Revised Common Lectionary Reflection, Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 17, Year B
September 2, 2018
Lessons: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; Psalm 15; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Theme: God’s faithful and generous people hear the word, live the word, and share the word, teaching those who come after them about God’s love, law, and grace embodied in Jesus.
Key Scripture: But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children… Deuteronomy 4:9
One of my favorite photographs is Child with a Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962 by Diane Arbus. It’s a striking and unsettling composition of a young boy standing with a toy Mk 2 Pineapple grenade in his right hand, mugging for the camera. What was simple child play is transformed through the camera’s lens into a disturbing commentary on what children may learn through watching the adults in their life.
Colin Wood, the youngster Arbus photographed, said in a Washington Post article about the experience: “She catches me in a moment of exasperation. It’s true, I was exasperated. My parents had divorced and there was a general feeling of loneliness, a sense of being abandoned. I was just exploding. She saw that and it’s like . . . commiseration. She captured the loneliness of everyone. It’s all people who want to connect but don’t know how to connect.”
Speaking of connections, singer/songwriter Graham Nash reported in an NPR interview with Bob Edwards that this photograph was an inspiration for his song “Teach Your Children.” One singular photograph caught so much of our human journey and its tensions. Nash’s song opens with the words “You who are on the road/Must have a code that you can live by…”
And we, who are people of faith, have such a code by which to live. This week’s lessons provide many opportunities to talk about the gift of God’s law, the way we live as people of faith, the examples we set, and what our actions and works communicate to others. How often do we focus on the minutia of faith—the number of hymn verses we should sing, what parts of the liturgy are acceptable to omit, what constitutes proper dress and decorum in worship, and even whether Jesus shows up better in wafers or homemade bread. This laser focus prevents us from taking in the entire picture, can keep us from understanding and loving our neighbors, and can derail a faithful witness.
It is important to remember that the Pharisees in this week’s gospel were not bad people. They were committed to keeping the faith alive, to ensuring its right practice, and to seeing that God was worshiped in a worthy and truthful way. In fact, their focus was so keen, so sharp, that they failed to recognize God walking among them and showing them a better way.
James, writing in his letter to the early Jewish Christian diaspora, gives concrete examples of how to embody God’s law faithfully in daily life. “Be be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves,” he writes in verse 22. For James, faith is much more than an academic or literary proposition; it’s where the sandal leather hits the dusty road. People of faith, according to James, live like they believe what they’ve been taught and act like the “first fruits” we truly are.
This brings us back to our Old Testament lesson from Deuteronomy. The commandments of God are gift not punishment or burden. God gives them for our benefit and for the benefit of all creation. Our work is to remember them, to hold to what we have been taught, and pass it on to our children and their children. Our faith and our faith communities matter. Within the beloved community we practice and tell our stories, we worship God, and we are claimed in baptism and strengthened at Christ’s table. The commandments, and Jesus who is the fulfillment of the commandments, guide our feet and keep our minds and hearts attuned to the divine will. We dare not forget.
Let me leave you with a question to ponder: If Diane Arbus walked into your worship with her camera, what image would she capture? What would it say about us?
Invite worshipers to look around in worship today. What do they see? What is the average age of your congregation? Are there many guests today? Is there a spirit of joy or fear? What traditions and practices may actually be blocking the presence of Christ?
Alternately, give each worshiper one of the Ten Commandments on a slip of paper when they arrive for worship. During the sermon or other appropriate time, divide the congregation up by commandments into 10 groups and have them discuss the commandment they have received. Is it a difficult one to keep? What does the Small Catechism have to say about it? How do we live out this commandment (or not) in day to day life?
This week’s gospel lesson points out how rules and practices can exist for a purpose that is ultimately not beneficial to the gospel or to discipleship. The ceremonial purifications and other rituals were preventing good people from encountering Jesus right in front of them. Invite youth to talk about what things prevent them from encountering Jesus in real and meaningful ways. Be ready to listen with open ears and heart.
This week’s focus verse is James 1:19: “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger…”
Ask the children how many ears they have (of course they’ll answer two). Ask them how many mouths they have (and they’ll respond one). Ask them what they notice about this, and listen to their answers affirming their explanations. Find a way to lead the conversation to the fact that we have two ears so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.
Share with the children how important it is to listen—really listen. Children often understand all too keenly how it feels to be shushed and dismissed. Tell them that when we listen well, and speak carefully, then it’s easier to avoid anger because we can understand one another better. Finish with a simple prayer to use our two ears twice as much so that we can understand, and to use our one mouth for the sake of good in this world.
Weekly Stewardship Bulletin Insert
All of us are tasked with remembering the commandments of God and the teachings of Jesus. More than that, we are to practice them and teach them to our children and to their children. In doing so, we are stewards of the gifts and the promises of God.
Stewardship at Home
This week focus on The Ten Commandments. Study Luther’s Small Catechism and his explanation of the commandments. Some of his words may surprise you. Spend some time talking about, pondering, and/or writing about how you try to follow the commandments. What is easy? What is difficult? How can we understand and experience them as gift rather than punishment, as a pathway to real and lasting life rather than a road to death and destruction?
Here’s a look back at our 2015 Lectionary Reflection: http://www.stewardshipoflife.org/2015/08/lets-hear-it-for-dirty-disciples/
And here’s the 2012 Lectionary Reflection: http://www.stewardshipoflife.org/2012/08/living-the-life-not-the-lie/
Photos: John Taylor, Diane Arbus, and GPS, Creative Commons usage license. Thanks!
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