Salted with fire

27 September 2009
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 21B (RCL)

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
Psalm 124
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50

What an interesting set of readings to handle together. With the RCL, this is the first time we have ever read anything from Esther in Church. It’s a great story. Esther is essentially an incarnation of Wisdom. What a fun, subversive story: a woman giving adivce to the king (and a Gentile king, no less). She saves here people. This is the story read on Purim and in Synagogue, everyone hisses and boos and makes rude noises every time Haman is mentioned, and cheers for the king. It’s the wisdom story all over: the righteous triumph in the end. For a people who have had to live by their wits, it’s perfect.

James: It would be easy to read this as “If you just pray right, you’ll get better.” I think James is scolding his congregation for keeping their suffering and ills (and joys) to themselves. He is saying all these things have their place in the liturgy of the assembly. If you are suffering, pray. Fill out a prayer request card. If you have good news, sing. If you can’t get to church, have the elders come and lay on hands. James then says, “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.” It’s interesting to link illness and sin. We tend to think of this as if sin caused the illness. But there are several components to illness. The physiological process, the personal and emotional reaction (tiredness, depression) and the social component (isolation; gossip). If sin is whatever causes dislocation in the Body of Christ, then all kinds of things need restored when we are ill.

Mark: The disciples scold a person for casting out demons, which just a few verses ago, they themselves were not able to do. Jesus says whoever is not against us is for us, working for the kingdom. Then he talks about little ones, just like the child he set in their midst. What is power for? For making us special, or for accomplishing God’s purposes. If anything gets in the way of those purpose, be done with it. And he ends it with the weird saying about being salted with fire. The quote about worms never dying is taken from the last chapter of Isaiah, about the restoration of Jerusalem and the punishment of the unjust. So, the Temple is imagined as restored (a powerful prophecy for Mark’s time), and the altar set up. Every sacrifice on the altar had to include salt — an indication that it was a meal, not just an animal, or flour, but food. Have salt among yourselves and be at peace. Share sacrificial meal. To be salted in the fire is to be the offering to God on behalf of the world. WE are the offering on the altar. How cool is that?

Where Wisdom lives

20 September 2009
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 20B (RCL)

Proverbs 31:10-31
Psalm 1
James 3:13 — 4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30-37

The good wife, who can find? This reading could easily give a woman a real sense of inadequacy. Certainly, we have seen enough of the do-it-all woman, who has to work, be a wife, raise kids, and often enough without significant help from her spouse. First of all, it is important to note that the ideal wife in this passage from Proverbs is from the upper classes: in v. 15, she provides tasks for her servant girls; she also has enough money to buy a field on her own.
But far more important to understanding this passage is to recognize that it is written for young men, from the upper classes, who are being trained to take their place in the king’s household. Throughout the book, they have been warned about “wiley” women, who, if they allow it, will seduce them away from their standing. It would be easy to come away with a “blame the woman” attitude from Proverbs, but this is the closing poem. If a man remains faithful to his good wife, she will do him great good and not harm.
I also love the way it turns the question of where wisdom resides on its head. These young men are going to sit at the king’s table and give him advice. But wisdom, personified in the good wife, is not to be found there, but at home. The holy life will be lived at home!

James has one line this time that make the reading worth it: you want and do not have, so you commit murder. How many people in the pews will “Oh, really!?” None of us have commited murder. But, it’s shocking enough to make you think. We want oil, and so what happens? You can trace out the questions.

Mark similarly turns around the question of where power resides. After predicting the passion, which the disciples still don’t get, Jesus has to ask the disciples what they were arguing about. They were arguing about who is the greatest — presumably when he comes in glory. Where will power be? Whoever wants to be greatest must be minister of all — both represent all, and wait on all — it’s a great word in Greek. And then Jesus takes a child and says essentially, this is God’s ambassador. What is the point of power in community? Is it not about protecting the community, guarding the fringes? Who could be more at the edge of community, more powerless, than a child not yet gendered? And, if the community is to survive, this child must survive. Power in the church should be about bringing the edges in, not figuring out where the center is. The holy life is not found at the king’s table, but where we live.

God will mess you up

6 September 2009
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 18B (RCL)

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
Psalm 125
James 2:1-17
Mark 7:24-37

Some sermons just write themselves. In church on Sunday, I explained the new hands-on, face-to-face ministry cards. On the front, people are invited to write whatever hof2f ministry they have been involved in during the last week, and on the back, reflect on how this has changed them. They then place the cards in the offering baskets.

Jesus engaged in a little hof2f ministry this week, and it changed him. He “resurrected” and went to the region of Tyre, Mark tells us. There, he stayed in a house, and didn’t want anyone to know. I’ll say, he didn’t want anyone to know — he was staying in the house of a Gentile, I would guess. Hard to do for a Jew (if Jesus was in fact a Jew). But a pesky woman found out about it, and came to him with a request that he heal her daughter. Jesus essentially calls her a dog, and she replies by wondering if he is so cruel as to sweep up the crumbs under the children’s table, just so the dogs can’t eat. She turns his insult back on him. And Jesus’ heart is changed.

This healing happens between the second sea crossing (the walking on water — clearly a resurrection appearance) and the feeding of the 4000. The healings between these miracles happen in Gentile territory. So, this time, baptism and eucharist are bringing Gentiles to the table! The shift wasn’t easy for the community. They told their story in the story of Jesus needing to be confronted in order to change his mind. I wonder why it is that we think God made up his mind once and for all, and gave us a complete set of instructions in the Bible, when in the bible itself we have stories of God changing God’s own mind.

I also love the lesson from Proverbs. At issue is what will count as “goods” in Wisdom’s community. A good name (relational identity) will count for more than silver or gold (market economy). We are made who we are, and given value, by our relationships, rather than by what we can achieve alone.

James says essentially the same thing. The first sentence should really read, “Do you, brothers and sisters, by your acts of favoritism, really trust in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” The issue is trust, not belief. If we show favoritism, if we want to get next to money and power, then we don’t trust Jesus, and whatever it is that Jesus offers, namely the kingdom. God has chosen the poor in the world to be rich in trust, and heirs of the kingdom, says James. What counts as a “good”? Relationship, Kingdom, not gold or silver.

But, also, of course, gold and silver used in community. What good does it do to say to your brother or sister, “go in peace, keep warm and eat your fill,” if you don’t supply their needs? The kingdom has to be real here and now, also. What counts as a good? Hard question to answer.