Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16), 26 August 2018
August 26, 2018 | by Nichole Torbitzky
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|1 Kings 8:(1, 6, 10-11) 22-30, 41-43||[Psalm 84]||[Ephesians 6:10-20]||John 6:56-69|
1 Kings 8:(1, 6, 10-11) 22-30, 41-43
The lectionary for this Sunday tells the story of the dedication of the First Temple. If you recall, back in 2 Samuel 7:12-13, God promises David that his son will not only have a great kingdom but will also build a Temple for God’s name. Today’s verses tell the story of that promise fulfilled. Verse 22 picks up with Solomon’s prayer dedicating the Temple to God. The people have gathered at the Temple and Solomon raises his hands to heaven. Solomon begins with praising God, and as prayers tend to do, stating the obvious. He declares that there is no God like the God of Israel anywhere in existence. In heaven above or earth beneath covers everywhere in existence, even Sheol, which counts as the lowest part of the earth beneath. God is so great because God has kept up God’s part of the covenant and steadfastly loved those who walk with God. God has also kept covenant with David by fulfilling the promises made in 2 Samuel today. Therefore, Solomon requests, since God has proven so faithful, he asks that God keep up that last part of the bargain and ensure that David’s line and therefore Solomon’s line remain in power and follow God. Verse 26 sums up the opening praise by pronouncing God’s promise to David confirmed. What a lovely way to start. Solomon gives a little recap saying where they have come from, why they are here and reminds everyone that God is a God who keeps promises.
Solomon’s prayer moves onto the dedication at hand in verse 27. He asks a rhetorical question about how God could dwell in such a small place as the Temple in comparison to the vastness of heaven, which itself cannot contain God. This is a legitimate question about the nature of God. How could something human-made contain the infinite God? Solomon gives the answer in verse 29. God said, ‘my name shall be there.’ God simply cannot be contained by a place, but since God’s name is there, then God is there. Solomon prays that God will look on the Temple day and night and heed (pay careful attention to) this place in particular. He prays that God would hear the people when they pray toward this place even though God continues to dwell in heaven. This is an important point to make, one that may seem a little obvious to us, but may not have been so obvious at the time. The Temple is a sacred and holy place because it is where God’s name is. God’s eternal home is far beyond a physical place where enemies could attack or natural disaster strike. The distinction Solomon draws here is that God is more than the Temple. Yet, God who is faithful will pay special attention to this place because God’s name is there.
It is so holy and sacred in fact that God will pay attention even to foreigners (read people who are not Jews) if they come to the Temple to pray. Solomon calls upon God to answer the prayers of the foreigners so that all of the people of the world will know the power of God and fear God. Fear here connotes more than being scared, like a child of a bully. Rather, fear of God is akin to fear of a volcano that could erupt at any moment. One treads lightly, carefully, with preparation and deep respect around natural features that are beyond our control. Similarly, we tread with the utmost respect around God who is so much more. In this last section, Solomon repeats the assurance that God dwells in heaven and God’s name has been invoked on the Temple.
This is such a rich text, dear preacher; you will find plenty to help your congregation grow in their relationship with God and each other. Perhaps the importance and practice of prayer stood out for you as it did for me.
Prayer can be a tricky topic for some groups of Christians. In my own congregations, people have told me, “I don’t pray, God already knows everything.” Some protest they do not pray because they “don’t want to bother God.” Others pray with an almost superstitious cast to their words. Still others approach prayer like it is magic. Still others have told me that prayer is just talking something out with oneself. As pastors, we have a lot to do to help our congregations understand the importance and beauty of prayer.
Only so much can be said here about process theology and prayer. I would highly recommend Marjorie Suchocki’s, In God’s Presence, as a thorough, readable, and inspiring guide to process and prayer. If I have to boil it down, and I do, here is the marrow of the matter. Suchocki says of prayer, “This brings us to the basic supposition of a relational theology of prayer: God works with the world as it is in order to bring it to where it can be. Prayer changes the way the world is, and therefore changes what the world can be” (In God’s Presence, 18-19). To quote the book of James, “the prayers of the righteous are powerful and effective” (5:16). Our prayers, like Solomon’s, contribute to the reality of the world. Prayer is real. The God who is in relationship with us hears our prayers, takes them into the Divine self just as God takes all of our actions and returns to us the best possible for the next moment. Our prayers become building blocks for the next, best possible. Prayer is integral for the life of the mature believer and for the life of a flourishing community of faith. Our public prayers shape who we are together and who we are together with God.
One of my parishioners came to me one day to ask for my prayers after the financial crash in 2008. He had been out of work for months, and his financial situation was getting grim. We talked, and I assured him that he would be in my prayers. When I asked if he had been praying about this, with some confusion and distaste, he answered that it would be selfish to pray for himself. Solomon’s example is a good one for my parishioner. God is not Santa Clause, I explained. Praying for a million dollars to appear in your bank account is like a child praying for a dragon. Praying for God to help open doors to a match with a good job is a very different kind of request. Inviting God into that process opens us to divine action. Asking for what we need helps to build a world where those needs can be met. I also asked him why it feels selfish to pray for one’s self. There certainly might be selfish prayers, but praying for one’s self if not automatically selfish, because asking for help is often an act of relationship. We ask for help from those we trust. Giving and receiving help builds the bonds of relationship. Just in case you might want an end to that story. The church started a prayer group, and we learned how to pray for ourselves as well as for others while we praised and thanked God. Eventually, my parishioner found a suitable job. It was a little less pay and fewer benefits, but he did not lose his home or fall into financial ruin. He attributes his success to prayer. He calls it a miracle. I see prayer as another way to influence the makeup of our world. The combination of his diligent job searching, prayer, and the right conditions, all worked together. For that, praise God!
Those of you who preach weekly may have noticed that the lectionary has lingered over these verses. The last three Sundays have kept us in this last half of the sixth chapter of John. Perhaps that might be a clue that something worth lingering over rests in this text. In our text for this Sunday, Jesus is preaching in the Synagogue and drawing parallels between himself and Passover. He teaches in response to a question posed by a person in the crowd asking for a sign like the sign of manna Moses gave to the people while they wandered in the wilderness. Jesus tells them that Moses did not give the sign (manna), it was God. He goes onto say that God is giving them another sign, like manna, but better, the bread of eternal life. He tells them that eating his flesh and drinking his blood will result in eternal life on the last day. The people do not understand and complain. In our verses for today, the disciples too, appear not to understand and complain also. Of the multitude of worthy topics to discuss with your congregations, let us focus on two: the uselessness of the flesh and the complaining. (If you’re interested in addressing communion or eternal life, please see commentaries on Proper 14B and Proper 15B.)
Perhaps it did not appear to you as noteworthy, but the words in verse 63 leap off the page at me. In the NIV, this verse is translated, “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing.” The NRSV translates it, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The King James Version reads, “It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing.” What does Jesus mean here? He JUST SAID in verses 51, 54-58 that the flesh is pretty darn important! A careful look at the Greek text reveals that words translated as “profits nothing,” “is useless,” or “counts for nothing,” mean those things. This is not a case of bad translation. It appears that Jesus has just undermined his whole argument. How can the flesh be useless if eating the flesh and drinking the blood (which seems pretty “fleshy” to me) grant eternal life? So, what in the world is Jesus talking about?
I do not know about you, but I am kinda partial to my body. Especially now that my youth has been polished away, my body, my flesh, is my old friend. Each wrinkle and scar, my stretch marks and aching knees, my grey hairs and rounded edges, these mark an imperfect life dedicated to the service of Jesus Christ. Jesus sanctified this flesh when he took on flesh. Partaking of Jesus’ flesh means he abides in my flesh. Eating Jesus’ flesh grants eternal life. One day, I will be raised bodily from the grave. It may be a spiritual body, perfected and transformed, but a body nonetheless and one with some continuity with this body now. How now can he say the flesh is worthless?
This is why context matters. Read literally, and in isolation, this verse makes no sense. In the context of the wider story, what Jesus is saying makes perfect sense. Let us pause to recap a for a moment. Jesus is teaching in a synagogue. A group of people has gathered, some of them have recently been fed at the miracle of the loaves and fishes, but they want another sign, like the one Moses gave the people in the desert. When Jesus starts to talk about himself as better than manna and tells the people that they need to eat his flesh and drink his blood, they complain. What Jesus is saying sounds a whole lot like cannibalism. For today, we read how the disciples misunderstood and complained too. What did they misunderstand? Jesus explains, “look, people, it is not cannibalism, the flesh is not the point, it is the Spirit that I’m talking about.” He is not saying that flesh/our bodies are bad or wrong, profit us nothing, or are useless. He is saying forget the cannibalism stuff, “that is not what I’m trying to say here. I’m talking about a spiritual matter.” He tells them to pay attention to the words that he is saying, spirit and life are found in the word. It seems we can, after all, be glad of the bodies that Jesus has sanctified and come to communion knowing that we are not cannibals. Thanks, Jesus.
Unfortunately, some of the disciples still did not get it. Verse 66 reveals that Jesus lost many disciples that day. This leads to the next part of the text worthy of some discussion. Complaining seems to be an unavoidable part of our life together. My hope for you, dear preacher, is that you do not now, nor never have had to deal with, a single complainer in your congregation. Since that is very unlikely, I hope you can take heart that even Jesus had to deal with complainers. Even Jesus lost a few over it. For levity, here is the story of Arthur Bundrage. “Bundrage approached a Syracuse, New York, bank teller and demanded $20,000. When he got home, he discovered he’d been shortchanged. Outraged, he stormed back to the bank to tell them what he thought of their service. That’s when he was arrested.” — Source: Associated Press via https://www.rd.com/funny-stuff/the-funny-art-of-complaining/. Complaining happened in the desert to Moses, it happened to Jesus in the synagogue, it happens in every community at some point.
Maybe there is a complainer right now in your life. Perhaps there is a complainer in the life of someone in your congregation. First, the good news is that you are not alone. Moses and Jesus had to deal with complainers too. Second, the good news is that it is okay to let complainers go. Sometimes, the fallout from complaints is losing some people. Moses had it pretty good, where were they going to go? Moses did not lose many, but Jesus did. Third, complainers may be a blessing themselves. The conventional wisdom tells us not to listen to complainers and naysayers. Perhaps there is wisdom there. Yes, every church will almost inevitably have that person or two who always complain and cause roadblocks. Some chronic complainers may be happier elsewhere. Jesus did not lose a lot of sleep over those who walked away. Some chronic complainers are oh-so-happy to stay. The conventional wisdom may be best in this case. Yet, what about the occasional complainer? That someone is worth listening to because they point to the places that need our attention. Jesus did not dismiss the complainers right away and maybe neither should we. Let me give you an example. The first church I served had a little money and the need for a handicap accessible bathroom on the main floor of the building. The Council entertained several possible plans, finally settling on one they thought best. It came to a vote, and every Council member save one voted in favor. Since we run our churches as democratically as possible, the majority ruled and planning began in earnest. The one nay vote would not let it go. He complained and argued to the point that Council members were privately complaining to me about the stress and ill will he was causing. In response, I arranged a meeting with my complaining Council member. We sat in my office, and he defensively ranted. Then, when he realized I was actually listening and interested, he began to explain himself. He walked me through the building and through the plans and pointed out, not the flaws in the current plan, but the added benefits of his idea (two separate ADA complaint bathrooms rather than one, at a minimal added cost.) It took some explaining and some convincing. A few feathers were ruffled. In the end, we ended up with a much more comfortable arrangement for bathrooms than we would have otherwise, thanks to my complainer.
While I wish we could have gotten the great result without all of the complaining and hard feelings, the truth of our life together is that conflict is part of life together. Whitehead would suggest that our job as leaders and pastors is turning conflict into contrast. From contrast comes intensity and beauty that spur richer and heartier experiences. Our complainers serve a purpose. Even when the best possible is for them to move on, the contrast they offer becomes part of the good we can build.
Nichole Torbitzky received a doctorate from Claremont Graduate University, in Claremont, CA and her Master of Divinity from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Her current research investigates Whiteheadian notions of subjective form and the internal relations subjective form has on the ordering of eternal objects in the primordial nature of God. Torbitzky is an assistant professor of religion at Lindenwood University and teaches courses on World Religions, Islam, Indian Religions, History of Christianity, and Women and Religion.