Lectionary Commentary

November 1, 2009
31st Sunday in Ordinary Time
Proper 26

Commentary by Bruce G. Epperly

See also: [Year B Archive]


Ruth 1:1-18
Psalm 146
Hebrews 9:11-14
Mark 12:28-34

Today’s passages focus on divine and human fidelity. Faithfulness is an all-season spiritual virtue, encompassing moments of celebration and tragedy, intimacy and alienation. When we are most vulnerable—and, in fact, all of us are always both secure and vulnerable—we need to know that we will not abandoned by those upon whom we depend. We need to know that God is faithful in both life and death; and that God will not abandon us, despite our failings, even in at the moment of death. Though variable in its infinite expressions, divine and human faithfulness is constant in its care and affirmation.

When our twenty-eight year old son was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, I was sustained by two hymns that I chanted over and over as I took my morning walk in the Georgetown (Washingto,n D.C.) neighborhood near his home and the hospital where he was being treated. The first was a cry of help, born of my parental anxiety and fear.

            Lord, have mercy upon us.
            Christ, have mercy upon us.
            Lord, have mercy upon us.

The second reflected my sense of God’s nearness a care.

            Great is your faithfulness, O God Creator,
            With you no shadow of turning we see.
            You do not change, your compassions they fail not;
            All of your goodness forever will be.

            Great is your faithfulness, Great is your faithfulness,
            Morning by morning, new mercies I see;
            All I have needed your hand has provided,
            Great is your faithfulness, God unto me.

These pre-dawn hymns, along with daily meditation, spiritual affirmations, and the prayers of countless people, sustained me spiritually and enabled me to support my son, his wife, and my own wife, during this time of uncertainty, fear, and trembling. I discovered the meaning of “all I have needed, God’s hand has provided” in the strength I received from friends and ever-flowing stream of inner resources provided by an ever-resourceful God. (For more on the role of spiritual affirmations in personal and social transformation, see Epperly, Holy Adventure: Forty One Days of Audacious Living, Upper Room, 2008.)

The story of Ruth portrays the faithfulness that gives life and brings beauty to relationships throughout our lifespan. When Naomi bids her farewell and offers her the opportunity to return to her own family, Ruth proclaims in word and deed her faithfulness, despite the fact that fidelity to her mother-in-law demands leaving her homeland to go a world of strangers.

            Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge;
            Your people shall be my people, and your God shall be my God.

This is the heart of human fidelity, the ties that bind families, churches, and holy relationships of all kinds. This sense of fidelity is captured by singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer’s song, “I’ll Go Too”:
           
            I’ll go too, I’ll go too,
            That’s what he’d say, that’s what she’ll do.
            Don’t go alone, I’ll walk with you.
            I’ll go too.

Psalm 146 captures this same fidelity in light of God’s relationship with us. God is praiseworthy not because of God’s power, but because God sustains us, especially when we’re vulnerable and marginalized. God’s love is universal, but also personal. A personal God embraces the wealthy and powerful, but carefully watches over the oppressed, the hungry, and the disabled as well as widows, orphans, and prisoners. God is not passive or impartial in God’s relationship to humanity, but, according to the Psalm, “executes justice for the oppressed…sets the prisoners free…gives food to the hungry…loves the righteous…upholds the orphan and widow.” While God cares for all, God challenges injustice and marginalization. Divine knowledge is never “objective” or “dispassionate,” but shaped by God’s desire that all creatures have abundant life, most especially those who have missed out on life’s bounty.
 
Psalm 146 and the story of Ruth join in common voice:  Ruth’s husband and mother-in-law were refugees, coming to Moab to escape starvation; now, Ruth will be a stranger in a strange land. Yet, God will provide. God’s faithfulness is not limited by the boundaries of nation or ethnicity.

“God keeps faith forever.” God will not abandon us, despite the challenges of finances, failure, and imperfection. “Forever” encompasses life and death: the God who loved us into life will not abandon us at the moment of death; God will not automatically cease to love us when we die, but will continue to work in our lives in the adventure beyond the grave. A God who loves forever will not give up on any creature until it finds its way back to the divine embrace.

Hebrews continues the theme of faithfulness. While the passage might, at first glance, imply the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, I believe it is much more all-embracing theologically that the image of the cross as God’s primary means of salvation. Christ is the high priest who brings good things: in the spirit of Jeremiah, God seeks good and not evil, a future and a hope, for all of us. Certain of God’s everlasting sacrifice, we do not need to earn our salvation, but can “worship the living God” in joyful affirmation.

Mark 12 presents the vision of dynamic, holistic relatedness. We don’t need to choose between God and the world, Jesus and our neighbor, or self-affirmation and care for others; rather, in light of our love of God, we are called to love both ourselves and our neighbors.

The gospel passage clearly challenges the commonly-held belief that our love should be directed to the creator rather than the creature. Instead, healthy spirituality invites us to love the creator by loving the creatures. When we love one another, the love we share radiates across the universe and becomes our gift to God. This is the heart of theocentric ethics: by our love and care for others, we bring beauty not only to our neighbor, but also to God.

A critical question is: Do you want to give God a beautiful or ugly world? When we faithfully reach out to the vulnerable, work for justice, and welcome the stranger, we are not only bringing beauty to their lives but also to God’s life.

Mark 12 also presents us with a holistic theology – we are called to love God with our whole being, heart, mind, and strength. While our age, maturity, natural gifts, personality type, gender, and so on, shape how we love God, each of us is called to love God with our mind as well as heart. This is good news for both “thinkers” and “feelers” and an invitation to spiritual practices that embrace all the senses and ways of encountering the world.

God’s great faithfulness, embracing both friend and stranger, is the catalyst for our own acts of kindness. When we no longer fear an arbitrary and unpredictable God, we can imitate God through our own fidelity to one another. We can also foster communities of love and inclusion which faithfully embrace persons across the lifespan. This is truly the church at its best as it incarnates the spirit of “Blest Be the Tie that Binds”:

            Blessed be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love;
            The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.

            We share each other’s woes, each other’s burdens bear;
            And often for each other flows a sympathizing tear.

Today’s scriptures highlight divine and human faithfulness in their many forms. Building on the theme of fidelity, the preacher may choose to focus on: 1) faithfulness to the stranger and the refugee as a reflection of God’s faithfulness, 2) the importance of being faithful to oneself, especially in terms of healthy self-care and spirituality, as the foundation of social concern over the long haul, or 3) the connection between healthy self-love and love of God and neighbor.

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A Theological Footnote

While few preachers may choose to tackle the question of God’s activity in joy and sorrow, Naomi’s words open the door to reflections of the problem of pain and suffering: “the hand of God has turned against me,” Naomi exclaims, as she mourns the death of her two sons. Often in pastoral care situations, we must respond, at the appropriate time, to theological viewpoints that imply that our suffering and failure come entirely from God’s hand. While this unilateral approach to divine activity provides clarity and, to some, guarantees the success of every initiative God undertakes (presumably for our well-being), it also suggests a certain arbitrariness in God’s relationship to us. Charles Hartshorne, a leading process philosopher, once noted that persons accept explanations of divine violence that would lead to arrest and incarceration if performed by humans. While it is theologically convenient to attribute all things to God, this theological convenience is bought at the price of our ability to trust God. Divine and human fidelity alike depend on constancy: while divine and human behavior may, at times, be surprising, it is always edifying and supportive of those who are loved. The God of “great faithfulness” works in and through our very real human freedom to bring about beauty in the world and inspire faithfulness in our own human relationships.

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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