Proper 5B: Family Reunion

UnityOLD TESTAMENT: 1 Samuel 8: 4-11, (12-15), 16-20, (11: 14-15)

To read the Old Testament Lection, click here

The setting of the writing that we know as 1 Samuel depicts a different Israel, one in the midst of a sweeping change from what could be considered a small, if dysfunctional familial tribal society to an out and out monarchy. This probably began to occur around the 10th century, BCE. Up until this time, there had been various tribes who would from time to time come sort of loosely and haphazardly together to combat threats from neighboring nations. And to lead them, God would call out one person that would in essence “rise to the top of the heap” to lead them in the crisis. But now voices are calling for a more stable and permanent government, a monarchy. And conflicts began to arise between those who called for monarchy and those who wanted to stay as a tribal society with God calling leaders to the front. This was a time of immense political struggle and by the time we come to the end of 2 Samuel, the center of what will become an empire, will have moved to Jerusalem.

The voices are raging, calling for change. They tell Samuel that the system is broken. They want a king, someone to lead them out of this mess. It is probably that for many, a monarchy held a sort of stability, a more reliable government. But it’s also possible that putting one person (or party!) in charge would benefit a select group of individuals. By having different people over the years rise to the top, the leadership was always changing and those that benefitted, too, would change. It probably provided for a more equitable society and, yet, no one really came out on top for any length of time. But putting one leader in place would mean that the society would shift and those who benefitted from the current leadership would remain in that situation.

Samuel did not agree with this new idea and he prayed to God. God consoles Samuel, reminding him that the people have rejected God over and over in the past. So Samuel goes to great lengths to convince the people that a monarchy would not solve all their problems. In fact, it would create a whole new set of problems that were only beginning. Samuel takes it all very personally (which implies that even Samuel was not just siding with the “best interest” of the people). But God tells Samuel to go ahead and give them a king. Maybe God is punishing the people, giving them enough rope to hang themselves with their newfound government. Or maybe, this is God’s way of opening the door to a new potential and a new way of being.

We can identify with the people in this passage. They wanted security. I mean, who doesn’t? Who doesn’t want a guarantee that someone will be in charge, will “fix things”, will pull us out of this quagmire in which we find ourselves? But did the people truly want a change, truly want to move forward, or did they just want something that made life easier? We could ask ourselves the same question. Do we want change that moves us forward or change that makes us feel good for the time being? Does it seem here like God is giving up or is God calling the people to grow into a new people? And in our own political climate, rampant with competing voices calling for stability, calling for someone to “fix things”, where is the voice of God? Are we being called to repair what is wrong, to a more stable government, or to a new way of being?

  • What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  • Do you read this as if God was only pacifying the voices or calling them to something new?
  • How does this passage relate to us today?
  • If we are really honest with ourselves, where is God calling us in our society to go today?
  • Is what is “best” for us today the same as that which is “best” for our society? 

  • NEW TESTAMENT: 2 Corinthians 4: 13-5:1

    To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

  • This passage is not meant to be Paul’s way of demeaning our physical or earthly selves. Our bodies, frail and broken though they may be, are not bad. Rather, this is a message of transformation. It is a promise that who we are, what we have, is not the final outcome. God has a vision for something even better. God has chosen mortal bodies in which to display God’s power. God is in the act of transforming our bodies and our lives.  A few verses before this passage, Paul likens our bodies to “jars of clay”.  According to Paul, the reason that God has chosen such fragile vessels is to make clear “this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us”. The good news is only possible because a powerful God is at work.

    But, fragile as our wasting bodies may be, they also hold something.  God is not just “out there” or “up there”.  The holy and the sacred also exists in us, working through us, transforming us even as we speak.  As Paul says, our “inner nature” is being renewed day by day.  It is something that is not obvious, but that is always and ever there with us.  We can rely on the promise that God is beyond what we know and, yet, that God lives in us, that we live the Resurrected Christ.  We ARE the new thing that God has promised.  We just have to live into it, to live toward that which we cannot see and which we do not understand.  God’s presence is both external and internal.  We live in an intersection between what we know and what we do not, what we see and what we cannot, and who we are and who we shall be.  Earth and heaven are not separate.  The holy and the sacred spill into us all the time.  It’s called new life in Christ.  It’s called transformation.  We United Methodists would call it “going on to perfection” each and every day.

    At some point, all that we know, all that we see will crumble away.  But it will not matter.  Because what will be left was there all along.  We just have to be open to seeing in a new way.  In Feasting on the Word, Mark Barger Elliott relates an old wisdom tale about a disciple and his teacher:

    “Where shall I find God?” a disciple once asked.  “Here,” the teacher said.  “Then why can’t I see God?” “Because you do not look,”  “But what should I look for?” the disciple continued. “Nothing.  Just look,” the teacher said.  “But at what?” “At anything your eyes alight upon,” the teacher said.  “But must I look in a special kind of way?” “No, the ordinary way will do.” “But don’t I always look the ordinary way?” “No, you don’t,” the teacher said. ‘But why ever not?” the disciple pressed. ‘because to look, you must be here. “You’re mostly somewhere else,” the teacher said.

  • What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  • Why is it so difficult for us to accept the idea of this ongoing transformation in which we live?
  • Looking back at the previous passage from 1 Samuel, how could this speak to that situation?
  • Where in your live do you see this Presence of God, this transformation?
  • Where in your life do you think you most neglect to see God’s Presence?

GOSPEL: Mark 3: 20-35

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

This is not an easy text. In fact, it’s probably one of the most misused texts in the Scriptures. We read of Satan and Beelzebul (which means “Lord of the Flies”) and our 21st century minds immediately go to a depiction of some sort of “other-worldly” character that keeps messing around in God’s business as well as our own. You see, all this stuff that Jesus was doing did not make sense. It did not fit in with the world they way people had imagined it. So they begin picking at everything Jesus did. After all, he was threatening everything they thought. He was going against the rules that society and the religious authorities for generations before had so carefully laid out. What Jesus was doing was just not right. He must be possessed by a demon! Even his family didn’t know what to do with him. Well, after all, you can imagine that this was a bit embarrassing. Why couldn’t he just get in line with everyone else?

But, let’s be honest. If we totally dismiss demons, or satan, or Beelzebul, or whatever else you want to call it, we are denying that there are forces in this world that do serve to pull us away from God. It is not that God pulls away from us or even that some other-worldly force “takes over”. But there are evils in this world. There are things that we are called to name and admit their presence and then work to cast them out. Wasn’t that what Jesus was doing, after all?

Jesus takes seriously the realities of satan and other demonic powers but, in the context of this first century understanding, “satan” does not necessarily mean a personality with horns and a red tail, but rather a power that is actively engaged in the world against the compassionate and reconciling love of God. “Satan”, refers to those powers that continue to keep our allegiance—racism, cultural elitism, sexism, materialism, militarism, etc. (you can come up with all sorts of “isms”!)—over and above the recognition that the power of God is what our lives are all about.

Jesus wasn’t denying his birth family; he wasn’t shirking his family responsibilities or disrespecting his parents. Rather, Jesus was reminding us that we are part of a larger family—the human family. And if we don’t remember that, then we are lost from God. In fact, perhaps Jesus was raising the possibility that his own family, whom he deeply loved, was sometimes standing in his way, sometimes stepping into that place over and above God’s place in our lives. It is wonderful if that is not the case, but sometimes even our families are full of “isms” that need to be named. But when it was all said and done, even dying on the cross, Jesus made sure that there was someone that would care and nurture his mother.

Again, Jesus is not denying the world or our place in it. We all have things that are important to us. They are part of who we are, part of the wonderful and unique self that God made us to be. It’s not about separating oneself from the world; it’s about perspective. It’s about seeing the world, the whole world, as God’s world and seeing all of those with whom we share this world as God’s people. It’s about putting ourselves in a place where God’s will for our lives and God’s will for the world will truly come to be. And that, too, can be named. It’s called life, the life that God envisioned us to live.

  • What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  • What are the evils that are called to name in this world?
  • What are those things in your own life that pull you away from noticing God’s presence in your life that you are called to name?  

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

Lest our feet stray from the places, our God where we met thee,

Lest our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee.

Shadowed beneath thy hand may we forever stand

True to our God, true to our native land. (James Weldon Johnson, 1871-1938)

 

We are on the road to heaven if today we walk with God. Eternal life is not a possession conferred at death; it is a present endowment. We live it now and continue it through death. With God, “time is eternity in disguise.” (Abraham Heschel)

 

Am I my brother’s keeper? No, I am my brother’s brother or sister. Human unity is not something we are called upon to create, only to recognize. (William Sloane Coffin)

Closing

 

In his time, in his time; he makes all things beautiful in his time.

Lord, please show me every day as you’re teaching me your way, that you do just what you say in your time.

 

In your time, in your time; You make all things beautiful in your time.

Lord, my life to you I bring; may each song I have to sing be to you a lovely thing in your time.

(Diane Ball, “In His Time”, in The Faith We Sing, #2203)

 

Trinity B: Come, This Way

Trinity (Celtic)OLD TESTAMENT: Isaiah 6: 1-8

To read the Old Testament Lectionary Passage, click here

The year that this was probably written was around 742 BCE (dated by the death of King Uzziah). King Uzziah, also known as Azariah, had ruled for about 45 years and then when he contracted leprosy, it was necessary to appoint a regent to rule in his place. Essentially, the kingdom was in chaos. The air is full of uncertainty. Assyria is expanding its borders and so the northern kingdom, Israel, is trying to coerce Judah into a military alliance against the Assyrian threat. In the midst of this, the prophet Isaiah has a vision of God enthroned in a heavenly court. The vocation of the heavenly court is to continuously sing praises to God. The prophet sees only the hem of God’s robe. (Because remember, it was believed that if one actually saw God, it would mean death.)

God is surrounded by seraphs, part of the heavenly court, hovering over God, guarding. One pair of wings cover their faces in the awesome presence of God (so they won’t see God) and a second pair cover their genitals (feet is a euphemism, since it was wrong to speak of genitalia). This is a sign of commitment to purity. Isaiah feels inadequate in God’s presence. He feels unclean, unfit to stand before God, yet he sees God. But he is made clean by one of the seraphs. This is the technical language of the rite of forgiveness of the temple, symbolized by refinement through fire. Isaiah accepts his calling as prophet to Judah. He has been forgiven and has seen God.

The vision is one of grandeur that lies outside the scope of what we see and know, outside the boundaries of normal human experience. It is believing in the unbelievable. Isaiah is brought to the ultimate realization that he is lacking in the face of this magnificence. He has “unclean lips” and his life is lacking. And yet, he offers himself, presents himself for the cleansing by God that he now sees that he needs. He knows that he cannot do it himself.

And so the nation enters a transition from a time of power and prosperity to one of desolation. But Isaiah knows that God is carrying the people through this time. Once again, one must empty oneself to see and truly experience God. It is his call to ministry. But it was a call that Isaiah could not hear without some preparation. And yet, he goes willingly, almost as if he could not do anything but. But this is not a call to preach comfort and joy. Remember, it is a time of desolation and destruction. Isaiah, then, is called to preach words that will finally convince the people to listen, to turn from the destructive path that they are on. These are people that think they are living out the will of God but who are actually far from that. It is time to hear a different tune.

What the prophet is called to speak will not make their lives easier, their road smoother, or their pathway plainer. In fact, it will actually be more confusing and less certain. It will, instead, be a journey of faith, rather than certainty. (In fact, just a few verses after the ones we read, Isaiah’s “here am I’ turns into “How long, O Lord?”) But maybe God’s wisdom is to choose those who continually question themselves and their mission so that they will look to God for direction. In a commentary on this passage, Dr. John Holbert says:

By all means, call your people to follow the Lord, bid them give their lives for God’s service. It is what we do! But to follow God rightly does not always lead to great congregations, vast religious campuses, and budgets that rival those of small nations. What we are called to say to our world is that the last are first, the least are greatest, and the greatest among us is a servant. Such two thousand year old words have regularly been met by dull ears, sightless eyes, and clouded minds; all of which have led again and again to wasted cities and empty lands, ravaged by wars and famines and hopelessness.

Another hymn rises to mind: “The Voice of God is Calling,” John Haynes Holmes’ 1913 poem. “From ease and plenty save us,” begins the fourth verse, and it ends, “Speak, and behold! we answer; command and we obey!”1  By all means, respond to the call of God. But be careful to know that the call is never easy, never simple to grasp, never designed for ready comfort and success.  Just ask Isaiah(From “Preaching This Week”, by Dr. John Holbert, 06/07/2009, available at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=6/7/2009&tab=1,  accessed 30 May, 2012.)

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What parallels do you see with today?
  3. What do you think Isaiah really saw in this God-experience?
  4. What images of God does this bring about for you?
  5. What calling do you think God has for us in this time?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT: Romans 8: 12-17

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

Put very simply, Paul is contrasting two ways of living—the way that we are tempted to live in this world and the way that God calls us to live. He plays with notions of slavery and freedom—slavery to the perils of this world or freedom in God through Christ. Slavery meant fear. Slavery meant having no rights of inheritance. Slavery means no hope. In this first century Roman world, unwanted children were frequently sold into slavery. (And, sadly, that practice still exists today in our world.) Freedom, then, means to belong to a family and to have the rights to an inheritance. We have been adopted by Christ and will share in the inheritance that God provides. When we realize we need God, then we also realize that we are children of God.

But this also means that we share in suffering with Christ as well. Faith is not always a perfectly-paved road, as we know. But this, too, is part of God’s promise of the renewal of all of Creation. It is a hope that we cannot see on our own but are rather empowered to see through the Spirit of God. Here, there’s more to being a Christian than just knowing the right stuff and doing the right things. To be Christian, you must open yourself up and invite God’s Spirit to enter your life. That is the way that you will be glorified through Christ in God. That is the way that you truly become a child of God.

Life is not about things going well or about figuring it all out; life is about hope. That’s what moves us beyond where we are. Slavery and fear move us backwards or leaves us standing here glued to our own inventions. But freedom and hope propels us forward. We all hope for a happy ending. It is the stuff that makes great fairy tales. We all look for that vision that God holds. But hope is not just some futuristic condition. Our hope for today manifests in our belief that God is here, pulling us or prodding us or dragging us out of the mire in which we sometimes find ourselves. It’s happened before. It’s called resurrection. Maybe that’s Paul’s whole point. Hope is illumined by both hope itself and a perception of hopelessness. And a life of faith is one that is lived both actively working for change and patiently waiting for the change to emerge. Hope is about balancing both persistence and patience.

 

  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. What does the “adoption” language mean to you?
  3. What images of God does this bring about for you?
  4. How do you depict hope?
  5. What do hope and patience have to do with each other?

GOSPEL: John 3: 1-17

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

Nicodemus was having trouble getting it, even though he was a leader of the Jews. The passage says that he came to Jesus by night, as if he was trying to hide the fact that he was having trouble understanding it all from the rest of the community. So Nicodemus came looking for answers. He wanted Jesus to get rid of all the doubts that Nicodemus had. He wanted Jesus to make it all perfectly clear for him so that he could go on imparting that knowledge to the rest of the community. Part of the problem may have been semantics. After all, he did believe what Jesus had done, what Jesus had told him. He knew that Jesus had done numerous miracles. He had seen it with his own eyes. So he knew that Jesus was good, he knew that Jesus was worthy as a teacher. And yet, Jesus seemed to talk in circles. He preached that one had to be born from above. But how can one be born unless he or she re-enters the mother’s womb? He preached that one must be born in the Spirit, and yet admitted that the place from which the Spirit blew was unknown and unknowable. How can this be? And he preached that one must believe. Nicodemus believed what Jesus said. What was Jesus talking about, then?

When you read this, you do sense that Nicodemus must have been a good teacher. He was astute and knew what questions to ask. He was diligent as he studied and explored to get to the truth. But how could he believe this circular reasoning that Jesus was espousing?   Part of the problem, it seemed, was that Nicodemus and Jesus had completely different understandings of what “believe” was. Nicodemus had, after all, accepted Jesus’ propositions. He had probably even taught it. But Jesus was not asking for people to believe what he did or believe what he said. There is a difference between believing Christ and believing IN Christ. Believing IN means that you enter into relationship, that you trust with everything that you are, with everything that is your life. It is much more visceral than Nicodemus was really read to accept. Nicodemus wanted to understand it within the intellectual understanding of God that he had. But Jesus was telling him that there was a different way. Jesus was inviting, indeed almost daring, Nicodemus to believe in this new way, to turn his life, his doubts, his heart, and even his very learned mind over to God.

“How can this be?” Those are Nicodemus’ last words in this passage, which sort of makes him a patron saint for all of us who from time to time get stuck at the foot of the mountain, weighed down by our own understandings of who God is, without the faintest idea of how to begin to ascend. But there’s Jesus. “Watch me. Put your hand here. Now your foot. Don’t think about it so hard. Just do as I do. Believe in me. And follow me….this way!

 

My Take on the Trinity:

 

In the beginning was God.  God created everything that was and everything that is and laid out a vision for what it would become.  But we didn’t really get it.  So God tried and tried again to explain it.  God sent us Abraham and Moses and Judges and Kings and Prophets.  But we still didn’t get it.  God wove a vision of what Creation was meant to be and what we were meant to be as God’s children through poetry and songs and beautiful writings of wisdom.  But we still didn’t get it.

“So,” God thought, “there is only one thing left to do.  I’ll show you.  I’ll show you the way to who I am and who I desire you to be.  I will walk with you.”  So God came, Emmanuel, God-with-us, and was born just like we were with controversy and labor pains and all those very human conceptions of what life is.  Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, was the Incarnation of a universal truth, a universal path, the embodiment of the way to God and the vision that God holds for all of Creation.  But we still didn’t get it.  We fought and we argued and we held on to our own human-contrived understandings of who God is.  And it didn’t make sense to us.  This image of God did not fit into our carefully-constructed boxes.  And so, as we humans have done so many times before and so many times since, we destroyed that which got in the way of our understanding.  There…it was finished…we could go back to the way it was before.

But God loves us too much to allow us to lose our way.  And so God promised to be with us forever.  Because now you have seen me; now you know what it is I intended; now you know the way.  And so I will always be with you, always inside of you, always surrounding you, always ahead of you, and always behind you.  There will always be a part of me in you.  Come, follow me, this way.

Once upon a time, there was a woman who set out to discover the meaning of life.  She read and studied but she just didn’t get it.  So she set off to search for it.  She went to South America.  She went to India.  And everywhere she went, she heard the same thing.  They didn’t know but they had heard of a man who did, a man deep in the Himalayas in a tiny little hut perched on the side of a mountain.   So she traveled and traveled and then climbed and climbed to reach his door.  She knocked.  When the door opened, she hastily said, “I have come halfway around the world to ask you one question:  What IS the meaning of life?”  “Come in,” the man responded, “and have some tea.”  “No,” she replied, “I didn’t come for tea.  I came for an answer.  What IS the meaning of life?”

“We shall have tea,” the old man said, so she gave up and came inside. While he was brewing the tea she caught her breath and began telling him about all the books she had read, all the people she had met, all the places she had been. The old man listened (which was just as well, since his visitor did not leave any room for him to reply), and as she talked he placed a fragile tea cup in her hand. Then he began to pour the tea. She was so busy talking that she did not notice when the tea cup was full, so the old man just kept pouring until the tea ran over the sides of the cup and spilled to the floor in a steaming waterfall. “What are you doing?!” she yelled when the tea burned her hand. “It’s full, can’t you see that? Stop! There’s no more room!” “Just so,” the old man said to her. “You come here wanting something from me, but what am I to do? There is no more room in your cup. Come back when it is empty and then we will talk.”

You see, God cannot be defined in our terms. We have to somehow let those go. God is God—still immeasurable, unprovable, unsearchable, and unknowable. But for those of us who believe…God is also Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, our Source, our Savior, and our Sustenance of life. And as we come closer to knowing God, closer to approaching the center that is God, we are more and more aware of the vastness and limitlessness that is God. God cannot be defined in human terms; it is we who must redefine ourselves in “God” terms, to place ourselves within that Trinity. The Trinity calls us to a new spirituality, a new humanity, and a new community. The Trinity calls us to become a part of this unlimited God. But we are not alone; God is always present leading us on the journey and when we get a little lost, God will be there to show us, “Come, this way….”

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What does “believing” mean to you?
  3. What does the Trinity mean for you and how does it depict God for you?

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

I have a lot of faith. But I am also afraid a lot, and have no real certainty about anything. I remembered something Father Tom had told me–that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.” (Ann Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith)

 

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. Do not seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions. (Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926))

 

To know God is to know one cannot speak adequately about God; it is to know the impossibility of describing God in any compete way; it is to know that every theological statement falls short…We must speak, but not to capture God, not to master God…we speak in response to our having been spoken to. (Thomas Langford)

 

 

Closing

 

If you want to understand the body of Christ,

listen to the apostle telling the faithful,

“You though, are the body of Christ and its members.”

So if it’s you that are the body of Christ and its members,

            it’s the mystery meaning you that has been placed

on the Lord’s table;

                                    What you receive is the mystery that means you.

                                    It is to what you are that you reply “Amen”

And by so replying you express your assent.

                                    What you hear is “the Body of Christ”

And you answer, “Amen.”

                                    So be a member of the body of Christ in order to make that

“Amen” true.   (St. Augustine)