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)





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)

Epiphany 4B: A Listening Faith

can-you-hear-me-nowOLD TESTAMENT: Deuteronomy 18: 15-20

To read the Old Testament Lectionary Passage, click here

The book of Deuteronomy, which means “second law”, is broadly described as the components of the terms of the covenant that was given through Moses at Mt. Sinai between God and the people of Israel. The book begins with a narrative that summarizes the story of Israel’s life in the wilderness and then presents the “law code” as the framework of the remainder of the book. The book was probably not written, though, by either one person or even in one setting or time. It is rather sort of a compilation through which we can understand one of the most formative periods in the development of Israel’s faith.

Up until the time of the passage that we read, there have been essentially three classes of leaders—royalty, priests, and power structures. The passage that we read introduces the idea of public leaders, prophets who would arise from time to time to bring a new word from God that could affect both the national and the private lives of persons in Israel. At this point, they were used to Moses and his particular style of leadership. But someone else would soon be in the leadership position. Essentially, it’s a reminder that true and effective leadership is not about the leader; it’s about the people being led and the message that those people receive.

For the Israelites’ religion, prophets were very prominent. They were usually eloquent speakers and claimed authority that was given by God. They gave expression to the Word of God and were intended to be heard by the people. They effected change. And here, there is an implicit warning against “false prophets”. It is interesting that in this time prophets, who were known to often speak to not only religious issues, but also social and political ones. Prophets spoke for change in the world—the whole world. They were acutely political (of or pertaining to citizens or citizenship.) An interesting question for our time is to ask who our prophets are. Who are the ones calling for total and complete change in the world? Who are the ones calling for justice or peace? To be honest, in both Old Testament times and now, prophets were never that popular. Their message was too harsh, too biting, to close to home. Their message called us to change our lives. But, contrary to the way perhaps I try to imagine God, God is not a perfectionist. I don’t think there’s some static master plan of what the world should someday be. Instead, it’s about listening. It’s about the Creator and the Creation growing into each other. It’s not about keeping up with God. It’s about following wherever God goes. Our faith informs our lives and our lives inform our faith.

William Sloane Coffin said that the final end of life lies not in politics, but the final end of life is concerned with the proper ordering of power to the end that it may enhance and not destroy human life. Only a fool hasn’t learned in the twentieth century that the political order in which people live deeply affects the personal lives they lead…The separation of church and state is a sound doctrine, but it points to an organizational separation. It is not designed to separate Christians from their politics. For our faith certainly should inform our common life, as well as our personal, more private lives.


  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What parallels for our time do you see?
  3. Do you think there is a prophetic word of God in play today?
  4. How does this speak to the separation of church and state?
  5. How do you think we know when it IS the Word of God?
  6. What is the cost of following a prophetic voice?
  7. So how does this passage depict leadership? Is that the way we usually think of it?



NEW TESTAMENT: 1 Corinthians 8: 1-13

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

In this passage, Paul attempts to answer a question about eating meat offered to an idol. He takes their question, though, about a specific practice and gives a much wider explanation of moral reasoning and community relations. Eating, then, becomes a metaphor for the larger issues of living as a person of faith within the community. The point is that there is always more to it than just being right. The question is whether we follow knowledge or love.

Typically, the widespread practice of the community was to sacrifice an animal to a deity, burning some of the flesh on an altar, and then eating some of it in a cultic meal, which was always a festive, social occasion. (Yeah, that’s MY idea of a party!) The remainder of the sacrificial animal was sold to the meat market for resale to the public. So believers would have the chance that they might be eating meats that had been sacrificed. The question here is essentially how one honors and protects holiness, lives set apart for God, while one is living in the world with all of the worldly customs and norms.

But, of course, Paul is much more concerned with how believers relate to others and how believers claim to whom they belong. It is not what you eat, necessarily, but what controls and takes over your life. When something takes over your life, begins to run it for you, causes you to change who you are or what you do or how you live before God, then, according to Paul, you have idolatry. You will not be of any good for yourself or for the building up of the faith community. It is not a question of eating holy or unholy meat; it is a question of faithfulness or idolatry.

There’s actually quite a bit here for us. Who is it we follow? (Again, what constitutes leadership for us? It is issues? Beliefs? Power? Do we follow (or vote!) for the one who will change society for the better or the one who will do the most for our lives?) What issues, or causes, or beliefs control our lives? What is so important to us that we might risk the community relationships surrounding us? Are we more affected by knowledge than we are by love?

The point is that faith is about relationships. It is about relating to the world around us. We are not called to hold ourselves up in some tiny holiness-filled environment so that we can be pure and undefiled. Rather, we are called to go into the world, sometimes with reckless abandon, and take the message of love. It has nothing to do with telling people about God; it has to do with revealing God’s presence in their lives.


  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What are the “idols” that consume our lives today?
  3. How does that affect ourselves and others around us?
  4. What message does this hold for today?


There is a scene in Tom Hanks’ movie, Forrest Gump, that came to mind when I read this text in 1 Corinthians. As a young boy, Forrest has to wear these clumsy, heavy leg braces. For the most part, he doesn’t care. In fact, the braces become so much a part of his life that he doesn’t even realize much how they have trapped and confined him. And then one day, some bullies chase Forrest and he has to run away but the braces slow him down. As the bullies get closer and closer and Forrest struggles to run faster, the braces finally break, fall off his legs, and suddenly he is set free to run fast. The point is this, Forrest never knew what it felt to be free or how fast he could run until he took that step or, in a better sense, was forced to break out of braces, and live differently, to live beyond himself. He never went back to the braces.


In 1 Corinthians, the issue was dietary laws. When Paul was asked in Corinth about eating meat sacrificed to idols he said, “This is not a problem. We know that those idols are made of stone or wood. There is no god there. The sacrifice meant nothing. Pass the steak sauce and eat.” There is complete freedom in the gospel to eat meat sacrificed to idols because we are not saved by what we eat or don’t eat.


Forrest could have kept those leg braces on his whole life and he wouldn’t have known it. All he would know is what he couldn’t do. He couldn’t run, can’t swim, couldn’t dance, couldn’t play ball, couldn’t cross his legs, couldn’t put his foot behind his head, or couldn’t do yoga. He would spend his life defining himself by what he couldn’t do. There are Christians like that. They define themselves by what they can’t do. Can’t drink, can’t smoke, can’t dance, can’t play cards, can’t watch movies. Oh, we are long past talking about circumcision and dietary laws but the same issue is at stake. Freedom. What am I allowed to do? If I am saved by grace, then am I free to do as I please? There is an old, subtitled movie called Babette’s Feast. It is the story of a woman, Babette, who has escaped the French Revolution with nothing but the clothes on her back. She ends up in a very small, parochial Danish village where she is employed by two spinster sisters whose minister father founded the village. The town has no joy. Religious rules are overbearing. Pleasure, music, laughter, and frivolity are vices to be scorned. There is a deep, heavy shroud of weariness blanketing all the people. Babette is an accomplished chef but is told to prepare each day a thin broth with bread. When she suggests some variation in the meal, she is quickly told that such pleasures are not of God. This is a place defined by what they cannot do. One day, Babette receives news that she has won the French lottery. The amount of money that she now has will enable her to move from that dreary village and reestablish her life wherever she wants. Faced with all of this freedom, she makes her choice. Babette takes all of her winnings and purchases the most extravagant food from live quails and turtles to unusual spices and seasonings. For the next week, she prepares the most exquisite feast that this village has ever had. And they come. They come hesitantly at first but then through this feast, open up with conversation, laughter, and joy that they have never before experienced. The only problem is that Babette is once again penniless. She has used her freedom as a servant to her neighbors. But in doing so, she not only set herself free but allowed this small village to taste the true freedom of life in the Spirit.


(Excerpt from “The Struggle for Freedom”, by Scott Suskovic, available at, accessed 23 January, 2012)



GOSPEL: Mark 1: 21-28

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

After Jesus called the first disciples, which we read last week, they made their way to Capernaum. He enters the synagogue there and astonishes the crowd with the authority of his teaching—teaching that brings him constantly in conflict with the scribes, who were the resident “experts” in interpreting the Law. For the scribes, Jesus’ activities and teachings posed a threat to their traditions.

As for the man who Jesus healed, the whole idea of someone with unclean spirits (or who was essentially “impure”) entering the synagogue was against the law as it existed. This person was an interruption. He didn’t fit. He didn’t belong. But not only did Jesus acknowledge him but he also healed him. For the writer of Mark, this was a great depiction of Jesus’ authority; after all, this is the authority to which even the impure, even the unclean, even the demons listen. You will remember that in The Gospel According to Mark, the heavens were ripped open upon Jesus’ baptism, upon the beginning of his ministry. The world as it was known was ending. Continuing that understanding, for the Gospel writer here, the end of these demons, the end of evil, signifies that the worldly age is coming to an end. Evil is being broken and redeemed. This whole idea of exorcism is odd for us, but the point is that God is bringing everything into the Kingdom of God. All of earth, with everything that is wrong, and all of the earthly power structures are being recreated and redeemed.

So, really, was it a demonic possession or just a voice competing with the one to which the demoniac should have been listening? And if that’s the case, then where are we in this story? Jesus brought an unquestioned authority to his teaching. What was that? Well of course, it was the word of God? But what does that mean? It was not an overpowering; it was not a violent overtaking; it was a silencing. Maybe that what we’re called to do. Maybe that’s how God speaks—in the silences, when we’re listening. Shhh! Can you hear me now?

You see, Jesus’ teaching was not just about words; it was instead about transformation. It was about taking that which we perceive did not belong and speaking Creation once again.


  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. How does this relate to our world today?
  3. How are we called to silence the voices of this world?
  4. What voices are we called to silence?
  5. What voices are we called to empower?



Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage—to move in the opposite direction. (E.F.Schumacker)

We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience. (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)


My ego is like a fortress. I have built its walls stone by stone to hold out the invasion of the love of God. But I have stayed here long enough. There is light over the barriers. O my God…I let go of the past. I withdraw my grasping hand from the future. And in the great silence of this moment, I alertly rest my soul. (Howard Thurman)





“Silence! frenzied, unclean spirit,” cried God’s healing, holy One. “Cease your ranting! Flesh can’t bear it. Flee as night before the sun.” At Christ’s voice the demon trembled, from its victim madly rushed, while the crowd that was assembled stood in wonder, stunned and hushed.

Lord, the demons still are thriving in the grey cells of the mind: tyrant voices, shrill and driving, twisted thoughts that grip and bind, doubts that stir the heart to panic, fears distorting reason’s sight, guilt that makes our loving frantic, dreams that cloud the soul with fright.

Silence, Lord, the unclean spirit, in our mind and in our heart. Speak your word that when we hear it all our demons shall depart. Clear our thought and calm our feeling, still the fractured, warring soul. By the power of your healing make us faithful, true and whole.

                        (Thomas H. Troeger, 1984, The United Methodist Hymnal # 264.)