|Reading 1:||Reading 2:||Reading 3:||Reading 4:|
|1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43||Psalm 96:1-9||Galatians 1:1-12||Luke 7:1-10|
By David Grant Smith
1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43
These verses are only snippets from King Solomon’s lengthy prayer at the dedication of the new temple in Jerusalem. In addition to Solomon praying that God would hear the prayers of foreigners (in these verses), he also prays (in other verses not in this reading) for the covenant to be kept that was promised to his father David (for an ongoing monarchy of his lineage, and that God would inhabit the temple in Jerusalem), as well as petitions that relate to the wellbeing of the Israelites — that their prayers would be heard, especially when they were repentant in times of trouble (sin, drought, famine, war, etc.).
The context of the prayer may be the liturgy of the dedication of the temple, but the greater context is the overarching covenantal relationship which Israel believed itself to have with God. That covenantal context reached as far back in the communal history as the covenant made with Israel at Sinai, which was brought into their communal awareness through Moses. The other end of that covenantal context was only as recent as Solomon’s father, David. The prayer which Solomon offers is done so in a manner of reminding both parties of that covenant — that is, both Israel and God — that they are in relationship with each other, and that they each have their end of that relationship which they have promised to uphold, keep, honor, and respect. Israel is to keep the Torah (Law), and God is to hear and act when Israel prays.
Within the context of the Sinai covenant (Torah), Israel is reminded to be aware of its context of being a people among other peoples. On one hand, this is an affirmation of their “chosenness” (that they are a unique people with a unique relationship with God). On the other hand, though, they are called and commanded to be mindful of those who come from other lands. They were once “sojourners” in the land of Egypt, where they were mistreated; so they, in turn, are not to mistreat those who come to their land, but to treat them with mercy, generosity, kindness, respect, and justice.
All these levels and layers of covenantal relationship are concrete examples of process-relational awareness. Solomon’s prayer asserts that the relationship between God and Israel is mutually dependent; both parties are to live in awareness of the reality of their relationship. It further asserts (and reminds) both parties that they are in relationship with other peoples and nations, and that this added layer of interrelationship enriches them all.
Applying this prayer to a contemporary context may be a way to creatively transform the imaginations of both preacher and congregation. Taking the “American Dream” as being a conceptual temple, one could ask what kinds of prayers might we offer at its dedication. Does our vision of this “temple” include awareness of our interdependent relationship with God? Does our vision of this “temple” make room for the prayers, wishes, and aspirations of those who may come here from other countries? Do we honor and acknowledge the prayers of those who have immigrated to our country?
If one isn’t careful, it would be easy to take a “nationalist moment” found in Scripture, such as Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple, and use it to build a case for what has been dubbed as “American exceptionalism” — the idea that God has a stated preference for the United States. This has already been articulated in concepts such as “manifest destiny.” But the slippery slope of “American exceptionalism” can be leveled by being mindful of the reality that every person (and every people and nation) has its own unique relationship with God. No one individual, people, or nation can lay any more claim to being in relationship with the One who is omnipresent than another. We do more to affirm our relationship with God by honoring our neighbors — both near and far — than by asserting our relationship with God (either personal or communal) as being “more equal than others” (to borrow a phrase from George Orwell).
It should also be pointed out that, in process-relational thinking, we affirm the notion that prayer changes all beings who are involved in the act of prayer — the one who is praying, the one for whom the prayer is being offered, as well as the one to whom the prayer is being offered. To illustrate this very point, in her book In God’s Presence, Marjorie Suchocki offers the image of how both water and rocks are changed when water runs over the rocks: the water is redirected by the presence of the rocks, and the rocks are reshaped by the persistence of water running over them for great lengths of time. So it is in prayer; we who pray are impacted no less than God is, and vice versa. The prayer which Solomon offers on behalf of immigrants to his country impacts both him (and his people) as well as God (to whom they pray), all the while affirming the reality of the immigrants themselves who have come to their land.
This week’s psalm begins with the admonition to sing “a new song” for God; to sing to God “all the earth.” In the context of a Liturgy in which this is offered as a response to the reading from 1 Kings, it could be understood that the “new song” to be offered is that of being inclusive, affirming, and accepting in our considerations of international diversity. In some peoples’ minds, this could be something new to consider: that God could be equally interactive with peoples of other lands than with one’s own nation or culture.
But the psalm need not be dependent on 1 Kings to have something for the process preacher to offer. Depending on the translation, there is the idea of being “before God” or “in God’s presence” in this text (verses 6, 9). Perhaps in this context, the “new song” might be to develop an ongoing awareness of God’s omnipresence. Being aware of (and even actively seeking) moments in which God’s presence can be sensed can become a worthy spiritual discipline for any of us to consider. Depending, again, on one’s translation of this text, there are some vibrant words which can be offered as tools for developing such a spiritual practice of discerning such moments: glory, wonders, made/created, majesty, magnificence, splendor, honor, power, beauty (in The Book of Common Prayer); glory marvelous, revered, made/created, honor, majesty, strength, beauty, holy, splendor (in New Revised Standard Version). These lists are not unlike Alfred Whitehead’s list of words used to describe God’s primordial nature: beauty, truth, zest, adventure, peace, and love. The spiritual practice of reveling in God’s omnipresence can be mediated through experiences which these words may describe. Likewise, when we find ourselves using those words to describe any kind of an experience, it may be an opportunity for us to remind ourselves of the fact that we are always in God’s presence.
The prologue to Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, like the reading from Luke used this week, relates to the issue of authority. Paul believes that he was given the authority to preach the gospel to which he refers by Jesus and by God; and he is challenging the authority of others to come into their midst preaching something contrary to the message he proclaimed among them (he is also challenging the authority of the Galatians themselves for having followed a different version of the gospel than what he had shared with them).
The controversy at hand here is not spelled out in these twelve verses. So, for the sake of the congregation hearing the reading proclaimed as “good news” in their midst, it behooves the preacher to spell it out. It becomes clear later in the letter that there have been some who have come to the Galatians proclaiming that in order to be authentic followers of Jesus, they must first embrace the Jewish covenants and practices, beginning with circumcision. Paul wasn’t against circumcision, mind you. He himself had been circumcised. Nor was he opposed to the Jewish covenants. He himself was an observant Jew. But he was opposed to the idea that circumcision should be a requirement for being a disciple of Jesus. He viewed the message of Jesus as being more universal than to include only observant Jews. The gospel Paul offered the Galatians was one which was open to all manner of people in all walks of life.
From a process-relational perspective, Paul’s message to the Galatians could be interpreted not so much along the lines of authority, but as an issue of authenticity. The Galatians were not Jewish; so they needn’t embrace Jewish observances in order to bring their true Selves into the Church. Rather, they were being encouraged to bring their authentic Selves to the life of Christian discipleship. The Letter to the Galatians (and Paul in general) asserts that life in Christ is more about grace and faith than it is about works.
Though often interpreted to be a message that pits “works righteousness” against being “saved by grace/faith” in recent centuries, this passage could be reconsidered through a process-relational lens. A central assertion of process theology is that God sees the world the way it is and works with it to help it become what it can be. However, in that assertion there is an understanding that who a person is need not be abandoned in order to be faithful to God’s lure. Rather, God works with us as we are to help us to become the best possible true Self we can be. Paul seems to be offering this kind of vision to the Galatians throughout this particular letter – a theme which may make a potential sermon series in the weeks to follow.
This idea of offering one’s authentic Self for the purpose of being in relationship with God has contemporary corollaries, of course. For example, in many denominations there is still an ongoing wrestling with the idea of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people being fully included into the life and ministry of the Church. There are those who have tried to assert that, in order to be true Christians, LGBT people need to “circumcise” that part of their lives. In a process-relational world, we understand that something as integral to one’s identity as sexuality and sexual orientation need not be abandoned in order to be faithful to the Christian tradition. Instead, we encourage our LGBT sisters and brothers to bring their authentic Selves into the Body of Christ and into their discipleship. Paul’s argument that the Body of Christ was enriched by its diverse cultural and ethnic makeup can apply to other issues of diversity as well.
In this healing story, as in our reading from Galatians, we find Jesus affirming that a faithful relationship with God is not limited to one people or culture. At the conclusion of the story, Jesus affirms the faithful way that this Gentile – one who was not only from outside the household of Israel, but who was also part of the occupying forces of the Romans – saw himself in relation to God and others. In fact, the elders of the town’s synagogue commended this centurion to Jesus because the centurion “loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us” (NRSV). The cross-cultural valuing of the “other” is mutual in this story.
Also like the reading from Galatians, this reading deals with the issue of authority. The centurion’s message delivered to Jesus named it as such: “For I also am a man set under authority…” Though some issues of hierarchy are implicit here, the way that the centurion and Jesus seem to be engaging the issue of authority is more about faithful stewardship of the relationships involved. There is an acknowledgment that the centurion relies on those of lower rank to be faithful in their duties, as he aims to be in his duties as their superior. There is also an understanding that the centurion has faith in those he asks to fulfill their duties; he knows that they will do what they are asked to do. There is a mindfulness of human interrelatedness in the message he sends to Jesus; and he acknowledges his own vulnerability by his concern for his sick servant, as well as his lack of presumption in terms of acknowledging who he believes Jesus to be for both him and his servant.
Another potential cross-cultural sensitivity which is implied, though not stated, is related to ritual purity. Perhaps the centurion (because of his relationship with the Jewish elders, and those who were members of the synagogue he built) realized that if a Jewish man were to enter a Gentile household it would render him “ritually impure” in terms of the Torah Law, It could be that his lack of presumption was out of a respect for other peoples’ religious observances. There is no way to document this, of course, but from a hermeneutical stance such a supposition could provide a platform for asking faithful Christians to consider our own sensitivity to other peoples’ practice of their religion. Are we as sensitive to them as the centurion was toward Jesus?
Returning to the issue of authority, though, this story speaks to the issue of placing credibility into what one perceives to be an authentic source (or Source?) of inspiration. One way of approaching that idea is through the spiritual practice of discernment. There are many ways in which we all discern which messages and messengers “ring true” to us. There was something about the way the centurion interacted with the people of Capernaum that earned him their trust. There was something about the way the people of Capernaum interacted with the centurion that earned them his love and even his material support. There was something about the ailing servant that earned the centurion’s respect and concern. There was something about the word and reputation of Jesus that earned him the centurion’s trust. There was something about the centurion’s message that earned him Jesus’ admiration.
Each person in this story had a spirit of discernment at work in them which helped them to see and hear and sense the lure of God’s presence in those around them. The spiritual practice of discernment, which could perhaps be described as mindfulness in action, is all about placing credibility into those people and situations in which we sense God’s lure, and in those people and situations which facilitate our co-participation with God in the work of creative transformation. The healing of a Gentile soldier’s servant is significant in and of itself; but perhaps the way that story is related to us speaks on a deeper level about the importance of being mindful of the relationships which we have with those around us, and the way that we can discern God’s creative lure in each other, and in life’s situations.
The Rev. David Grant Smith is the Rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Penn Yan, NY, in the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester. Prior to his ordination to the priesthood in 2008, David had a career as a lay professional in church music. In addition to his interests in weaving process theology into parish ministry through preaching, liturgy, teaching, and pastoral care, David enjoys travel, writing, and showing family & friends around the beautiful Finger Lakes region of upstate NY.