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June 10, 2012
I Samuel 8:4-11, 16-20, 11:14-15
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
The two-track option offered in Ordinary Time by the lectionary committee presents preachers with a choice: commit to one track or jump back and forth between the historical (characters and stories) and complementary (linked to gospel theme) tracks. This commentary, for the rest of June, will jump around.
I Samuel 8:4-11, 16-20, 11:14-15
The people ask for a king, and God warns them against it, making the tyrannical nature of worldly power excruciatingly clear. But the people want a king, and a king is what they get, setting them on a course that will ultimately bring them to exile from the land. The warning recalls Deut. 30:19, where God sets out the stark choice of “life and death, blessings and curses,” with the admonition to “choose life” so that the people will have many years in the land God has promised them. The importance of this turning point cannot be overstated.
How we choose to be governed is no small concern. Will we allow ourselves to guided inwardly by God, or will we give that power over to any number of external forces—consumerism, media-mongering, desires manipulated by worldly ideas of wealth, success, power? The Bible is replete with references to the two ways, which in present-day language has been reduced to the shorthand of God or empire. Empire colonizes in the geographic sense, but also in the construction of our desires and the manipulation of our fears. Empire is finding ultimacy in anything that is not God. Empire is an external power that conquers us—by coercive or deceitfully seductive means. God, on the other hand, is a creative and persuasive power that saturates our being and emanates from within, like some internal GPS.
The history is important, because it reminds us that the choice of empire has been made over and over again, always with disastrous results. It reminds us that the choice is a multi-layered one made at the level of nations, religions, communities, and families, and finally at the deeply personal level of our own lives. And the choice is made over and over again—in historical epochs, in governments and businesses and institutions, and again, most intimately, in the moment-by-moment constitution of our own selves.
The question has to do with ethical living, but just beneath the surface is another question: where do we place our trust? At any moment in our congregations people are dealing with loss, illness, depression, financial worries, or they are facing life-altering decisions. The preacher could list choices that people might opt for, including the kind of avoidance and numbing offered by our present culture of distraction, then contrast that with the unfailing presence of God, and the transformative power of God always at work creatively in the world.
So you want a king? This psalm sets priorities straight. Even kings—all the kings of the earth—will praise God. In other words, however exalted rulers think themselves to be, the reality is that God is greater, and the reason for that is God’s love, which endures forever. This psalm is a reminder that between the two kinds of power—the power of God and the power of kings—purpose, fulfillment, and strength of soul are the outcome of God’s power.
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
If the Samuel text invites a prophetic sermon, then this one invites a pastoral one, centered on the phrase “do not lose heart.” Although Paul’s use of “outer nature” and “inner nature” opens the door to the charge of soul-body dualism, a process perspective invites us to consider these terms as the baggage of the past versus the present transformative power of God. The past invades us constantly in the form of memory, and memory can bind us to attitudes and behaviors we have outgrown. The inner nature is then the inner presence of God that suggests ways to make new meanings from past experiences, and open ourselves to entirely new possibilities. That grace cannot be seen, but the transformation endures.
One approach might be to explain how the early church viewed grace, then invite a contemporary understanding. In the early church, people thought of grace as a supernatural substance that could be infused (via the sacraments) into a person. If you think of a body as a water glass, then the idea was that as grace is poured in, the new substance gradually displaces the old. As Paul says, “the inner nature is being renewed day by day”—and the process theologian chimes in with “moment by moment.”
Most people no longer think of grace as a substance, but it is possible to think of it as God’s real presence—maybe like energy—at work in your body and being. Your “inner nature” is then constituted by your integration of God’s creativity and transformative power with your own experience. You are progressively more able to hold the charge, so to speak. The simple word for this is trust.
This collection of sayings challenges the preacher looking for some kind of narrative glue. Mark offers a little help by framing this section with references to Jesus’ family. As the crowd gathered, his family “went out”; later, they are “standing outside” calling to him. In between we get the Satan story, the strong man, and the blasphemy injunction.
Biblical scholars locate these verses within early church controversies, and pastors for years have applied the “house divided against itself” phrase to internal struggles in the church, in families, and the individual. But perhaps in these days of family members scattered across the country, or dysfunctional or estranged families, or families seeking recognition and respect from the larger society, the strongest message is the extension of the meaning of family.
Family is more than blood relationships. Family is a community of friends. Family is having two mommies or having two daddies. Jesus’ ministry—the stories within this frame—show him socially embedded; he has a family. But as his ministry unfolds, the meaning of family expands and unfolds. And from a process understanding, there is no end to that unfolding (or to his ministry). It takes in the crowd gathered there that day and expands to the communities that formed after his death, and that have continued to form through the centuries all the way to you and me.