Lectionary Commentary

August 9, 2009
19th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Proper 14

Commentary by Bruce G. Epperly

See also: [Year B Archive]

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
Psalm 130
Ephesians 4:25-5:2
John 6:35, 41-51

“So then, put away falsehood, let us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” (Ephesians 4:25) Today’s scriptures focus on relationships, those that heal and those that alienate. When I share my reflections with my congregation, Disciples United Community Church in Lancaster, PA, on Saturday, August 8, my own approach will be to share the good news of healthy, interdependent communities of shalom through the lens Ephesians 4:25-5:2.

In light of last week’s reading from Ephesians, today’s text counsels followers of Jesus to live in light of their participation in the body of Christ. Inspired by Paul’s vision of the ever-present and constantly creative mind of Christ - “from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love” - we are challenged to claim our vocation as healers and health-givers in our faith communities and in the world.

One of my favorite spiritual texts is Norvene Vest’s Preferring Christ, a contemporary contemplative reading of the Rule of Saint Benedict. At first glance, the Rule seems onerous and confining in its description of how monks should greet visitors, take care of tools, go to market, and relate to conflicts in community. Yet, beneath the various behavioral counsels is the affirmation that we literally encounter Christ in everyone we meet. When we see Christ in family, friends, and strangers, our relationships are transformed; they become opportunities for supporting, nurturing, and building up one another. No encounter is unimportant, because Christ always meets us in the “least of these” – in refugees from war-torn lands, harried store clerks, undocumented workers, persons with mental illness – as well as familiar companions – stressed-out partners, playful children and grandchildren, and difficult congregants. This is the meaning of “lived omnipresence,” which is at the heart of process theology. God is present in everyone and can be experienced in our encounters with everyone. God not only inspires us in privacy of our own experience, but also comes to us with new possibilities through our interactions with others. God’s vision for each moment of experience is not only for its own fulfillment, but also for its gifts to those who will be influenced by its experience and activity. Accordingly, God speaks through us to others and through others to us, calling us to lives of beauty, justice, and creative transformation.

Ephesians 4 reminds us that we are challenged, within the community of faith, to balance self-affirmation with the affirmation of others. Like cells or organs in the body, we have our own personal integrity and creativity, but our well-being is also grounded in and contributes to the well-being of the whole body. Morality within Christian communities involves enlarging our self-interest to include the well-being of the whole and the world beyond the church. It is never about “me,” it is about “us” in the body of Christ, for we are “members of one another,” constantly creating each other’s experience by our word and actions. This is the meaning of healthy spiritual “bodywork” within communities of faith.

The health of faith communities begins with a theological vision: we belong to a dynamic, interdependent body, within whom Christ is always moving and inspiring. Wherever we look, Christ is present, sharing his witness of shalom with us. Perhaps, no current singer-songwriter has said this better than Carrie Newcomer in her song “Holy as the Day is Spent” from her album, “The Gathering of Spirits.”

Holy is the dish and drain
the soap and sink, and the cup and plate
and the warm wool socks, and the cold white tile
showerheads and good dry towels
and frying eggs sound like psalms
with bits of salt measured in my palm.
It’s all a part of a sacrament
as holy as a day is spent.

Holy is the busy street
and cars that boom with passion’s beat
and the check out girl, counting change
and the hands that shook my hands today
and hymns of geese fly overhead
and spread their wings like their parents did.
Blessed be the dog, that runs in her sleep
to chase some wild and elusive thing.

Holy is the familiar room
and quiet moments in the afternoon
and folding sheets like folding hands
to pray as only laundry can.
I’m letting go of all my fear
like autumn leaves made of earth and air
for the summer came and the summer went
as holy as a day is spent.

Holy is the place I stand
to give whatever small good I can
and the empty page, and the open book
redemption everywhere I look
unknowingly we slow our pace
in the shade of unexpected grace
and with grateful smiles and sad lament
as holy as a day is spent,
and morning light sings “providence”
as holy as a day is spent.

The vision of lively incarnational interdependence challenges us to walk the talk of healthy bodywork. Ephesians 4 takes seriously the words we use in our interactions with one another. Words can heal or hurt, create or destroy. What we say over time, especially in our encounters with one another, can inspire or denigrate. Ephesians 4 calls us to mindful speaking and sharing by challenging us to listen deeply to divine wisdom before speaking words that might irreparably rupture community. These are not words for the fainthearted: yes, we will be angry, but we need to have the self-restraint necessary for practicing letting go and forgiveness. Even when we must challenge a viewpoint, we need to look beyond our vision or sense of rightness to the dynamic well-being of part and whole.

Within community, we need to ask constantly: “Am I attentive to the well-being of others?  Do I listen carefully to the spoken or unspoken of others, or do I talk over others, trying to win my point or share my story?  Do I respond to conflict prayerfully and carefully, rather than quickly and thoughtlessly?” The author of Ephesians recognizes that “frank” and “honest” communication can be a form of violence, if it is not shaped by kindness, mercy, tenderheartedness, and forgiveness.

John’s gospel continues this incarnational approach to understanding healthy community. While much more could be said about Jesus being the bread of life and the source of eternal life, I want to focus primarily on two sentences: “Then certain Jewish persons [I have changed this to avoid stereotypes that lead to anti-Jewish theologies] began to complain because he said, ‘I am the bread of life that came down from heaven.’ They were saying, ‘Is this not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose mother and father we know?  How can I say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”

Jesus’ hometown critics fail to see beyond the surface. His message of divine sustenance is bold and life-transforming, and they wonder how such a revelation can come from a local boy. Yet, if God is present in all things and in all persons, then God can speak lively truths through Mary and Joseph’s son. Those who believe in Jesus have “eternal life,” that is, they experience their lives in God’s company, precisely because they find creative wisdom and healing in the words and demeanor of this hometown boy. Meaning and healing are not found somewhere else or in our heavenly destination – everlasting life is holistic and joins this world and the next. When we see revelation in commonplace persons, we will, as Carrie Newcomer, proclaims, discover “redemption everywhere I look.”

Those who listen carefully and look deeply discover creative wisdom in the hometown boy, and still experience God’s presence in those with whom we interact on a daily basis.

In contrast, David’s alienating behavior – his murder and deceit, his favoritism of some children over others – has led to dissension and violence in his family, in his military, and in his nation. Even his desire to make amends with Absalom cannot prevent the violence and death that will ensue as a result of his infidelities to God, Uriah, and his nation. Still, we cannot judge David too harshly, despite his professional and interpersonal misconduct. David may well have sought to make amends early on with Absalom, but the damage done in childhood may have been so deep that even attempts at reconciliation were fruitless. He loves his son, but his love cannot overcome years of alienation and his son’s woundedness.

Psalm 130 presents a word of hope for those who experience God’s absence. As I read Psalm 130, I am reminded of Renita Weem’s narrative of her experience of God’s absence, Listening for God. There are times when the omnipresent God seems omni-absent. As such times, our only hope is to remember those moments when we experienced God as real and lively and then wait patiently, as Weems counsels, for the next holy encounter. “Wait for God,” the Psalmist counsels. This is especially perplexing and difficult if we, in the spirit of process theology, belief that God is constantly working within our lives. In such moments, we ask ourselves: “Why isn’t God more obvious?  What are we doing wrong?  Or, is God simply too subtle for mortal experience?  If so, why couldn’t God speak more clearly and distinctly in our lives?” Still, without blaming ourselves for what we are not experiencing, we are nevertheless called to listen deeply and carefully for the divine companionship and inspiration that we hope will eventually surface again in our lives.

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. He may be contacted at bepperly@lancasterseminary.edu.