Proper 15B: Embodying Bread

Bread--Rolling DoughOLD TESTAMENT: 1 Kings 2:10-12, 3: 3-14

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage

Solomon is generally remembered for his wisdom, a gift that God gave him after he asked not for riches or wealth or long life but for help in governing the people wisely and well. (But, as the story goes, God was so pleased with the request that Solomon received all the other gifts as well.) The passage opens with David’s death and Solomon’s ascension to the throne. Solomon was very young when he came to power. Many guess that he might have been about twenty years old. He had to have felt overwhelmed with what was required of him. After all, he followed his father, David, which was no slight act to follow and David had placed him on the throne in place of Adonijah, his brother, who was actually the “rightful” heir. There were also many enemies that had to be eliminated to solidify Solomon’s reign. So, lest we think that Solomon had some sort of golden reign or was some sort of fair-haired boy, realize that this passage is a wonderful one in the midst of a story that is bloody and filled with violence, infidelity, and sin. In Solomon’s personal life, his marriages to foreign wives will come to be looked upon with disdain, seeing them as the onset of the worship of foreign gods. And, in the category of completely over the top, sources claim that Solomon took 700 wives and 300 concubines. And even in his reign, the previous warning from Samuel that a king will mean that the people will end up as slaves for the most part proves to be true. It is known that Solomon’s building projects, including the great temple, were built with Israeli forced labor. And yet, somehow Solomon stood out. He was human, a mixture of good and bad, of right and wrong. And, yet, he prays with all his heart for wisdom, for perspective, for what God calls him to be.

Solomon goes on to build up the kingdom of Israel and construct the temple. However great David was, it was Solomon who built the most important and sacred structure of the kingdom. It is clear that Solomon enjoys an intimate relationship with God. God even talks to him in his dreams. So, this would imply that true wisdom is about relationships. It is about listening, and understanding that one might discern what is right and good. It is about having the ability (and taking the time) to discern what is right and good not just for one personally but for the people that a leader governs.

This week’s passage is the first of several weeks where the lectionary will continue to deal with wisdom and that is woven through passages about Solomon. But Solomon was not without his own problems and his own shortcomings. Wisdom does not imply perfection. After all, here, David seems to be set up as the “ideal”, and we all remember that that was clearly not the case. We are not called to gloss over people’s shortcoming and make them saints. The Bible is not a story of heroes but, rather, the way God interacts in life and ordinary people interact with God.

It is also interesting because this passage provides a blatant mix of politics and religion, those very things that we are often warned never to mix. Maybe the problem is not the mixing but rather the lack of wisdom in either of those things. Maybe the warning is not about mixing politics and religion but in mixing bad politics and bad religion. Maybe the calling is to a holy conversation rather than a fight to the finish. History has shown over and over again that times when a religion is controlled by a government as well as times when a government controlled by a religion both usually result in tyranny, in the oppression of the governed. Maybe what God has in mind in the cultivation of a listening heart that is open to what is best for all rather than what is best for those in charge. Richard Rohr said that “the work of religion is to open our eyes to see a world where everything swirls with meaning.” So, as people of faith, we are called not to bring our beliefs but rather the Truth to which they point.

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What is your definition of “wisdom”?
  3. What does “wisdom” mean in your own life?
  4. What do you think of the mixing of politics and religion in the time of Solomon and in our own time? Is it different?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT: Ephesians 5: 15-20

Read the Lectionary Epistle passage

Ultimately, the theme for Ephesians could probably be a coming together in wholeness of we who are one body in Christ to fill the whole of reality with the goodness and righteousness of God. In this passage, the exhortation falls on wisdom. The beginning reminds us that there are real and apparent dangers to faith and that they require some level of discernment. The implication is that “alertness” belongs to faith. Wisdom and understanding count for something in faith. As people of faith, we need to be able to discern.

Permit me to say without reservation that if all people were attentive, if they would undertake to be attentive every moment of their lives, they would discover the world anew. They would suddenly see that the world is entirely different from what they had believed it to be. (Jacques Lusseyran in Against the Pollution of the I) When you read Ephesians the dangers seemed to be coming not from paganism, but from those claiming that they had Christian authority. There is a certain discernment, then, to figure out what is “of God” and what is not. Lots of claims are made in the name of Christ. Some are just silly and others are downright dangerous. The passage definitely speaks to a certain integrity of faith, of life, and even of worship. It is a way of being lifted out of ourselves and beyond ourselves.

This passage probably is as much about reverence as anything else. It is an acknowledgment that God’s gifts matter, that we are called to the wisdom of using them to their fullest. Earlier in this chapter, we were called to be “imitators” of Christ. This continues with that same call. And, yet, this verse is often taken as a calling to avoid those who practice these things too. We are not called to be sequestered people of faith. We are called to live in the world. We are called to imitate Christ in the world, to live a life of wisdom, of meaning, of wholeness. The wise life makes the most of what we have been given—for our own good but, mostly, for the good of the Kingdom of God.

And, above all, this is a life of joy. It is about paying attention to the glories of life. In one of his “Sabbath Moment” reflections, Terry Hershey shares this midrash story:

The splitting of the Red Sea, according to Jewish tradition, is the greatest miracle ever performed.  It is so extraordinary that on that day even a common servant beheld more than all the miracles witnessed by the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel combined.  And yet we have one midrash that mentions two Israelites, Reuven and Shimon, who had a different experience. Apparently the bottom of the sea, though safe to walk on, was not completely dry but a little muddy, like a beach at low tide. Reuven stepped into it and curled his lip. “What is this muck?” Shimon scowled, “There’s mud all over the place!”

“This is just like the slime pits of Egypt!” replied Reuven. “What’s the difference?”  Complained Shimon.  “Mud here, mud there; it’s all the same.” And so it went for the two of them, grumbling all the way across the bottom of the sea.  And, because they never once looked up, they never understood why on the distant shore, everyone else was singing and dancing. For Reuven and Shimon the miracle never happened. (Shemot Rabba 24.1)

 

While the sea had parted for Reuven and Shimon, the miracle never made it’s way into their heart, or their life. This is a story about the permission to look up. Because there is something about the blinders we choose to wear that not only affect our vision, but our capacity to risk or embrace or celebrate or sing and dance or praise or venture or love wholeheartedly. (Terry Hershey, “Look Up”, Sabbath Moment, August 13, 2012)

 

            So maybe this passage is about more than doing the right things or not doing the wrong things. Maybe it’s about reverence, about seeing the beauty in life, about allowing the beauty to find you, about looking up and feeling joy.

 

  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. What does this say about wisdom? What about discernment?
  3. What does equating “alertness” to faith mean for you?
  4. What gets in the way of you “looking up”?
  5. What “dangers” to faith do you see in today’s world?

 

GOSPEL: John 6: 51-58

Read the Lectionary Gospel passage

This week’s passage continues a direct link to the Eucharist and the Gospel writer expands the theme that Jesus is the bread of life. Some commentators have suggested that the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel was composed over time and that the implications to the Eucharist might have been added later. But we cannot help but hear the language of our Eucharist. It is understood as an opening of oneself to a life in Christ. The bread and the cup are lenses through which we can see things differently. Taking them literally, the words are shocking and those who take them literally just don’t get it. The words are meant to correct our vision of what nourishes and sustains us.

Remember that this would have been a real change to the status quo of its first hearers. No longer was adherence to the Torah and its traditions what created community but, rather, the oneness and union with Christ. This relationship is what made the bread “live”, made it come alive for those who receive it. Receiving Christ is not just intellectual assent; it is more; it is making Christ “live”, making Christ real in your life. That is how we receive the presence of Christ. Communion with Christ is a lifestyle and the celebration of the Eucharist is a reflection of that life.

Richard Rohr said that “We do not think ourselves into a new way of living; we live ourselves into a new way of living.” Making Christ come alive is not merely about understanding what the words say; it is about incarnation. It is about becoming Christ in your flesh and your blood. It is about entering communion with Christ in every aspect of your being. In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor says this:

The daily practice of incarnation—of being in the body with full confidence that God speaks the language of flesh—is to discover a pedagogy that is as old as the gospels. Why else did Jesus spend his last night on earth teaching his disciples to wash feet and share supper? With all the conceptual truths in the universe at his disposal, he did not give them something to think about together when he was gone. Instead, he gave them concrete things to do—specific ways of being together in their bodies—that would go on teaching them what they needed to know when he was no longer around to teach them himself.

After he was gone, they would still have God’s Word, but that Word was going to need some new flesh. The disciples were going to need something warm and near that they could bump into on a regular basis, something so real that they would not be able to intellectualize it and so essentially untidy that there was no way they could ever gain control over it. So Jesus gave them things they could get their hands on, things that would require them to get close enough to touch one another. In the case of the meal, he gave them things they could smell and taste and swallow. In the case of the feet, he gave them things to wash that were attached to real human beings, so that they could not bend over them without being drawn into one another’s lives…

“Do this,” he said—not believe this but do this—“in remembrance of me.” Duke ethicist Stanley Hauerwas finds most Christians far too spiritual in the practice of their faith. Christianity “is not a set of beliefs or doctrines one believes in order to be a Christian,” he says, “but rather Christianity is to have one’s body shaped, one’s habits determined, in such a way that the worship of God is unavoidable.” In our embodied life together, the words of our doctrines take on flesh. (Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, 43-45)

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What does the term “living bread” mean to you? What does it mean to say that Christ is the “bread of life”?
  3. What does receiving Communion mean to you?
  4. What does it mean to “live” Communion?
  5. What does incarnation in this sense mean to you?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

The day of my spiritual awakening was the day I saw—and knew I saw—all things in God and God in all things. (Mechtild of Magdeburg, 13th century mystic)

 

The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information but to face sacred moments. (Rabbi Abraham Heschel)

 

Wisdom is the depth of soul that enables us to understand what must remain in our lives when everything else…goes, It is what we believe spiritually that carries us through life. It is the well of wisdom from which we are meant to draw…Only that which nurtures the truly spiritual in us, the search for the presence of God in every small dimension of life, is real wisdom. If, by the time we die, beauty has moved the silent center of us, love has wracked our hearts, and the word of God has seeped into our heart, we will be as wise as any human being can ever hope to be. (Joan Chittister, Aspects of the Heart: The Many Paths to a Good Life)

 

 

Closing

 

Eternal God, we give you thanks for this holy mystery in which you have given yourself to us.  Grant that we may go into the world in the strength of your Spirit, to give ourselves for others, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

(From “Service of Word and Table I, The United Methodist Book of Worship)

Proper 8B: Get Up and See What is New!

"Raising of Jairus' Daughter", George Percy Jacomb-Hood, 1885 (Oil on canvas)
“Raising of Jairus’ Daughter”, George Percy Jacomb-Hood, 1885 (Oil on canvas)

OLD TESTAMENT: 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, click here

We sort of passed over this part, but at the end of the First Book of Samuel, Saul and his son Jonathan are killed fighting the Philistines and so today we read David’s lament over them. (We don’t really know anything about the Book of Jashar—it is perhaps a book that has long since been lost into history.) It is interesting, though. Saul has been trying to kill David and David has been on the run from him. So, Saul’s death means that David is no longer a hunted man. He now has a clear shot to the throne of Israel. But Saul has many relatives and sons who could claim power with more legitimacy than David.

Jonathan, the other one who has been killed, is actually a close friend of David’s. So the lament begins with a call to not share this news with the Philistines, which would give them further cause to rejoice at Israel’s expense. By making this lament, David is placed in the role of a close relative or heir. And here, the relationship between Saul and David changes somewhat. David is now speaking on behalf of Israel. It is just good politics. And his own lament for Jonathan is for a friend that he has lost.

But the lament goes deeper than that. It is also a lament for Saul, the man who had tried to kill him. The death of Saul marks the defeat of Israel. David curses the very mountains where Saul has died. So this lament is not only an expression of grief but may also be David’s own realization that he has gone too far. He has lost both his closest friend and his greatest enemy. Everything has changed.   And David realizes that the grief he is experiencing is even more challenging.

But David also realizes that the grief that he experiences is not private. Any time a community experiences a shift of any sort, there is always some grief. There is even disbelief. Perhaps it is also a commentary on the tragedy of war. Either way, the lament is real. It is from the deepest part of the soul. And it acknowledges that even grief and sadness and disbelief are part of life, part of God.

And we are all familiar with the words from this passage, “How the mighty have fallen!” But often we use it almost as a sort of satisfaction that someone has “gotten their due.” Is that really what it is here? It seems to be more shock and disbelief and a sort of question of “What next?” Maybe the “What next?” question is the important thing. Where do we go when the world as we know it has been shattered? Where do we go when, seemingly, for good or bad, we are left to pick up the pieces? Where do we go when all of the characters that were in place before have somehow changed? How do we “fix” it? Maybe the story is about healing, about wholeness, about experiencing those painful and cataclysmic shifts in our lives when God invites us to something new.

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. How would you characterize David’s grief and his lament?
  3. What strikes you about David’s friendship with Jonathan?
  4. What strikes you about David’s relationship with Saul?
  5. What message would this story have for our world or society today?

  

NEW TESTAMENT: 2 Corinthians 8: 7-15

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

This passage falls within a two-chapter section where Paul appeals to the Corinthians for money to help “the saints”, who are most likely the churches in Jerusalem. He calls the endeavor a charis, which is translated as “generous undertaking”. But the word charis is also translated in other places as “grace” or “blessing”. (It’s the same root as our “charisma” or “charismatic”) So Paul uses it to describe the gifts of the Macedonian churches and presents them as harmonious, of good will, generous, sincere, deeply and fervently pious, and strongly affectionate toward Paul and his coworkers. Then he begins with flattery, essentially trying to convince the Corinthians that they are just as good as the Macedonians.

So it appears that getting a congregation to dig deep into its pockets is as old as Christianity itself (and my guess would be that it’s actually older). Picture Corinth as one of the sort of “up and coming” cities by the sea that enjoyed a flourishing economy and a prime spot in Rome’s eyes. So because the Jerusalem “mother church” was poor, Paul urged the more prosperous Corinthians to do the right thing. But, of course, the reason that they are asked to give is because they have been given to in Jesus Christ. Christ gave up everything for them; what portion of their abundance can they do without? He is not, though, falling into the trap of claiming that God should be worshipped with money. There is nothing about “paying God back” or about rewards for our investment in the beyond. In other words, the argument is pretty sound: We’re all in this together. Give what you can. Give what you are called to give.

It seems that Paul is not only pressing them to give, but also to realize why giving is important. For Paul, financial stewardship is not gratitude, but about living a Christ-shaped life. Stewardship is really a form of communion in the name of Christ. It is a way of participating with Christ in the building of the Kingdom of God. His passion and his focus is about more than raising money; it is about furthering God’s Reign in the world. He believes that the way believers use their resources—money, time, talents (charis)—is a reflection on their understanding of God, God’s Kingdom, and themselves as children of God. This is not intended to be a stewardship campaign; it is, rather, the way the Gospel is lived out in our community and our lives. It is a vision of a Kingdom that shares resources, shares lives, and, together, brings about God’s vision here on earth. It is not a vision of a world where everyone is the same but rather a vision of a whole balance.

Walter Brueggemann contends that the Bible starts with a Liturgy of Abundance. He sees Genesis 1 as praise for God’s generosity. And throughout Genesis, the Israelites celebrate God’s abundance and generosity. Then by Genesis 47, the concept of scarcity is introduced. Pharaoh has all the land except that belonging to the priests. The world has shifted. What will we do now?

  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. What is you reaction to pleas for financial gifts?
  3. How do you equate financial giving with spirituality?
  4. What does the notion of the “liturgy of abundance” versus the “liturgy of scarcity” mean for you?
  5. What message does this passage hold for our society today or for us as individuals?
  6. Do you think you live more within a liturgy of abundance or a liturgy of scarcity?
  7. What does the way we use our resources say about our understanding of God, God’s Kingdom, and ourselves as children of God?

 

GOSPEL: Mark 5: 21-43

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

Here, the writer of the Gospel According to Mark, inserts one story into another to provide an ongoing theme. Here, when a wealthy man wants Jesus to heal his daughter, he must wait for the healing of a destitute woman. Jairus was highly-esteemed and probably wealthy. He recognizes Jesus and begs Jesus to heal his daughter. So Jesus agrees to travel with him to address his need. But then suddenly a woman appears. She has suffered for twelve years with a “flow of blood”, implying some sort of menstrual disorder. (Now keep in mind, according to the Hebrew laws laid out in our Book of Leviticus, that blood could not be touched and mixed with other fluids, so, essentially, she would have been shunned from society.) She seems to not really understand what Jesus is about; it seems that she sort of has a magical understanding of Jesus’ healing powers.

The number “twelve” is always significant—all-encompassing, all-pervasive (i.e. twelve tribes, twelve apostles). Think about it she had to be exhausted. It had consumed her life. And, interestingly enough, the little girl was twelve years of age, the age signifying the onset of menstruation, of adulthood.

So, later, Jesus says that it the woman’s faith—not magic, not even miracles—that not only makes her well but also brings her salvation. In the meantime, though, Jairus’ daughter has died. But Jesus admonishes everyone that death is not the final answer. In the presence of God’s healing power, even death does not overtake life. The child is restored to life and is shown to be “only sleeping”.

Think about it, though. We talk about the great faith of the hemorrhaging women, but what about Jairus? In Jesus’ day, about 60% of live births died by their teens. (And these were the ones who were viably born at all!). AND this child was a girl. At the time, no one really much cared whether or not female children lived. They were really almost a drain on the family’s resources. And yet, this father couldn’t bear to lose his little girl. He was a wealthy leader in the community. He crossed the line of “acceptable protocol” and asked Jesus, who many doubted was even for real, for help.

Throughout this passage and, indeed, throughout Mark, the word “immediately” is used. The writer of Mark’s Gospel had a real sense of the urgency of Jesus’ message. But we should not get wrapped up in this passage as one demonstrating that things always end in “happy endings”. Christ is the ruler over all things—time and space, planned and interrupted, and even life and death. Persons of faith will suffer but they will always, through the healing touch of faith in Christ, live in peace and wholeness. That is what healing is about. Think about the faith of the hemorrhaging women. She had the audacity to transgress a whole host of social protocols when she touches Jesus’ robe without permission. And Jairus’ faith, causes him to fall prostrate at Jesus’ feet. These challenge us to examine our own faith, asking how we find the strength to claim God’s promises of healing and hope for ourselves, and how we empower others to do the same.

Notice, too, that Jesus does not pick and choose how and to whom wholeness comes. Everyone who is suffering, everyone who is in need, is a child of God. Everyone is invited into it and it is not really acceptable for anyone to want. In a sermon on this passage entitled “Healing Powers” (06/19/2009), Kate Huey writes:

Barbara Brown Taylor and Frederick Buechner have both written beautiful sermons on this text, and they bring the scene alive before our eyes. Buechner is tender as he puts us in the place of the little girl, as Jesus speaks to us, taking our hand and telling us to rise up and live: “You who believe, and you who sometimes believe and sometimes don’t believe much of anything, and you who would give almost anything to believe if only you could…. ‘Get up,’ he says, all of you–all of you!” Jesus gives life not only to the dead, but to those of us who are “only partly alive…who much of the time live with our lives closed to the wild beauty and the miracle of things, including the wild beauty and miracle of every day we live and even of ourselves.” That, Buechner says, is the power at the heart of this story and all of our stories: “the power of new life, new hope, new being.” Whether we take notice or not, miracles happen around us every day, and “every single breath we take,” Taylor writes, “is a free surprise from God. Faith does not work miracles. God does.” And every miracle, she says, is “a preview of the kingdom.”

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. How does this speak to you about your own faith?
  3. What interruptions get in the way of our faith?
  4. What “social protocols” get in the way of our faith?
  5. What message does this hold for our world today?

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

Prayer is not simply a matter of bending the vector of divine will toward my will, my needs, and my hopes. More profoundly to ask something of God is to edge into deeper relationship with God. God’s mind may or may not be changed, but I–my mind and heart–may be. (Michael Lindvall)

In the midst of the sorrows is consolation, in the midst of the darkness is light, in the midst of the despair is hope, in the midst of Babylon is a glimpse of Jerusalem, and in the midst of the army of demons is the consoling angel.  The cup of sorrow, inconceivable as it seems, is also the cup of joy.  Only when we discover this in our own life can we consider drinking it. (From Can You Drink the Cup? by Henri J.M. Nouwen, 38)

 God does not promise that we shall all be spared suffering but does promise to be with us in our suffering. Trusting that promise, we are enabled to recognize God’s sustaining presence in pain, sickness, injury, and estrangement. Likewise, God does not promise that we will be cured of all illnesses; and we all must face the inevitability of death… The greatest healing of all is the reunion or reconciliation of a human being with God. (U.M. Book of Worship, p. 614-615.)                                                                          

 

Closing

Incoming tide of God, Overwhelm me.  Carry me out into Your unimaginable depths.  Amen. (Pat Bennett, from Friends and Enemies)