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;.

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Temptation, knowledge, wisdom and trust

A sermon for the 1st Sunday in Lent

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7, Romans 5:12-19, Matthew 4:1-11, Psalm 32

A workman is killed in an industrial accident; it’s all the more unusual, because the industry breeds dinosaurs. Investors get nervous and demand an independent evaluation. Dr. Ian Malcom, a mathematician who specializes in applying chaos theory to complex issues, is a part of the evaluation team. As he is introduced into the laboratory, he fascinated by the work, impressed by the science, unimpressed by the theories of control, [i] and somewhere along the line he mutters to himself: … just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Jurassic Park, dare devils, breast cancer, fertility, DNA splicing, Genesis and Matthew, are all interrelated.

We know the story in the garden, with Eve, the serpent and an apple. At least we think we do.

Eve gets involved in a conversation with a snake, Adam is in the background. The snake entices Eve into a conversation, the subtle focus is death. The outcome is her and Adam’s relationship with God changes from intimacy to shame. Their shame does not come from their disobedience but from the knowledge they gained in eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Now they know they are naked, they know that they are not God, how much more naked can you be. In making loin-cloths they are hiding from themselves, just as they later hide from God.

The snake enticed them by saying they will be like God. That temptation reframes their relationship with God. Until this moment, Adam’s and Eve relationship with God was trust; from this moment on its generic, its about, its theoretical, and boundary laden. Before all this, knowledge arose from their trust in God. Knowledge is no longer automatically rooted in wisdom, the stuff of the tree of life.

There’s a version of the Cyclopes’ story, where they are offered the ability to see the future for the modest cost of one eye. They strike a bargain, and give up an eye. In return they can see the future. However, the only future they can see is their own death. [ii]

The Cyclopes tried to be more than they were, and in the end they were less than they were before. It’s a similar fate that befell Adam and Eve, who tried to be like God. It’s a fate that still befalls humanity, as we make our own attempts to be like God. It is the boundary between divinity and humanity that Dr. Malcom is pointing to: just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

This week four articles from the New York Times caught my attention, with respect to the story of Genesis 3:
            The Genetics of Being a Daredevil,
            The Breast Cancer Racial Gap,
            F.D.A. Weighs Fertility Method That
                        Raises Ethical Questions,
and
            A Powerful New Way to Edit DNA.
All the stories are about some aspect of our understanding of DNA and humanities developing ability to manipulate it.

It turns out high risk athletics may not just be a learned skill. The willingness to engage in very risky behavior, as many Winter Olympic sports are, has an identified genetic component. [iii]  An interesting bit knowledge, perhaps with applications for recruiting, but otherwise innocuous. Right?

The story on breast cancer reports on multiple studies on the difference in mortality rates of black and white women with breast cancer. For some time it was believed there was a genetic factor that explained the difference. Tara Parker-Pope reports:

The research also dispels the notion that black women face a higher risk of breast cancer because of genetic differences. While they are at greater risk for some types of breast cancers, that doesn’t explain the widening mortality gap developing in a relatively short period of just two decades. [iv]

In the article on fertility Sabrina Tavernise reports on a technique that uses parts of three people to create an embryo. It is a treatment to correct a mitochondria defect, by replacing defective mitochondria with mitochondria from a healthy egg, either prior to, or after fertilization. Tavernise reports excitement about the science, and great concern about the implications and ethics. It’s an open question if this is a cure for disease or the beginning of designer babies. [v]

The final article is about a new way to edit DNA using bacteria. The process adapts parts of the immune system that makes vaccines work. Andrew Pollack quotes Emory University’s David Weiss:

The pace of new discoveries and applications is dizzying.  All of this has basically happened in a year … It’s incredible[vi]

And it is incredible, or is it the latest temptation to be like God?

Do not get me wrong, I am not against science, technology or modern medicine. If you’ve heard me talk, you know how excited I can get about science, and technology. And you see every week how much technology I use. However, as the article about breast cancer reveals such knowledge, for varied and vastly complex reasons, is not universally available. In itself that should give us cause to stop and ponder how such knowledge changes our relationships with each other, our relationship with creation, and our relationship with God. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness reveals at least a place to begin pondering.

Immediately after his baptism, Jesus is driven in to the wilderness, where he fasts for 40 days. Every temptation Jesus faces, the Hebrews faced in the wilderness, and early days across the Jordan. They fail every time. Jesus, succeeds where Israel failed. Underneath the temptations, to turn rocks into bread, to test the angelic command to keep him safe, and the lure of worldly power and wealth is the temptation to be like God, but more seditiously to not be who Jesus is ~ the Son of God. Judith Jones writes: Jesus defines “Son of God” not by privilege or power but by obedience to God. [vii] Jones also notes the temptations are not over:

            After Peter acknowledges Jesus to be the Son of the living God, he rejects the possibility of Jesus’ death.

            On his way to crucifixion religious leaders taunt him, Son of God?  ~ Prove it!

            On the cross: Doesn’t God love you enough to rescue you?

All the temptations go right back to the snake’s twisting of Adam’s and Eve’s relationship with God. They could not obey, could not trust God. Jesus does. Can we?

Lent is a season of penitence, when we are to make concerted efforts to reorient our lives to God. From Genesis and Matthew, we learn that that basically means to trust God. It’s more complex, because ‘we’ is not the numerous ‘I’s in the room, we is the people of God, which is every human-being. So yes, we have our individual work to do, we also have our communal work, as a church, a city, a county, a state, a nation, and a world, in a vast cosmos to do.

Everything begins with: Is this who I am?  who we are? Does this improve relationships between ourselves? Does this improve our stewardship of the earth? Does this reflect the relationship God seeks to have with us? If there is any doubt that one answer is not a resounding YES we should pause, until we receive the wisdom for said knowledge to contribute to everyone living life on earth as it is in heaven.

 


[i] imdb.com, http://www.imdb.com/character/ch0002031/bio, Ian Malcom, Jurassic Park, 1993
[ii] Krull, 1983, imdb, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0085811/?ref_=nv_sr_1

Genesis:
New Interpreter’s Bible, TERENCE E. FRETHEIM, THE BOOK OF GENESIS, INTRODUCTION, COMMENTARY, AND REFLECTIONS,
Interpretation, Genesis, Walter Bruggemann
Scott Hoezee , cep.calvinseminary.edu, http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php, This Week at the Center for Excellence in Preaching, Next sunday is March 09, 2014 (Ordinary Time), This Week‘s Article: Old Testament Lectionary Text is: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Working Preacher, workingpreacher.org, Commentary on Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7, Juliana Claassens

 [iii]  The New York Times, GRETCHEN REYNOLDS, PHYS ED FEBRUARY 19, 2014, 12:01 AM 37 Comments, The Genetics of Being a Daredevil
[iv] The New York Times, TARA PARKER-POPE, THE WELL COLUMN MARCH 3, 2014, 5:23 PM 68 Comments, The Breast Cancer Racial Gap
[v] New York Times, Sabrina Taverinse,  F.D.A. Weighs Fertility Method That Raises Ethical Questions, 2/25/2014
[vi] Andrew Pollack, New York Times, A Powerful New Way to Edit DNA, March 3, 2013
[vii] Working Preacher, workingpreacher.org, Commentary on Matthew 4:1-11 Judith Jones

Matthew
Hozee, ibid, The Lectionary Gospel Text is: Matthew 4:1-11
New Interpreter’s Bible, M. EUGENE BORING, THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW, INTRODUCTION, COMMENTARY, AND REFLECTIONS
Interpretation, Matthew, Douglas R.A. Hare

A sermon for Christmas 1

Isaiah 61:10-62:3, Galatians 3:23-25;4:4-7, John 1:1-18, Psalm 147 or 147:13-21

Shiloh is where Joshua and the Hebrews setup camp after entering the Promised Land. It was the home of the Tent of Meeting, where the Ark was kept throughout Joshua’s reign, and through the Judges, until they lost the Ark in an effort to use it as a weapon. Shiloh was a seat of governance; a place of meetings for the Tribes; and Eli’s and later Samuel’s home. There is some indication a structure was built to replace the Tent. Shiloh was likely destroyed by the Philistines; archaeological evidence point to something like 1050 BCE. It’s destruction made a lasting impression in the peoples’ minds; so much so that it was used a reference by the Psalmist, Jeremiah, and an occasional prophet. It is clear that Shiloh was once the seat of Israel’s power and their connection to God. It was completely destroyed. [i] Nonetheless, God continued to be present to Israel, and the ministry of faithful prophets, priests and Kings continued after Shiloh’s destruction.

Thursday I blogged about Jehoikim’s court’s response to Jeremiah’s prophecy that God will make his house like Shiloh; suffice it to say they were not happy. My point was that Jeremiah does not back down, doesn’t seek safety, doesn’t try and negotiate his way out. Jeremiah trusts in God. I believe that Jeremiah drew inspiration for his strength from Proverbs (8:22 ff) (appointed for Friday’s Daily Office) which speaks to Wisdom’s part in creation; her delight in humanity; how those who listen to her find life and divine favor, and those who don’t find injury and death. Thursday was Stephen’s day, when we, if it weren’t the day after Christmas, observe his faithfulness, and his martyrdom. I believe he drew strength from Jeremiah’s example, from Wisdom, and from likely conversation with John, who wrote the Gospel whose prologue we heard this morning. John is among the disciples whom anointed Stephen.

The language of John’s prologue is similar to Proverbs 8:22, in its reference to creation, and relationship to God. We all know ‘The Word’ in John comes to be the incarnate Jesus. I believe Wisdom is an older story of the same divine manifestation, in other words Wisdom comes to be the incarnate Jesus. I also believe that the Church is the continuing incarnation of Wisdom and The Word. So while both speak to a particular fully human manifestation in Jesus of Nazareth, they equally refer to his continuing ministry of which we as Church are stewards. Both Jeremiah and Stephen, are exemplars of our calling to be stewards of The Ministry: Wisdom’s The Word’s and Jesus’.

Wisdom and the Bible also referred to as the word, as literary works tell the story of God’s active presence in the midst of creation in the middle of people’s lives. Wisdom and The Word as a manifestation of God are God’s active presence in the midst of creation in the middle of people’s lives. Ministry is the trick of using one to draw people to the other. Ministry is using Wisdom and John, or what-ever applicable part of scripture, to draw people to the presence of  God/Jesus/Holy Spirit. That’s the work Jeremiah and Stephen did so well, not necessarily by the results: Jehoikim’s house is destroyed, and Stephen dies, but how they did their work, in unabated faith and trust, in a promise they could not see but nonetheless believed. That is the road ahead in 2014 and beyond.

Beginning next week our service schedule changes. We will gather to celebrate Eucharist at 9:00 am, and then share fellowship and engage in faith forming discussion, previously known as adult Sunday School. We will do so on the 1st, 2nd, 4th and occasional 5th Sunday. On the 3rd, St. Stephen’s will offer Morning Prayers. Your vestry has worked hard to work out this new arrangement; it is a bold act. And they will be the first to tell you it’s not about an extra 30 minutes sleep Sunday morning. Not at all. This is an opportunity  to follow our Parton, St. Stephen, and not worry about the lurking fear of Shiloh, but to boldly love and share the Word, or Wisdom, or God, or the Holy Spirit, or Jesus , or however you encounter the Divine presence.

I know folks who should be with us. I suspect you know more than I do. So now you have an opportunity to invite them, to be as persistent as the widow seeking justice and as gentle as Jesus reply Come and see. We also have an opportunity to discern how to increase our inviting families of any configuration to Friday Families.

And as any late night, or early morning commercial, there is more. The first is a vision I’ve named Brewing Faith. The vision is to establish a place where two or three times a week, once in the morning, at mid-day and/or in the evening people will be invited to gather over coffee or tea, or other brew and talk about the light the word and everyday life. Everyone of any faith persuasion, including those who are not quite sure, and those who really don’t buy this stuff, is invited. The setting is intended to invite conversation, to shine the light to share the word of Old Testament Wisdom, and the incarnate Jesus.

The 2nd vision I have to share is a longer term calling, I’ve come to call Stephen’s House. As I have shared with your vestry, it honors our patron saint, it builds on the ancient custom of house church, and the ancient custom of cathedral weekday community space; did you know the naves of Cathedrals were community market places, something akin to farmers’ markets, only with more variety. However, as with every good faithful discernment it begins by us faithfully asking: How is God calling us:  to share the light? to share the Word? And then we ask, Does this facility enable or hinder that ministry?

Yes, it is scary stuff, it pushes the recessed fear of Shiloh almost into the foreground. However, Jeremiah’s threat notwithstanding, there is a light-side to Shiloh’s story. Yes, it is completely destroyed. But the ministry of God is not. The people of Israel, at least some of them, remained faithful to God, continued to believe in the divine promise; they trusted in God. Shiloh is gone, God is not. As it is for many, and perhaps all churches, it’s time to set aside the fear of Shiloh; time to trust in the wisdom of the word to trust in the presence of the Word incarnate such that the light of Christ shines forth in your lives as witness to all around you.

It is going to be a different year, my prayer for us is that we allow it to be full of wisdom of the Word and the light of Christ incarnate. AMEN

 


[i] Quick Verse 10; Easton’s Illustrated Dictionary,  Holman Bible Dictionary, Nave’s Topics, International Bible Dictionary