Archives for June 2012

Jeannie Babb

Jeannie Babb is a student at the Sewanee: The University of the South, where she recently finished one master’s degree and began another. Jeannie’s idea of a perfect day includes a bike ride to a quiet beach with a book on women in ancient Christian literature or a translation of “On the Soul and Resurrection.” She writes poetry, fiction, magazine articles and a weekly newspaper column.

Read Jeannie’s comments on the RCL readings for the Seventh Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 10 (B).

Read Jeannie’s comments on the RCL readings for 16 Pentecost, Proper 19 (B).

Read Jeannie’s comments on the RCL readings for 20 Pentecost, Proper 23 (B).

Bible Study: Proper 10 (B) – July 15, 2012

Discussion Leader: Jeannie Babb, Sewanee

“She rushed back to the king and requested, ‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.’ The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her.” (Mark 6:25-26)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings: 
2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 and Psalm 24 (or Amos 7:7-15 and Psalm 85:8-13); Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19

These passages first describe David and his company taking the ark out of the home of Abinadab with great rejoicing, then state that God blessed the household of Obed-edom “because of the ark.” The change of household names alerts the careful reader (or listener) to a bit of lectionary sleight of hand; something is missing from the story. The lectionary artfully skips over verses 6-11, in which God is said to strike Abinadab’s son dead for touching the ark.

Both passages depict David and his entourage singing, celebrating and dancing with all their might. The second passage focuses on David and his wild abandon. If this were happening today, it would be all over YouTube. Our culture has a fascination with capturing moments when a person is so overwhelmed with joy, their reaction is completely unguarded and unscripted: military homecomings, surprise wedding proposals, and even little children finding out they’re going to Disney World.

When is the last time you experienced wild abandon?

How did you express your joy?

Psalm 85:8-13

What does it mean when righteousness and peace kiss each other?

This portion of the psalm explores the ideal interaction between humans and God. The psalmist explores this relationship by tumbling it around, turning it inside out, and playing with abstract descriptions of God and the people. When God’s love encounters human faithfulness, then mercy meets truth. Righteousness and peace kiss. There is a meeting in the middle, a coming together. Truth springs up from the people as righteousness looks down from heaven.

Does lightning strike from the ground up, or from the sky down? Yes, yes.

Can you feel the charge of that attraction?

Ephesians 1:3-14

The language of blessing and assurance practically bubble up from these verses. God’s grace is freely bestowed on us. We were chosen before the foundation of the world to be adopted by God. This language does not imply predestination in the sense that some people are hand picked by God before creation, while all other people have no chance of salvation. To see the error of that interpretation, the reader only has to ask, who is this “we”?

In context, the first person plural pronoun does not refer to all Christians, but to those “who were the first to set our hope on Christ” (1:12); that is, Jewish Christians. The letter then refers to “you.” This second group of people heard the gospel, believed on Christ, were marked by the Holy Spirit, and thus are promised the same inheritance of redemption. The distinction between “we” and “you” refers to the early Christian formula that Christ came for “the Jew first, and also the Greek” (Rom 2:10). “We” are Jewish, “you” are not, but both “we” and “you” are set to receive the wonderful inheritance of redemption through Jesus Christ.

Mark 6:14-29

He offered her anything – no, everything – a girl could want: jewels, rich robes, palaces, even power. “Up to half my kingdom,” he pledged.

Imagine his surprise when the girl said, “Give me … the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”

Taking on her mother’s grudge, young Herodias threw away a chance at riches and power for the momentary satisfaction of enacting her mother’s revenge. Her choice caused a good man’s death, and left the poor girl with nothing to show for it but a severed head. Talk about treasures that rot!

When have you traded golden opportunities for treasures that rot? Or failed to seek your own good because you thought you had to fulfill someone else’s vision?

How have you, like the elder Herodias, passed grudges, resentment, enmity or prejudice to your children?

Have you ever found yourself in Herod’s situation? His generosity was used to take what he did not want to give. He was the ruler, but his pride would not allow him to object, “I promised you up to half of what I have, but this man’s life is not mine to take or give.” He meant to give, but instead took.

The power of being gathered up into God, 7 Pentecost, Proper 10 (B) – 2012

July 15, 2012

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 and Psalm 24 (or Amos 7:7-15 and Psalm 85:8-13); Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29

“John, whom I’ve beheaded, has been raised!”

Herod must have been terrified. A man like Herod, who relied on treachery, questionable political moves, the power gained through wealth, is confronted with his worst nightmare. He knew John was dead. He saw his head – yes, through a haze of drunkenness – but he saw the head. But this Jesus, obviously a man of power himself, is becoming known throughout Herod’s kingdom. Who is he? Could it really be John, raised from the dead? John, the man Herod killed because of a grudge, a grudge he held against him for telling the truth?

How very sad. How very tragic. And yet, because of what we’ve seen in our own lifetimes of the consequence of misused power, political greed and society’s belief that “it’s all about me,” we have to realize Herod has something to teach us.

Herod is an interesting character. What Benedict Arnold is to the word “traitor,” the name Herod has become to the word “evil,” but a sad kind of evil. In Herod we see a man desperate to be king. He killed his own relatives to gain the throne and then surrounded himself with sycophants, men who would use Herod’s favor to garner their own power.

The parties given by the king were as sick and sad as the participants were – days of feasting and uncontrolled drinking, entertainment that was sometimes less than respectable. Into this sad state of the political life of Israel, John the Baptizer dropped the embarrassing and dangerous truth. For this John lost his life because Herod was a fool and Herod’s character was terribly weak.

So today’s gospel tells us that this same Herod, who thought he had gotten rid of his adversary John, is now faced with a new adversary, Jesus. Herod had to be frightened. Who is this man he was hearing so much about? Could John have come back from the dead to haunt him, or was this someone new who would challenge his authority?

We know the answer and Herod would soon find out. Jesus was soon known by most as a man who taught with authority, who spoke the truth without fear, and who preached a return to faith by all Jews if they were to be truly children of God. And he broke the roles made up by weak men who were afraid of losing power.

While today’s gospel passage is mostly a bit of history, the letter from Paul to the Ephesians fills out what the people were saying about Jesus in Herod’s time. Paul helps us understand how we are connected to God. Paul reminds us of the amazing gifts we are given because God loves us. Instead of being afraid that Jesus is John raised from the dead, Paul says, “Blessed be God … who has blessed us in Christ with ever spiritual blessing in the heavens!” No fear here, just deep and joyful gratitude that we are empowered by God’s blessings. Paul goes on to tell us what some of those blessings are: adoption as God’s children, redemption through the blood of Jesus, forgiveness for our sins and grace lavished on us. Isn’t that a wonderful image? God’s grace being lavished on us! None of these things is a worldly gift. They are all of a heavenly nature, that we can, however, use here in our earthly lives. These gifts give us a spiritual authority and power that we must use to do good and to spread the Good News among our brothers and sisters.

There’s no comparison between this kind of power and authority and that of people such as Herod and Pilate or those before them: Ahasuerus in Esther’s time, Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel’s. Those people built their power on fear and treachery. Our power comes from the deep and abiding love of God. Paul tells us that with all wisdom and insight, God has made known to us the mystery of his will.

That sounds, well, mysterious. Can we understand that? Yes, indeed, we can, because that will is simply that God wants to gather up all things in heaven and on earth into Himself. It is our inheritance. The question is, do we want this? Is being gathered up into God’s love enough for us?

We have to ask that question seriously and truthfully. What does it mean to be gathered up into God here on earth? It’s all fine and good to think about that being what happens in heaven, where all is supposed to be perfect love and union with God. But don’t we often find that people still think that in heaven it will be “me and Jesus”? We seem to be fixated, here on earth, with deciding who gets there and who doesn’t. Let’s be honest about that. We want to be able to judge who gets there and who doesn’t. We too often forget that Jesus constantly talked about the kingdom of God being right here, right now, too. Wait a minute – that means we ought to be living in this abiding love right now, with everyone.

But we are surrounded still with people like Herod and Pilate. People are fighting for power, literally – killing innocent people just to keep control over land and the gifts of the land. We can’t get away from it. The TV and newspapers inundate us with images and blaring headlines that would kill any thought of living in love and peace we might have. And then, if we’re honest, we, too, want some control. We want to have some kind of power; it’s what society tells us is important.

Maybe this gospel about Herod is getting a little too close to home. It’s no longer just a history lesson, it’s a moral lesson, and we may find ourselves coming up short. We’re not yet thrilled with Paul’s words of the blessings of God’s grace. But it’s something we must learn to want more and more. We must want to be delighted in the thought that God lavishes his grace on us – pours it out joyfully – if only we’d be aware that it’s happening and learn to bathe ourselves in that abundance. We might ask what the consequence would be if we could do this. It would change our lives. We might see the beauty in all God’s people and be willing to take their hands when solidarity for good is needed. We might see our churches begin to fill again because others would see our witness and want to share what we have. We’d learn to speak about our faith in convincing and inviting ways.

Unlike Herod and others like him, we wouldn’t have to fight and connive and fawn over others so that power would be ours to abuse; we have the power of a loving God supporting us. We have the inheritance of the saints in light. We have the example and teachings of Jesus to show us the way. It’s a much better power. It’s a much more loving and peace-giving authority. We too can lavish our care on God’s world and on God’s people if we set our minds and hearts to it. Remember, Paul tells us we are marked with seal of the Holy Spirit. We are destined to be God’s people here on earth. We can make no other choice.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is vicar of Petrockstowe in the Torridge Team, Diocese of Exeter, North Devon, England, and is the publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal focused on lectionary-based preaching and ministry.

Robert Solon

The Rev. Robert (Bob) Solon is a priest of the Diocese of Newark and is pursing a doctoral degree in liturgics from the General Theological Seminary in New York City. His interests lie in the Daily Office and Anglican spirituality.

Read Bob’s comments about the RCL readings for the Sixth Sunday After Pentecost, Proper (B).

Bible Study: Proper 9 (B) – July 8, 2012

Discussion Leader: Robert Solon, General Theological Seminary

“Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honor, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’” (Mark 6:4)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10 and Psalm 48 (or Ezekiel 2:1-5 and Psalm 123); 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13

2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10

In last week’s reading from the Hebrew scriptures, we heard how David mourned over the death of Saul, his predecessor, friend, mentor and finally enemy. We then skip forward over most of four chapters until we hear how David had been king of the tribe of Judah (one of the twelve tribes of the Israelite people) for seven and a half years when the rest of Israel asked him to be king as well. It all sounds very civilized and genteel. However, those four chapters we don’t hear in church tell the story of a civil war, a false accusation, a betrayal, and two assassinations, plus a sneak attack on a walled city. Read all about it here.

What details were omitted between last Sunday’s reading and this week’s? Why do you suppose they were not included? What portions of 2 Samuel 1-5 would you have included over these two Sundays? Why those?

Psalm 48

In the reading from the Hebrew scriptures (semi-continuous option, above) for this week, we heard how David “occupied the stronghold, and named it the City of David.” The text actually refers to Jerusalem, the capital of united Israel under the reigns of her two greatest Kings, David and his son Solomon. This psalm is one of several that speaks of Jerusalem, or its other name, Zion. Other of the 56 total references to Zion in the psalms can be found in Psalms 2, 84, 87, 122, 125 and 137.

Look up some of these other psalms. What do they say about the importance of place in the minds of the people? How important are places – physical, stable, brick-and-mortar – to you in your spiritual life? To your community of faith? How do the “songs of Zion” (Ps 137) inform your sense of sacred place?

2 Corinthians 12:2-12

In this passage, the apostle Paul continues a long argument what it’s OK to boast about, and what to be humble about. Although the text makes it appear that he is talking about someone else, in reality, Paul is talking about ecstatic visions he himself experienced in the course of his life. Remember that the Corinthians had asked about spiritual gifts such as these (1 Corinthians 14). Now Paul admits he has had them too, but then immediately goes on to talk about a “thorn in his flesh” to keep him from getting too proud. No one knows what it was specifically, but whatever it was, caused Paul in his reflections and prayers to say that “My grace is sufficient for you; power is made perfect in weakness.”

What do you think of this? Do you think God deliberately inflicts such challenges on people? Is it appropriate to call attention even to one’s sufferings, or better to be quiet about them? How might you use this passage to inform the challenges of your own life?

Mark 6:1-13

In this story, Jesus is back in his hometown, but no one takes him seriously. He apparently can’t even enact his usual ministries of teaching and healing. “And he was amazed at their unbelief.” The word here really is more like “un-faith” or “un-trust.”

Can you think of other times when people didn’t seem to believe Jesus and his ministry and teaching? How does this contrast, for example, with Jesus’ calming of the storm from two Sundays ago? Does Christ only wait to be asked before he acts? Is faith required first in order to experience the love of Christ? What does that mean for your own faith and practice?

Inspiration from The Preacher’s Toolbox

Series offers challenging advice and helpful examples

Prophetic Preaching. Craig Brian Larson, editor. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2012. 150 pp.

“Prophetic Preaching” and “Inspirational Preaching” are volumes of collected articles from notable evangelical preachers, selected from the archives of PreachingToday.com and organized into thematic collections.

Authors include prominent Baptists such as Anne Graham Lotz, John Piper and Haddon Robinson; non-denominational pastors, including Gordon MacDonald and Mark Driscoll; and notable Presbyterians such as Timothy Keller and John Ortberg.

The purpose of the series is to bring together the insight and wisdom of preachers from a variety of evangelical traditions, and of various ages, backgrounds and ministries, for the benefit of preachers everywhere. “Bringing you timeless wisdom for contemporary preaching with the goal of equipping you for the most important work in the world, the proclamation of the glorious gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ” (from the series’ Forward).

In his introduction to the volume “Prophetic Preaching,” pastor and PreachingToday.com managing editor Matt Woodley sets the tone with the classic analogy of pastoral care as medicine. In this case, he likens prophetic preaching to surgery, where the preacher as spiritual surgeon “uses God’s Word, not as a weapon to bludgeon us, but as a scalpel to cut through our layers of excuses and evasion” (2). Thus truly prophetic preaching, as exercised by truly benevolent and trustworthy pastors, is characterized by speaking “the truth, identifying our sin, calling it by name, and then gently leading us to the One who can heal our souls” (2). Seeking to get away from the popular prejudice of prophetic preaching as moralistic or overly obsessed with the direction of culture and practiced by angry and shaming preachers, the essays in this volume portray prophetic preaching as a gentle and positive enterprise centered upon a high view of Scripture, and one that flows through the preacher’s compassionate heart. Prophetic preaching, according to Woodley, combines the preacher’s love for his people with a holy discontentment with the “bent and twisted” condition of the world and people’s lives, longing “for Christ to come and set things right” (4). But instead of berating people, this brand of preaching “seeks to break and win hearts” (5), challenging people with the Word and bringing hope for the future through repentance, saying “Yes, you are a mess (and I’m a mess and the whole world’s a mess), but in Christ, you have everything you need to start life anew” (6).

The essays in this book are divided into two parts, “The Calling of Prophetic Preaching,” which focuses on the what and why of prophetic preaching; and “The Craft of Prophetic Preaching,” which provides practical advice on the how. The format for each essay varies, but they are generally either a short reflection by or an interview of one of the featured preachers, wherein they offer various perspectives and anecdotes from their own ministries. While the specific advice given varies from chapter to chapter, reflecting the personalities and perspectives of each author, the consistent emphasis is true to evangelical form, with the classic focus on preaching the truth with the aim of repentance, conversion and amendment of life.

In “Prophetic Preaching,” there’s lots of talk about preaching the truth, but there’s very little attention given to what that truth is, specifically. Thus the book has an ecumenical appeal, as one could see it as more focused on methodology and ethos than on the confessional details of what one ought to preach. This is both its strength and its weakness. The book has a commendable focus on love, and a heartening concern with social issues, but it may disappoint those who are looking for a theological basis from which this concern flows. Much is taken for granted; simply saying it comes from the Bible isn’t enough to satisfy many readers. For example, the initial chapter by Francis Chan, entitled “The Basis of Prophetic Preaching,” fails to give a substantial foundation for any sort of particularly Christian preaching. Surely it wouldn’t be out of line to reflect on the nature of Christ as the Word of God, and preaching’s participation in and with the Incarnation? What about some foundational reflection on the formation of the preacher’s character as necessary for building credibility? Surely a notable contribution to our understanding of the art of preaching should at least touch upon these subjects; indeed, the format of short essays would have been perfect for doing just that.

Inspirational Preaching. Craig Brian Larson, editor. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2012. 163 pp.

The second volume, “Inspirational Preaching,” puts before us the ideal of inspirational preachers who “combine deep passion with biblical exposition, so by the time they finish a sermon, our minds have been informed and our wills have been quickened” (2). Such an experience, Woodley suggests in his introduction, is a taste of what those disciples experienced with Christ while on the road to Emmaus, their hearts burning while the Scriptures were opened. As Woodley points out, the word “vision” features prominently in this book’s essays, the goal being to expand the congregation’s imagination and enflame their desire for God and what they can become in Christ. Such preaching, Woodley points out, requires preachers with integrity and genuine emotion. The goal is, of course, the congregation’s transformation through their “revived feelings” (6). But the book also sounds a strong note on grace; all of this is the work of the Spirit. “Only the Holy Spirit can make dry bones live and fruit grow from the hard earth of a human heart. So add your little drops to the Spirit’s mighty downpour of inspiration, and he will ‘do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us’ (Eph 3.20)” (7).

Much of the essays in this volume focus on the combination of emotion with truth, as seen in titles such as “Fighting for Your Congregation’s Imagination,” “Preaching with VIM, Not Just Vigor” and “Allowing Emotion to Buttress Truth.” One chapter even promises, “Last Sunday You Preached Your Last Boring Sermon.” A good counterpart to “Prophetic Preaching, Inspirational Preaching” provides a more positive tack to the first volume’s negative angle, turning our attention away from our disease and toward the hope for health.

“Inspirational Preaching” is perhaps more helpful in its rhetorical observations than its prophetic partner. Indeed, hope is surely a more effective means to amendment of life than a sense of disappointment and inadequacy, however important this negative impression may be. Also, this volume contains something largely missing from the first: significant discussion on the preacher’s own character and spirituality, from which all preaching necessarily flows. Again, more theological foundation in Christ would have been welcome, rather than in the vague and general principles of God as awesome creator (John Piper) or as grand dramatist (Haddon Robinson). Surely the central Christian pillars of the love of God as expressed in Christ’s incarnation, or in his redemption and transformation of human nature in his Passion could have given preachers even greater and more practical inspiration for how to shape both their own character and desire, and that of those listening to them.

While these books may not be a serious contribution to the art of preaching, many might find them inspirational in their challenging advice and wonderful stories and examples. Hearing the passion and conviction of experienced and well-loved preachers is always a welcome challenge, perhaps especially for traditions that don’t emphasize preaching as evangelicalism does. But the lack of theological foundation in these essays limits their usefulness to general advice in method and approach, and suggests they may have a short shelf life.

 

(Jeremy Bergstrom received his Ph.D. in historical theology from the University of Durham, England, in February, and has just graduated from Nashotah House with a Certificate in Anglican Studies, where he also teaches as an adjunct instructor. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a Master of Theology from St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary. He resides in Nashotah, Wisconsin, with his wife and two young sons.)

Robert Berra

The Rev. Robert Berra is a Masters of Divinity student at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale and was recently ordained to the Transitional Diaconate in the Diocese of Arizona. He has also earned an M.A. in Religious Studies, with emphases in Christian ethics, the relationship between violence and religion, and the relationship between religion and the secular. He has taught in middle- and high-school settings, assisted liturgically and pastorally in a university campus ministry, and has served as a parish administrator. He currently serves at St. Paul’s-on-the-Green in Norwalk, Conn.

Read Robert’s comments on the RCL readings for 5 Pentecost, Proper 8 (B).

Bible Study: Proper 8 (B) – July 1, 2012

Discussion Leader: Robert Berra, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

“He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum,’ which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’ And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement.” (Mark 5: 38-40)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27 and Psalm 130 (or Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15; 2:23-24
and Lamentations 3:21-33 or Psalm 30); 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43

 

Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15; 2:23-24

The five verses of the lection (out of a range of two chapters – forty verses!) are a distillation of the author’s answer as to why there is good and evil, and why we should choose the good. God created all there is; and because of God’s goodness, the essence of creation mirrors this goodness. It is this goodness for which we were created. The author constructs a dualism, considering evil to be a creation of the devil, who leads people to death. The author is putting a choice before us: support the creative good work of God, or choose to deal in the death of God’s creative work.

For the author, we are not dealing with an abstract choice that will affect us when the mortal body dies, but a choice that has concrete consequences in the here and now. The unrighteous, by not understanding the good ends of creation, see life as short and meaningless. A vision of scarcity and selfishness pervades as the unrighteous try to provide for their own happiness at the expense of others (see 2:6-11) in spite of the example of the righteous who take a long and nurturing view of human life and honor all God has made.

How does your view of death affect your way of life?

Psalm 30

Psalm 30 is a song of thanksgiving – one person’s testimony to God’s goodness after a nearly fatal (probably) physical illness. The psalm is an emotional rollercoaster with highs and lows: praise, thanks, arrogance, desertion, pain, desperation, bargaining, mourning, joy and gratitude. With such a wide range of emotions and the somewhat non-specific nature of the trouble the psalmist faced, it is easy to see that this psalm can speak to a wide range of people. It speaks to those of us who have had the time to reflect on hardships and can join in praising God. It also speaks to those of us who are still “weeping in the night,” and waiting for the joy that comes in the morning – and hoping that joy will come.

In reading this psalm, what emotions are you feeling? Why are you feeling those particular emotions?

Is there a story of a time in your life that led you to gratitude and thanksgiving for God’s work in your life?

2 Corinthians 8:7-15 

Stepping away from the particular circumstances of the letter, we can see Paul developing a theology of giving based on the desire to do good and in imitation of Christ. For Paul, there is no great separation between faith and good works; the two are linked. Paul expects that the Corinthians would be willing to give without Paul coercing them. He is asking them to show that the love they profess for others are not empty words, but are followed with the desire to give to the material benefit of the poor. Paul implies that a maturing faith will show that the desire to give will grow and flourish naturally, without his compulsion, and that the Corinthians who (he says) excel in faith, speech, knowledge, in eagerness and love, will show their mature faith in charity. In doing so, the Corinthians will imitate Christ who became poor the sake of others. Knowing that people get tied down by asking, “How much is enough?” or grumbling about “giving everything away,” Paul writes that we seek not that the poor simply become rich and the rich become poor, but for the alleviation of need and a fair balance of necessities. Instead of a begrudging charity, Paul envisions a church trying to enact the kingdom of God, which is not bound to rules of scarcity or the logic of determining winners and losers.

How does faith play into your providing for the necessities of others?

Mark 5:21-43

The story of the healing of the hemorrhaging woman is nestled in the story of Jesus raising Jairus’ daughter. The differences in situation in these two healings are stark. Jairus is wealthy, well-connected and a religious leader. He comes to Jesus to request help for his daughter, and Jesus follows. The woman is ill, impoverished, ritually unclean and therefore separated from society. Both Jairus and the woman show faith in Jesus; but the woman shows a well-placed audaciousness that Jairus does not. This may be the difference in the social status of Jairus and the woman. Jairus’ position comes with respect and openness in how he moves in society. The woman seems to act in desperation, a clandestine attempt to be healed before she is found out and removed from the scene.

In these connected stories, we learn something of Jesus and his reordering of societal priorities. Jesus stopped a crowd to establish a relationship to a long-time ritually unclean woman (nowhere near a high social standing) who had touched him. He calls her “daughter” in the presence of established religious authorities of the day. He restores her to health and to community in spite of an interaction that would be considered scandalous. In the case of Jairus’ daughter, he again heals a ritually unclean woman with a touch. In these stories, we are shown that the priorities of Jesus are not the same as the world’s, and that he is willing to transgress worldly boundaries to bring about the good of those who seek him.

Healing may mean something different from being cured of an ailment. How have you experienced healing in your life?

What societal boundaries are you willing to cross when you can aid others in healing?

Goliath moments, 6 Pentecost, Proper 9 (B) – July 8, 2012

2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10; Psalm 48; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13

“David was 30 years old when he began to reign, and he reigned for forty years. … David occupied the stronghold, and named it the City of David. David built the city all around from the Millo inward. And David became greater and greater, for the Lord of hosts was with him.”

There is something strong and imperial and complete about these words from today’s Old Testament reading from Second Samuel. They constitute a summary about the reign of King David. They claim a divine sanction for David’s success. But they leave out much more than they contain. The story of David, which stretches through many chapters of scripture, is far more human and horrible and glorious than this scrap of royal chronicle.

At the Palmer Art Museum in University Park, Pennsylvania, there is an oil painting from 17th century Italy that depicts David with the head of Goliath.

The artist, Forabosco, shows us David, not as a king, but as a shepherd, a teenager, the youngest of all the sons of Jesse. He has killed the giant warrior Goliath with a slingshot, cut off his head, and now carries that monstrously huge head on one shoulder, holding it in place with both hands as though it were a watermelon.

Here David embodies the unconscious grace of youth. In contrast, the head of Goliath, eyes closed, shows the tinctures of death, with a great red bruise on the forehead marking the spot hit by David’s fatal stone.

What is most notable about this painting, however, is the expression on young David’s face. He does not display the exuberant triumph of, for example, a football player who has just won a championship game. No, young David appears lost in thought; apparently he is aware that this remarkable success has brought to an end his simple existence. The life that awaits him – many more heroics, 40 years as king – will be heavy with complexities.

This young David did what Saul’s entire army did not. He killed the monstrous enemy champion, Goliath of Gath. He did not rely on the finest armor and weapons, but killed the giant with a stone from a slingshot. The Philistine looked powerful, but proved to be weak. David the shepherd boy looked weak, but proved to be powerful. And scripture all but shouts at us that God is at work in the powerful weakness of young David.

David gained power of a more conventional kind. His record as king turns out to be decidedly mixed. Sometimes he discerned and did what is right; at other times he abused his power and committed heinous crimes. Perhaps the worst episode involves committing adultery with Bathsheba and then setting up the murder of Uriah, one of his loyal soldiers. If God was with David, as today’s reading claims, then at times God must have been present with him in judgment.

The saga of David is one of the great stories in biblical literature. He is a character who haunts western culture. But let’s go a step further. David, shepherd boy and king, also haunts western politics. As we celebrate our national independence, we would do well to remember that over the last two centuries and more, our country has had its Goliath moments and its Uriah moments.

Sometimes our weakness has been revealed as strength. And sometimes our strength has been revealed as weakness. If we ask God to bless our nation, then we must remember that this blessing comes as both mercy and judgment. The living God is nobody’s national mascot, but demands that we do justice, and love mercy, and walk before him in humility.

Our country has had its Uriah moments when out of the arrogance and blindness of power, we have betrayed trust and squandered opportunity and offended God who has sent his prophets to speak truth against lies.

Our country has had its Goliath moments when, out of weakness that refuses to be afraid, we have toppled giants and beheaded them so that, however momentarily, God’s reign has been tangible.

And because our country is no monolith, but a combination of persons and factions, often the Goliath moment and the Uriah moment have been the same moment. We the people have shown simultaneously both the worst that is in us, and the best. Together we behave as David did.

And so there is reason if our national countenance, like Forabosco’s portrait of David, looks perplexed even at a moment of victory, for our national life is full of perplexities. We killed one Goliath at the time of the Revolution, when thousands of young Davids encamped at places like Valley Forge, and it has been, perhaps inevitably, a mottled saga ever since.

Let’s not focus on the Uriah moments except as background for when one more Goliath or another has been slain. But for a sad and scholarly accounting of many Uriah moments in our national life, turn to Howard Zinn’s extraordinary work, “A People’s History of the United States.” Its accounting of sorrows is relentless.

Let’s consider, instead, three moments out of countless others that have been Goliath moments in our national story, occasions when, out of weakness, Americans have found strength to slay some threatening giant.

Sometimes Goliath is despair and David hurls a stone of hope to kill him. The year was 1850, the place, Faniel Hall in Boston. The great Frederick Douglass was speaking. In the course of his address, he grew more and more agitated, more and more despairing, finally saying that he saw no possibility of justice for people of African descent outside of violence and bloodshed.

Douglass sat down, and the audience fell into a tense hush. Sitting in the very first row was Sojourner Truth, a woman who knew the evils of slavery from personal experience, having been sold four times. She rose, and her deep and commanding voice spoke a sentence heard throughout the auditorium. “Frederick, is God dead?”

Sometimes Goliath is weariness in well doing and David hurls a stone of solidarity to kill him. An unfinished chapter in American history concerns the labor movement and its struggles against oppressive conditions. A most unlikely David arose in the person of a poor Irish widow named Mother Jones. Some spoke her name with contempt, but she was a mother to the great masses who labored in the dark coal mines or worked 65 hours every week in the mills.

In the 1890s, she served as an agitator for the United Mine Workers where her fiery speeches would move men and women to tears and compel them to action. In Colorado, she approached a machine gun poised to open fire on a line of demonstrators; she placed her hand on the barrel, turned it to the ground, and then walked on by.

She once told a congressional committee, “My address is wherever there is a fight against oppression.”

Sometimes Goliath is a fear of strangers and David hurls a stone of acceptance, a stone of welcome, to kill him. It was a great day when these words of invitation composed by Emma Lazarus were first displayed on the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor for all the world to see:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Word of welcome to the weak and rejected. An invitation for them to grow strong in a commonwealth whose only nobility is to be a nobility of character.

Whether our families came here on slave ships or jumbo jets, this invitation is meant for us and our children, and we are to offer it as well to others. Each new arrival is not a threat, but comes bearing gifts meant to build up our common life.

Our nation has had Uriah moments, reasons for honest repentance. We have had Goliath moments as well, causes for celebration. Our country is designed not to be an empire, and not to be a church, but to be a commonwealth, an experiment in democracy.

God is with us, as God is with all nations and peoples of the earth. The choice remains ours, however, whether we will offer God Uriah moments to judge, or Goliath moments to bless. Goliath moments: when strength arises out of weakness, despair gives way to hope, weariness is replaced by solidarity, and fear dissolves in the face of acceptance and welcome. There are Goliath moments still to come in our nation’s future.

“Frederick, is God dead?”

“My address is wherever there is a fight against oppression.”

“Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2003).

 

Independence Day (B) – July 4, 2012

Practice makes perfect

Deuteronomy 10:17-21; Psalm 145 or Psalm 145:1-9; Hebrews 11:8-16; Matthew 5:43-48

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

It’s tough to imagine a more unsettling teaching for Americans to hear on Independence Day than this passage from the Sermon on the Mount. Resisting evil doers, turning the other cheek and praying for those who persecute us are not things we seem to do very well. And then there’s the little matter of being perfect.

How many times have you heard these maxims? “Never settle for second best.” “Don’t accept no for an answer.” “Never give up.” “Get it right the first time.”

Americans tend to obey these rules as though they were self-evident commandments. But while it is true that following them can lead to personal success, slavish observance of them can also promote perfectionism.

Perfectionism is the desire to be without defect in everything we do, and it can cause heartbreak for us and those we love. It can cause a person to focus on his job to the detriment of his family life. It can cause a person to procrastinate for fear of not doing a project flawlessly from the start. It can influence a young woman’s view of her body so that she starves herself to have the “perfect” figure.

But the problem with perfectionism is clear: it is unattainable. No person can be perfect at all times and in every area of her life.

The Bible itself records this in one of the overarching themes of scripture: human beings are imperfect. We make mistakes in judgment. We are prone to self-preservation and selfishness. We are capable of committing evil. In short, however much we strive to live God-centered lives, we are sinners and will always battle the temptations that keep us away from perfection.

Given these realities, Jesus’ imperative to be perfect as God is perfect sounds a bit preposterous.

This verse closes the first section of the Sermon on the Mount and follows a set of teachings that should, if we really pay attention to them, cause us deep discomfort. We know that we shouldn’t commit murder, but Jesus says that we shouldn’t even be angry with our sisters and brothers or insult them. We know that we shouldn’t commit adultery, but Jesus says that we must control lascivious thoughts because the thoughts are as sinful as the actions. He tells us that we must give to everyone and anyone who asks for money or material goods, even if we don’t think they will use them wisely. And he claims that loving only those who love us isn’t enough. We must also love our enemies. Not simply avoid harming them or just tolerate them, but love them. Then Jesus closes with that strange, daunting command, be perfect just as God is perfect.

Jesus knew about human sinfulness and the darkness of the human heart. So how could he expect us to do the impossible? Was he making a rhetorical flourish to highlight the seriousness of his ethical teachings? Or was it hyperbole, a verbal exclamation point closing his interpretation of Torah?

When we look at different biblical translations of the term “be perfect,” we see that Jesus was not being dramatic or asking for the impossible. His understanding of perfection was not exactly the same as ours. The New Jerusalem Bible says, “You must therefore set no bounds to your love, just as your heavenly Father sets none to his.” The New English Bible says, “There must be no limit to your goodness, as your heavenly Father’s goodness knows no bounds.” And Eugene Peterson’s popular translation, “The Message,” says, “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

Peterson translates teleioi – the Greek word often rendered as “perfect” – as “grow up.” In doing so, he highlights a definition of perfection that means to reach maturity, to become complete. In other words, Jesus wasn’t saying that perfection is a state of eternal flawlessness that can be magically wished into being. It is a process, one in which we make a practice of acting in ways that reflect God’s nature as we grow into the fullness of our baptismal calling.

Being generous as God is generous, being gracious as God is gracious, loving others as God loves us are surely some of the most difficult skills to learn. But as a child learns by imitating others, we too can help ourselves reach maturity by looking at the spiritual grown-ups around us.

In 2005 a Palestinian family demonstrated God’s generosity, graciousness and love with a beauty that surely bordered on perfection. The family’s 12-year old son, Ahmad Khateep, died after being shot in the head and chest by Israeli soldiers. Ahmed’s father made the decision to donate his son’s organs to children in an Israeli hospital and declared, “We want to send a message of peace to Israeli society, to the Defense Ministry and the Parliament.” Mustafa Makhamid, Ahmad’s uncle, told reporters that “Ahmed was a wonderful and smart little kid who just wanted to play. We want to donate his organs to all the children of Israel whom we consider our children. Enough blood spilling. We hope that we will start a new process that will exceed all others and end the spilling of blood.” With that decision three Israeli girls were given the gift of new life because they received the organs of a Palestinian child. With that decision the Khateep family loved their “enemies” and showed the entire world what it means to have God-like generosity and graciousness. In their practice of God’s qualities, they acted like true grown-ups.

It’s not difficult to imagine that some of their ancestors may have sat on a mountainside in Galilee more than 2,000 years ago and decided to take seriously Jesus’ invitation to enter the process of becoming perfect as God is perfect. If so, they had to have made many mistakes while living out his teachings because they were flawed people, just like us. But they kept handing them down, maintaining their practice so that the seeds of God’s loving kindness were planted in their spiritual DNA. And those seeds bore fruit generations later in the lives of people who are supposed to be at terrible odds with one another.

What hope is found in this story! As Americans, we can see that it is possible to act in ways that go against the norm of what our culture tells us. It is possible to be faithful to God’s teachings rather than fall prey to the fear and hatred that seem to dominate our political conversations.

As followers of Jesus, we can see that we are all invited into the process of growing up and into God’s kingdom of loving kindness. Even in the face of our sinful natures, we can choose to act with love, not only toward those who love us, but also toward those we might be inclined to despise. With God’s help and the example of mature sisters and brothers, we are able to act out Jesus’ teachings in our lives for the benefit of all God’s creation.

There is another maxim you may have heard: “Practice makes perfect.” Maybe we should rephrase that to say, practice may not make us flawless, but it can make us loving grown-ups in the Kingdom of God.

 

— The Rev. Christie M. Dalton is a deacon for regional ministry in the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina. She lives in Winston-Salem where she is also a development officer for Wake Forest University School of Divinity.