Archive for September, 2012

For Sept. 30, 2102: Proper 21, Year B

The Reading            Numbers 11:4-6,10-16,24-29

The book of Numbers is named that because it begins and ends with a census or enumeration of God’s people en route from Egypt to the land of Canaan. In Hebrew it is called (רבדמב) Bemidbar, ‘in the wilderness’. In today’s reading the people’s bitter complaint—instead of manna, they want meat—frustrates Moses profoundly. The lectionary selection omits part of God’s response, which is to send so much quail as to make the Israelites literally sick of it. The rest of God’s response is echoed in today’s epistle and gospel.

The Response            Psalm 19:7-14

The Epistle            James 5:13-20

When Moses bemoaned the burden of bearing the Israelites, God responded by creating a committee to share the ministry and the spirit. It is hard not to be skeptical of groups as solutions, especially groups that we regard as “not us”—but the letter of James, which we finish today, is emphatic: healing and forgiveness come in community.

The Gospel            Mark 9:38-50

Further thoughts

“It is in the shelter of each other that people live.” –Irish proverb

It’s fairly easy, given the vivid language in today’s Old Testament reading and gospel, to get distracted by the distance we may perceive between us and the people in them. When the people of Israel bellyache about the cuisine on their march through the wilderness, it’s hard not to smirk a little, and the masterwork of kvetching by Moses emphasizes our sense that these Israelites have just plain got it all wrong. Likewise, when John proudly announces that the disciples tried to stop someone who wasn’t one of them from casting out demons, only to have Jesus tell him that was uncalled-for, we roll our eyes a little; the brimstone-scented hyperbole Jesus employs to drive the point home, following as it does on the heels of that little disagreement about who was greatest, reinforces the impression that John and the disciples were rather silly.

Let’s hesitate before condemning or sneering, however, because the behavior of the Israelites, the disciples, and the contentious ones that James addresses is simply human. They—we—respond to change and stress in entirely human ways: by complaining, by critiquing, by working out pecking orders, and by seeking to identify and exclude those who don’t belong.

God’s remedy for human obtuseness and sin is, surprisingly, more humanity, laced with the Holy Spirit. Moses and the Israelites get not a miracle but a support group made up of humans—including two guys who weren’t even at the tent. In James’s community, those who are in the old Book of Common Prayer’s “trouble, sorrow, need, sickness, or any other adversity” obtain comfort through the prayer of fellow humans. Jesus takes on humanity to save us, and welcomes the good done even by those who are not part of the in group.

In telling me to have salt in myself Jesus means me, I think, to focus my zeal for purity and high standards firmly on my own small and sinful self; what I am called to extend to and solicit on behalf of the rest of God’s children—all of them—is grace, aid, and peace. To live into this requires that I work consciously to create a space in which others can safely disagree, be different, and confess to brokenness and need. Creating that space for any of us creates it for all, and that is the space in which the Kingdom of God comes and is.

Advertisements

For Sept. 23, 2012: Proper 20, Year B

The Reading            Proverbs 31:10-31

“The Song of the Virtuous Woman” is the name for today’s passage from the book of Proverbs. In form it is an acrostic poem—that is, its lines in Hebrew begin with successive letters of the alphabet as a memory device (and this may help explain why it is so detailed). Interestingly, the Hebrew words present this woman not merely as capable and busy but as valiant, like a warrior.

The Response            Psalm 1

The Epistle            James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

The virtuous woman of Proverbs deals generously with the poor and speaks with wisdom and kindness. The letter from James, which is addressed to communities whose Christian unity is fraying, picks up on these themes, showing the fruit both of their presence and of their absence in our lives.

The Gospel            Mark 9:30-37

 

Further thoughts

In some respects, the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s is anticipated in the account of the virtuous woman of Proverbs. She spins fiber, weaves cloth, and makes garments, she does the shopping and manages the household, she’s strong, she buys real estate and plants a vineyard on it, she raises the children, she looks after the poor, she runs a business and markets her wares, and she’s kind and wise. In short, she does it all, apparently, with the possible exception of obsessing about her looks: it is because of all that she does that her husband is proud, her children call her happy, and we deem her virtuous.

What a winner—and what an exhausting example to try to live up to!  But the epistle and the gospel present a different perspective.

The epistle reminds us that the source of virtue—of living the truly good life—is not all the good works that we do: in fact, the good works are the fruit of submission to God, just as the wisdom is the gift of God. No gift of God is to be won through ambition or greed, for these lead only to exactly the kinds of conflicts and disputes that the epistle condemns. As the epistle points out, we don’t receive the good things God means for us if we don’t ask. The act of asking underscores that it’s not our right to demand these goodies or that privilege for being a child of God. Fortunately, it’s also not our burden to be in charge of more than God has given us.

Jesus makes a related point in the gospel. Those who need to be important work to prove their importance by the goodies with which they surround themselves and the accolades they garner. The truly great one in God’s Kingdom, however, is the one who upholds and protects the importance of others—the one who can look at little people and see them first as people. Such a person also practices gratitude and in so doing teaches it.

Which brings us back to the virtuous woman. Her children will bless her name not because she’s made them aware how much she does for them, but because her generosity and grace have taught them how to ask and how to receive—from her, from each other, and from the God from whom all blessings flow.

For Sept. 16, 2012: Proper 19, Year B

The Reading                                             Wisdom of Solomon 7:26-8:1

The book of the Wisdom of Solomon was not written by Solomon: it was written for Greek-speaking Jews between 100 B.C. and 100 A.D. It is part of the Septuagint—the version of the Bible in use by Jews in Alexandria, Egypt—though we now take it as one of the apocryphal books. Today’s reading personifies wisdom as an agent of God, in terms that are echoed by the description of Christ in the letter to the Hebrews.

The Response                                             Psalm 19

The Epistle                                                  James 3:1-12

Psalm 19, carrying on the theme of wisdom, ends with a plea to God to keep us from presumptuous sins and to keep our words and thoughts acceptable to God. The extent to which it is imperative that we Christians watch our language—and to which we need God’s help to do so—is underlined, in this increasingly contentious election season, by the vivid metaphors in today’s reading from the letter of James.

The Gospel                                                  Mark 8:27-38

 

Further thoughts

A mantra of the tumultuous 1960s was “Tell it like it is.” The message was that someone under thirty had an obligation to convey the unvarnished truth to those who were too unhip, too co-opted by The Man, too bugged, too hung up, too not-with-it, or simply too over-thirty to be reckoned able to grasp it on their own—with or without the short squat four-letter words with which one might daringly unvarnish it.

Aside from the four-letter words, some of which still do retain power to shock, it all sounds a bit quaint now, and in the phrasing of Psalm 19 more than slightly presumptuous. That the end of Psalm 19 and the letter to James counsel us to watch our language is quite fitting. “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord my strength and my redeemer” is not so far from “O Lord, make my words tender and juicy today, for tomorrow I may have to eat them.”

Nevertheless, telling it like it is has much to recommend it. First, sometimes I don’t know what I know until I give it voice. Peter, being Peter, might not have fully have recognized Jesus as the Messiah until the words came out of his mouth. Second, I won’t find out what I don’t know until I get it out there for corroboration or correction. Peter needed to learn that he was right that Jesus is the Messiah but wrong about just what that means.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the “it” of “tell it like it is” properly embraces not just the bad news but the good news. Wisdom is the mirror of God and she does order all things well. The heavens do declare the glory of God, and it is marvelous. Jesus is the Messiah, sent because, in God’s terms, each of God’s children is so worth saving. The more we speak blessing to each other and the world, the more we speak God’s love into each other and the world—and the better we hear God’s love as well.

For Sept. 9, 2012: Proper 18, Year B

The Reading            Isaiah 35:4-7a

In the time of the prophet Isaiah, when Israel and Judah are two distinct kingdoms threatened by the Assyrian Empire, the king of Israel joins in a treaty with another nation—but Isaiah tells Ahaz, king of Judah, to trust in God, and the miraculously good things he prophecies in today’s reading will come to pass. The references to vengeance and terrible recompense sound like odd things about which not to fear, but the Hebrew they translate can also be rendered as ‘vindication’ and ‘restoration’.

The Response            Psalm 146

The Epistle            James 2:1-10, 14-17

Today’s psalm picked up the thread of God coming to rescue those in need. The letter from James reminds us of two things. The second is that God uses agents to bring about the justice that Isaiah prophesied: each and every one of us who bear the name of Christian. The first is that the one who plays favorites breaks the law as surely as if she had committed murder. It is a challenge to square this assertion with the gospel story of Jesus initially refusing to heal the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter.

The Gospel            Mark 7:24-37

 

Further thoughts

The claim in Isaiah’s prophecy that good things are coming to the outsiders and the admonition in the letter of James not to play favorites play disquietingly with today’s gospel.

As the gospel opens, Jesus is still mourning the recent assassination of his cousin John, who baptized him, he’s fairly new to ministry, and he’s been working very hard; Tyre, in Gentile country, may have looked like the place for a nice anonymous rest. Found at once, however, he initially and rather rudely refuses to heal a child because her mother is Syrophoenician. It is a troubling reading: why on earth would compassionate, generous Jesus blow anyone off with the comment, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”?

Many commentators assert that Jesus must be joking with the woman and that she must know it to respond as she does. A related interpretation is that he is testing her faith. Somehow, though, like D. Mark Davis (http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2012/09/comparing-humans-to-dogs.html), I just can’t accept that Jesus would knowingly stoop either to joshing a desperate mother or to intentional disrespect.

What if Jesus said what he thought and the woman’s response made him rethink not only her request but the scope of his ministry? This view is not original with me: see the David Henson’s blog Edges of Faith (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson/2012/09/jesus-was-not-colorblind-racial-slurs-and-the-syrophoenician-woman-lectionary/), among others. It makes sense to me, though. Human beings are classifiers: we like to know what the categories are and what is and is not inside the boundaries, and we use what we know or think we know to construct parameters by which to judge. This bent is a strength of our cognition—emergency medicine depends crucially on being able to make snap judgments—but it is a weakness when our categories box us in. For the Jews of Jesus’ time, the inhabitants of Tyre were definitely Them, not Us. Second, insofar as historical Jesus is human and not just God through and through, he would have learned the attitudes of his culture just as we do, even as he had to learn how to operate one of these fleshy bodies just as we do.

This raises the prospect that what we see here is Jesus’ continuing education. I for one find this both comforting and challenging: if Jesus could listen to dissent and rethink things, then far be it from me to continue to shelter behind my own prior beliefs and attitudes. I still won’t match Jesus’ step for step on the way, of course—but I have much less excuse not to try.

For Sept. 2, 2012: Proper 17, Year B

The Reading            Song of Solomon 2:8-13

The book of poetry we call the Song of Solomon might have been written by Solomon himself in the tenth century before Christ, but the language also supports a date of composition hundreds of years later. Over the centuries it has been read as an allegory for God’s pursuit of humans, but it also works as a vivid, sensual celebration of human physical love. Interestingly, in much of the poem—as here—the voice is that of a woman.

The Response            Psalm 45:1-10

The Epistle            James 1:17-27

The letter of James was written between the mid-first century and the very late second century A.D. and most probably addressed to Jewish Christians. It is a collection of practical precepts for Christian living. Its emphasis on doing the word earned it the label “epistle of straw” from Martin Luther, who preached salvation by faith alone. Surely, though, good works should be the outcome of living in Christ.

The Gospel            Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

 

Further thoughts

This is, I think, a good Sunday to work backward through the lections.

The gospel tells us about Jewish washing for purity. The tradition was not as universal as Mark makes it, for an eminently practical reason: in that desert climate, water had to be fetched pot by pot from the well or the town fountain, and for water in such quantities one needed a bevy of housemaids. In short, this is purity only for those with money and power. Jesus is having none of it.

Jesus follows up with stern words: what makes me impure before God is nothing that a bath can help, it’s the bad behavior arising from our bad intentions—including our insistence that being right with God requires a certain form of ritual, a specific phrasing in prayer, or a particular dress code. The list opens with several big items that most of us may congratulate ourselves for avoiding most of the time, but then it closes with familiar universals such as envy, slander, pride, and folly. In the mirror that this holds up, I’m not a pretty sight.

The letter of James ends by boiling true religion down to this essence: looking out for the most marginalized in society and remaining unstained by the world. It also gives advice, especially pointed in a campaign season, to be quick to listen and slow both to speech and to anger. The view in the mirror only gets worse: who dares look?.

Before that, however, the letter makes an assertion that is easy to lose in guilt and shame, and anger, and that is that every act of generosity and every good gift is from God—every last one of them. That list includes good deeds done by people who don’t look or worship like my coreligionists: if the deed brings healing, it is of God. That that list also embraces, in the words of the Episcopal Rite 1, “our selves, our souls and bodies”—the whole package, with parts that aren’t named in Sunday school—is underlined, and with exclamation points and hearts, by the radiant, blessed, no-need-to-hide carnality of the Song of Songs. Less extravagant but just as important is seeing, in a tired, worn, shamefaced human being, the good gift of God.