Really, who is God? – what are divine expectations?

A sermon for  Proper 19

Proverbs 1:20-33, Psalm 19, James 3:1-12, Mark 8:27-38

David Brooks’ column Friday is titled The Russia I Miss. He notes how debates that raged in the public square in the west, raged within individuals in Russia. That internal debate produced great intellectual and artistic expression. Brooks writes that as America brought a vision of happiness into the world, Russia brought a vision of spiritual commitment. Building on Isaiah Berlin’s thought  “That man is one and cannot be divided.” He wrote:

You can’t divide your life into compartments, hedge your bets and live with prudent half-measures. If you are a musician, writer, soldier or priest, integrity means throwing your whole personality into your calling in its purest form. The Russian ethos … saw problems as primarily spiritual rather  than practical, and put matters of the soul at center stage.
Brooks laments that it is now all gone. (Brooks) And while he does not say so, I believe he longs for such a depth of spiritual commitment to return.

Such lament and such longing is a way of understanding scripture. When God learns that Adam and Eve have fallen to the temptation to be like God the initial response is: What have you done! (Gen 3:13) It sounds of surprise and dismay. From this moment through the end of Revelation there is a sense of longing for the relationship that has been lost, and a longing, a hope, an active effort to restore it.

This morning’s reading from Proverbs presents wisdom as a woman. The are numerous explanations. One tradition understands feminine wisdom to be one expression of the reality of God. (Sakenfeld) The feminine wisdom reveals God who always seeks relationship, and is always multi gender. Proverbs presents a God self revealing in vastly counter cultural ways. (Jacobson) On the surface this reading come across as a bit of a rant. However, when we realize city squares and city gates are locations for courts and the market place we begin to understand the underlying concern is for social and economic justice (Jacobson).  Here Woman Wisdom express lament for Israel’s behavior to God and toward each other, especially the least of these. Here Woman Wisdom longs for a return to relationships between all people as all humanity was created.

In the last few weeks Jesus has traveled from Tyre, through Sidon to Decapolis, through the wilderness, and Bethsaida to Caesarea Philippi. Here Peter gets it right, recognizing that Jesus is God’s Messiah. Then he gets all wrong when Jesus starts talking about betrayal, death and so on. Beyond the fact that none of the disciples ever get it right when Jesus starts telling the truth about what it means to be his disciples, the location makes a difference (Lewis). They are in Caesarea Philippi, which is at the furthest edges of ancient Israel. More significantly, it is the home of multiple temples to multiple gods. One temple was built by Herod in honor of Caesar; which was later enlarged by Philip. Who then renames the town after Caesar and himself – Caesarea Philippi (Easton). In short, they are in the heart of Roman territory. Think ISIS, only with no possibility of drone attacks, or friendly forces rescue. And here ~ is where Jesus chooses to begin revealing who he is, and what following him will mean. Of course Peter tells him to hush. Jesus is challenging Rome in a center of Roman power. In much the same way as the wilderness experience reveals who Jesus is, we are sharing, with the disciples, a further unveiling of Jesus’ identity, which evokes the question: “Who is God?” (Jacobson) Beneath the details, one more time, we see a God who is not expected. Jesus’ rebuke of Peter is a lament of the lack of understanding and the lack of trust. His continued explanation of discipleship, is a longing for what was created.

How often  have you heard “If you don’t want everyone to see it, watch it, hear it, or read it, do not post it on the internet!” In midst of an ugly seminary kerfuffle one of our professors said: “Unlike other injuries, what has been said can never be unsaid.” James is battling similar troubles. It is likely he is expressing concern about false or misleading teachings when he writes about the tongue. James writes that we can not curse those made in the image of God with the same tongue that blesses God (Jacobson). James laments this egresses behavior. Yet the fact that he wrote the letter is an expression of a longing for right teaching, but more importantly for right relationships, between each other and between our selves and God, to be restored.

Scripture reveals God laments the loss of the created relationship between the divine self and humanity and longs for, hopes for, continually works for the created order to be restored. Those whose faith life comes from the Judeo – Christian traditions lament what was lost in the garden and we also long for, hope for the created order to be restored. Those who follow Jesus believe Jesus has started that process. In the millennia that have followed, the revelation of God’s self has been difficult to perceive. We have trouble agreeing on who God is. We have trouble agreeing on what God would have us do. So, do we really know God? Do we really know what the divine expectations are? The answer is sort of, but not completely. I have and I expect you have, seen God in unexpected places. I have and I expect you have, unexpectedly been a blessing in the life of another. We know and cherish those moments.

One of the gleanings from all today’s readings is that God and Jesus never conform to cultural expectations. One of the continual threads in the bible is God is always showing up in the midst of adversity. Insomuch as we look for God in the glitz and glamour, and so rarely encounter the divine there perhaps lets us know we’ve got it wrong. What would we find if we look for, listen for, ask for God in the wilderness and the broken places and people. We expect God and Jesus in particular places, at particular times, in particular ways. Curious how it so rarely works out that way (Epperly). We harbor secrete doubts about the Jesus story, about the cross; may be because we fear or dislike the self denial implicit in the cross (Ashley, Lose). What we misconstrue is that the self denial of the cross is not about less happiness, it is about discovering real and abundant life, an abiding spiritual commitment. In giving up the traditional and the expected  particulars we probably won’t find the life or God we want, we will find the God we need (Lose).

——————-
Brooks David, New York Times, The Russia I Miss 9/11/15
Sakenfeld,  Katharine  Doob.  New Interpreter’s Dictionary  of the  Bible.  Nashville: Abingdon,  2009.
Jacobson,  Rolf,  Karoline  Lewis  and  Matt Skinner.  Sermon  Brain  Wave.  9 13  2015.  
Lewis Karoline. Location Matters. 9 13 2015
Easton, Matthew George, Easton’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary
Epperly,  Bruce.  The  Adventurous  Lectionary.  9 13 2015. .
Ashley, Danae, God’s Story, Our Story  –  Proper  18(B).”  9 13  2015.  Sermons  that Work;
Lose, David, Intriguing, Elusive, Captivating, and Crucial, 9 13 2015 In The Mean Time

Proverbial wisdom – Choosing God’s unexpected disruptive path.

A sermon for Proper 18; Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 Psalm 125 James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17 Mark 7:24-37

Do you have a favorite pithy saying from your childhood? I don’t know ~ something like The early bird catches the worm? Please share it with us. A stitch in time saves nine. Early to bed early to rise makes one healthy wealthy and wise.

All of these are something like modern proverbs; they are sayings that teach something about life. As a rule they are descriptive they describe what works and what doesn’t; they tend not to give advice.

The Book of Proverbs is attributed to Solomon. It’s not likely he wrote all of them. Perhaps he collected the wisdom of the ages. It’s thought King Hezekiah collected some and attributed them to Solomon. Scholars know they date from the 10th century to the 6th to the 4th-century BCE. Some are borrowed from the surrounding cultures. The section today’s couplets come from a section that is similar to Egyptian teachings rewritten in Hebrew setting. As a rule Proverbs present wisdom: as from God, mediated by people or institutions, that we have the capacity for justice and wisdom, that respect for God is the beginning of wisdom, that we have the freedom and responsibility to choose the path of righteousness or the path of the wicked, and no the devil did not make you do it (Sakenfeld).

Today’s teachings focus on justice and status. In short everyone is created by God, and our wealth and status are a blessing, like Abraham’s blessing, they are given to us, to be blessing to the world (Bouzard). A classmate of mine wrote that today’s verses should make us think about: how we live in the world and relate to each other, how we understand justice and poverty, how we explore if we trust God to love all of us, good bad or indifferent, and that God’s love is enough (Metz).

Perhaps an example of choosing the path of justice and righteous will help us understand how Proverbs might guide us.

We heard two stories from Mark this morning. Let’s look at the second one first. It takes place in Decapolis, a gentile area. Some friends of a deaf mute bring him to Jesus and implore him to lay hands on their friend. In private Jesus sticks his finger in his ears and after spitting, touching his tongue, and saying “Be opened.” the man is healed. Jesus goes back into public with him and tells them to be quiet. They aren’t. Have you ever noticed how every time Jesus tells people not to talk about his works, all they can talk about ~ is his works. With the story of Jesus restoring a Gentile’s hearing and speaking as a background let’s take a look at Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman.

Jesus is in Tyre, another Gentile region, to get away. It is not going to happen. A woman hears about him. She speaks to him about healing her daughter.

A couple of things about Jesus’ reply. ‘Children’ is a reference to Israel. Some commentators expound on how Jesus could have understood his ministry to be to Israel first. Nonetheless, his reply to the woman is bluntly demeaning; no way around it, he was rude. The woman speaks to him again, noting how even dogs get the crumbs from the children’s table. Jesus heals her daughter, right then, right there.

In the second story, Jesus restores a man’s ability to hear and speak. In the first story, a woman hears about Jesus and speaks. In both stories, God’s breaking into the world cannot be suppressed. Jesus does not want to heal the girl, yet he is compelled to, God breaks in. Jesus wants the deaf mutes healing to stay private, it spread like wildfire, God breaks in (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner). God has always and continues to break into the world. What gets to us is that God does so in ways that conflict with our values and desires be they economic, political, social or religious (Kiel).

The woman is passionate about her daughter. But what disrupts Jesus’ understanding of his ministry is that she tells an uncomfortable truth: the presence of God is available to the least of God’s people. It took courage even to approach Jesus. It took courage to speak the truth. And in speaking the truth the woman changes the direction of Jesus’ ministry; his next stop is way out of the way Gentile territory (Lewis).

The encounter with the Syrophoenician woman shows Jesus walking wisdom’s path as he chooses the way of righteousness, which is always to be open and responsive to the disruptive presence of God. In this encounter, Jesus extends the good news of God’s presence, to those Jewish teaching would exclude, through healing (Hoezee, Mark). So yes, these are healing stories; they are also stories of making the choice to follow wisdom’s way in choosing righteousness. And by the way, righteousness is not making a moral decision, it is making the decision to follow God. The difference is morality is defined by human institutions, remember last week’s traditions and rules; choosing to follow God often means going against traditions and rules (Hoezee).

There are some recent news items where Jesus’ choosing to follow Proverbs’ teaching illuminate the events. Kim Davis is choosing to follow her religious tradition and not issue marriage licenses that offend her religious rules. Her oath of office states:

I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of this Commonwealth …. (The Associated Press)

While I think her religious stance is biblically incorrect, I admire her taking that stance in her tradition and rules. She clearly has a conflict between her Oath of Office, which end “so help me God.” and her religious tradition and rules. Proverbs’ path of wisdom calls us to be open to God’s disruptive breaking in. I see this as Mrs. Davis’ more difficult struggle.

The news and social media has been full of the photograph of the 3 year old drowned on the beach after the boat he was in capsized. It has captured our hearts. It is generating pressure on governments to do something to care for the influx of refugees. The traditional response is to decide who will take how many refugees and how to pay for their transition into society. Proverbs’ path of wisdom would lead us to take the very risky action necessary to stop the wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Libya, etc. God’s breaking into these disasters is not necessarily upping the military commitment though I fear that may be a necessity. However, the righteous decision does call on all parties involved to stop following the decades-long tradition that has created the current conundrum.

Closer to home. Mississippi County and Blytheville are enmeshed in vast disruptions to local tradition and rules, especially the soft ones, those categorized as “the way we’ve always done it” and those known, but never spoken. There are emerging opportunities to respond righteously to these challenges. All of them mean changing the ways we go about our communal business and the way we relate to each other. To be successful, we need to be attentive to God’s breaking in as Jesus is, and he is already breaking traditions and rules.

Even closer. We need to make some decisions about St. Stephen’s future. I’ve asked before: “How are we going to proclaim the presence of God right here, right now?” What I know is the current tradition and rules, the soft ones, are not getting the job done. I have not encountered a Syrophoenician challenging our fundamental ways; nonetheless, I know God is whispering in our ears. God is breaking in. Our challenge is to be like Jesus: to be open to the Spirit, to be willing to change everything, to trust in God with all our hearts, because we trust that God’s alone is enough  (Hoezee, Mark; Metz).


References

Adam, A. K. M. Commentary on James 2:1-10, [11-13], 14-17. 6 9 2015. <workingpreacher.org>.

Bouzard, Walter. Commentary on Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23. 6 9 2015. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 6 9 2015. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. “Old Testament Lectionary Text is: Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23.” 6 9 2015. Working Preacher.

—. The Lectionary Gospel Mark 7:24-37. 6 9 2015.

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 6 9 2015.

Kiel, Micah. Commentary on Mark 7:24-37. 6 9 2015. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Lewis, Karoline. God Said Yes to Me. 6 9 2015. <workingpreacher.org>.

Mast, Stan. Lectionary Epistle. 6 9 2015. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermonstarters/&gt;.

Metz, Susanna. “Learning from Proverbs – Proper 18(B).” 6 9 2015. Sermons that Work.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

The Associated Press. “Here is the oath of office taken by county clerks in Kentucky.” 3 9 2015. abc news.go.com. web. 6 9 2015. <http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/oath-court-clerk-now-jailed-gay-marriage-33516278&gt;.