Lectionary Commentary

August 2, 2009
18th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Proper 13

Commentary by Bruce G. Epperly

See also: [Year B Archive]

2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a
Psalm 51:1-12
Ephesians 4:1-16
John 6:24-35

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Jesus’ promise to his followers then and now is a call to discernment: what truly brings meaning and wholeness in our lives? Jesus’ words are an invitation to explore what Paul Tillich described as our “ultimate concern.” Do we shape our lives around what perishes or what endures? Do we will build our house on the sand or on the rock? Do we live by scarcity or abundance, fear or love?

This passage easily connects with Jesus’ other “I am” affirmations, most particularly,
“I am the vine, you are the branches” in its emphasis on connection and nurture. (John 15:1-11) When we are joined with the vine, we will bear much fruit; when we partake in the bread of life and the living waters (see also, John 4:13-14), we will have everything we need to flourish spiritually and relationally even in challenging times. The forty billion galaxy universe is bountiful in energy and creativity, and if God is truly omnipresent, then this energy and creativity is available to us in every given moment.

Building on last week’s lectionary reading (John 6:1-21) and its account of how the generosity of a  boy with the five loaves and two fish enabled Jesus to feed a multitude, this passage is a call to experience the world from the perspective of abundance rather than scarcity. God is at work in our world and in our lives, providing possibilities, insights, and the energy to embody these in our daily lives. Good gives us good bread! Connected with God, we have everything we need to succeed, prosper, and serve. But, these words are not just addressed to individuals; indeed, we miss the point of Jesus’ “I am” sayings, if we forget that they were initially addressed to struggling communities seeking to be faithful to God in the context of persecution and powerlessness. As such, Jesus words have implications for congregations and communities, who may be tempted to think small, or be distracted by small details, when God wants us to think big and act boldly.

First, Jesus’ words call congregations to trust that God is at work, providing us with all the resources we need to faithful in our time and place. While many congregations and denominations are already retrenching and focusing of survival rather than mission, Jesus’ words challenge us to look for untapped spiritual, relational, and theological resources embedded in what others see as scarcity and limitation. They call us to look for realistic images of hope and then work to achieve them.

Second, Jesus’ words call communities to practice justice toward marginalized and disenfranchised persons. In the context of the recent economic crisis, we can easily turn inward in self-preservation or claim our “fair share” at the expense of persons at the lower end of the economic spectrum, whether unemployed citizens or undocumented workers. While we may secure our economic well-being by turning inward or finding ways to benefit from others’ poverty, the spiritual consequences of such behaviors are disastrous. Listen to Amos’ words addressed to wealthy and comfortable persons who gain from others’ misfortune and who profit by unjust dealings with those who are most economically and socially vulnerable.

            The time is surely coming, says the Lord, when I will send a famine on
            the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the
            words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to
            east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall
            not find it. In that day beautiful young women and the young men shall
            faint for thirst. (Amos 8:11-13)

Recently, I was appalled to discover that, as the result of a combination of poverty and the flight of supermarkets from the inner cities, impoverished persons in major inner cities pay more necessities than affluent suburbanites. There is surely bread enough to go around but we, like the boy with the five loaves and two fish, must be willing to risk sharing even if our resources appear modest. We must be willing to originate novelty to respond to economic novelties of our time by making bold moves toward economic justice, ecological responsibility, and universal health care, despite the perception of scarcity in terms of governmental and congregational resources.

The encounter of Samuel and David describes the consequences of the corrupt and violent use of power. While we might take exception to Samuel’s proclamation that God will “raise up trouble” in David’s house as a result of his willful adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of Uriah to cover the evidence of pregnancy, nevertheless we recognize that our actions have consequences in personal life, business, and the affairs of state. Wars of opportunity lead to unintended and disastrous consequences. Dishonest business practices lead to economic crisis and the loss of reputation. Unfaithful politicians make headline news for a few days and despite a lifetime of public service must resign in disgrace.

The encounter of Samuel and David suggests that even God must deal with the consequences of our behavior. Always concrete in responding to the world, God’s vision of possibilities and the divine energy to realize these possibilities is diminished by our failure to align ourselves with God’s realm of shalom, beauty, and justice. In contrast, lives of integrity and faithfulness enable God to do new and creative things in our lives and the world.

Samuel’s words “You are the man!” challenge us to lives of integrity and relational concern. As in the case of many politicians and business persons recently, what is hidden will eventually be revealed, destroying relationships, families, communities, and nations.
Our practices of integrity not only lead to strong relationships and healthy communities and congregations, they also, as I noted earlier, open the door for a greater influx of divine activity and care.

Many preachers and liturgists will be tempted to omit Psalm 51 altogether from today’s lectionary. Taken literally, this passage contributes to shame-based theologies and spiritualities. While we might want to see the harsh words of Psalm 51 as reflecting the Psalmist’s feelings of guilt – perhaps David’s sense of guilt or rather shame after being convicted by Samuel – rather than descriptive of our relationship to God, these words can be used to destroy self-esteem and self-affirmation, especially among sensitive persons. I often have wondered about the life-diminishing impact of traditional words from the Roman Catholic mass, “Lord, I am not worthy.” What happens to a person’s self-esteem or sense of possibility when she must repeat over and over the words, “I am not worthy.” The impact of Psalm 51 should not be taken lightly: “I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.” Nor should we neglect the image of God found in the statement, “Let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.” Such passages suggest that God is violent and we are vile, deserving of whatever punishment we deserve.

Psalm 51 suggests that anything we initiate on our own will lead to sinfulness and that only the agency of a unilateral God, whose justice requires punishment and condemnation, can “create in us a new heart.”

Unless you, as preacher, plan to challenge the theology evident in this passage, I urge you to find another Psalm. However, this Psalm presents an opportunity for reflection on themes such as: “the God I don’t believe in”; “original sin and original wholeness”; or “from shame to appropriate responsibility.” Scripture can cure or kill and this passage must be handled with care if it is to be a source of grace and not shame. A clean heart is the gift of healing and loving relationships, not coercion and punishment.

In contrast to Psalm 51, Ephesians 4 suggests that we can be agents in our own personal and communal transformation. We can be partners with God in our own spiritual formation. “Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” God calls and we respond, making our lives our gift to God and the community of the faithful.
God wants us to be agents rather than puppets in our quest for spiritual maturity.

Similar to 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4 describes the body of Christ as an interdependent community of vocation and inspiration. God gives each member gifts and vocations, appropriate to the well-being of the community. Our calling is to share our gifts and develop our vocations so that the community might be vital and healthy. (I use the plural in the case of “vocations” and “gifts” in order to suggest that we are each always gifted in many ways and that we all have many vocations both in the present moment and the evolving future.) 

Communities of faith also have vocations. The calling of a community of faith is to be a lively, nurturing environment, where persons can discover, exercise, and grow in their vocation and giftedness. Love, both divine and human, joins each part of the body and creates an environment in which we seek the well-being of each member.

Ephesians 4 inspires persons to self-affirmation rather than self-denigration, to joy rather than shame, to fulfillment rather than diminishment. We are God’s beloved children, worthy of love in our revelation of God’s generous creativity.

This week’s passages invite the preacher to explore several possibilities – the contrast in tone of the Psalm and 2 Samuel with John and Ephesians invites reflection on the contrast between the poles of scarcity and abundance, fear and love, and shame and self-affirmation. We also find contrasts between images of divine activity as violent and unilateral and divine activity as nurturing, supportive, and inspiring. Within the passages, the preacher may also discover a call to support healthy communities and the healthy use of power, in contrast to the social ramifications of unilateral and violent approaches to power and economics. The consequences of turning toward God and one’s brothers and sisters, human and non-human, is spiritual fulfillment; while turning away form God and others eventually will eventually lead to meaninglessness, spiritual malnutrition, and relational alienation.

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary and co-pastor with Kate Epperly of Disciples United Community Church (www.ducc.us), a progressive, process-oriented, open and affirming congregation in Lancaster, PA. Bruce is the author of sixteen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living (a spiritual alternative for group and personal spiritual formation to Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life) and the soon to be released Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry, written with Kate Epperly.