Year B – Season after Pentecost – Proper 05 Ordinary 10

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE

1 SAMUEL 8:4-20; 11:14-15.   As it stands in scripture there may well be two strands of the narrative of how Israel’s first monarch was chosen. In this version, the people demand a new leader after Samuel had named his sons to be his successors. The people feared that they were corrupt, as Eli’s sons had been before Samuel became the national leader of the early theocracy.

To Samuel’s surprise and against his strenuous counter arguments (vss. 10-18), Yahweh agreed that the people should have their way. Yahweh’s reasoning was that the people were not rejecting the prophet’s counsel but their covenantal relationship with Yahweh (vss. 8-9).

PSALM 138.   This beautiful hymn of praise represents the finest of Hebrew poetry. Its parallel of ideas in each couplet of lines is typical of a refined form of verse. Though claimed to be a psalm of David, that designation is most unlikely. More probably, it dates from the priestly era of Israel’s faith tradition when the temple had been rebuilt following the Babylonian exile (586-539 BCE). A choir of Levitical priests might have sung this psalm as they approached the temple sanctuary

GENESIS 3:8-15 (Alternate).   The ancient myth of the Garden of Eden may be picturesque, but nonetheless unreal in the present age when scientists are searching for other habitable planets circling other suns and for other forms of life in our own and in billions of other galaxies in the universe. The myth as told in Genesis 2 is not a scientific explanation of how the world was created. Nor is Genesis 3 about the origin of human sin. It is a quaint story about the development of human self-consciousness.

PSALM 130 (Alternate).   This dramatic lament surely is one of the most plaintive outcries from someone in extreme distress. Where is one to turn when all things go against one’s fondest expectations?

2 CORINTHIANS 4:13-5:1.   If nothing else, Paul was outspoken, even to the point of boldness. This same forcefulness pushes through this excerpt from his Second Letter to the Corinthians. Again it is the resurrection of Jesus and what this means for the Corinthians and for us that is the centre of Paul’s mind. But how are we to interpret Paul’s expectation of resurrection today?

MARK 3:20-35.   How did Jesus deal with conflicting priorities? That is the focus of this brief passage from Mark’s Gospel recording Jesus having to decide where his ultimate commitment lay. Was he to listen to the appeals of his family who felt that he may have become deranged? Or was he to carry on his commitment to his ministry of proclaiming God’s redeeming love? And how was he to confront the opposition he faced from the scandalous rumour-mongers trying their best to turn the crowds away from hearing his message?

Distraction from doing God’s will is a reality still for ministry, for any Christian pastor or lay person. Jesus brought the whole complex of issues into the sharpest focus by raising a totally different question: What is the sin against the Holy Spirit?

A MORE  COMPLETE ANALYSIS

1 SAMUEL 8:4-20; 11:14-15

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The transition of Israel from a tribal culture and theocratic governance to an established monarchy appears to have little relevance for the 21st century urban culture. (But of course they would not have thought of what they were experiencing in those words!)What does monarchy have to do with our contemporary struggle between dictatorship and democracy? Or for a more authentic democracy representative of the will of the greater majority of the population of any nation after a free, fair and uncorrupted fair election process? By sheer coincidence this little used lesson happens to be included in the lectionary for the very week that a significant proportion of the global population celebrates the 60th anniversary of the reign of Elizabeth II, monarch and head of state of Great Britain and many of the countries in the British Commonwealth of Nations.

Considering the amount of publicity given to this major event, a reminder of it would not be out of place in any sermon. A contrast could be drawn between the concept of monarchy the biblical text presents and that of a constitutional monarchy of the Commonwealth. Elizabeth II is a monarch who reigns but does not rule. All the pageantry of the celebration is authorized in her name by her government elected by the people and paid for from the public treasury.

As it stands in scripture there may well be two strands of the narrative of how Israel’s first monarch was chosen. In this version, the people demand a new leader after Samuel had named his sons to be his successors. The people feared that they were corrupt, as Eli’s sons had been before Samuel became the national leader of the early theocracy.

To Samuel’s surprise and against his strenuous counter arguments (vss. 10-18), Yahweh agreed that the people should have their way. Yahweh’s reasoning was that the people were not rejecting the prophet’s counsel but their covenantal relationship with Yahweh (vss. 8-9). “Thus the kingship is grounded in conflict between deity, prophet, and people,” wrote David M. Gunn, professor of OT at Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, GA. (Oxford Companion to the Bible, 1993.)  So the people got their king. The monarchy lasted for about four hundred years until the remnants of the kingdom was overthrown by the Babylonians in 586 BCE.

PSALM 138

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This beautiful hymn of praise represents the finest of Hebrew poetry. Its parallel of ideas in each couplet of lines is typical of a refined form of verse. Though claimed to be a psalm of David, that designation is most unlikely. More probably, it dates from the priestly era of Israel’s faith tradition when the temple had been rebuilt following the Babylonian exile (586-539 BCE). A choir of Levitical priests might have sung this psalm as they approached the temple sanctuary.

The use of the first personal pronoun, appears to place the emphasis on individual use. It could also have served for national celebratory occasions. The inclusion of “kings of the earth” also summoned to praise Yahweh for Yahweh’s self-revelation lifts up the universalist tradition of Second Isaiah.

In vs. 6 there is a brief but significant reference to the prophetic tradition of social justice. Yahweh is praised for caring for the lowly and humbling the proud. Yet with it is an allusion of the concept of Yahweh as a sky-god. This concept is still found in some modern devotions and theology, as in “prayers rising.” The phrase “high as he is” may also recall the idea of Yahweh as the god above all other gods, much like an emperor receiving the obeisance of lesser kings.

The concept of Yahweh as purposeful saviour in vss. 7-8 reflects the long tradition of Israel’s religious history. Through the vicissitudes of many centuries Yahweh’s purpose to love the faithful people of the covenant remains undiminished. This alone could provide a sensitive sermon on trust in a dangerous era such as the present.

GENESIS 3:8-15

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(Alternate) The ancient myth of the Garden of Eden may be picturesque, but nonetheless unreal in the present age when scientists are searching for other habitable planets circling other suns and for other forms of life in our own and in billions of other galaxies in the universe. The myth as told in Genesis 2 is not a scientific explanation of how the world was created. Nor is Genesis 3 about the origin of human sin. It is a quaint story about the development of human self-consciousness.

On the other hand, since the time of Augustine of Hippo in the 5th century CE, Christian theology has used this narrative as the basis for the concept of original sin. Five centuries ago, the Puritans of New England taught their children this doctrine in the simplest primer: “A is for Adam. In Adam’s sin we sinned all.”  Today the doctrine is still taught in most fundamentalist churches and successful attempts are still being made to make children learn this as an alternative to the science of evolution.

In his online newsletter of April 24,2012 Bishop John Shelby Spong wrote the following paragraphs about this now out-dated doctrine:

The nature of life is survival. Since human beings are part of the animal world, it should not surprise us that we too are survival-oriented creatures. There is, however, one major difference in human life. Human beings are self-conscious and thus we are capable of rational planning, even scheming about our own survival. We do not just adapt to an environment like an unthinking vine or a mangrove tree. We do not even adapt by natural instinct like the animals of the world that survive and thrive in the jungle. We rather install the natural survival instinct at the center of our conscious life. Our own survival is the highest value in our lives.

That being so we look at all things, at all events and at all people from the vantage point of how each will affect our own survival. We are, therefore, biologically wired to be self-centered creatures. Our self-centeredness is not the result of some fall from perfection, it is present biologically in our very DNA. We gained the competitive edge in the struggle for supremacy in our evolutionary history by sharing in this biological reality. That was the behavior that our religious ancestors observed and what they called “original sin,” which they defined as a pre-disposition toward that which they regarded as evil.

Out of our survival instinct evil does flow. That is why we fear and hate people who are different. This is why we are tribal people, racist people, homophobic people, and xenophobic people. We relate to that which we do not understand as if these realities threaten our survival. We will kill when we believe our lives are in danger. We will push others down in order to build ourselves up, to enhance our chances of survival. That is the nature of human life. Like all living things, we are survival-oriented creatures, but because we are self-conscious people and capable of charting our own destinies in rational ways, our survival instincts are far more powerful and far more pervasive that these found in any other living creature.

This graphic story in Genesis 3 is about human survival told in anthropomorphic terms. Even Yahweh acts as if a human walking in his garden in the cool of the evening. This is most clearly evident in the snake’s deceit of Eve and Adam’s blaming of “the woman you gave me for a companion” for his disobedience. It is our self-consciousness that has enabled us to survive in what appears to be an extremely hostile environment. Yet our will to self-preservation has placed us on the knife-edge of self-destruction. If there is a salvation history and a doctrine of salvation to be drawn from this myth, it is to be found in the way God has revealed in the scriptures of Israel and the Christian Church that love purposefully and faithfully lived is the most powerful force in the universe.

Yet those who hold a totally evolutionary view of life in this universe face an unmitigated challenge: Where does our experience of God who is Spirit fit into the context of our self-consciousness?

PSALM 130

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(Alternate) This dramatic lament surely is one of the most plaintive outcries from someone in extreme distress. Where is one to turn when all things go against one’s fondest expectations?

We know nothing of the circumstances that brought forth this exquisite poem. Perhaps only the cry of dereliction in Psalm 22 that Jesus is thought to have uttered from the cross is more penetratingly pathetic.

Quickly the psalmist questions what sin he/she may have committed.  This reflects the ancient belief that suffering was inevitably caused by some known or unknown transgression. Without lingering on what that might have been the psalmist immediately turns to seek forgiveness, reverently acknowledging God’s everlasting mercy. This brings forth a patient reassurance (vss. 5-6). Hope returns, but a hope that is utterly dependent on God’s unfailingly steadfast love and God’s power to redeem.

One has to wonder if the final verse of the psalm was added when this extremely personal prayer was added to the collection of national hymnody for use in congregational worship in the temple in the late centuries BCE. A lyrical version of the psalm written by Christopher Idle in 1975 and set in to a traditional Scottish lament, “Macpherson’s Farewell,” is included in Versions United, hymn book of The United Church of Canada (1996).

2 CORINTHIANS 4:13-5:1

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If nothing else, Paul was outspoken, even to the point of boldness. That very character trait may well have forced the high priest to send him on his fateful errand to Damascus. It was on the road there that he encountered his life-changing experience of the risen Christ. In that same spirit he proclaimed the risen Christ to the Gentile world out of which he himself had come and he knew so well. Always forceful in his correspondence, his authentic letters and other written in his name form the greater part of our New Testament.

This same forcefulness pushes through this excerpt from his Second Letter to the Corinthians. Again it is the resurrection of Jesus and what this means for the Corinthians and for us that is the centre of Paul’s mind.

Claiming the mandate of a scripture quotation, he seeks to encourage the flagging faith of his friends in Corinth. The quotation is from Psalm 116:10, but taken out of context as was often the case with NT authors. Knowing by faith and his own very real experience, Paul claimed that God would raise all faithful believers with Jesus and bring us into the eternal presence of God.

Paul was concerned about the conflict he saw between eternal glory in God’s eternal presence and the short-lived troubles the most faithful Christians of his time had to endure. In the second quarter of the 20th century, a great Christian teacher at Yale University Divinity School, Kenneth Scott Latourette, wrote numerous books and articles that reflected his unfailingly liberal optimism in the Christian mission. He believed that over the previous 20 centuries Christianity was had been through a series of five great waves of expansion and retreat. The greatest of these was the advance of the Christian mission in Asia during the 19th century. That had brought us to the verge of yet another wave of expansion after the devastation of two World Wars.

Did it happen that way?  Was the suburban expansion of the churches in North America such a hoped for advance? Or was it “the Babylonian captivity of St. XYZ by the gas pumps”” as Martin Marty once called it? Like many other mainline denominations, The United Church of Canada reached its zenith in membership and church school participation in 1967. But it has been in decline ever since. Was Paul preaching a “pie in the sky when we die” faith to the Corinthians? If so, that will not do as we advance into the 21st century.

It is not easy task to find new metaphors for our faith tradition, but that is what we must try to do as we move forward into the 21st century. My Congregationalist ancestors believed that the Spirit was always seeking to push our faith forward and seek new insights into our holy scriptures.

The current issue of The United Church Observer presents the challenge in an article on the theme, “How Green Is Thy Faith?” Peita Wolley, an environmental journalist, writes about how challenged she was by the evangelical “Creation Care” movement. She asks why Christians have taken so long to undertake this as a major commitment while at the same time having among us some of the most vehement and powerful climate change deniers.

Even as we greatly fear that our own destructive nature may well have already caused inevitable havoc on our global environment, we are still called as Christians never to abandon hope. We are mandated by our redemptive faith to preserve our spot in this vast universe the future for generations yet unborn.

MARK 3:20-35

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How did Jesus deal with conflicting priorities? That is the focus of this brief passage from Mark’s Gospel recording Jesus having to decide where his ultimate commitment lay. Was he to listen to the appeals of his family who felt that he may have become deranged? Or was he to carry on his commitment to his ministry of proclaiming God’s redeeming love? And how was he to confront the opposition he faced from the scandalous rumour-mongers trying their best to turn the crowds away from hearing his message?

Distraction from doing God’s will is a reality still for ministry, for any Christian pastor or lay person. Jesus brought the whole complex of issues into the sharpest focus by raising a totally different question: What is the sin against the Holy Spirit?

One day more than sixty years ago, my elderly professor of New Testament who was approaching retirement was asked by one of the class to define exactly what was meant by “the sin against the Spirit.” After a brief pause and with a kindly look toward his student he replied, “I suppose it is to call good evil and evil good.” The aphorism has remained crystal clear in my mind to this day. I believe that is how Jesus responded to both his family who came seeking to extricate him from the crowds fearing that he was losing his mind and from the increasing cacophony of the opposition which sought him no good.

Both Jesus’ family and his opposition had presented him with a false dichotomy. As God’s human expression of love neither his family nor his opponents knew what Jesus true mission was. For us now, ministry in Christ’s name, whether out in the world where opposition is so strong, or in our homes where family demands so much time and energy day by day, we have but one priority. Not to love wherever we are with every breath of our being is to sin against the Holy Spirit.

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