Saturday, August 29, 2009

Sunday, September 6th, 2009, Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18

© 2009 by Louie Crew

Today’s Lections

The Collect
Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Beware the risks in praying this collect.

Are you really unprepared to confide in your own strength? Is that a prideful thing to do? Was Ralph Waldo Emerson wrong-headed in urging self-reliance? Self-reliance is a strong part of the American character: is that evil per se? Do you prefer to face a new challenge saying, “I am unworthy and unfit to take on this task, but God will be merciful to me: he is the strong one”? Do you want to be God’s whiner, or God’s friend and collaborator?

A classmate at Baylor in 1954 had a fantastic bass voice. I loved to sit near him in church.

“Are you majoring in music?” I asked.

“No, I am going to be a Baptist preacher,” he replied.

“I hope you are taking voice lessons,” I said.

“No, that would lead me to the sin of pride. My voice is God’s gift, not something of which I should boast.”

“I’m not talking about boasting,” I said; “I’m talking about honoring God’s gift by respecting it most fully and making it the best that it can be.”

“But then I would be taking on God’s job,” he said.

Was he proud in boasting that he trusted God more than musicians with talent who study and practice hard to make their voices better still?

I have not seen him in the 51 years since we graduated. I would like to sit near him again when he sings.

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23

The book of Proverbs is best when not read linearly for any long stretches. Those who created the lectionary have tried to help with this by substantial editing, completing verse 2 and jumping to verse 8, completing verse 9 and jumping to verse 22. Even so the three snippets remaining do not demand each other as context to be understood. Like Hershey kisses, each is wrapped and self contained.

Proverbs, biblical or otherwise, collect the wisdom (or purported wisdom) of the community.

Consider some secular proverbs: “What goes round comes round.” “A stitch in time saves nine.” “All that glitters is not gold.” “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you.”

Is the latter true? or just a parents’ counsel to help a child get past some evil name-calling? Do not words sometimes destroy dreams and permanently mame self-understandings?

Yet Eleanor Roosevelt taught a harder point of view: "No one can reject me without my consent."

Queer was a most hostile term in my childhood, and as an adult I had to work hard before embracing the term as my own, pinning it to the mat to deprive it of its power.

My ancestors were mocked for their fervor and driven out of England. They were derided as for vigorous body movement -- quaking -- during worship. In time they took the sting out of mockery by calling themselves “Quakers.”

We are wise not simply to receive proverbs, but also to challenge them.

A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches,
and favor is better than silver or gold.

How many lgbt persons have stayed in the closet using such reasoning? Coming out initially destroys one’s good name in many families and communities. Surely this is one of the reasons many parents are terrified when they think they might have an lgbt child.

When I was newly into puberty, my father said to me that he had heard that a queer hung out in the evenings in a breezeway at the local high school. Dad said that if he ever found out a child of his were queer, he would commit suicide in shame.

I already had inklings that I was gay. Did my father suspect I might be? Was he trying to scare me away from ever acting on my feelings? Had someone scared him into his heterosexuality?

We can find for almost every proverb another proverb or wise saying that counteracts it: for example, I might have said to my father, “ What does it profit a person to gain the world’s good opinion and lose his wholeness?”

In time Dad did hear me say that. In time he embraced Ernest and me both as his sons, but that took many a wrestling match with the Holy Spirit for Dad and for me.

Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity,
and the rod of anger will fail.

Does the proverb promote wishful thinking? What comfort was this to the Jews who recited it in the death camps? What comfort is it to survivors who lost so many in their families?

Do not rob the poor because they are poor,
or crush the afflicted at the gate;

How much do official public policies do just that? Sales taxes, for example, notoriously penalize the poor far more than others.

Also, our immigration policies systemically punish the poor. Our society would shut down in many ways if we did not enjoy the benefits of the labors of undocumented persons, but we provide them few of the entitlements we guarantee to others. Often they do not dare seek the education and health care for their families to which all other tax-payers are entitled, because undocumented citizens fear arrest and deportation.

Several have suggested that we ought to strip the Statue of Liberty of Emma Lazarus’ poem: “Send me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses longing to be free” because the United States no longer means that. Today we exploit immigrants for a season and then ship them home.

for the LORD pleads their cause
and despoils of life those who despoil them

Then the Lord had better get busy, because right now, the poor are losing big time.

Or better yet, maybe you and I had better get busy as God’s stand-ins.

Psalm 125

Grammatical point of view is interesting to watch here, as in many psalms. Most of the psalm is in the third person, describing how God is steadfast and immovable on the side of good people. At the end, God escorts the evil-doers out of Jerusalem.

But in the penultimate verse in the selection, that is, verse 4, point of view shifts from 3rd to 2nd person, and those who read the psalm, perhaps without noticing it, shift from talking about God to talking to God,

Show your goodness, O LORD, to those who are good *
and to those who are true of heart.

The rest of the psalm proclaims this is what God does, but almost as an aside verse 6 whispers to God to remind God to do it.

Does God direct goodness only, or even primarily, to the good? Do the evil never prosper? And if the evil sometimes prosper, do they always get their comeuppance?

When I taught at Chinese University in Hong Kong, I tried to persuade a friend in the Religion Department to get his colleagues to address the spiritual needs of lgbt persons. He was sympathetic but said I vastly underestimated the conservatism of Hong Kong Christians. “They are ready to string me up when I preach a simple text such as ‘God makes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.’ ‘No!’ they tell me! ‘God always privileges only good people! If you are prosperous, you are good; if you are poor, you are evil.’ Consider the wall of ignorance that I face, and do you still think that I can get them to consider whether God loves lgbt persons?"

James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17

Remember that James presided over the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), at which Saint pled the case for admitting Gentiles as Christians without requiring them to be circumcised. Saint succeeded, albeit with a good Anglican muddle. Few who have not read Acts 15 recently can remember the three requirements the Council still stipulated that Gentiles must meet in lieu of circumcision. The main news was that circumcision was no longer required of male converts. That huge barrier to evangelism was removed.

James’ theology conflicts with Saint’s in other regards as well, notably regarding justification by faith, not by works. Martin Luther later agreed with Saint so thoroughly that he suggested that the book of James ought never to have made it into the canons of Scripture. “It is of the devil!” Luther proclaimed, “to insist that faith without works is dead.”

James, for his part, was disturbed by any claim to have faith without manifesting the consequences of faith and the fruits of the spirit.

Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?

Similarly James scorns those who claim to be saved by grace and yet themselves show favoritism to persons who are rich and treat the poor badly.

Mark 7:24-37

Jesus finds it tedious to pass as a human being. Word keeps leaking out that he has the powers of a god, and the people importune him, intruding even upon his solitude, seeking gifts of healing. A Gentile woman somehow gets into his secret motel room and begs him to cast out the demons in her daughter. A deaf man who has a related speech impediment meets up with Jesus on the road to the Sea of Galilee and asks for healing. Jesus takes him aside, away from the crowd, puts his fingers into the man’s ears and the spits on a finger that he puts on the man’s tongue, and lo and behold the man can hear properly and thereby also speak properly. The problem for Jesus is that the attention drawn by these healings makes it increasingly difficult for him to pass incognito as a human being.

If more of us start acting as co-heirs with Jesus, we might find it increasingly difficult to pass incognito as mere mortals.

See also

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