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.
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.
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.
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!
Most of the Bible texts from the Revised Common Lectionary this week present us with the well-worn and comfortable Biblical image of sheep and shepherds. Jeremiah rails against the shepherds of Israel “who destroy and scatter the sheep of [the Lord’s] pasture,” pronouncing God’s intention to come and be the Shepherd in their place. “I myself,” says God, “will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.”
The Psalmist picks up the ball and runs with it in what may be the most famous piece of Hebrew poetry ever written: “The Lord is my shepherd,” he declares and we proclaim it with him. And then Mark’s Gospel continues down the field with the observation that Jesus “saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”
The odd man out is the Epistle lesson, part of a letter claimed to be from Paul to a church in the Asia Minor port city of Ephesus. Not a single sheep or shepherd to be found. Instead we get talk of circumcision, of aliens and strangers, of dividing walls being torn down, and a “holy temple,” the “household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets.”
It had gone on so long she couldn’t remember a time that wasn’t like this. She lived in constant fear. She wasn’t just cranky and out-of-sorts; she was terrified. Her life wasn’t just messy and disordered; it was perilous, precarious, seriously even savagely so. It was physically and spiritually draining, like being whipped every day.
Many in her situation might have given up, given in, curled up, and died. But not her. She was determined to stay alive. She was, after all, a daughter of Eve, created by God to join her husband as partners with God in conceiving, bearing, and giving birth to other human beings. She had had those children and now she had to look after them, to raise them, to ensure their survival.
But . . . she was going to die. She was convinced of that. If she continued to live in those circumstances she would die. There is simply no doubt about it.
Our kids this week have been “Shipwrecked,” but they’ve also been “rescued by Jesus.” They’ve been learning the truth of that promise emblazoned on neon crosses at innumerable inner-city rescue missions in nearly every English-speaking country in the world, “Jesus saves,” through the metaphor of being lost at sea and washed up on a deserted island. That’s something that happened to St. Paul at least three if not four times!
But, unfortunately, St. Paul’s experiences at sea are not in the lectionary this week. Our readings from the bible have nothing to do with ships or the ocean or being lost or getting rescued and aren’t really easy to tie to what the kids have been doing with all these shipwreck decorations in the church. Instead of shipwrecks, the readings this week give us trees. Ezekiel reminds us of one of God’s metaphors for Israel, the noble cedar planted on a mountaintop spreading its branches to provide homes for the birds and winged creatures of every kind (which represent all the nations of the world), producing mighty boughs and the plenteous fruit of righteousness and justice.
The theme for today’s lessons is clear . . . we are almost “hit upside head” with the concept of Sabbath. Our reading from Deuteronomy is the law establishing the mandatory day of rest:
Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work.
Our Gospel lesson relates two of Mark’s stories of Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees about Sabbath observance: first, a probably made-up tale about the disciples plucking wheat, and second, a probably true story about Jesus healing a man with a crippled hand in the context of a synagogue Sabbath observance.
So what is Sabbath?