Lectionary Reflections for Sunday, July 8, 2012
2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10; Psalm 123; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-3
Today’s New Testament readings inspire a theme such as “living abundantly with limitations.” Both Jesus and Paul persist despite limitations of health and belief. God’s vision for each moment is the best possibility for the concrete world in which we live. This can be source of disappointment because God does not – and perhaps cannot – avoid the concreteness of cause and effect, but must work in the real world with its real challenges, resistances, and hopefulness – and this means limitation for God and us. It can also be a joyous invitation to hopeful transformation for God is always presenting possibilities within every concrete personal, communal, national, and global situation. The womb of possibility is bringing forth images of new life and new dimensions of hope moment by moment. We need to pause, notice, open, stretch, persist, and respond to give birth to these images in our world.
The Mark passage describes how limitations can daunt even the Healer from Nazareth. Mark appropriately joins this passage with the healings of the woman with the flow of blood and Jairus’ daughter, both of which proclaim the synergy of divine and human openness as a factor in transforming body, mind, and spirit. In the case of Jesus’ return to his hometown, their failure to believe places a barrier between them and God that reduces the intensity of Jesus’ healing power. This is a provocative story because it implies that healing is contextual and that even God must adapt to our current life situation. There is no supernaturalism here; no violations of cause and effect interdependence; rather a revelation that God’s immanence in the world is concrete and contextual. Despite his healing powers, Jesus is limited by concrete expressions of unbelief.
Today, physicians and scientists speak about the placebo and nocebo effects – and the faith factor – in health and illness. Positive images, hopefulness, and faith in God, awaken the inner movements in our cells and spirits toward for well-being that would not occur among indifferent or pessimistic communities. On the other hand, negativity can diminish the vitality of our cells as well as our souls. Moreover, the faith of communities, reflected in healing affirmations and actions, create opportunities for health and wholeness among their members and the larger environment. This is not magic or supernaturalism, but a recognition that amid the factors that determine health and illness in persons and communities, faith opens us to new energies which can become the tipping point toward healing and growth. This is surely the case with Lazarus’ daughter for whom healing came as a result of the interplay of Jesus’ hopeful healing power and the healing energies of a circle of believers. This same energy was at work in the interplay of the intensity of a woman’s faith and Jesus’ aura of divine energy.
Despite the unbelief of his fellow citizens, Jesus persists. While he could do no great work, nevertheless, he could make a difference by healing a few townsfolk. Jesus’ response to the limits their unbelief place on his healing power leads to the following affirmations: “Despite setbacks, don’t give up on the future. Don’t give up on healing. Be patient with prayer.” Even if there isn’t an obvious cure or others stand in the way of healing, there can still be relational and spiritual growth that draws us nearer to God and others.
The Corinthians reading is another theological treasure trove. It describes a mystical experience – presumably Paul’s own encounter with God – followed by a mysterious illness that grounds the mystical experience in the concreteness of pain, suffering, and limitation. Paul assumes that this thorn in the flesh is a providential gift, a reminder to be humble and to remember that as important as our mystical experiences are for discovering our vocation or finding our spiritual compass, they are always subservient to God’s message through us to others. In Paul’s case, mystical experiences gave birth to a missional orientation. I am sure that he savored his encounters with God; he also – I suspect – leaned on them as images of hope and confidence as he journeyed into unknown and sometimes antagonistic communities to share God’s good news.
It’s uncertain, despite Paul’s description, whether the thorn is a “messenger” from God or Satan to torment Paul. In any event, Paul finds meaning in illness and brings his limitations to God in prayer. He does not receive a cure, but he receives healing consolation – a grace for every season of life. “My grace is sufficient for you….I will boast all the more gladly in my weaknesses, so the power of Christ may dwell in me….for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” This is not an argument for passivity in which you take life as it comes without any agency on our part. Rather, it is an affirmation that our weakness – that is, our utter dependence on factors beyond our own control, our embracing of the dynamic interdependence of life – is the source of power and transformation. God is ceaselessly working for good in every life condition, including illness, unbelief, and failure.
Paul was always an agent, but his agency was shaped by his commitment to do God’s missional work in the world. In the call and response of God and humankind, Paul rendered unto God’s call for his life – concrete and intimate – and lived out the call in his own unique way. He ministered within the limitations of sometimes antagonistic and wayward communities, but remained faithful, active, and creative. Within the weakness of life in which none of us can make it alone, Paul was to discover that “I can do all things [whatever is in front of me] through Christ who strengthens me” and “My God will supply all my needs through God’s riches.”
There is resource within limitation, possibility within concreteness, adventure in every situation. Today’s preacher is challenged to give a realistic “pep talk,” helping congregants discover abundance in their limitations. These scriptures invite us to go beyond “zero sum,” scarcity thinking, to “open system,” abundance thinking. Within the concrete limitations – often described as “reality” – there is a deeper reality, the energetic movement of God supporting all of us, and bursting forth when we open to it.
What new possibilities are present in the concreteness of your congregation’s life? What hope can you discern amid limitations of time, talent, and treasure, personally and corporately? These scriptures invite the preacher to be an artist of the imagination, awakening the community to dream dreams and make plans based on the “deeper realism” of God’s abundant presence working within every moment and every situation.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. His most recent text is Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary, Ponderings on a Faith Journey, and, Patheos.com. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for lectures, workshops, and retreats.
 I am grateful to Gerald May’s Awakened Heart for the spiritual counsel – pause, notice, open, stretch, and yield. Kate Epperly and I elaborate on this theme in terms of pastoral spirituality and effectiveness in Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry.