Proper 7C: Speaking Stillness

Spending time with godFIRST LESSON:  1 Kings 19: 1-15a

Read the Old Testament passage

This story continues beyond where our lectionary passage takes us.  In the 19th chapter of 1 Kings sets the stage for the downfall of Ahab’s ruling house and for the transfer of prophetic power from Elijah to Elisha.  Under David and Solomon, all of the tribes of Israel were organized into one united kingdom.  After Solomon’s death, though, the people of the ten northern tribes rebelled against the Davidic line and set up their own kingdom, which they called Israel.  Only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin remained loyal to the Davidic dynasty, who continued to rule over the Southern Kingdom, now called Judah.  The capital of Judah was Jerusalem.

So, the northern kingdom at this point was under the rule of King Ahab and his Baal-worshipping queen, Jezebel.  The story begins with Jezebel swearing revenge upon Elijah, who flees for his life, going first to the southern kingdom of Judah and then to the wilderness.  He finally ends up on Mt. Horeb.

Apparently, God was not pleased that Elijah had gone to Mt. Horeb.  There’s almost an implication that God is asking him why he is not back in Israel where he should be, doing the work that God has called him to do.  It seems that Elijah sees himself as “God’s last hope” for eliminating idolatry.  Seemingly, perhaps Elijah had gotten a little full of himself and we can’t help but see him as a little dejected and weary!  But keep in mind that in Scriptural history, nothing unimportant happens on the mountain.

Elijah restates his complaints to God.  He is told to stand on the mountain and wait for the Lord to pass by.  He was probably expecting something a little grander than what he got—after all, Moses had that dramatic interaction and got those tablets and all!  There is a strong wind—and no God.  There is an earthquake and fire—and still no God.  And then there in the silence, God is found.  Perhaps God is not really identified with these destructive forces after all.  Ironically, silence would be harder in which for us to find God.  Perhaps God was in all these things but perhaps the point is that God is also in the aftermath, helping us pick up the pieces and put it all back together.  That’s the “still small voice” in all of our lives.  When Elijah had completely run out of steam and had reached the bottom of the abyss, God was there.  Even when Elijah was feeling sorry for himself, experiencing the marks of his own failure, God was there.  The answer was something like, “Listen, Elijah, you need to get back to work.  There is more work to be done.”  And maybe in the silence, Elijah was able to quiet himself enough to hear God.

In his poetic eulogy, The World of Silence, the French philosopher Max Picard says that silence is the central place of faith, where we give the Word back to the God from whom we first received it.  Surrendering the Word, we surrender the medium of our creation. We unsay ourselves, voluntarily returning to the source of our being, where we must trust God to say us once again…When we run out of words, then and perhaps only then can God be God.  When we have eaten our own words until we are sick of them, when nothing we can tell ourselves makes a dent in our hunger, when we are prepared to surrender the very Word that brought us into being in hopes of hearing it spoken again—then, at last, we are ready to worship God…[Perhaps] God is silent because we are not speaking God’s language.  But it takes God’s silence to teach us that. (Barbara Brown Taylor, When God is Silent, p. 33, 39, 67)

 

1)      What is your response to this passage?

2)      What is your response to the idea of God in the silence, or the notion of the “still small voice” in our lives?

3)      Why is it easier to sense God’s presence in more “grandiose” circumstances sometimes?

4)      What is your response to the notion of God speaking in our silences?  Why is that so hard for us?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT:  Galatians 3: 23-29

Read the Epistle passage

Just to review, Paul is distressed that Galatian believers are being told that they must adopt circumcision as a sign of their observance of the law (in case we had not gotten that the last three weeks!).  He reminds them again that faith, which Paul contends came with the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, has now been revealed.  With this, believers are no longer strictly subject to the disciplines of the law just for the sake of the law.  Through faith, all are now heirs to the Kingdom of God.

Now I don’t think Paul was completely dismissing the law.  (In fact, there are several places in Paul’s letters where he insists on following the law completely, such as rules surrounding women’s attire (1 Corinthians 11)).  For him, faith was bringing the law into fruition, into its fullness.  The word that is translated as “disciplinarian” is the Greek paidagogos.  In wealthy Greek and Roman families, a paidagogos was a slave who was entrusted with the care and discipline of a child until the child reached adulthood.  From this standpoint, the law is transitory, existing alone for a time until faith is revealed in its fullness.

And for Paul, through faith, there are no longer divisions between persons based on anything.  No longer is the law allowed to separate someone from the community because they are the wrong ethnicity, the wrong social status, the wrong gender, etc….etc…etc…you get the picture.  This is not a dismissal of the law, but rather a reminder that it is not there to destroy our unity or our freedom in Christ. (hence, the “nothing can separate us from Christ…”)  For Paul, the law, the discipline, even our religion leads us to Christ.  Perhaps for us it is back to the question of what it means to be “religious” and what it means to be “spiritual”.  (Sorry, that question keeps coming up for me!)

Joan Chittister tells a Sufi story “of disciples who, when the death of there master was clearly imminent, became totally bereft.  ‘If you leave us, Master,’ they pleaded, ‘how will we know what to do?’ And the master replied, ‘I am nothing but a finger pointing at the moon.  Perhaps when I am gone you will see the moon.’ The meaning is clear:  It is God that religion must be about, not itself.  When religion makes itself God, it ceases to be religion.  But when religion becomes the bridge that leads to God, it stretches us to live to the limits of human possibility.” (Joan Chittister, in Called to Question:  A Spiritual Memoir, p. 14.)

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.  They are, from that standpoint, a means of grace.  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.

 

1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      What message do you think this would hold for our contemporary society?  In other words, what does “unity” really mean?

3)      What does this say to our contemporary churches and the more than 6,000 groups that are competing with each other on the planet “in the name of Christ”?

4)      What, for you, is the relationship between being “religious” and being “spiritual”?

 

 

GOSPEL: Luke 8: 26-39

Read the Gospel passage

The title for this passage could probably be “Jesus Defeats the Powers of the Abyss”, (or, alternatively, “When Pigs Fly”—just kidding! ) the powers of the unknown, the powers that we don’t understand, the powers that are beyond our control.  It follows the account of Jesus calming the storm and is followed by the story of Jesus raising a girl to life.  These are signs of revolution and change.  We probably don’t do well with the idea of exorcisms—it’s a little beyond our realm of understanding and doesn’t really fit with the subjects with which we’re comfortable.

But, whatever you make of demon-possession or the transfer to the swine, the central theme has more to do with the fact that Jesus came to bring liberation from whatever it is that imprisons people—externally or internally.  Jesus brings about a confrontation of those powers.  Jesus also brings a liberation for as well as a liberation from.  The man was made whole and realized who he was called to be in the world.

The word “legion” probably has a double-meaning.  It can mean many or multitudes.  But it also refers to the Roman soldiers that were occupying Israel.  These, too, were seen as a form of “demon possession”.  The presence of the herd of swine implies that the land was being used by non-Israelites (because remember, pigs were considered “unclean” by Jewish law so they wouldn’t have owned any.).  So, then, why are the people not welcoming the liberation by Jesus?  Could it be that they were afraid to “rock the boat” or thought that they might have a more stable life under the regime of the Roman patrol?  This was, after all, the side of the lake that included the Decapolis—the ten Greek cities that would become a part of the later missions of earlier Christians.  But Jesus at this point was just an interfering outsider.

The language that Jesus uses to “still” the demons is the same language that he used to calm the storm.  Both stories are “unbelievable” in our modern understanding.  And yet, why can’t we look at it as a choice to believe in the possibility of change—a choice of Jesus’ way over the ways that serve us in the world.

But the pigs.  What about the pigs?  OK…forget Wilbur, forget the three little pigs.  In this context, pigs did not matter.  They were not even part of the religious understanding.  They were unclean, untouchable.  So, for the pigs to run headlong into the abyss with the demons in tow is saying to us that the demons do not matter.  It is reminding us that Jesus can conquer all those things that do not matter.  The demons are not just driven away; they are destroyed.  They are put into something that did not matter. (Poor pigs, though!)

Most commentators would claim that this story probably “circulated” quite a bit before it was written down by the gospel writer known as Mark and then re-articulated by both the writers known as Matthew and Luke.  In fact, there are some key conflicting statements in the versions, including the location.  (In Matthew, it occurs in Gadara, rather than Gerasenes, near the high cliffs of the Golan Heights, for instance.)  The point is, it doesn’t have to be literal to carry Truth.  Perhaps the veiled message is just that—a veiled message that makes a statement about the world in which Jesus lived and a call to change and liberation.  And perhaps the witness that we are called to share is pretty unbelievable anyway.

To battle a demon is to embrace it, to face it with clarity of vision and humility of the heart. To run from a demon is as effective as running from a rabid dog, for surely this only beckons the chase. Whatever we resist — persists. These demons, these parts of us that haunt us, torture us and reduce us, are the agents of change…. Without our demons we would grow spiritually flabby. ( Stephanie Ericsson in Companion Through the Darkness)

 

1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      What keeps us in this world from confronting our “demons”?

3)      What are the modern-day “demons” that are destroyed or resurrected by our faith?

4)      How could this story speak to our modern society?

5)      What does it mean to “embrace” our demons?  Why would we want to or need to?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness.  God is the friend of silence.  See how nature—trees, flowers, grass—grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence…We need silence to be able to touch souls. (Mother Teresa)

 

Religion is about transcendence and spirituality is about finding meaning in the mundane.  (Joan Chittister, In Search of Belief, 8.)

 

 

Too many of us panic in the dark.  We don’t understand that it’s a holy dark and that the idea is to surrender to it and journey through to real light. (Sue Monk Kidd,)

 

Closing

O Holy Spirit, Root of life, Creator, cleanser of all things,

Anoint our wounds, awaken us with lustrous movement of your wings.

Eternal Vigor, saving One, you free us by your living Word,

Becoming flesh to wear our pain, and all creation is restored.

O Holy Wisdom, soaring power, encompass us with wings unfurled,

And carry us, encircling all, above, below, and through the world.  Amen.

           

(Jean Janzen, based on the writings of Hildegard of Bingen, 12th cent., in The Faith We Sing, #2121)

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)