Our gradual this morning asks a question of God about human existence:
What is man that you should be mindful of him?
the son of man that you should seek him out?
Whenever I read this psalm, my mind immediately skips to lines from William Shakespeare, to words spoken by the prince of Denmark in the play Hamlet:
What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!
I have always been certain that Shakespeare was riffing on Psalm 8.
The prayer book version of the Psalm uses the word “man” in the generic sense asking the question about all of humankind, then literally translates the Hebrew ben adam as “son of man” recalling to us a term Jesus often applied to himself. While that may make a certain amount of liturgical sense, it distorts the importance of the Psalm. As translated in the New Revised Version of scripture, Psalm 8 asks, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” This is a little closer to the initial meaning of the verse, but the original Hebrew is not pluralized. This translation loses the awe and wonder of a singular individual gazing up at the night sky and overwhelmed by the presence of divinity.
Today the Lectionary gives us what, at first glance, are two stories about leadership, but what they really are are stories of people trying to protect God (or God’s appointed leader) in inappropriate ways
First, we have the story from the Book of Numbers which tells of the complaints of hunger voiced by the Hebrew wanderers to Moses. I have to admit that, growing up in Nevada as I did, I always thought that “fleshpots” was a much more lascivious word than it turns out to be; all it means is “stewpots.” The people yearned for the foods with which they had become familiar in Egypt.
Living along the Nile, they had been able to fish and get that source of protein for free. When they worked on whatever project they were assigned as “slaves of Pharaoh,” apparently they were fed from the fleshpots. Bible commentator Adam Clark writes, “They were doubtless fed in various companies by their task masters in particular places, where large pots or boilers were fixed for the purpose of cooking their victuals.” They had grown used, perhaps, to receiving a ration of a stew probably made of lentils, some sort of grain, and mutton flavored with leeks, garlic, and onions. Even though they were getting manna from God, they longed for the familiar flavors of Egypt, the familiar certainties of slavery. As a colleague of mine has commented, “You can take the people out Egypt, but you can’t take Egypt out of the people.”
The collect for today from The Book of Common Prayer:
Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
On the positive side, the side of “things heavenly,” there is what James calls the “wisdom from above [which] is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” On the negative side, the side of “things that are passing away,” there is “wisdom [which] does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, [and] devilish.” The text from Jeremiah and the Gradual Psalm remind us what this sort of “negative wisdom” leads to. How do we learn wisdom and how do we learn to choose one sort over the other?
Fifteen years ago when I came to Medina for the first time in my life to meet the people of St. Paul’s Parish and, with them, make the mutual determination whether our life-paths were to converge, Earl and Hildegarde picked Evie and me up at the Cleveland airport. They first took us to Yours Truly Restaurant where we had a bite of lunch and then they brought us here, so that we could see the church.
I walked into this worship space and, quite forgetting that the patron saint of the parish is Paul the Apostle, I looked up at the altar window and I thought, “Why do they have a stained-glass window of Socrates?” As some of you may know, there is a bust of Socrates by the Greek sculptor Lysippus in the Louvre museum in Paris that the man in that window looks a good deal like; I suspect the 19th Century artisan who made that window took it as his inspiration. Of course, it’s not Socrates in the window; it’s Paul holding forth amongst the philosophers of Athens at the Hill of Mars, a story told by Luke in the 17th chapter of the Book of Acts.
Nonetheless, I thought of Socrates and our window this week as I contemplated this Sunday’s lessons, two of which (the prophecy of Isaiah and the Letter of James) discuss the ministry of teaching and one of which tells the story of Jesus’ instructing the Twelve.
Last week we began our parish’s annual fund campaign with the theme “Transforming Generosity.” You should have received your pledge card for 2019 together with a letter about the nature of stewardship and generosity. There was an article in the newsletter similar to that letter, and early in the week you received an email (if you receive email) which is repeated on an insert in your bulletin this morning. Your parish leadership team has asked and will continue to encourage you to do two things that may seem contradictory: first, to make your financial commitment for 2019 earlier than usual, and second, to take your time in doing so. Our hope is that you will submit your estimates of giving on or before the first Sunday in November, but that you will give real prayerful and careful consideration to how your financial support of your church reflects your relationship with God. Stewardship, as that letter said, is not a matter of fund raising; stewardship is a matter of spiritual health. The “Transforming Generosity” theme hopes to inspire you to be a faithful steward and so to give as an expression of your relationship with God.
So, I’d hoped to preach a stewardship sermon this week, but . . . alas . . . the Lectionary saddles us this Sunday with a story that doesn’t much lend itself to discussing stewardship and generosity; it’s the story of Jesus basically insulting a Syrophoenician woman who comes to him begging healing for her daughter. Instead of doing so, he says to her, “It is not fitting to throw the children’s food to the dogs.” I have wrestled with this text from Mark more times than I like (at least ten times as the lectionary has cycled round in my thirty years of ordained ministry) and I have yet to win. Scholars have been wrestling with this text for two thousand years and I don’t think they have won either. There are just no commentaries which offer any sort of exegesis of the story that I find satisfactory; either Jesus’s use of the term “dog” to refer to the Gentile woman is excused away or it is ignored. The commentaries which acknowledge the rudeness, the downright vileness of the comment do no more than that; there’s little or no help in resolving our dilemma.
You, who are on the road
must have a code
that you can live by.
And so become yourself
because the past is just a good bye.
Teach your children well . . . .
If you are as big a fan of the folk rock of the 1970s as I am, you will recognize the opening lines of Crosby, Still, Nash & Young’s 1970 hit Teach Your Children. Graham Nash who wrote the song has said that it was inspired by a 1962 photograph take by Diane Arbus of a young boy in New York’s Central Park playing with a toy hand grenade. I have no reason to disbelieve that, but I wonder also if today’s lesson from the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses’ farewell address to the people he has led through Sinai to the brink of the Promised Land, might also have been in Nash’s mind. The song is a neat paraphrase of what Moses says.
Five weeks ago we began our month long journey through the world of bread with what Presbyterian scholar Choon-Leon Seow called the “remarkably mundane” story of food for the hungry, the feeding of the 5,000. In the context of that story, we considered the need for budgets and plans, the need to be sure that one has enough bread to the crowd, enough materials to build a tower, enough resources to fight go to war or fight a battle. The metaphor of bread reminds us of the need to plan ahead.
The next Sunday, as Jesus launched into the long discourse on bread which is the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, we looked at the origins of the metaphor in our faith tradition with the unleavened bread of the Passover and the gift of manna, the bread from heaven given in the desert of Sinai, and how in the faith of the Hebrew people the bread of affliction, the bread of slavery in Egypt, was transformed into the bread of justice. We heard Jesus extend this metaphor with the graphic, almost disgusting, image not merely of eating symbolic bread but of eating his flesh and drinking his blood. How, we wondered, can we work with this disturbing metaphor in our modern world?
We have come to week four of our five week exploration of the metaphor of bread, the flesh of Jesus, the bread of life, the bread from heaven, the bread that gives life to the world. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh,” says Jesus. “Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.”
So as I continued my own meditations about bread this week I was influenced by the Old Testament lesson from the Book of Proverbs in which Lady Wisdom is shown engaged in a construction project, building a house and putting together a menu for a feast. One word that I know from my experience as a baker of bread and that one runs across time and again in lessons about baking is “structure.” Structure is a very important aspect of bread; in yeast-risen wheat breads, it is created by kneading.
Children, as those of us who have had or who have been children know, grow in their ability to communicate. Vocabularies grow. Grammars develop. They move from simple one- or two-syllable concepts – such as “Mama” or “Dada” or “NO!” – to more complex ideas.
When my niece was a toddler, she put together two concepts – negativity and certainty – in a way that was confusing to some adults. When asked if she would like to have something, say a food, she would answer, “Not sure.” If she had understood sentence structure or the concept of adverbs, she would have said, “Surely not!” But she didn’t yet understand those things: she understood negativity – “not” – and certainty – “sure” – and put them together in a way that made since to her.
Not to her grandmother, however. My poor mother never did get it that “Not sure” didn’t mean that my niece was undecided, so she would try to convince the girl that liver or broccoli or whatever was something she should try. But “Not sure” did not mean indecisiveness; it meant quite the opposite. “Not sure” meant “Dig-in-the-heels screaming-fit absolutely not; don’t try to change my mind.”
At the end of our gospel lesson this morning, Jesus said to the crowd, “It is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus answered, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” This is the beginning of Jesus’ long discourse on bread which takes up nearly the whole of Chapter 6 of the Gospel according to John and of which we will hear parts for all of the month of August.
A few verses further on, Jesus will say again, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.” And he will add, “Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. . . . Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
The Jews, John tells us, disputed among themselves as Jesus was delivering this lengthy dissertation on bread. I think we can understand why! The very idea of consuming human flesh is off-putting, even disgusting, and would have been extremely objectionable to the Jews; no wonder they grumbled and mumbled, complained and disputed. Even as a metaphor, the statement demands a lot from Jesus’ followers!