Lectionary Reflections for Sunday, September 30, 2012
Proverbs 31:10-31; Psalm 1; James 3:13-4:3, 7-a; Mark 9:30-37
One of my approaches to the lectionary is to counsel preachers that “if you read a passage, and it’s challenging, you need to include the passage in your sermon.” Too often, troubling passages – or simply unusual passages – are read in church without any commentary, critique, or tie in with the other lectionary readings. Proverbs 31 is one such passage that may sound strange to congregants who assume equality in marital relationships or feel alienated from its description of an upper-middle class or upper class household. Why should we take time to consider a passage describing a good wife? What not a good husband as well? The asymmetry may be jarring to some who assume egalitarian relationships. And, frankly the asymmetry of tasks should be pointed out!
Taken in an egalitarian fashion and honestly recognizing the social location of the family, this passage is quite affirmative, although it certainly raises the bar for husbands as well as wives. A “good wife” cooks, sews, takes care of the children, has a small business, is a good counselor, reaches out to the needy, and marries well! Her husband’s praise is well-deserved, because she’s earned it! Her husband mirrors her fidelity and industriousness, and affirms her as his ideal mate. He respects her and praises her in public.
If I choose to include this passage, I will invite the lector to read it twice: first highlighting the husband, and then the wife. Only then does it make sense to me; only then will I feel comfortable preaching about this passage as a poetic vision of a healthy mutual and affirmative relationship, not necessarily to be imitated in its details (I’m a good cook, but I can’t sew; nor can we neglect the family’s economic location). If expanded to include all relational partners, then this passage encourages spouses of all varieties to seek the best for their partners, those who depend on them, and the community at large. We are to go beyond self-concern to identify our well-being with the well-being of others. We are to praise, affirm, honor, and look for the best in one another. Claiming to love God – putting God at the center of our lives – is the foundation of care for others. When we truly love God, we love others; and we love God by loving others.
While the calculus of blessing and harm is too linear for my theological tastes, Psalm 1 is an invitation to seek to understand and then embody the Law of God in your life. Living God’s law doesn’t guarantee success, but if our relationship to God’s Vision is positive then a sense of peace and rightness often follows. Last week, I spoke of Paul Tillich’s understanding of law was self-created (Ayn Rand), oppressive (instituted by others without our consent), and congruent (flowing from our openness to God’s vision for our lives as the “law” of our being and becoming). Psalm 1 affirms the congruent or theonomous approach to law. As I read the passage, I am reminded of Jesus’ description of the vine and branches: connected to God, like the vine to a branch, we receive nurture and flourish; disconnected we, wither and die physically and spiritually. Psalm 1 counsels us to connect with God’s Vision moving in and through our lives and all creation.
Psalm 1 raises an issue worthy of a whole sermon: What does it mean to meditate on God’s law? For me meditation means pausing long enough to focus and open myself to the holiness present simply being alive. For me being alive involves attunement to creativity and divine creation in all its manifestations. I best experience these meditative moments through practices like: centering prayer, giving myself a reiki healing touch treatment, saying affirmations, or taking a beauty walk. (For more on taking a beauty break, see Patricia Adams Farmer, Embracing a Beautiful God and the Metaphor Maker; for guidance on ministerial spirituality, see Bruce Epperly, Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry and Feed the Fire: Avoiding Clergy Burnout.)
James also preaches a gospel of congruence with God. We fight, gossip, and hurt one another because our emphasis is on ourselves and our advancement and comfort to the exclusion of others’ needs. The way of the world – not to be identified with our care for this Good Earth – is egocentric, individualistic, competitive, zero sum (if you gain, I lose; my gain is at your expense), dishonest, and consumerist. In fact, the way of the world destroys ecosystems and denies economic justice. The way of God involves a commitment to community, the well-being of others, and placing our self-interest in the context of the greater good.
Come near to God! Purify yourself! Get rid of evil! Nearness to God and our neighbor is a dynamic reality. In turning from the neighbor and causing her pain, we turn away from God and truly cause God pain. James envisions a dialogical relationship between God and the world in which God really cares for our lives, and most especially the vulnerable ones. What we do in the world matters to God and limits or expands God’s Vision in the world. God’s care for the humble and disdain for the proud is not just a matter a preference: humility or alignment with God’s Vision brings life to the world and enables God to be more active; proud, self-centeredness, leads to alienation, poverty, and violence, and restricts God’s impact in the world.
James 4:3 could be a distraction or the centerpiece to the sermon. James chides: Don’t fight to get what you want. Rather, “you should pray for it. Yet even when you do pray, your prayers are not answered, because you pray just for selfish reasons.” James’ apparent connection of unanswered prayer and selfishness could be jarring to lose who are praying for the well-being of family members or friends with life-threatening illnesses or for those who wish simply to stay in remission so they can live enough to launch their young children into the world. The preacher must challenge any linear understanding of prayer and rewards and punishments. Spirit-centered people die of cancer and fail at business through no fault of their own. Set in context, James sees the very process of prayer as a form of spiritual purification. If we truly include God’s vision in our prayers, our sense of self will expand to include others. We may discover that our “wants” are not what we truly need to live a good life. We may discover a greater desire: balancing an adequate income and enjoyment with planetary well-being and a strong safety net.
Jesus presents a vision of greatness in the gospel reading. Greatness is not power or wealth, but found in service and care for the vulnerable. Greatness is a matter of character, orientation, and breadth of interest. The great woman or man (as the Proverbs passage suggests) truly cares for others and embodies that care in her or his everyday life. No one is beyond her or his care. The insignificant – and children were socially insignificant in the first century – are central to the great person’s care. He or she will affirm and nurture the least of these as God’s beloved children.
Taken together, these passages are invitations to spirit-centered relationships. They challenge us to see beyond our own or our nation’s self-interest. They convict us of self-centeredness when we place profit over people or success over relationship. They urge industriousness that builds community and well-being that embraces an affirmation of women and men in their many and varied roles.
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. He is currently serving as Visiting Professor of Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for lectures, workshops, and retreats.