Learning from Proverbs – Proper 18(B) – 2015

(RCL) Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 125; James 2:1-10 (11-13), 14-17; Mark 7:24-37

“A penny saved is a penny earned.” Is this in the Bible? I hope everyone is thinking—no! It’s a proverb, of course, but one of Benjamin Franklin’s, not from the Old Testament. However, it could have been one as the book of Proverbs is full of earthly and spiritual wisdom.

We may think of proverbs as clever sayings thought up by people like Ben Franklin, who was a master at crafting these sayings. Parents have a million of these sayings at their disposal. It must come with becoming a parent. Saying such as, “Don’t make that face, it will stick that way.” “Don’t go out with a wet head, you’ll catch cold.” “Little pitchers have big ears.” I’m sure you could add many, many more, and aren’t they fun! For the next three weeks we will be treated to a different type of proverb, these are focused on wisdom – words that are not just clever clichés, but rather those that make us think seriously about how we live in our world and interrelate with each other.

Today, in a very concise and clear set of verses, we consider justice and poverty, which is very topical considering what’s happening in the world around us. As with most proverbs, these get quickly to the point, which makes them very memorable. “Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity…” “Those who are generous are blessed …” When we think about the former, we should be reminded that not only do those who sow injustice eventually reap the punishment of calamity upon themselves, but sadly, they also reap calamity immediately upon those they persecute. We might usually think about the justice that will be dealt upon those who do wrong when we read scripture verses like these. But don’t we also wonder sometimes why punishment doesn’t seem to come quickly enough (according to us!) to those who deliberately do evil to others. It doesn’t seem fair that those who are unjust seem to get away with their crime against God’s people. People often say things like, “Why did God allow those young girls in Nigeria get kidnapped and tortured by the Boko Haran?” We may even say things like that ourselves. Why isn’t God’s justice immediate and complete?

Why, indeed, but we must remember one of the great gifts God gave to us as human beings is free will. If God had a finger in everything we do, if God pushed and manipulated us as a puppet maker can manipulate the strings of a wooden puppet, then perhaps the world would be full of nice people going about their business like – well, like puppets. We wouldn’t have to think. God would never cause us to do evil if God was the puppet maker. So we have to remember that we live in a very natural world. We live in a world full of human beings who are all made in God’s image and likeness, but all with the free will to behave as they choose. Too many people today forget that most wonderful section of Genesis where God says, “Let us make humankind in our image and likeness.” Part of that is remembering that within God is ultimate and perfect freedom and so we have the freedom to choose to do good or do evil.

Justice will come, but we may not know how those who do evil will be judged or what the outcome will be. It must be enough that we trust God and know that God loves all of us, good, bad, or indifferent. God also hopes that we who try to do good will pray for those who do evil. We will work however we can to show the world that love can overcome hate, generosity can overcome greed, the mystery of prayer can overcome evil.

But, it’s not all grim. We aren’t always faced with evil that we must suffer under or overcome. There is a very positive side to the proverbs. Parents also have those positive proverbs like, “You will always be my baby” or “You’ll understand when you’re older.” In our reading today we find the proverb that says, “Those who are generous are blessed…” Yes, the generous themselves are blessed by grace, but also those who are the recipients of our generosity are blessed. There is a beautiful interaction there of blessedness. A woman therapist wrote in a blog that as she was waiting in a grocery checkout line one day, she made eye contact with another woman. They didn’t know each other, but they both smiled and in that moment, the therapist wrote, “I felt such love for her as a fellow human being. There was something beautiful in our acknowledgement of each other.”

We also must know many people who have touched our own lives with love and blessing. So many people touch our lives with their kindness, with the little things that have “made our day” as we so often say. Teachers often are the ones who help us change our lives. Many fall in love with those who have kindled a spark of something special within us. There is so much good in the world if we can only turn away from the news headlines and look into the eyes of our fellow human beings.

The Jewish people use the word mitzvah, which is often translated good deed. And rabbis will tell you that it means more—it comes from the root word tzavta, which means connection or commandment. Connection is a lovely translation. Whenever we share with the poor, speak out against injustice (especially when the injustice is right in front of our eyes), or respond with love to another, we are establishing a connection. That connection is not only between us and another person, but also between ourselves and God.

“The Lord is the maker of us all…” We dare not forget this, but isn’t it a much better mitzvah for us all to look on each other with the same love with which God looks on each one of us!


Download the sermon for Proper 18B.


Written by The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz who is currently a bi-vocational vicar in a 9 parish rural ministry team in North Devon and as a relief milker for 2 area dairies. Serves as Rural Dean for the Torridge Deanery, Diocese of Exeter. She was formerly on the faculty of the School of Theology, Sewanee, teaching contextual education and rural studies. She offers workshops and consultations for small churches and dioceses and is passionate about agricultural and rural small church issues.  

The gospel is a verb, 15 Pentecost, Proper 18 (B) – 2012

September 9, 2012

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 and Psalm 125 (or Isaiah 35:4-7a and Psalm 146); James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17; Mark 7:24-37

Where is the Good News in today’s gospel? Jesus casts out a demon and heals a deaf man, and that might be enough good news; but this lesson begins with a woman getting rough treatment from Jesus. In our current age of political spin, it’s hard to imagine why the author of Mark included this part of the story; it challenges our picture of Jesus as admirable and remarkable. It seems he is capable of the public gaffe too.

But Jesus did not have a publicist – at least, not until later, when the gospels were written. He had a real life, real feelings, and in today’s gospel, a real moment of conversion. His understanding of what he was called to do was changed and expanded because he listened to a gentile woman’s challenge. And from that moment, he moved forward, and kept up his work of healing and feeding and teaching, with an expanded awareness of who this Good News was for.

Because this story is in Mark, which focuses so much on the actions of Jesus, we are not given any information about what Jesus thought, only what he did and said; so we’re not offered any reflection on this incident. Jesus just picks up and keeps working tirelessly to demonstrate the Kingdom of God.

It seems that the gospel is a verb, at least here in Mark. It’s several verbs: teach, heal, listen, touch, feed, reach across boundaries, make God’s love real in people’s difficult lives.

This is extraordinarily good news; that God wants us to be whole, and God demonstrates that in the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth. Further, God wants us all to be whole, whatever our particular circumstances. Jesus woke up to this reality when confronted by the Syro-Phoenician woman, and he never looked back.

The Good News here has two sides. The first is that God’s love is boundless, accessible by all, available to us in every challenge, in every moment of pain or difficulty. But the second is that we ourselves are called to enact the gospel, to remember and demonstrate that the gospel is a verb.

The letter of James is emphatic on this point: faith, without works, is dead. This author was tired of people who claimed to follow Jesus behaving as though believing was enough. He had watched far too many people in need come to the Christian community, only to be ignored in favor of the wealthy and well connected. James wanted his readers to remember the whole gospel, not just the believing part.

The church has spent an enormous amount of time and energy over the centuries arguing about belief: from the Council of Nicea in 325, to the Protestant Reformation in the 15th century, to the 20th century crises in churches confronted by world wars and social upheaval, the church has struggled to define itself and understand what its core beliefs are. Some churches have taught that believing the wrong things can exclude people from God’s salvation. Certain forms of fundamentalist Christianity teach that a notoriously evil person who claims faith in Jesus just before death will be saved, while a good and kind person who has never accepted Jesus as his personal savior will be damned.

James is quite clear. Faith can only be seen in what we do, not what we say. The gospel is a verb.

The late Verna Dozier, Episcopal teacher and theologian, put it this way: “Don’t tell me what you believe; tell me what difference it makes that you believe.”

Jesus, when confronted by a person who came from outside his comfort zone, did not go away to the hills to study the matter; he shifted and enlarged his understanding on the spot, and did what she needed him to do.

We are challenged to move ourselves from narrow perception to broad perception, to understand that God’s love is for everyone, and that we are agents of that love.

To be agents of God’s love does not mean that we develop halos and a saintly patience; it means to remember that the gospel is a verb, and act accordingly.

Verbs, of course, come in two categories: doing and being. We can’t “do” our faith every minute of every day. We must also take the time to “be”; to breathe, rest, pray, listen, be still. Jesus did this regularly, in the midst of an extraordinary schedule. If all we do is run from action verb to action verb, the verbs we’ll encounter are “collapse” and “die.”

A gospel life – the life to which we are called, as followers of Jesus – will contain a lot of verbs: pray, rejoice, encourage, offer, remember, imagine, love, share, embrace, give, rest, be. The verbs that aren’t welcome, according the Jesus and the letter of James, are: judge, reject, exclude, limit, hoard, forget, despair.

When learning a new language, it is easiest and best to start with the present tense. When we learn the language of the gospel, it’s also useful to begin right where we are, and move forward. The past imperfect is, thank God, in the past; today and tomorrow we can make stronger, better choices to embody the gospel and share God’s love. Jesus is our example in this: after his confrontation with the woman in today’s gospel, he learned from his mistake and moved on to the next person in need of his healing touch.

There is an urgency to Jesus’ movement in the Gospel of Mark; he is constantly on the move, relentlessly demonstrating the kingdom of God he proclaims. It can be both exhilarating and exhausting to read and to imagine, and for those of us who follow Jesus, it sets a high bar. If we accept that the gospel is a verb, we might feel a relentless pressure to be doing something all the time, as Jesus appears to do in Mark. But Jesus also takes the time to renew himself through rest and prayer. The point is not constant, urgent action, but an attitude of readiness, and faithful response to the situations in which we find ourselves. James puts it this way: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

The flip side of faith without works is a muscular, life-changing faith, a self-offering, world-loving faith, faith that understands the gospel as verb and not noun.

So look around yourselves; where is the gospel verb needed? What incomplete sentences surround you and your community of faith? Who is hungry? Who is lost? Who needs a helping hand? What verb are you called to be for those in your neighborhood? Almost certainly, God is not calling you to argue theology or liturgical precision with your neighbors, but to serve them in Jesus’ name.

You have been given gifts that you are capable of sharing, no matter who you are. You can teach someone to knit; you can cook a meal to be shared; you can fix a car; you can write a poem that soothes hearts; you can lift heavy things or help someone to support a heavy burden. You can listen. You can offer the wisdom of your years or the energy of your youth. You can change your community; some of you have enough of what it takes to change the world. All you have to do is decide that you, yourself, are a gospel verb; let go of the past tense, and move, with God’s help, into God’s future tense, the reality that Jesus called the Kingdom of God.


— The Rev. Kay Sylvester is the rector-elect at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Tustin, Calif. She is a teacher, trainer, retreat leader and preschool chaplain. Her prior experience includes teaching piano and guitar, and selling volleyball and wrestling equipment. 

What a friend we have in Jesus, 14 Pentecost, Proper 18 (B) – 2009

September 6, 2009

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 and Psalm 125 (Track 2: Isaiah 35:4-7a and Psalm 146); James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17; Mark 7:24-37

In today’s gospel, we hear that Jesus went about the countryside hoping to escape notice. And here and there he stops in a village or at a house. And as it appears, he stops not so much by deliberate intent, but by happenstance.

At those seemingly random locations, he is reported as casting out demons, healing the sick, and causing the deaf to hear and the mute to speak. It’s a really peculiar way to stay out of the public eye, isn’t it?

Jesus manifests divine power to cure and heal, in miracles of God’s amazing mercy and boundless love. Remember, this is first-century Palestine. There are no ambulances, no hospitals, no pharmaceuticals. People are used to getting sick and then dying, not being cured of their diseases. In this harsh world of very painful realities, Jesus stops by and, in an instant, makes all things well. Jesus comes for a visit and suddenly the mute are speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing.

No wonder Jesus could not escape notice!

And there is only one thing anyone need do in order to receive God’s grace: just ask.

Nobody performs an act of contrition, no offering is made, no sacrifice is made. There is no promise of leading a new life, no agreement to change one’s ways, no pledge of future faithfulness.

This is a clear and powerful reminder that God’s love is showered on all of us, whether we have earned it or not. And let’s face it: most of us do not deserve it.

Sometimes, sure, we are good and faithful and true. But all of us are also capable of the most despicable acts, the most grievous abuse, the most unforgivable sin. And we know this not as an abstract concept, either. We know in our hearts that we are sinners, and we know it by tangible, irrefutable, and recurring evidence.

Yet God loves us still.

Now some people live in a world of illusion, in which they try to earn God’s favor. They imagine that if they do just the right thing, or obey the right laws, or try very, very hard to be good – they imagine that if they do these things God will love them.

It is a surprisingly popular view nowadays, even though it cannot be supported by the witness of the gospel writers. For example, in Matthew 19 someone asks, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus answers, “There is only one who is good.”

In that same chapter of Matthew someone wonders, “Who can be saved?” Jesus replies that all things are possible for God.

In Luke 10, someone asks, “What must I do?” and Jesus says: just love. We don’t have to do anything – simply love God and love your neighbor.

It is not, of course, as easy to love as it is to hear the commandment to love. But the commandment is concise, clear, and unambiguous: love God and love your neighbor.

God calls us to love for one simple reason: God loves us. God loves us unconditionally. And God loved us first. So God is asking for us to requite that love, to share it with others, and to spread that love all over this land.

But whether we do that or we do not, God loves us still, always, and forever. From before we were born until after we die, when we are naughty and when we are nice, while we are sinning and when we repent: God loves us. Period.

Embracing that theological truth is simple sometimes – especially when our diseases are cured, or calamities come to an end, or misfortune turns to opportunity.

But who among us has not asked, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” when things go wrong?

It’s a perfectly natural response. Clergy hear it all the time. And, yes, clergy even ask the question when adversity arrives. So we must not be ashamed to ask, even as we must not get stuck asking and asking and asking. Because it is the wrong question.

You see, when ill fortune overcomes us, we become like the characters in today’s story. We get stuck in that endless and fruitless loop of asking – and blaming – God. So we need a friend, a family member, an advocate to ask God for help on our behalf.

When trials afflict us, when disaster strikes, when we trouble arrives on our doorstep – then we need a friend to ask for God’s saving help.

And in today’s story the Syrophoenician girl and the deaf man in Sidon each seem to have such a friend. These are some very good friends indeed. In today’s parlance we might say these two have health-care advocates, people who see to it that they get the attention and treatment they need.

They are truly fortunate, for the demon is cast out and the disease is cured. That does happen, and God is quite capable of effecting a miracle.

But miracles do not always come when we want them. The harsh reality is that we cannot command a miracle to occur, and – for some mysterious reason – God sometimes chooses not to, as well. The all-powerful creator of the universe sometimes decides not to intervene, not to effect a cure, not to bring an end to trouble.

This is when our faith is really put to the test: when we pray, and plead, and beg – but a miracle does not come.

Those who claim to know why God sometimes answers “no” to our prayers are fooling you, and probably themselves. The best we can do, really, is to trust that there is some bigger plan, some more important objective, some greater good that is somehow served by our individual suffering.

And as St. Paul tells us in Romans 8, the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.

So to dwell on why we suffer is, again, a futile endeavor. Because it distracts us from a more comforting and more enduring truth: God loves us. God loves us unconditionally. And God loved us first.

And because God loves us, God shares in our sorrows, our suffering, and our hardships. As it says in the old hymn: “What a friend we have in Jesus. … Can we find a friend so faithful who will all our sorrows share?”

What a friend we have in Jesus, who willingly took the sins of the world upon his back and died a shameful death on the cross, that we might taste redemption.

What a friend we have in Jesus, who knows our every weakness, every fault, every mistake – and still loves us, and calls on us to love in return.

What a friend we have in Jesus, who knows we undergo afflictions and torments because he shares in our every pain.


— The Rev. J. Barrington Bates holds a Ph.D. in liturgical studies from Drew University and currently serves as rector of the Church of the Annunciation in Oradell, New Jersey.

Thank goodness for women and men who seek justice, Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 18 (B) – September 10, 2006

(RCL) Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 or Isaiah 35:4-7a; Psalm 125 or 146; James 2:1-10 (11-13), 14-17; Mark 7:24-37 

I suspect that “pushy” women do an enormous amount of the work that keeps the world going. One very popular pushy woman is Baroness Thatcher of Grantham, the first woman to serve as Britain’s Prime Minister. In the late 1980s, Mrs. Thatcher was often criticized for being “school-marmish” and “hectoring.” But if she were a man, wouldn’t they admire her for being decisive and forceful?

Today’s gospel reading is about a woman most of us would probably characterize as pushy, and perhaps aggressive and obnoxious, too. Mark tells us that Jesus “went away to the region of Tyre.” Tyre was in or near present-day Lebanon, an area occupied mostly by Gentiles. Although he tried to keep his visit there a secret, word somehow got out, and a woman of the region came to Jesus seeking help for her daughter who was possessed by a demon. Mark clearly identifies her as “a Gentile of Syrophoenician origin.” Mark does not tell us how often she came to Jesus with her request or what she said initially, but Matthew tells us that she cried out, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David.” Matthew also implies that she came to Jesus at least twice and to his disciples at least once.

Sermons on this text generally spend most of their time trying to justify Jesus’ grossly insulting rebuke to this nameless woman: “Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

Let’s consider two things about this comment. First, Jesus does not need us to defend him, and second, even if we wanted to defend Jesus, there’s no way to do it. However, it’s worth noting that God became incarnate not only in a person but also in a culture, and here Jesus gives voice to two of the most fundamental prejudices of his culture: Jewish men did not speak to or allow themselves to be spoken to by women in public, and observant Jews tried to minimize their contact with Gentiles. First Corinthians 14:34 expresses the standard attitude of Jewish men toward women in public places: they are to be “silent.”

By far the most interesting person in this story is the nameless Gentile woman who didn’t mind being pushy and who cleverly turned Jesus’ insult to her own advantage. There are two ways to look at her. First, let’s try to see her as Jesus and the disciples must have seen her: unpleasant, annoying, and impossible to get rid of. She wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. “Don’t call us; we’ll call you” would not have satisfied her. If you put her on hold and hoped she would eventually hang up, you would have been disappointed.

Now, let’s try to see her more objectively. Sometimes being pushy, aggressive, and annoying is the only way to get things done. Sometimes in hindsight we can see that “pushy,” “aggressive,” and “annoying” were just other words for “courage,” “persistence,” and “determination,” and that is we ought to see the woman in today’s Gospel reading. She defied social conventions. In Jesus’ world, women were expected to be more or less invisible and silent, but in spite of any number of spoken and unspoken cultural assumptions, the Syrophoenician woman would not be silent and persisted in seeking healing for her daughter.

Another famous “pushy” woman was the late Rosa Parks. On her way home from work in Montgomery, Alabama, in December of 1955, Rosa Parks boarded a bus and sat in the last seat reserved for “colored people.” When a white passenger boarded at the next stop, the bus driver demanded that Ms. Parks yield her seat to the white passenger. Parks refused and was arrested. But the simple act of refusing to give up her seat had a profound effect on history. It launched a boycott that brought Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to international prominence, and it was the beginning of the civil rights movement that did so much to secure basic human rights that had long been denied to African Americans.

Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat may have had influence far beyond her time and country. In the waning days of the Soviet Union, reactionaries sought to reverse the process of democratization by overthrowing the Soviet leader, Gorbachev. During the tense days of the attempted coup the world watched as Moscow’s mayor, Boris Yeltsin, literally stood up to tanks attempting to disperse the Soviet parliament. When asked what inspired him to face down tanks, Yeltsin said that he was inspired by Lech Walesa and the Solidarity movement in Poland. When Walesa was asked what inspired him, he said that he had long admired Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, civil rights campaigns. When Dr. King was asked what inspired him, he said that he admired Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat. Is it possible that Rosa Parks’ defiance of injustice helped bring down the Soviet Union?

It’s tempting to shout “hooray” for pushy women, but being pushy is not enough. You also need to know whom to push. The Syrophoenician woman went to the one person who could command the demonic spirit to leave her daughter and restore the girl to soundness of mind: Jesus.

This story shows Jesus in the worst possible light, so why did Mark include it? Maybe it’s in the Gospel to encourage us. Like the Syrophoenician woman, we often come to Jesus with desperate needs: we’re out of work and need a job, or someone we love is dying, or someone has just shattered our heart. Like the nameless woman, we may pray to God day and night but find no relief. But more than likely, we pray about something once or twice and then forget about it. It’s difficult to explain why God hears and answers some prayers and seems to leave others unanswered. But God seems to expect us to be persistent in our prayers (maybe even a little pushy) and come back again and again.

The final thing we should notice about the Syrophoenician woman is the nature of her request. Begging Jesus to free her daughter from demonic power was no idle, off-hand petition. The woman was not asking for a trip to Cancun or a new car: she was seeking justice.

Thank goodness for pushy women and sometimes pushy men. Thank goodness for people who defy social conventions in their quest to right wrong. But above all, thank goodness for those who kneel at Jesus’ feet day and night and pray without ceasing. Thank goodness for women and men who seek justice and will not accept “no” for an answer – even when the “no” seems to come from God.


— The Rev. J. Barry Vaughn, Ph.D., has led congregations in Alabama, California, and Pennsylvania. He has preached at Harvard, Oxford, and the Chautauqua Institution and more than fifty of his sermons have been published. He is a member of the history faculty at the University of Alabama.