what is clean and unclean and how such uncleanness is passed on, of course has its roots in the Old Testament. The objection was probably not born out of a concern about hygiene but, rather, “following the rules”. The assumption was that if unclean hands touched liquid, the liquid became unclean. So, then, if the liquid touched the food, it would become impure. If the person ate the food, the person became unclean. To guard against this, there were groups that ritually washed hands before a meal.

This was rather an extreme view, even for this time. The writer of Mark implied that this was only an “outward” observance, rather than a mark of true faith. For the writer, this really made no sense at all. The writer of Mark is encouraging readers to rethink the commandments posed in Scripture through the lens of our hearts, the lens of faith. Discerning what practices actually embody God’s will are more often learned from getting things wrong than from getting things right.

Rules and order and doctrine are not bad things. They help us make sense of it all. But when they themselves become the objects of “worship”, the “sacred cows”, then we cease to be who we are called to be. Reverence belongs to God rather than those things that point toward God.


Reverence stands in awe of something—something that dwarfs the self, that allows human beings to sense the full extent of our limits—so that we can begin to see one another more reverently as well.  An irreverent soul who is unable to feel awe in the presence of things higher than the self is also unable to feel respect in the presence of things as it sees as lower than the self…Reverence requires a certain pace.  It requires a willingness to take detours, even side trips, which are not part of the original plan. (Barbara Brown Taylor in An Altar in the World:  A Geography of Faith, p. 21, 24.)


So, all these rules and dogmas and liturgy and theology that make up our religion are not our faith journey, but they lead us through it. I think an authentic faith is one that weaves the two together. It is not that they are always evenly distributed, but they are always connected in some way. I guess if I were to put it simply in the context of my own Christian faith tradition, I would say that “religion without spirituality” is practicing the religion about Jesus. It sounds good, but it doesn’t have any depth, no engagement. And “spirituality without religion” has a good possibility of becoming the religion about myself. I think they need to come together—both spiritual religion and religious spirituality. Then one will have the opportunity to practice the religion of Jesus. I think that is the way we get out of ourselves and become one with God in a real and authentic way. (But that’s just my take.)

I think that we all have the responsibility to look at both our religion and our spirituality with a critical eye. We need to see what works and what doesn’t. What is it that brings us closer to God? What is it that provides a vehicle for us to be an instrument to bring others closer to God and to experience God in their lives? It is always a struggle; that, too, is a means of grace. Joan Chittister says that “religion is about transcendence, and spirituality is about finding meaning in the mundane.” (Joan Chittister, In Search of Belief, 8) Maybe that’s the point that Jesus was trying to make.


  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. Are there things that our own society does that it views as religious ritual that are perhaps unnecessary or exclusive?
  3. What does this say about “God’s will” and how that relates to our faith?
  4. What does this say to us about wisdom?



Some Quotes for Further Reflection:


There is only one Love.  (Teresa of Avila, Spanish mystic and Carmelite nun, 16th century)


The miracles of the church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always. (Willa Sibert Cather, American author, 1873-1947)


Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair. (G.K. Chesterton, English writer, 1874-1936)





Now I love thee alone. Thee alone do I follow. Thee alone do I seek. Thee alone am I ready to serve. For thou alone hast just dominion. Under thy sway I long to be. Amen.

(Saint Augustine, from An African Prayer Book, 137)