Proper 19, Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – September 16, 2012

Reading 1: Reading 2:Reading 3:Reading 4:Alternate Reading 1:Alternate Reading 2:
Proverbs 1:20-33Isaiah 50:4-9aJames 3:1-12Mark 8:27-38Psalm 19Psalm 116:1-8

By David Grant Smith

Proverbs 1 / Psalm 19 / Wisdom 7

The reading from Proverbs 1, together with either of its appointed responses, provides another set of images related to the ongoing exploration of Wisdom literature which the lectionary is providing as we move from the final weeks of summer into autumn. The caricature of Lady Wisdom, a personification of Divine Wisdom (or God’s Knowledge), is made to look downright wanton in the way she is enticing people to come to her. She is, in essence, taking on the role of a downtown streetwalker, trying to lure people toward the knowledge which God wills for them to have. As process preachers, this image could provide some fun imagery for us to speak about the lure of God’s initial aim toward humanity – ever urging us toward the most creative and best possible responses to any and all situations in each and every moment of our lives.

Alongside the wanton lure found in this passage, we also find the brazen scoffing that Lady Wisdom offers to those who refuse her counsel. “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” goes the old saying. It’s important, though, to remember that Lady Wisdom is a caricature or personification of God, and not a direct depiction of the Holy One in passages like this. Lady Wisdom is taunting and teasing those who reject her; but it is clear throughout the Scriptures that God never rejects us. We need not take these taunts as being a literal attribution to the Divine Nature, but as an instructional metaphor for us to avoid finding ourselves in the sticky wickets which come about from not having participated in God’s Wisdom.

The language here is cast in the age-old tradition of passing on knowledge from the voice of experience to those who need not be educated in the so-called “school of hard knocks” in life. Rather, we can take counsel from those who have walked a particular path before us, and learn from their mistakes as well as their wisdom, rather than forging our own ways ahead foolishly. The lure of Lady Wisdom is to grow, mature, learn, and evolve in God’s ways through the ongoing process of creative transformation.

The responses to this reading offered by the Revised Common Lectionary continue to unpack the theme of Wisdom. In Psalm 19, we see first that the cosmic patterns and cycles themselves show forth God’s creation and creative transformation. The interchange of night and day, and the sun running its course across the sky, the psalmist says, all bear witness to the Wisdom of God and God’s statutes (v. 1-6). The crux of the matter in this Psalm, insofar as it being a response to our first reading, is found in verses 7-11; abiding in the statues of God’s Wisdom is how we as humans are called to participate in creation and creative transformation with God.

The very Law of God becomes the lure for us to live intentionally in relationship with God and others; God’s statutes are “sweeter than honey – honey in the comb.” The psalm then concludes with a self-examination, whereby the faithful soul can contemplate whether or not they have been responding to God’s (or Lady Wisdom’s) lure toward that which will keep us “whole and sound, and innocent of a great offense.”

The alternative response, taken from the deuterocanonical book of Wisdom, also reflects on the cosmic implications of participating in God’s Wisdom. Here, as in Proverbs, we find Lady Wisdom being described for us. This hymn-like poem seems to sing that to participate in God’s lure through Lady Wisdom is more beautiful than the beauty, wonder, patterns, and cycles of the cosmos itself! Either of these responses, together with Proverbs, could provide the process preacher with the opportunity to take up the lure of God’s initial aim, which is always before us in each and every moment of each and every day. 

Isaiah 50 / Psalm 116

In this pair of reading (Isaiah 50) and response (Psalm 116), the process theme of relational awareness comes to the fore. For many people, when we attend family reunions – especially in very large extended families, and even more especially if we haven’t been to one in a very long time – it isn’t too uncommon for us to sit with members of our extended family and ask one another “Now just exactly how are we related?” The same is true for us as people of faith; and the prophetic voice of Isaiah is calling to mind the “how” of interrelationships. This passage is known as one of the “Suffering Servant Songs” and calls into question our awareness of how we are related to others. If we, as people of faith, are to identify with the prophet, we could suggest that the passage starts out with the proclamation that we as people of faith are called to “sustain the weary” and to “listen as those who are taught.” We, like the poetic prophet, are called into the role of servanthood.

However, though in this passage the servant is undergoing great suffering, this is not to be mistaken for a call to suffering for all people of faith. Rather, it is a reminder that if/when we do suffer abuse, we are not to submit to it willy-nilly, but to be mindfully aware that we are in relationship with those who mistreat us. We can do this, of course, in many ways, and God’s ever-present lure toward creative transformation is our constant companion when such times arise. Perhaps a process preacher might be able to weave together the concepts of creative transformation, God’s lure towards creativity, and God’s omnipresence into a thoughtful reflection on this reading. Alternatively (or additionally), this Isaiah passage might be used in some kind of liturgical self-examination for intentionally looking at our various relationships – especially those relationships in which we find ourselves serving others.

The response to Isaiah (Psalm 116) is another window into the scriptural witness to the omnipresence of God. Whereas Isaiah calls us to be mindful of our relationships with others, this psalm poetically calls us to mindful of the intimate and persistent ways that God is in relationship with us. Too often in our spiritual/religious tradition (especially in the last 3-4 centuries), the omnipresence of God has been preached/taught as a “Big Brother” model: God is watching you, so watch out what you do! But here the psalmist is clearly and calmly proclaiming that God’s abiding presence with humanity is a word of hope and comfort, rather than a word of judgment.

James 3:1-12

The author of James continues to offer practical advice for how to apply faith to daily living, and here we have the infamous discourse from James on the evils of the human tongue! The author lays out contrasting imagery (true to both Greek and Jewish Wisdom traditions) of how the tongue can do both good (blessing God) and evil (cursing those made in the image of God). A process approach to this text might focus on the moment-by-moment decisions with which we are met, and the opportunities we have at each moment to respond in any number of ways. The author of James is inviting us to follow the lure of God’s initial aim, and to participate with God in the pursuit of beauty, zest, adventure, truth, peace, and love. Though the example given here in James is limited to the tongue, it points to the choices we need to make (moment-by-moment) for the whole Self.

The final contrasting images with which the author of James makes the point about the good and harm that the tongue can do are all images of nature – fresh/brackish water, figs, olives, grapes. If a process preacher were not interested in preaching on the human tongue, perhaps these images might provide a leaping point for a sermon on our moment-my-moment decisions which effect (for good or ill) the natural order in which we live and move and have our being. The issues of conservation, stewardship, recycling, refuse reduction, and other earth-sensitive behaviors are near and dear to those of us who see things through a process-relational lens. And as many of us are on the cusp of a seasonal change this month, it may be a good time to offer a sermon which reflects on these things – whether in addition to, or in place of, the human tongue!

Mark 8:27-38

Like the passage from Isaiah 50, the passage from Mark is asking questions about interrelatedness: How are we related…? …to Jesus? …to each other? …to the world in which we live? Jesus’ interview with his disciples about his identity isn’t for the sake of his own understanding; he wasn’t taking a poll. Rather, he was asking questions for their benefit, so that they might become mindful of how they are all interrelated as co-missioners for the realm of God.

The conversation that takes place about who Jesus is (v. 27-29) offers a paradigm for acknowledging our interrelatedness by affirmation. In all the various relationships we have with people in a given day (spouse, family, store clerks, coffee baristas, teachers, strangers, friends, etc.), we have the opportunity in all moments to affirm each other for the messianic promise which abides in each and every person we encounter. Are we mindful of the human dignity of those who wait on us? Do we affirm the wonder of those who choose to remain in relationship with us despite their awareness of our shortcomings? Do we acknowledge the inherently anointed/beloved-of-God nature within everyone we encounter?

Next, Jesus addresses the issue of how we find ourselves interrelated with others by default (v. 31-33). Like the Isaiah 50 passage above, the example given is that of a servant who suffers. Again, this is not an invitation or call for all people of faith to enter into suffering, but an acknowledgment that, from time to time, we human creatures have the tendency to suffer – and it may be at the hands of others. And when/if we do suffer, we often find that we are interrelated with others simply by virtue of their choices to confront us with fill-in-the-blank. We may not have any control over what happens to us in such a situation, but we can (and are called to) be aware of how we are interrelated with everyone – even those who may try to hurt us. This is, by no means, a call to redemptive suffering, but a call to be mindful of those relationships over which we may have no control. The creative transformation of such circumstances may simply be to hold those who wish us harm in prayer, and to love them, or (as some wise people of the past have put it) invite God to love them through us.

The stark contrast of being interrelated by default is to be interrelated by choice. And it is that matter of choice which is at the heart of the final verses of this passage (v. 34-37). Here, Jesus is speaking about how we are interrelated with one another (and with him) by choosing to be so. Here, we choose to identify with Jesus and one another by embracing the cross (or any other symbol), which signifies the denial of Self, and the embracing of Other. If, as in the first verses of this passage, we are called to be interrelated to one another by affirmation, our next healthy step is to be interrelated to one another by choice.