Proper 19B: Unconventional Reality

crossing-the-roadOLD TESTAMENT: Proverbs 1: 20-33

Read the Old Testament Lectionary passage

We continue with readings from the Hebrew Wisdom Book of Proverbs. Wisdom literature is often a little odd for us to read because it doesn’t really mention God. In fact, oftentimes, God appears to be absent completely. But we need to remember and understand that at its very core, Wisdom literature presupposes and recognizes that God is the source of everything. Essentially, God IS wisdom, the source of us all. Wisdom is not merely a moral code or a list of prescribed principles. That would limit its significance for human beings. Wisdom, rather, is present in all of Creation, the work of God. The elusive quality of Wisdom is grasped only by God, the source of it all.

The Biblical roots of Sophia go back to the personification of Wisdom (chokmah in Hebrew, Sophia in Greek) that we read in our Scripture today. Wisdom as a Woman draws us to God as the source, womb, and nurturer of all life.

Here, Wisdom appears in symbolic form as a woman who is an active and assertive force in humanity. The woman is at times an angry prophet at the end of her rope decrying the way we humans neglect to pay attention to the world around us and continue to go on down a path that we have ourselves created. Here, the images of the simple, as opposed to the wise, are those who are foolish, who instead choose to ignore Truth as it is presented. Essentially, it is a warning to those who think they have it all figured out. It is a warning that there are consequences for failing to live aware of Truth in our lives. She warns of death to the foolish, to those who choose not to live and follow wisdom, and life for the wise.

Wisdom is not a compilation of things learned and known.  And while knowledge and intellect are helpful things in gaining wisdom, greater knowledge does not necessarily increase one’s wisdom.  Wisdom is not gained.  It is, rather, lived and pursued.  It comes from an openness to exploration of all that life holds, of all the gifts that God has given us. Lady Wisdom warns us here not to miss that which God offers because we think we have it all figured out or because we are so distracted by the ways of the world.

We read the words, “Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice.”  The Jewish midrash tradition (midrash meaning, literally, “what comes between”) from Sefer Ha-Aggadah tells of Rabbi Judah, a Patriarch, who forbade his students to teach Torah in the hustle and bustles of the marketplace.  When one of his disciples taught his nephews outside, his teacher was upset.  When the disciple found out that his teacher was upset, he stayed away for thirty days.  When he came again to see his teacher, the elder rabbi asked why his student had ignored his prohibition to teach Torah outside.  The student answered that Proverbs says that wisdom cries aloud in the streets.  His teacher retorted, “You have read the passage once but not twice.  Or perhaps you have read it twice but not three times.  Or, if you have read it three times, then you have not understood it properly.  When Proverbs says that, it means that wisdom will proclaim the good deeds in the street of the one who studies Torah inside.

Essentially, Wisdom is the “something else” that we all crave in the deepest part of our being, that longed for connection with the very Source of Being, the God who Created us and moves through our life beckoning us toward the Image of God that is already in us.

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What for you is wisdom?
  3. How do we usually think of wisdom is our world?
  4. What lesson do you think this passage has for us in our society?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT: James 3: 1-12

Read the Lectionary Epistle passage

As we discussed last week, the Epistle of James continues giving advice and exhortations for good and righteous living. Here, the writer is speaking about words and the way we use words for communication. Essentially, it is about “bridling” your tongue. The issue is not about making errors but rather about how and what we communicate. At a deeper level, it is asking us to look at the base or foundation from which our communication comes. It is about how we relate to others.

As the metaphor implies, we essentially control our direction. It is a spirituality of getting some basics right in order to avoid dissonance and disunity. “Taming our tongue” is more than just being tactful. It points to who and what we really are. We are what we communicate and we exist in relationship to others. Mistreatment of others runs contrary to the attitude of God, it is against the wisdom of God. It is the wisdom of realizing that we must become and must be a whole person.

The writer claims that even as small as the tongue is compared to the whole body, it has the power to steer the entire being into a different direction. With our words, we name the world and each other, and in some sense we create a genuine reality. Once our speech takes hold, it has power for either good or evil. It can exclude or embrace, heal or humiliate, lift up or tear down.

This an interesting passage to read in light of what goes on in our world today. We read of bullying by children toward their classmates. We know that there is bullying in the workplace, when one who has power inflicts that power in force (whether physically or emotionally) rather than wielding power as a creative and life-giving force. And in the midst of this campaign year, we know that the rhetoric that we hear is anything but conducive to good human relations. There are often times when our speech and our words in this world and society are indeed toxic.

Words are powerful things. They can harm, incite violence, wound, and inflict deep and sometimes irreparable pain. But they can also heal and soothe, comfort, and bring life. The Epistle of James includes the longest passage in the Bible about the role of speech in our lives. The truth is, our words cannot be separated from our being. They exhibit our true character, our true self. Maybe that is why the silences between them are so important. Words unchecked become toxic. Life-giving words are balanced by listening, by thinking, by silence. It’s hard to hear that in this passage. We take it more as the writer’s somewhat austere exhortation to watch what we say. And as members of a society that proudly practices freedom of speech, it almost flies in the face of what we believe. But with great freedom comes great responsibility. So what is our responsibility with that freedom? What is our responsibility with those words?

And yet, perhaps implicit in the message is also the call to listening, to contemplation, and to silence.   Perhaps it is the call to create space between our words and let the Word of God breathe into them. Because even though we have a hard time realizing it, silence is as much a part of speech as words. Maybe it is a call to a balance between speaking and listening, between words and silences. Maybe it is a call to allow them to feed each other.

 

  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. What power do you think what we say has on others? What about on ourselves?
  3. Is there such a thing as “good gossip”?
  4. What does this have to say about wisdom?
  5. What is your feeling about silence?

GOSPEL: Mark 8: 27-38

Read the Lectionary Gospel passage

This passage is often seen as a turning point in the Gospel According to the writer known as Mark. It signals a recognition and a confession that Jesus is the Messiah. But apparently that is not enough. Attributing status to Jesus, even adoration of Jesus, is focusing on human ways. The point is to focus on God’s ways.

It is not unlike what we talked about in the Proverbs passage. Peter knows and acknowledges that Jesus is the Messiah. But he really did not grasp the full meaning of what that entailed. Understanding Jesus as the Messiah is about much more than following Jesus’ teachings. After all, as we have seen, Jesus was not a typical “rule follower”. It also means to let go of the life that we have created for ourselves and to embody the wisdom, the source of us all, the Word made flesh, the very essence of Christ.

So Peter got it right in form, but wrong in substance. He rejects the idea that Jesus would not prove to be a success in this world. He misses the concept that Jesus is part of another way, another type of wisdom. Following Jesus is not done for gain or to get ahead in this world. It is not the “right” thing to do. Following Jesus is about realizing where God exists and where God calls us to be. But Peter was still living in the tradition of the return of a David-like king, a mighty conquering hero. He had an image of who Jesus was—it was just the wrong one. He was following the Jesus of Peter’s image rather than the Jesus who was God Incarnate.

But we are probably just as guilty. Much of our commitment is about doing what we should be doing so that God will do certain things for us. As Wiley Stephens says though, “Jesus is not your therapist; he has come to be your Savior, the Messiah, not to soothe your pain.” There is danger in trying to hold onto that which cannot be held. There is joy in finding the greater way when we finally let it go. And the only way to figure out which way to go is to realize that we have to look at things differently. Take up thy cross and follow me.

Marcus Borg talks about two types of wisdom.  One he calls “Conventional” wisdom, which describes the mainstream or dominant “voice” of a culture—essentially what everyone knows–and the other he calls “Subversive”, which is from a different path outside of the mainstream.  It involves heading in a different direction, toward a different reality than conventional ways.

Conventional wisdom provides guidance on how to live.  It’s pretty much based on a typical system of rewards and punishments.  If you do right, if you act right, you’ll get good things; if you don’t, bad things will happen to you.  In this type of wisdom, living well is the best revenge.  Conventional wisdom creates the world in which we live.  There are rules and instructions and a call to “measure up” to a life of requirements.  Conversely, “Subversive” wisdom is a world of paradox and reversal of the norm.  Think about it…what kind of world is it where outcasts are invited in as heroes, where long lost children who have squandered their family’s inheritance are welcomed back, where wealth and power is possibly seen as a source of idolatry, and where death is life?  This is certainly different from the world in which we live.  This subversive wisdom is the wisdom of Christ, the wisdom of God.  Remember, Jesus didn’t walk this earth so that we could be handed a list of rules.  Jesus came that we might live.  But “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Jesus did not teach wisdom; Jesus did not give us a “how to guide to Wisdom”; rather, Jesus showed us the way to become it.  It’s about incarnation, about being.  Jesus was the incarnation of the Word, the embodiment of the Wisdom of God, and called us to follow down the same path.

There is a wisdom story of a traveler who came upon three masons cutting stone.  Curious as to what the workers were doing with the stones, he asked the first worker, “What are you doing with these stones?” Without hesitation the worker quickly responds, “I am a stone cutter and I am cutting stones.” Not satisfied with this answer, the traveler approached the second worker and asked, “What are you doing with these stones?” The second worker paused for a moment and then explained, “I am a stone cutter and I am trying to make enough money to support my family.” Having two different answers to the same question, the traveler made his way to the third worker. The would-be philosopher asked the third worker, “What are you doing with these stones?” The third worker stopped what he was doing, bringing his chisel to his side. Deep in thought, the worker slowly gazed toward the traveler and shared, “I am a stone cutter and I am building a cathedral!

There is truly always something more. Life is not the simple thing that we have allowed it to be, living by a set of rules within our limited understanding of God. It is something much, much more glorious. The way of wisdom invites us to look at life differently, to walk a different path, and to follow Christ. Several years ago, popular religious culture told us to ask ourselves the question, “What would Jesus do?” The interesting thing is that the answer is probably not the one that we would ever imagine. Perhaps a better question, then, is “What would Wisdom do?” After all, I’m thinking that’s the way that Christ was probably trying to get us to go anyway.

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. In what ways do you identify with Peter?
  3. What is it that you need to let go of in order to truly follow Christ?
  4. What does it mean to “take up your cross”?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

The beginning of wisdom is found in doubting; by doubting we come to the question, and by seeking we come upon the truth (Pierre Abelard, 14th century)

A [person] who won’t die for something is not fit to live. (Martin Luther King, Jr.)

 

He became what we are that [God] might make us what he is. (Athanasius, 4th century)

 

 

Closing

 

Here in this place new light is streaming,

Now is the darkness vanished away,

See in this space our fears and our dreamings

Brought here to You in the light of this day.

 

Gather us in the lost and forsaken,

Gather us in the blind and the lame;

Call to us now and we shall awaken,

We shall arise at the sound of our name.

 

We are the young our lives are a mystery,

we are the old who yearn for your face.

We have been sung throughout all of history,

Called to be light to the whole human race.

 

Gather us in the rich and the haughty

Gather us in the proud and the strong,

Give us a heart so meek and so lowly,

Give us the courage to enter the song.

 

Here we will take the wine and the water,

Here we will take the bread of new birth,

Here you shall call your sons and your daughters,

Call us anew to be salt for the earth.

 

Give us to drink the wine of compassion,

Give us to eat the bread that is you;

Nourish us well and teach us to fashion,

lives that are holy and hearts that are true.

 

Not in the dark of buildings confining,

Not in some heaven light years away,

But here in this place the new light is shining,

Now is the Kingdom, now is the day.

 

Gather us in and hold us forever,

Gather us in and make us your own;

Gather us in all peoples together,

fire of love in our flesh and our bones.

 

(Marty Haugen, “Gather Us In”, (1982, GIA Publications), The Faith We Sing, # 2236)

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 http://day1.org/1433-standing_in_the_tragic_gap, 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 http://www.crosswalk.com/video/unlike-christ-video.html. ) 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)

 

 

Closing

 

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)