27 September 2009

Pentecost XVII / Trinity XV

Year B, Proper 20
Miserere mihi, Domine

(RCL) Proverbs 31:10-31 and Psalm 1; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37
    Introit:Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I have cried to Thee all the day; for Thou, O Lord, art sweet and mild, and plenteous in mercy to all that call upon Thee. -- ( 85. 1). Bow down Thine ear to me, O Lord, and hear me; for I am needy and poor.

    Grant us, O Lord, not to mind earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to cleave to those that shall abide; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for everand ever. Amen.
    Gospel: Jesus left with his disciples and started through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know about it, because he was teaching the disciples that the Son of Man would be handed over to people who would kill him. But three days later he would rise to life. The disciples did not understand what Jesus meant, and they were afraid to ask.Jesus and his disciples went to his home in Capernaum. After they were inside the house, Jesus asked them, "What were you arguing about along the way?" They had been arguing about which one of them was the greatest, and so they did not answer. After Jesus sat down and told the twelve disciples to gather around him, he said, "If you want the place of honor, you must become a slave and serve others!" Then Jesus had a child stand near him. He put his arm around the child and said, "When you welcome even a child because of me, you welcome me. And when you welcome me, you welcome the one who sent me."
Sometimes the expanse of centuries between when the scriptures were written and when we, in the twenty-first century, are reading them seems to disappear. The readings today that supposedly come from Wisdom and James couldn’t possibly have been written that long ago. They must have been written in our time – in our generation, or at least only as far back as our parents or grandparents. They’re too current – too modern – too right between our eyes, don’t you think?

This is true for James, especially. You don’t often hear people say that the letter from James is their favorite. Maybe it’s not used often enough, or maybe it makes us uncomfortable, but we must admit that James is nothing if not practical. James’ very practical outline of behaviors and exhortations on what one must do to live a Christian life is very, well, no nonsense. James really spoke out to his readers back then, but today’s bit of James should still give us a lot to think about. In fact, if it doesn’t, then the bumper sticker that should be speaking to us is the one that says, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”

Listen again to what James says:
“Those conflicts and disputes among you … do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. You covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.”
That almost hurts to read out loud because it’s so true. Look at the world we live in. Many of us continue to ask why, in this day and age, the only way we seem to be able to deal with problems among the countries of the world is to arm mostly the poor and kill until someone gives up or one side has no one left standing.

But even closer to home, look at our own congregations. “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?” James writes. Where indeed? What is it about us church folks that makes it so much easier to exclude than include, when we should know better. What Christian can’t recite by heart the two great commandments: love God and love your neighbor as yourself. And the bumper sticker adds, “No exceptions.” What don’t we understand about what we can recite by heart?

And then, of course, we have to look at ourselves. It gets really uncomfortable when we read
“Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.”
Jesus says pretty much the same thing in the gospels – but “adulterers”? That seems a little harsh.

And we can wonder what’s so wrong with “the world.” The world, after all, is beautiful – it’s a gift from God, not something that should put us at enmity with God. But that’s not what Jesus and James were talking about when they used the word “world.” They were referring instead to the “operating system,” so to speak, of the world; the way we interact with each other, the systems we set up to run the world, our rules. That’s where we get into trouble. That’s where we let our conflicts and disputes, our cravings and selfish ambitions prevent us from truly living out those two great commandments that we all say we believe.

And then there’s that rather scary reading from Wisdom. “The ungodly by their words and deeds summoned death; considering him a friend, they made a covenant with him, because they are fit to belong to his company.”

Well, surely that’s not any of us: “ungodly … summoning death … belonging to his company.” That’s the stuff of a Stephen King novel, this personification of evil. So, we can comfortably read on until we get to verse 10
“Let us oppress the poor man; let us not regard the grey hairs of the aged, let our might be our law of right, for what is weak proves itself to be useless.”
That should make us squirm, because we have to understand that as long as there is oppression, disregard for anyone, old or young, as long as there are laws that ensure only the powerful get ahead, as long as God’s people are at enmity with God’s people, we’re a part of that. We share in the life and behavior of all God’s people.

This all sounds pretty negative – bordering on desperate perhaps. So where’s the good news? Is there good news?

I think so. But we may need to turn off our TVs and put down our newspapers so we can better focus on the good that is in our “world,” our “operating system.”

There are innumerable good things being done by people in our country, in our church – there are good that each of us do. When James says, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom” – that says to us that he knows there are those who are wise and understanding among his hearers. We know the same about ourselves.

The connection of gentleness and peace and mercy with wisdom is lovely. Elizabeth Johnson, a Roman Catholic theologian, writes:
“The world as a whole is shaped by Wisdom’s guidance. … This ordering is a righteous one, inimical to exploitation and oppression. Sophia hates the ways of arrogance and evil but works to establish just governance on the earth.”
Like James, she talks about an orderliness in the world. She reminds us that Sophia (“Wisdom”) works to establish justice and righteousness.

Wisdom is a fascinating image. We use it to talk about the nature of God, we use it to describe the gift of understanding that we seek from God. Wisdom is personified as the most hospitable of women. Elizabeth Johnson describes this feminine aspect of wisdom:
“The female figure of Wisdom is the most acutely developed personification of God’s presence and activity in the Hebrew scriptures. ... The biblical portrait of Wisdom is consistently female, casting her as sister, mother, female beloved, chef and hostess, teacher, preacher, maker of justice, and a host of other women’s roles.”
Women can’t leave the doing of justice and the spreading of the Good News to men, and vice versa. We’re all expected to share that work. So there is good news in today’s readings.

And of course, we only read one small bit of Wisdom this morning. If we’d read just a few more verses, we would have come to that most beautiful passage that’s often read at funerals:
“The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace – their hope is full of immortality.”
That speaks of the dead, but it also speaks of us who still live in this world, especially if we believe in the communion of the saints as we say we do in the Creed. All of us – those who have gone before us and those of us still here – are connected. We’re all kin, all a part of the people of God.

So, to play with this passage a little: “All those who are righteous are in the hand of God. In the eyes of the foolish, the righteous may seem to be weak, to be useless; but they have peace. They have hope, and that hope is full of the promise of immortality.”

And isn’t that God’s promise? Isn’t that what we hope for finally, for union with God? We can experience that here as well as in the hereafter, and part of our ministry is to make sure that we welcome all our brothers and sisters on that journey.

These readings give us a lot to think about. This is just a start, and there’s good news all though it. Because even when we’re brought up short and challenged about how we’re living, and even when we’re at our most unlovable, there’s always the promise of God’s love for us.

Several chapters later in Wisdom we read: “But you, our God, are kind and true, patient, and ruling all things in mercy. For even if we sin we are yours.”

Thanks be to God!

-- The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is executive director of the Center for Ministry in Small Churches at the School of Theology, Sewanee, Tennessee, and assistant professor of Contextual Education. She is also publisher of "Tuesday Morning," a quarterly journal of ministry and liturgical preaching.