Proper 18

September 10, 2006
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
Reading 2: 
Psalm 146
Reading 3: 
James 2:1-17
Reading 4: 
Mark 7:24-37
By Rick Marshall

Discussing the Text:

Both Jewish scriptures point to two of the most fundamental and pervasive themes in the Bible: the question In whom do we place our ultimate trust? And an affirmation of God’s concern for justice and the emphasis upon caring for the poor. Psalm 146 cannot make it any clearer. The reader is encouraged to positively not trust leaders. Not because of anything personal, although that is often an issue, but because they are limited. Their plans will perish with them. If there is any hope or trust connected with them, it is limited by the very nature of their mortality (and often their self-interest). Real hope and help comes from a source that is not limited by mortality; the Lord is the true and sustaining source of ultimate hope. The question of who to trust in a no-brainer. The one who has created everything and continues to sustain life is the one who can offer real help. This helper, this source of hope, is concerned about everyone, even those on the bottom of the social ladder. The logic of the text is that if God is concerned about the least, then God is concerned for all. The psalm goes on to affirm a set of values that provide the very heart of social justice. The words of verses 5 - 9 will echo throughout the Christian scriptures, especially in the words and actions of Jesus. The selection from Proverbs underscores the problems of seeking riches at the expense of others. Put in a very simple way: “He who sows injustice will reap calamity… He who has a bountiful eye will be blessed.” The text even goes so far as to warn those who oppress the poor in verses 22 and 23.

The James text continues in this vein. If you trust the God revealed in Jesus Christ, then you too will reflect the gospel values expressed in social justice. James takes a firm, clear, social stance. Be careful in buying back into the standards of “The World,” where the system is rigged in favor of the rich at the expense of the poor, where money indicates personal value, where power is the ultimate measure of human worth. If God is against that world, then why buy into, why validate it, why give it any legitimacy? James says those people who are rich and powerful are the very ones who oppress you. This social-oppression buy-back goes against the “royal law” to treat your neighbor with respect. If you buy into the rigged system of the world, you buy out of the gospel. James puts it as simple as that.

In the Mark text, we see even Jesus struggle with the powerful lure of the rigged world. A woman in need, though a woman from the wrong part of the social world, asks Jesus for help and his first response is to reject her need, without thinking. She stand up to him and he relents and responds to her need. This happens in the context of the presence of an unclean spirit in the woman’s child. This raises a host of fundamental questions: What is an unclean spirit, given the larger context of the text? It is acting out of fear, and not trusting the power of God for one’s life? We are blind to the call to trust God, we are deaf to it. The next story is Jesus healing a deaf man. What does it mean to be deaf in this context? I will discuss the unclean spirit and the problem of deafness below.

Process Theology and the Text:

The issue of power is at the center of the texts and is one of the defining issues of process theology. The term the Bible often uses is “The World,” which refers to the way the world is rigged in favor of the rich and against the poor, socially, economically, religiously--in every way possible. The kind of power that supports “The World” is coercive power, the ability and will to manipulate people and systems to gain advantage for a person or a group at the expense of others.  The Bible is generally very critical of “The World.” Jesus’ teachings critique, undermine and offer an alternative to “The World.” The alternative to worldly coercive power is persuasive power. The Bible implies such words as love, agape, respect, common good, well-being to describe a world based on persuasive power. Religion often adopts coercive power and defines the divine nature in these terms, which is a fatal theological mistake. This is how the church can become supportive of --or captive to-- “The World” rather than an alternative to it.

Preaching the Text:

Reading the texts together reminds us that today we deal with the same issues of social injustice and the questionable trustworthiness of our leaders‘ plans, intentions and promises. The disaster of hurricane Katrina immediately comes to mind. The issue of trust came into national (even international) view in the government’s (un)response (at all levels)  to the needs the hurricane created. There has been plenty of blame to go around. The current documentary on Public TV by Spike Lee, “When the Levees Broke,” is a powerful commentary on the issues of social (in)justice the disaster revealed. The words of all the texts for this Sunday echo in my mind as I watched. There is a difference between not trusting our leaders, yet holding them accountable for their actions. There is a tension between these two realities. Out of this tension can come sermon ideas of our own limitedness and accountability. It’s part of the paradox of being human.

Another current issue is the war in Iraq and the accountability of our leaders who led us into this chaos. In their grand promise to work toward our national security, how far can their promises be trusted? Lies were involved, but the ultimate lie is the promise of ultimate security. The Bible sees it as in the nature of leading an empire that such promises are made. Those promises all too often involve lies, misleading expectations, cover-ups, chaos, lack of peace and insecurity.

Those in power often have a spirit of arrogance about them, a deafness to the needs of others, a blindness to what is required of them and how their decisions do harm to others. The use of fear to motivate people is a primary tool of those in power. Speeches are made, alert systems are developed, and  yet our fears are only temporarily quelled by promises of strength, further action, better decisions, more resources devoted, etc.  The national adrenaline system has been running high and it has taken it’s toll in exhaustion, hopelessness, discouragement, and deepened fear, not to mention the moral implications of living in such an empire and what that empire does to harm others. A legitimate question can be raised: Where is the voice of the church in America? The religious right supports the American Empire; it is what I call Empire Religion. How biblical is this? For Christians living in the American Empire, how should we speak to the powers that be and to this unclean spirit pervading our nation? The church can be as deaf as anyone to the cries of those it harms by supporting the empire.

By siphoning off billions of dollars to support a war of choice, how many have we deprived of the basic needs of life. This is where the war in Iraq and the disastrous response to Katrina should be telling reminders to the church of the desperate need for its prophetic voice. If the God of the Bible is against those who oppress the poor, who ignore the cries for help from their own people, then who might God be against in our times? How can the church be a voice of hope for an alternative that Jesus described as the kingdom of God?

If the preacher chooses a more prophetic stance, there are risks of polarizing the listeners. Great care must be taken in applying the implications of the texts to our current social context. Yet, it seems like the biblical call of the texts is to do just that. The issue for the preacher is how to use the texts, even the Bible. Will it be used to support and sanctify the power of the Empire, or will it be used as a voice for social justice, which will be a voice that speaks truth to power. This is a tough decision for the preacher. Even by not choosing is a choice. For many preachers, their relationship with their congregation is a very delicate thing and requires nurture and care and time. It’s difficult to speak to controversial issues that might polarize some in the church. If we preach only the word of comforting the afflicted, then we ignore half the message of the Bible. If we preach a word that afflicts the comfortable, then we run the risk of conflict. It strikes me that preaching is a lot like parenting, walking that fine balance between nurture and care, and requiring accountability.

Children and the Text:

The distinction between coercive and persuasive power can be the point of a children’s sermon. One idea is to talk about power in simple terms. “I’m bigger than any of you and, if I wanted, I could just pick you up and put you somewhere else. Sometimes that’s okay because if a child was running toward a busy road, an adult might just pick them up for their own safety. Or I could make you do things you don’t want to do, just because I’m bigger and stronger than you. What would happen if I treated you that way all the time, just  barked orders at you or threatened you or just physically moved you? Would that be love? How should I treat you that  would be more loving? Having a positive influence on you. Setting an example. Convincing to do something because it’s good, or because you want to do it. Wouldn’t that be better kind of power? What kind of power do you think God has?” Develop the idea that God is a lot like a good parent, who loves us and wants the best for us. Remind them that Jesus even called God “Daddy.”

May you be empowered by God’s call as you prepare to preach on these texts. Amen.

Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational Church United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.