Proper 20

September 24, 2006
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Proverbs 31:10-31
Reading 2: 
Psalm 1
Reading 3: 
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Reading 4: 
Mark 9:30-37
By Rick Marshall

Discussing the Text:

If there is any theme or word that links these texts together it is “wisdom” or Sophia. Though Psalm 1 doesn’t use the word explicitly, it implies a particular attitude, stance, approach to life, that leads to fullness of life. It is the one who “walks” and takes delight in the law of the Lord, meditates upon it. That one will be like a tree planted by water, full and healthy. As the very first psalm, this one sets out the basic choice between a way of life and a way of death. One is wet and full of life and health and hope; the other is dry with no substance and is can be easily blown away. The simple choice is laid out for the reader, as is often the case: choose life!

The text from Proverbs appears to be talking about a good wife, but on closer inspection it seems to be describing the qualities of Wisdom. Since the word for wisdom is feminine, its qualities take on female aspects. But there is little that is gender driven in the text. It seems to be describing the wise person. It would be easy to imagine a similar statement describing wisdom in male terms that would embody many of the same qualities. The kind of person described is motivated by certain values, which are expressed through actions.

The James text also talks about wisdom, only in this case, two kinds of wisdom. One kind comes from above and the other is earthly. There are qualities that define each type of wisdom and it is clear that one is in fact true wisdom while the other is not wisdom at all. They are two ways of living life: one which is defined by spiritual values, higher qualities, and then the other which is defined by selfish ambition. One leads to peace and life; the other leads to chaos and death. This offer of a simple choice between life and death is prevalent in the Bible.

The realistic difficulty of distinguishing these two paths is displayed in the Mark text, where the disciples were arguing about who was the greatest. The concern over who is greatest belies a deeper commitment to a value system embodied in worldly wisdom. There is a profound contradiction between the two “ways.” And for Jesus’ disciples to be confused about them is telling. His task of reorienting them from one world view to the other is hard. They are confused. They fumble along, stumbling over Jesus’ words and ideas, with a vague sense of hope in him. But what does he represent? What does he embody but the kingdom of God, a way of living life that goes against every fiber of their being, not because they are bad people, but because they have been thoroughly indoctrinated by the world, and have not been offered an alternative--until now. Jesus, in his teachings, life, death and resurrection, offer an alternative to the self ambition driven world.

Process Theology and the Text:

In the process relational view, God is calling us, moment by moment, to choose life. God offers possibilities, or lures, to the unfolding of each moment, for the best embodiment of that moment. There are qualities that are possible to embody in our experience which would lead to openness and life, and there are other qualities which would close us and would diminish our experience. James lists these qualities.
Preaching the Text:

The difficulty of preaching on these texts is that is would be easy to slip into simplistic moralizing about living life according to one set of qualities which lead to life and avoiding the other set of qualities which lead to death. That’s the problem of lists of moral qualities in the Bible; some go down these lists, checking things off and feeling confident of which side they are on because the qualities turn into a list of accomplishments which can be met. This leads to the illusion of attaining some righteousness on one’s own bases or efforts and a feeling of us against them attitude towards others. It‘s offered as a simple choice. Yet, like the disciples, it‘s very hard to distinguish between the qualities. We are enmeshed in a world where there are many voices and points of view, pressures coming from various directions, pushing and pulling us here and there, all promising to give us life and avoid death , How do we wade through the cultural muck and mire of what the Bible might see as a culture war. In the Bible‘s case, the culture war is simple; one culture that gets its values from above and the other culture that gets its values from the world. Choose Now! Which side are you on? Will it be heaven or hell? But how do we chose one way of life when we live in such an ambiguous world? How can we live in the world but not be of the world? And what ethical point of view is behind these lists?  

I think the preacher‘s task is to clarify the this clash between the two ways of life without making it simplistic. This problem reminds me of the opening chapters of the book of Romans where Paul tries to lay out what the basic human predicament is, and it is idolatry and everyone is susceptible. But his argument is so nuanced and closely worded that it can easily be misunderstood. Idolatry is his conclusion to the question why is humanity so screwed up. Idolatry is setting our own agenda, implementing it on our own terms, defining our own outcomes, without regard to God. James would call this selfish ambition. So when we are given the choice between life and death, what are we being asked to choose?

The sermon could explore the underlying vision behind the two ways of life, the basic motivations of the heart. One way of life can be seen as oriented around ultimate trust in God; the other can be seen as life oriented around ultimate trust in self. The world pulls us in one direction; the Bible pulls us in another direction. The sermon could grow out of the time with the children and be a further probing of what might be called the “lure” of each world view. From a process relational view, God’s voice, or the divine possibilities presented to each moment, are lures toward life. In other words, the question can be raise: What moves the heart? Do we have choices in such matters? How do those choices make differences in our lives? What kind of person do we become if we respond to the lure of “the world” as opposed to the lure of “the kingdom of God”?

Children and the Text:

What do you think makes a person good? Help the children answer this question by coming up with a simple list of qualities or actions. What do you think makes a person bad? Again, help the children come up with a simple list of qualities. Talk about how people have things from both these lists going on in them, and they can often choose between them. Use an example such as being confronted with the temptation to take something that is not theirs. Talk about the choices life presents us, and how it’s up to us to make those choices. You can perhaps put it in terms of the voices in our head, one leading us one way or another when presented with choices. Maybe talk about wisdom, and how that can be a voice. The leader could make two simple puppets, each representing the two views, like the old version of the angel and the devil sitting each on our shoulders and the discussion they might have over a choice.

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.