Weekly Preaching: September 5, 2021

September 1st, 2021

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23. While I was writing the commentary on Proverbs for the Wesley One Volume Commentary, I kept circling back to my lifetime dream of preaching a series on Proverbs! The cultivation of wisdom, not just faith or mercy or even holiness in the church, gets scant attention. And the peril of veering into corny moralism would pose many risks. Maybe a class or two, if not a sermon series? Great timing for Proverbs to make this cameo appearance – with school beginning! A time to ponder learning, youthful maturity, and why it matters.

The lectionary, for obscure reasons, picks six distinct proverbs. Pick any six, really! Of most interest here is the saying in verse 2, easily preachable. What do the rich and poor have in common? “The Lord made them both.” Notice the text does not say the Lord made the rich rich, and the poor poor. Foolish theology suggests that God has arranged things as they are; the God who is “in control” “makes no mistakes.” But wealth and poverty happen for myriad reasons, and if Acts 2-4 is any indication, God would prefer a redistribution of wealth instead of pridefulness in the wealthy and shame in the poor.

The Hebrew translated “have in common,” nipgashu, literally means to “meet” or “come together.” Usually, they do not come together. Is there a hint in the proverb that they could, or should? The Lord made them both. Early Christianity seemed bent on shattering social boundaries. Acts 16 narrates a church with wealthy Lydia, a slave girl and a jailer. Paul fumed against those who tried to preserve pre-conversion social distinctions at the Lord’s table (1 Cor. 11:17-22). The proverb before this one claims that “high esteem” is better than silver and gold. Esteem in whose eyes? The Lord’s? The poor’s? Is a Christian goal perhaps to be like Dorcas, on whose death all the poor of the city grieved, and showed off all she had done for and with them (Acts 9:39)?

James 2:1-17. Some wisdom, proverbs actually, from Jesus’ brother! “Show no partiality.” We do it all the time. Jesus did too – but his partiality was toward the poor, those shunned, the untouchables. Yet I think of Kathleen Norris being impressed by monks she met in the monastery: "When celibacy works, when men have given up possessing women, healing can occur. I've seen young monks astonish an obese and homely college student by listening to her with as much interest and response as to her conventionally pretty roommate."

If a well-dressed man comes in…? In my formal church, people would say Welcome! In an informal, dress-down church people would raise eyebrows! James is after our fawning and deference – even in the privacy of our minds – toward the rich. I pastor a church with many wealthy people. I have to encourage my new staff, none of whom come from wealth, to work on how you feel about wealth, so we don’t despise, or envy, or mock, or fawn. St. Francis enacted what unfolds when he gave away his finery, took on the garb of the meekest, and got sued by his own dad. {On Francis, check out my favorite of my books, Conversations with St. Francis.}

The good works James lifts up amount to generosity, especially to the poor. Another virtue we don’t attend to as we should, except as we’re meeting the budget (or not). Generosity is a fruit of the Spirit (if you translate Galatians 5 with the great F.F. Bruce). In Marilynne Robinson’s wonderful novel, Gilead, a man boasts that his grandfather “never kept anything that was worth giving away, or let us keep it either… He would take laundry right off the line. I believe he was a saint of some kind. When he left us, we all felt his absence bitterly. There was an innocence in him. He lacked patience for anything but the plainest interpretations of the starkest commandments, ‘To him who asks, give,’ in particular.”

Generosity does not ask tough questions about the recipients of the generosity. Jesus simply said, “To him who asks, give” (Matt 5:42). Mother Teresa cared for the poorest, and insisted repeatedly that we do not need to know all about why they are poor; we simply love them, and we thus love Jesus by loving them – and there is the joy, not in demanding explanations or assigning blame. God loves the cheerful giver, not the giver who insists on measured results. Generosity is “an unmeasured willingness to give. It is a warm, delightful, instinctive self-spending for God and others. It is the uncalculated response to all that is asked” (Evelyn Underhill).

How might we conceive of our offerings for those in need? “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord” (Prov 19:17). They not only lend to the Lord. They provide credible witness to the Church’s worth and blessing to the world around us. I wish, before we took up the offering each week, I could remind my people about the complaint the Roman emperor Julian, the one who reversed the Christianizing of the empire and tried to make it pagan, lodged against the Christians he was trying to discredit: “Those impious Galileans support not only their own poor but ours as well.” Were we more generous with the offering, skeptics who scoff at the church would be exasperated by all the good we’d be doing right in their faces. {these past 3 paragraphs are excerpted from the chapter on The Offering in my book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week.}

Mark 7:24-37. Sarah Ruden’s new translation (The Gospels) quite rightly renders kunarion as “little doggies,” instead of “dog.” Try it. Better. More pitiful, more dismissive. Dogs, we might recall, did not enjoy warm relationships with humans back in Bible times. I can’t really improve upon my blog from last time around on this great story (highlighted by thoughts from Morna Hooker, Garth Brooks, Martin Luther, and Sheila Nelson-McJilton’s stunning sermon “Crumbs”) – except to note that the “leftovers” are the same word used for the basketsful (basketfuls?) they collected after Jesus fed the 5,000. And how intriguing that this woman wins her argument with Jesus, just as Moses won his argument with God in Exodus 32 – implying God must invite arguments and be willing to lose a few. The crucifixion was, oddly, a lost argument, right?

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