Lectionary Commentary

June 14, 2009
11th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Proper 6

Commentary by Rick Marshall

See also: [Year B Archive]

Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15
1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 or
Ezekiel 17:22-24
2 Corinthians 5:6-17
Mark 4:26-34

Discussing the Texts:

Reading the texts for today, one’s imagination is immediately captured by a powerful narrative: God anointing David as king in the 1 Samuel text. This is a decisive point in the larger narrative of the divine struggle of dealing with the stubborn human agenda of autonomy. If all politics is local, then we are drawn into a very particular drama of political motivations, dangerous alliances, power shifts, divine disappointments, rage and hope; the stakes are high for both the outgoing king and the new king. The political maneuvering is guided by a divine hand that has made the mistake of giving in to the demands of the people for a king and anointing Saul, who, as it turns out, embodies what it looks like for the people to take their future into their own hands rather than being committed and loyal to their God. The narrative has all the marks of back-room deals and promises made in secret. Mistakes have been made on all sides; fresh initiative must be put into play if there is to be any future at all. The reader is invited into a text that involves only a handful of players: Samuel, God, David and the reader. The reader is privy to the hushed hand-shakes and the smell of cigars.

As the narrative unfolds, the reader is shocked to hear, right away, that God was sorry that he had relented to Israel’s demand for a king by choosing Saul. God was, at the outset, against--even offended by--the idea of king. Questions about God’s nature spring in to the readers mind: Does God change God’s mind? What does it mean that God was “sorry”? What does that say about God’s ability to know the future? Does God make mistakes? Does God have feelings? If God was sorry that he made Saul king over Israel, can God make another mistake by choosing David? Is God impulsive? How secure can our future be with the kind of God that seems to change his mind? God rejected Saul in an almost heartless, cruel, way. Is there a divine behavior that can be understood in psychological categories? God is a problem character. How can a coherent theology be built on such “emotional” grounds?

Samuel is also a problem character. He seems to be dangerous as a prophet through whom God carries out his will. He is sent on a divine mission to find the new king. He is directed to go to a certain village and to a certain family. The elders of the village stiffen in fear and want to know if Samuel comes in peace or not? There in this village and in this family, God says, the new king will be revealed, but only to Samuel. Then through a series of “viewings” of sons (a beauty pageant?) the last son of Jesse is brought in from the fields, seemingly as a afterthought. Samuel is surprise that each son is passed over. And the reader is just as perplexed, especially after God’s high-minded instruction to Samuel: “Do not look upon his appearance or on the height of his stature because I have rejected (each son); for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look upon outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Then, as David appears before Samuel, it is clear that the Lord uses the same measure that he had just denounced: David “was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.” Is the text playing with the reader and our insistence that God be above human caprice? Probably. Many biblical texts have a way of jerking us around and poking our comfort. The text provokes more questions than answers. Alone, Samuel anoints David as king and sets in motion a narrative that is wrought with deadly trouble. The main character in this narrative is God, and mysterious divine motivations move the narrative along a very treacherous path.

The text from Mark is a gentler, more pastoral, rendering of mysterious divine power. The parable is immediately accessible because is uses ordinary, common language to describe God’s power. “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how.” Simple, direct, elegant, beautiful and awe-inspiring. God’s power is embodied in the simplest of acts: planting, nurturing, growing. But there is a deep mystery embedded in this simple process. Jesus points us to a deeper understanding: if God is involved in the smallest transformation of seed to plant, then God can be seen as having a hand in the whole natural process of death being transformed into new life. The world is infused at every level and in every detail with divine, creative, transforming power. In this sense, God is the Power of Life.

The text from Ezekiel is similarly gentle and pastoral. Using organic imagery, hope is liturgically expressed. As is often the case in the Bible, God’s power is described as a natural process. If you understand a small simple example, such as a seed going into the ground, “dying” and growing, then perhaps you can understand how that same principle applies to larger themes of death and new life. John uses this method in the gospel, arguing from the least to the greatest. Following the first story of Jesus at the wedding, transforming water into wine, John intensifies the same principle of transformation in ever more increasingly, more intense scenarios, so that by the time we come to the death and resurrection of Jesus, we understand what that principle of transformation looks like. If we read John’s gospel closely, by the time we get to the resurrection we are prepared for the final transformation and we say, “Of course, that makes sense.”

The assigned text from 2 Corinthians ends with the statement, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” Another expression of transformative divine power, which leads us to what follows.

Process Theology and the Texts:

Looking at this collection of texts, one of the themes that emerges strongly is that of transformation. When a seed falls into the ground and dies, there will be new life. The old passes (Saul) and newness emerges (David). In Ezekiel “Thus says the Lord God: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out. I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain.” Images of nature are used to describe the transforming power of God. There is something common, constant and reliable, about how things return to the earth in death and are raised in new life. This power is mysterious, but trustworthy, and is the basis of faith.

The nature of God’s power is central to process theology. It is clear from many texts from the Bible, including those assigned for this Sunday, that God’s power is persuasive and transformative. It would be difficult, in light of these texts, and many like them, to argue that God’s power is unilateral, coercive and omnipotent. It is also clear that God does not know the future in the same way that God knows the past. The impression we get from the texts is that God is intimately involved in the unfolding of creation.
Dylan Thomas describes this awesome mystery so well:

            The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
            Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
            Is my destroyer.
            And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
            My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

            The force that drives the water through the rocks
            Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
            Turns mine to wax.
            And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
            How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.

            The hand that whirls the water in the pool
            Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind
            Hauls my shroud sail.
            And I am dumb to tell the hanging man
            How of my clay is made the hangman's lime.

            The lips of time leech to the fountain head;
            Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood
            Shall calm her sores.
            And I am dumb to tell a weather's wind
            How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.

            And I am dumb to tell the lover's tomb
            How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.           
                                                                       
Preaching the Texts:

It would be an easy entry into this collection of texts to use the narrative of 1 Samuel. God’s behavior would be the hot point of the sermon, asking many of the questions about the nature of this God raised above in discussing the texts. God is the main character in the narrative, but a brief background of Samuel and Saul would be necessary. What are the stakes for each character and what do the actions of God and Samuel imply for the future of the narrative and how it results in King David? It might be helpful to note that even this line of divine involvement still leads to a spectacular and sad failure of King David, someone with whom God was enthralled and loved. Based on this narrative, the sermon could focus on the nature of Divine power, what it is (persuasive) and what it is not (coercive).

Or and sermon could focus on the Mark text, along with the passage from Ezekiel, to talk about how Jesus’ idea of the Kingdom of God is often described with metaphors from nature. There are many other texts in the Bible that use natural images to describe God’s power with or power over a natural world that is infused with mystery, vibrating with life.

A sermon could also focus on Mark 4:33-34 and talk about Jesus’ teaching techniques, especially his use of parables. It is often the case that Jesus uses two different forms of speech: parables with large groups, sometimes to confuse, and explanations to his disciples or those whose curiosity had been piqued by the parables.

Children and the Texts:

A talk about some particular natural process would be good for time with the children. A flower could be used, talking about the seed that is put in the ground and the mystery of how a beautiful flower could come from something so small and hidden in the soil. Or, the Buddhist idea of the lotus growing through the muck into something beautiful and unexpected.

Or a children’s talk could focus on where we each come from. We are like a seed planted. We grow in our mother’s womb. We are born from a very mysterious process. And that same mysterious process continues on in the way we grow throughout our lives, day by day.

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.