Lectionary Commentary

August 23, 2009
21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
Proper 16

Commentary by Bruce G. Epperly

See also: [Year B Archive]

1 Kings 8: 1, 6-11, 22-30, 41-43
Psalm 84
Ephesians 6:10-20
John 6:56-69

Today’s passages affirm the dynamic and sometimes dramatic interplay of divine universality and intimacy. Solomon’s dedication of the Jerusalem Temple proclaims God’s faithfulness to the children of Israel and then extends that fidelity to include faithful foreigners. Psalm 84 rejoices in Temple worship, but also recognizes that the God we worship is global as well as regional. Ephesians counsels us to seek, embrace, and practice divine protection through “putting on the whole armor of God” in the context of internal and external threat. The final words of John 6 invite us to center our lives on the spirit that gives life and words that promise and embody everlasting life in the here and now as well as in the holy adventure beyond this lifetime.

Celtic spirituality speaks of “thin places” where God is uniquely present to inspire and protect. These thin places - cairns, stone circles, and holy spots - such as Iona, Glastonbury, and Findhorn, are said to be vortices (or foci) of divine energy and transformation. Today, some persons locate similar vortices of holy energy in places such as Sedona, Arizona and Taos, New Mexico. Surely the Jerusalem Temple was perceived to carry the power of divine revelation and to particularly locate God’s presence in the world. Yet, as Solomon notes, the Temple points to the deeper, uncontained reality of God: “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built.” God is always more than we can imagine or describe, and this is the primary antidote to idolatry and parochialism in religion as well as the primary inspiration to spiritual practices and mystical experiences. Like Aslan, from the Chronicles of Narnia, God is untamed and unchained, and can be revealed any and everywhere.

Solomon’s prayer of transcendence leads him beyond the Israelite people. He affirms God’s choice of Israel to be a unique people and asks God’s blessing for his people and the welfare of the nation, but this choice does not rule out God’s care for foreigners. Any foreigner who seeks God’s blessing will receive divine favor. Divine intimacy is balanced by divine ubiquity. Self-affirmation is balanced by the affirmation of otherness. In this spirit, we can claim the uniqueness of our faith and the divine saving presence of Jesus of Nazareth without negatively evaluating the truth claims of other faith traditions.

The nature of divine inspiration and the variability of divine presence is a challenging theological point, since many liberal and mainstream Christians struggle with understanding the nature of divine choice and revelation. Some believe that God, like the Force from “Star Wars,” is a universal energy, revealing itself solely in accordance with our openness to it. From this perspective, any particular revelation must depend entirely on the state of our spiritual lives and not divine volition or initiative. We are the movers and shakers of divine energy.
Other Christians assume that divine revelation and election are entirely arbitrary and localized. From this perspective, God chooses a certain person, Jesus of Nazareth, to be the only locus of salvation, and only certain persons, the elect or those who believe certain doctrines, to share in his salvation.

I believe that both poles – particularity and universality - can be held in creative contrast. All revelation is potentially life-transforming; thus, overcoming the dualistic split of “general” and “special” revelation. The God who reveals Godself everywhere can choose to be revealed in unique ways anywhere and to anyone. Indeed, this is the pathway of a personal God who addresses each one of us uniquely in terms of our time, place, and condition. The nature of God’s address must also surely be personal and special in nature – although divine grace is prevenient, prior to any of our efforts, the divine-human “call and response” reflects the dynamic and evolving interdependence of God’s care and our openness to embrace treasures and adventures beyond measure.

Today’s scriptures invite us to rejoice in the opportunity worship God and give God praise. Our worship services can be “thin places,” where we truly experience the holy here and the holy now, God’s Holy Adventure at work in our lives and communities of faith. “Longing” and “fainting” for times of prayer and praise open us to new avenues of divine inspiration and empowerment. Awakened to God’s presence, we are showered with greater spiritual energies and go from “strength to strength.”

Are we expecting too little from God and too little from ourselves when we come to worship? Do we expect too little in our prayer lives and in the impact of our social concern? Do we set apart holy time for worship, prayerfully preparing for gathering with our community of faith? In this regard, I am not separating worship and world, but suggesting that life-transforming worship transforms our perception and experience of the world, and then gives us strength to share in God’s work of shalom. The Hebraic scripture readings open us to a world of wonders in which God’s “great name, mighty hand, outstretched arm” can transform our lives, whether in regular worship services, personal prayer time, or everyday encounters.

The counsel of Ephesians 6 reminds me of another Celtic practice, the “encircling” or “caim.” Whenever a person goes on dangerous pilgrimage or on journeys throughout the day, he or she draws a circle around her or himself as a reminder that we are constantly surrounded by divine protection and always in God’s presence. Ephesians’ words, “put on the whole armor of God,” admonish us to turn to God’s care in all things, to live lives worthy of our faith, to be persons of integrity, whose lives are guided by prayer. We have much to contend with in terms of danger and temptation, both internally and externally, and only a life of prayer, grounded in God’s Spirit, moment by moment can keep us on a holy path as persons, congregations, and communities.

Jesus speaks of the “spirit that gives life” and words that are “spirit and life,” indeed, inspirations to trusting in God’s everlasting life in challenging moments. Words can cure or kill, inspire or diminish, empower or weaken. Sometimes the most affirmative words are the most “frightening” because they push us beyond our comfort zones – in self-understanding, in behavior, and in social responsibility. Simon Peter proclaims the truth of God’s living word, embedded in our cells and in our souls: “you have the words of eternal life,” and these words are backed up by Jesus’ life-giving unity of spirit with his Parent.

As I pondered Jesus’ words of life, I was reminded of a song I grew up with in the Baptist church, words more inclusive than my conservative childhood congregation could imagine at the time:
            Sing them over again to me, wonderful words of life;
            Let me more of their beauty see, wonderful words of life.
            Words of life and beauty, teach me faith and duty;
            Beautiful words, wonderful words, wonderful words of life.

            Christ, the blessed one, gives to all, wonderful words of life;
            Sinner, list to the loving call, wonderful words of life.
            All so freely given, wooing us to heaven.
            Beautiful words, wonderful words, wonderful words of life.
            (Philip P. Bliss, “Wonderful Words of Life”)

What are these eternal and wonderful words of life? While we can, to our own detriment and the detriment of the unity of the faith, confuse our words with the Word that Brings Life – or, as Zen Buddhists say, confuse the moon with the finger pointing to the moon - some words and acts can transform, energize, and heal. Once again, the pastor is challenged to be concrete and practical, inviting congregants to open to God’s presence in practices of personal and communal transformation, both ancient and modern: prayer, contemplation, healing touch, hospitality, living words of service, and holy affirmations. (See Bruce Epperly, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, for more on life-transforming, socially-responsible, approaches to spiritual formation through imagination, affirmation, prayer, and service.)

Today’s scriptures remind us of Jacob’s dream: upon awakening, he proclaims “God was in this place – and I did not know it.” Today, in worship, let us proclaim “God is in this place and we know it!” and everyplace is holy, a doorway to God’s presence, a call to service and love. Let us live by God’s wonderful words of life, giving us security, energy, and courage for today’s journey.

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, 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 trilogy on ministerial spirituality and faithful excellence, Feeding the Fire: Avoiding Clergy Burnout, Four Seasons of Ministry: Gathering a Harvest of Righteousness, and  Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry, written with Kate Epperly.

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