Archive for August, 2012

For August 26, 2012: Proper 16, Year B

The Reading            Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18

The book of Joshua tells of the complete conquest of Canaan, though that conquest was more like a gradual encroachment. In any case, at the end of his long life, Joshua presents all the people with a choice: to follow the gods of the world around them or to enter into a covenant—a formal treaty—to be faithful servants of the Lord.

The Response            Psalm 34:15-22

The Epistle            Ephesians 6:10-20

The Old Testament lection omits the verses in which Joshua tells God’s people that they—we—are bound to fail to follow the Lord as we ought. Psalm 34:18 hints at the way out, and today’s reading from the letter to the Ephesians underlines it: what keeps us in righteousness is the power of the Lord.

The Gospel            John 6:56-69

 

Further thoughts

The lectionary selections today are an interesting mix. In the Old Testament reading, Joshua, having led Israel to ownership of Canaan, confronts the people of Israel with a choice between the old gods and The One God and more or less dares them to pick the right one. They brightly announce their allegiance to the Lord. The lectionary cuts off before the verses in which Joshua repeats the question, twice and with rising skepticism, then, after announcing that this is a covenant, tells them flatly that they’re going to fail at keeping up their end.

Joshua’s right, of course: when it comes to keeping covenants with God, they are—I am—no darned good. The flesh, as Jesus says, is useless. My insufficiency is partly a matter of meatheadedly human bad choices, but it is also simply that being righteous enough and compassionate enough and smart enough and simple enough and alive enough for God, all at the same time, takes more God-ness than even the best purely human being can manage under his or her own power. It requires more more than I can even really imagine.

Which leaves the unimaginable. The epistle offers God’s armor against superhuman enemies, which makes sense—but the gear is that of the Roman legions, who, though Rome has made Ephesus splendid and wealthy, are regarded with the esteem one reserves for playground bullies. In the gospel, Jesus presents as the means to salvation his own body and blood to be eaten and drunk—a flagrant violation of the foundational laws of the Torah, in which even animal blood is much too holy to take lightly, and thus literally unbelievable.

Both sets of instructions pull me way outside my comfort zone. That seems to be the point. I can’t plan or reason or bargain or scheme my way to being righteous and compassionate and smart and simple and alive enough for God. I can, however, say “Yes, with God’s help”—though with the package comes the sobering truth that God’s help may come to me from sources I’d thought myself better than or by means that may turn my world entirely upside down.

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For August 19, 2012: Proper 15, Year B

The Reading            1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14

Today’s reading begins with the accession of Solomon to the throne of King David. Solomon’s dream can be taken as political packaging—of course the anointed king should have a confirmatory dream from God—but Solomon’s request for wisdom with which to govern is one that we can hope all leaders in all places will emulate.

 

The Response            Psalm 111

 

The Epistle            Ephesians 5:15-20

The good advice for the people of Ephesus continues to be good advice for us: at all times and in everything, give thanks to God.

 

The Gospel            John 6:51-58

 

Further thoughts

What a set of contrasts in today’s reading! Wisdom is opposed to… cannibalism?

On the one hand, there’s the dream in which, to launch Solomon’s reign, God offers a divine blank check and Solomon surprises not only the chronicler but us in bypassing power, honor, and long life in favor of wisdom. There’s the psalm’s commendation of the glory of God and of the wisdom of holding God in awe. There’s the advice in the book of Ephesians to life wisely in this world while giving thanks for everything.

On the other hand, there’s “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). This verse is difficult for those of us in the 21st century with a taste for a nice rare steak. A first-century Jewish audience would have found it downright indigestible. The word in the Greek for “flesh” is σαρχ sarx (as in sarcophagus ‘flesh-eater’), so it is either ‘raw meat’ or ‘dead meat’; the Law expressly forbade Jews to consume raw meat and blood and to touch dead bodies, so Jesus has given orders to perform acts of eating and drinking that are about as ritually impure as it is possible to be. Jesus uses two verbs for ‘eat’ in this passage; one of them just means ‘eat’, but the one in John 6:53, τρώγω trogo, has been glossed as ‘chew’ or ‘gnaw’ (Davis) or ‘chomp’ (Ewart): vivid words for messy eating, and therefore claimed to be very literal.

It is important not to make the Good News less shocking than it really is. The fact is, however, that, in most languages, words for eating are commonly used metaphorically as words for learning and thinking: to ruminate, from Latin rumen ‘cow’s stomach’ is literally ‘to chew one’s cud’. A slightly different reading of trogo may be justified, along the lines of ‘chew really thoroughly, so as not to lose a single bit of the goodness’.

Think about a really enjoyable meal with some delightful surprises for the mouth, in the best of company, and with time and space to savor them and to be refreshed by each other’s time and attention. It is simple wisdom to eat, drink, and commune mindfully, noticing what one is taking in. In such a meal, everything comes together to satisfy needs of body and of spirit, needs one may not even have known that one had, and in it we catch the slight but unmistakable whiff—a foretaste, if you will—of how Jesus feeds us.

And what if—minus the matter of salvation, of course—we are similarly called to do what we can to feed each other?

 

D. Mark Davis, “From ‘Bread of Heaven’ to ‘Gnawing on Flesh’”, Left Behind and Loving it, http://www.leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2012/08/from-bread-of-heaven-to-gnawing-on-flesh_14.html.

David Ewart, http://www.holytextures.com/2009/07/john-6-51-58-year-b-pentecost-august-14-august-20-sermon.html.

For August 12, 2012: Proper 14, Year B

The Reading            2 Samuel 18:5-15, 31-33

When the prophet Nathan confronted David about Uriah, he prophesied trouble arising from within David’s own house. It comes to pass: David’s eldest son Amnon rapes his half-sister Tamar; when David takes no action, her full brother Absalom has Amnon killed, goes into exile, is allowed to return to court but is not seen by his father, and then leads a rebellion of the “men of Israel” against the servants of David the king.

The Response            Psalm 130

The Epistle            Ephesians 4:25-5:2

Last week’s reading from the epistle to the Ephesians explained why (and, briefly, how) to live as God’s children. This week’s reading goes into specifics: we are neither to do nor to say anything that either flows from or contributes to strife and bitterness. This is excellent advice, from the first century in Ephesus to the twenty-first century in El Cajon.

The Gospel            John 6:35, 41-51

 

Further thoughts

The career of David, King of Israel, is full of ironies large and small and of intrigue and deception. The name of David’s eldest son, Amnon, means ‘faithful’: he is the one who feigns illness so he can rape his half-sister Tamar. This rape goes unpunished by King David. Tamar’s full brother, Absalom, whose name means ‘father of peace’, bides his time, throws a party for the purpose of murdering Amnon, then flees into exile. David mourns dead Amnon and then mourns the exiled Absalom. After three years David’s general Joab maneuvers David into bringing Absalom back from exile, but David will not see him. Two years later Absalom finally gets an audience with his father by torching one of Joab’s fields. At this point Absalom launches a conspiracy to lead Israel into revolt against their anointed king. David and those loyal to him, including Joab, flee across the Jordan, leaving behind two priests as spies and a foreigner who sows disinformation in Absalom’s camp. We find out that Saul’s grandson Mephibosheth, whom David has housed and protected, has thrown his lot in with Absalom when Mephibosheth’s servant Ziba brings refreshments to David’s troops along with a side dish of ambition.

Today’s reading picks up just before the decisive battle. David’s side wins; the slaughter is great, but the passage takes pains to tell us that the battle claims fewer lives than does the forest of Ephraim. At the end of the day, when the couriers come with news, David’s concern is not for how the battle has gone or how his troops have fared but rather for his rebel son.

David’s outburst on learning of Absalom’s death is often singled out as an allegory of God’s yearning love for us no matter what. It is that, to be sure. A case can also be made for the whole of David’s story as a cautionary tale about thirsting for power and love. David’s thirsts led him to tell lies, bed Bathsheba, and let his oldest son, the rapist, off the hook. The epistle and the gospel provide the corrective. When we walk in love as Christ loved us, we begin to discern that the way Jesus gives to slake our thirsts is not to grasp for power and love but truly and deeply to give them.

For Aug. 5, 2012: Proper 13, Year B

The Reading            2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a

In last week’s reading, King David got another man’s wife pregnant, because he could, and then attempted to cover his tracks by arranging for that man to die in battle. There is no such thing as private sin, however. In today’s reading the prophet Nathan, acting for God, tricks David into pronouncing judgment on himself. The penitential Psalm 51 that follows is David’s heartfelt response.

 

Response            Psalm 51:1-13

 

The Epistle            Ephesians 4:1-16

Psalm 51 is David’s reaction to Nathan’s affirmation of his guilt—and our own, as we survey the devastation our behavior causes. The fourth chapter of Ephesians teaches us how to live so as not to do such damage: by bearing with one another in love, by speaking truth in love, and by building up the Body of Christ in love.

 

The Gospel            John 6:24-35

 

Further thoughts

The books of Samuel paint a highly mixed portrait of David. On the one hand, it is David who connives and cheats, who keeps wanting more and who is not above manipulating his friends and fighting for their enemies to get it, whose appetite for power and its perquisites grows the more he gets, and who has the valiant Uriah disposed of, perhaps at least as much because Uriah’s self-control contrasts so tellingly with David’s self-indulgence (and one always wonders how much real choice Bathsheba ever had in all of this). On the other hand, it is David who follows God and God’s gifts to greatness, who dances unselfconsciously before the Ark of the Covenant, who repeatedly protects Saul even when Saul keeps trying to kill him, whose yearning for God pervades the psalms that he really does seem to have composed, and who—when Nathan finally gets his attention—genuinely and contritely accepts that he has offended not just the humans around him but the God whose man he is.

How can one reconcile those two Davids?

One reconciles them, because one must, the same way each of us must reconcile the warring selves within all of us. Earlier chapters of the letter to the Ephesians make it clear that I also am God’s creature, born with the yearning to make good with my gifts—and so is everyone else; bitter experience tells me that I am just as capable as David of abusing my gifts stupidly or even wickedly, sometimes even out of good intentions—and so is everyone else.

Today’s epistle reminds me that all God’s children are born this way, with gifts that surely need to be channeled but that it is a sin against the Spirit to deny. The foundational gift, as today’s epistle notes, is love, by which I understand the ability to see others not through the lens of my own wants and hurts but through the eyes of the God who died for the sake of even the worst of us.