Proper 18, Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – September 9, 2012

Reading 1: Reading 2:Reading 3:Reading 4:Alternate Reading 1:Alternate Reading 2:
Proverbs 2:1-2, 8-9, 22-23Isaiah 35:4-7aJames 2:1-17Mark 7:24-37Psalm 125Psalm 146

By David Grant Smith

Proverbs 22 / Psalm 125                   

“What is in a name?” is the age–old question being considered in the first reading of this pair; and the same question is implicit in the second. The name which is being discussed, implicitly and explicitly, depending on the verse in question, is the name “Israel.” The covenant community of ancient Hebrews for whom (and by whom) these texts were written are the people who are in relationship with God. The name Israel, according to the legend of Jacob in Genesis, means “one who struggles with God.” To struggle with anyone is to be in relationship with that one. And the relationship between Israel and God is defined by the covenant they strike with one another, known as Torah (Law). In the covenantal relationship defined by Torah, Israel is also agreeing to the terms by which the community is to be in relationship with others – with self, family, friends, neighbors, strangers, aliens, and even the land itself. The broad strokes understanding of the Torah is that each member of the community (as well as the community as a whole) is understood to be in a multiple layering of relationships – “No [one] is an island” in this covenantal community.

Having said all that, this set of selected verses from Proverbs expresses to the covenantal community some specific understandings or examples of how some of those specific relationships are to be expressed – the relationship between rich and poor. Though it isn’t stated explicitly, the relationship is dependent on the rich initiating the relationship, and with the understanding that the health and efficacy of that relationship is the responsibility of the rich. What is stated explicitly is that the rich and the poor have a common Maker, and from that, it is clear that both are made in the image of that Maker (vis-à-vis Genesis). However, the wording of this passage in Proverbs doesn’t play the trump card of obligation; rather, the author simply asserts that those who willingly enter into relationship with those less fortunate than themselves in a spirit of generosity will find their actions (and that relationship) to be a blessing.

From a process perspective, there are a number of angles which could be used in preaching this text. One might be to utilize the process understanding that diversity is an expression of the richness of God’s creative work (or even God’s Self). In a process paradigm, diversity of all kinds is celebrated. However, the slippery slope of celebrating poverty without working against it is to be avoided. We needn’t hold up any of the ideas of exploitation in which there is an assertion that it is necessary to have poverty in our world. Rather, we can celebrate the diversity of human experience by working to afford all people the dignity that all who are made in the image of God deserve. Indeed the Proverbs text goes on to warn against such an attitude, urging the covenant community to “not rob the poor” or “crush the afflicted at the gate” (the place where the vulnerable of the society would go to plead their need for assistance). A second step in a sermon on this text might be to speak of the unity that we have in our diversity – that all people are made by God and are a reflection of God, and are all made in God’s image, no matter their life circumstance.

Another approach to this pair of readings might be to examine the covenantal relationships between people of diverse life experiences as a means of participating in God’s initial aim. The text uses the word “generous” in describing the relationship initiated by the “haves” with the “have nots”, but it could just as easily be understood by using the word “compassion.” To have a sense of compassion is to have a sense of understanding of a person’s situation, as well as a sense of solidarity with the person who is in that given situation. Entering into the life situation of others is to affirm their humanity, affirm their dignity, and to share with them in their life situation, which is all a much more intimate way of expressing generosity. Compassion, understanding, and solidarity are understood to be part of generosity, rather than the “top–down” approach of simply “writing a check” for the sake of assisting the poor. It takes more work – it is a process – to live a life of generosity than it does to merely meet an obligation.

Both the Proverbs verses and Psalm 125 are examples of the Hebrew Bible’s great body of Wisdom literature. They outline a path of right/healthy relationship (with God, self, others) in contrast to wrong/unhealthy relationships. They imply that the one who lives in the healthier relationships is the one whose life is both blessed and blessing. Those who don’t live in the healthiest of relationships are characterized in Wisdom literature as “condemned” in some way. However, it may be helpful for congregations to be encouraged to see those characterizations as simply those who have “missed out” by choosing a path that seems to be self–serving; they aren’t condemned as much as they are foolish for having done so.

There is much vitality and life to be experienced by participating in God’s call to compassion, solidarity, and understanding; generosity isn’t so much a “reward” as it is its own blessing to those who are generous, as well as to those who receive our generosity. To live in these “right” relationships is to live into health and wholeness, and it is a participation in God’s primordial nature as expressed in Beauty, Adventure, Truth, Peace, Zest, and Love. “What is in a name?” may be the question these readings ask us; and the answer to those questions lies in the final phrase of the psalm: “…but peace be upon Israel.” In other words, the shalom of God is known and experienced by those who “struggle with God” to participate in God’s call to compassionate generosity as covenantal community, and as individual members of that community.

Isaiah 35 / Psalm 146                       

These readings work together as a fantastic pair of poems about creative transformation. We often hear this chapter of Isaiah through the lens of Handel’s Messiah as well as any number of hymns which paraphrase the prophet’s vision of God’s transforming powers breaking into our world in striking ways. However, familiarity often breeds numbness to what a radical text like this is asserting. We often skip over the first portion of this text (or simply hurry through it) so that we can focus on the remarkable acts of healing that take place in it – healing of both people and land – following a horrific period of exile: blind people seeing, deaf people hearing, the handicapped jumping, the mute singing, and the barren desert yielding springs and streams! But what is often missed is the idea that all of this is part of God’s vengeance for injustice, and God’s recompense (or comeuppance) for those who have committed heinous crimes. There is perhaps no greater example of creative transformation than the idea that healing (of either people or land) can be used as means of “getting even” with those who have done wrong to a community or an individual.

If this is the prophet’s vision of what God’s will is (that healing is an execution of justice), it really calls into question our human/communal understanding of what justice is. Following Whiteheadian principles, we as preachers can assert that in every moment of every situation, God is luring us toward whatever the best and most creative options are for every moment of every situation; and the ultimate outcome of each moment which God wants for every situation is continual healing and renewal – or creative transformation, if we put it into process language. Perhaps a process preacher might take up this text as a means of calling a congregation to examine its own collective sense of what justice is and/or how its members might work for various kinds of creative transformation (or healing and renewal) in their life as a congregation, as well as in their individual lives, or even the life of the community in which they live.

The psalm which responds to this vision of “healing as vengeance” could easily frame this approach to justice. “God is the source of all creative transformation,” the psalm seems to be asserting. Not only did God create the world (v. 5), but God is the One who brings justice to the oppressed, food to the hungry, freedom to the prisoner, sight to the blind, affirmation to the down–trodden, care for the stranger/alien, and sustenance to orphans and widows (v. 6–8). But the psalm, shaped in the Wisdom tradition of ancient Hebrew Scripture, implies that God doesn’t do this alone. As long as we, the members of the covenantal community, have breath in our bodies – and even beyond that time – we are called to give God praise. And the greatest praise we can give the author of life, justice, and creative transformation, is to join with God in doing God’s work!

One last thought about this pair of readings is that they both hold up one aspect of process theology that affirms that there is no one outside the reach of God’s loving embrace. Call it “universalism” if you will, but we process people like to affirm that all people are already living, and moving, and having their being in God: our various religious and spiritual traditions and practices are simply ways of making that relationship more evident and more intentional. Both these readings assert that God will “save” all people – that all people will be made whole in the loving brace of God’s shalom. Perhaps a sermon (or a portion of one) could be spent in affirming this reality and challenging any of our conscious or unconscious thoughts/beliefs to the contrary!

James 2:1-17               

The author of the Epistle to James is also concerned with names (like Proverbs, above), by reminding the folks to whom the letter is written to not be like those “who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked” over them – that would be, most likely, the name of Jesus which was used at their baptism, the sacramental expression of their decision to enter into the covenantal community known as the Church, the Body of Christ. As with Proverbs, this passage is about the relationship that already exists between the “haves” and the “have nots” – calling the community of faith to be intentional in how they shape that relationship.

The truth is, of course, that the relationship already exists; however, the author of James is inviting the members of the Jesus movement to follow Jesus’ example by not making distinctions, especially distinctions based on stereotyping. The author of James goes on to remind us all, both rich and poor, that we each have a role in each others’ lives; we are all interdependent, with all life inextricably woven into a rich tapestry of both contributing to and receiving from one another. If, by following the example of Proverbs above, the covenantal community of Jesus is to live a life of generosity, the members of the community are living into their covenant (with God and each other and the world) by putting their faith into action, and their spirit of generosity into the lives of real people.

The author of James urges us to “speak and act” as those who live in “the law of liberty.” This idea of putting both generosity and faith into speech and action is not to be lived out in a “law of obligation” by the community of Jesus. Instead, it is a moment–by–moment way of living, with a high level of mindfulness needed at each moment along life’s way. From a process perspective, this reading provides us preachers with an opportunity to speak of God’s presence and lure toward creative transformation, which are present in each and every moment. The author of James concludes this passage by asserting that “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” The process preacher – whether using Whiteheadian language or not – can share with congregations how being committed to living in our relationships intentionally, and following God’s lures moment–by–moment, is how our “works” become the “concrescence moments” of our faith.

Mark 7:24-37                   

The issue of names and naming play a role in the first half of this week’s Gospel passage. When Jesus is approached by the Syrophoenician woman, who begs him to heal her daughter, he calls her a dog: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Presumably, he does this because of his own cultural bias against Gentiles (non– Jews). We are all acculturated by our own respective societies to have biases and prejudices. It takes a long, intentional process of self–examination, education, and consciousness–raising for us to be able to first identify, and then correct, our own biases.

White people need to become aware of their own prejudices toward people of color in order to see their own racism for what it is, and then commit themselves to overcoming it and working against it. Men need to become aware of how they have been acculturated to perpetuate sexism – both blatant and subtle biases against women – before they can work against it. Heterosexual people need to become aware of their prejudices against LGBT people before they can work to put an end to homophobia and heterosexism. And the list of biases and prejudices with which we are all raised can go on and on, as can the list of self– awareness and corrective measures against them.

Though many people find it offensive to accuse Jesus of racism or xenophobia, doing so may be an opportunity to engage this Gospel reading in some creative ways in a sermon or homily. First, as process preachers, we tend to look for evidence of creative transformation in the scripture readings. Usually in the Gospels, we look to Jesus for initiating such creativity. But in this case, the woman (who is only identified by Mark’s author by her ethnic/racial ancestry) is the source of the creativity which leads to transformation. Rather than giving up and going home defeated, she confronts the prejudice for what it is and disempowers it by owning the status and making it her own in a brilliant stroke of creative reframing: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

At a quick glance, this appears to be a response brought about by internalized racism; however, by her having the audacity to “call him out” by using the same metaphoric language, she successfully labels Jesus’ words for what they are (prejudicial and biased), while simultaneously affirming her own sense of self–worth and asserting her own human dignity! And the transformation which occurs is that Jesus is changed by this reframing of his own cultural biases, and he assures her that her daughter has been healed.

Another angle that a process preacher may want to take with this text is to use it as an opportunity to play with the concept of the interrelationship between God and humanity. As process people, we affirm the notion that God is as much shaped and changed by humanity as humanity is by God. In Jesus, we see the full presence of God, as well as the full presence of humanity; this is, of course, what we traditionally understand as Incarnation. However, over the last twenty centuries the Church has been slow to embrace the idea that the Divine Nature is mutable. But if, as Christians, we see God fully manifested in Jesus, we need to be swift to point out that even in Jesus we can see the mutability and flexibility of God.

Should we assert that until this moment of confrontation with a Syrophoenician woman in the first century C.E. that God was a racist? Absolutely not! However, because we process theologians understand the Consequent Nature of God as absorbing all human activity (both speech and action, as noted in today’s reading from James) into the Divine Self, in Jesus we can see how cultural biases and prejudices have been – and continue to be! – absorbed into God. And in Jesus we also see how the Consequent Nature of the Divine Self is transformed when we as human beings learn to own our own racism, sexism, homophobia, and other biases and prejudices. When we repent of such things God is, in essence, liberated from them as well.

This week’s passage from Mark goes on to tell another healing story. It’s the story of how the man who was deaf and had a speech impediment was healed and then heard and spoke plainly. However, if we are to embrace the ideas above, that in Jesus we can see how creative transformation can help to heal the Divine Self, perhaps we can preach this story in such a way to assert that Jesus and the man who was deaf were both healed – and that they both went forth from that day with the ability to hear and speak more plainly. Perhaps the admonition to “Be opened!” is something Jesus was saying to himself, and is something which we could all use as a mantra/prayer in our daily dealings with others.