The Common Good
September/October 2006

Integral Faith

by Robert Roth | September/October 2006

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary for October.

A ship’s hull that holds together when the great storms roll through is said to have integrity. In the life of faith, integrity means living out of consistent moral and ethical principles as integralparts of a greater whole. In the end, that greater whole is the rule of God in history. The body of Christ, the church, is only as healthy and world-changing as its integrity allows.

Patiently heeding the voice of God in the whirlwind, a world-weary Job manifests integrity. Experiencing bouts of despair as his troubles mount, Job still evinces a sturdy trust. It is the kind of reliance on God that the letter to the Hebrews wishes to rouse in sleepy-eyed Christians who need to be prodded into a more vital, integrated reliance on God.

In this month’s readings, we explore a faith that is communal, childlike, and willing to challenge blindness and complacency. The psalmist remarks on one possible destination: “But as for me, I walk in my integrity; redeem me, and be gracious to me” (Psalm 26:11).

Robert Roth is a writer and social activist in East Lansing, Michigan.

October 1

In Community

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22; Psalm 124; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

These passages envision coherent communities of faith in which the lives and challenges of believers are integrated into the vision and purposes of the community. Esther appeals to the Persian king that both “my life be given me” and “the lives of my people.” The psalmist sings about how “our help is in the name of the Lord,” while James 5 calls the early church to communal prayer, praises, and healing as effective responses to suffering or good fortune.

Consider carefully Jesus’ words in Mark 9:40: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” An insecure community—even a nation—will say the opposite: “If you are not for us, you are against us.” However, Jesus encourages an assurance and integrity that attracts others and generates allies.

Becoming an integral part of the body of Christ does not mean losing our individuality, personality, or creativity. Calling us to “saltiness,” Jesus says, “have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another” (Mark 9:50). Such a body regenerates its members and rejuvenates the world around it. It speaks for the marginalized, promotes better public policy, and works for peace.

In the face of astonishing economic disparities and global climate change today, solo religious voices can be inspiring, but ultimately prove quixotic. Bodies of believers with real integrity can be both salty and salvational. Whether large or small, our future depends on such communities.

October 8

In Childhood

Job 1:1; 2:1-10; Psalm 26; Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16

Where are their sarcastic words and cynical attitudes? Despite decades of imprisonment for Nelson Mandela in South Africa and exile for the Dalai Lama from Tibet, both are joyful and, at times, even childlike. It is a testament to their integrity as people of conscience and deep faith.

Like the political prisoner and the Buddhist holy man, Job was “blameless and upright.” Satan, who had already been testing God and Job, inflicted “loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head” (Job 2:7). Job’s wife asks, “Do you still persist in your integrity?” Job responds that under God’s providential care, we must accept both the good and the bad.

The psalmist, too, transcends a rage-against-the-machine response to evil and enemies by “washing my hands in innocence” (Psalm 26:6). Speaking of innocence, Jesus admonishes his disciples for treating the children sternly: “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (Mark 10:14).

When moral character is often equated with religiously clenched jaws and rigidity, this is a new angle. For it is as children that integrity prevails, whether in Soweto, South Africa, or in Anytown, USA.

October 15

In Christ

Job 23:1-9, 16-17; Psalm 22:1-15; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

This is a challenging week for a terrified Job, a shocked rich man, and indeed all creatures who are “naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account” (Hebrews 4:13). We, too, have weeks when, like Job, our complaints are bitter, we feel abandoned, and, like the rich guy, we are being asked to let go of everything for which we’ve labored.

Sometimes our weeks are colored by an unspecific malaise and uncertainty. Whatever the malady, the promise comes: We have “a great high priest” (Hebrews 4:14) who fully sympathizes with our trauma and vulnerability.

In Christ, God has been where we are at our worst—when, like Job, we would like to “vanish in darkness” (Job 23:17). The paradox of the incarnational theology of Hebrews is that Christ both transcends all religious authorities and is yet willing to journey with us to the lowest places. Asked to sacrifice like the rich man (Mark 10:21), we need to hear the promise of greater treasure to come and meaningful clarity of who and where to follow.

The trials and temptations of Job and the rich man are blatant, while ours can be subtle and banal, yet pervasive. Perhaps the integrity of our allegiance to God in Christ today is under less threat from clerical elitists than it is from the “high priests” in the U.S. Senate, “therapeutic” talk TV, and corporate board rooms.

October 22

In Crisis

Job 38:1-7, 34-41; Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

Where better than amid calamity and affliction to rest the full weight of our existence than in the hands of our Creator God? In the very Job-like depths of dread where we sometimes find ourselves, we too seek a life-giving faith beyond the exhaustion of our questioning—questioning such as this:

How is it possible that we are spending $6,000,000,000 a month (by Pentagon numbers) for the war in Iraq, while 9,000 people die each day from HIV-AIDS and 150,000 die each month from malaria?

Though this tragic situation is caused by people and not God, we still want to put God on the witness stand for questioning. Like so many latter-day Jobs, we go passive as we hear a voice respond in the whirlwind: “I will question you, and you shall declare to me” (Job 38:3).

Psalm 104 offers the kind of gratitude-to-the-Creator perspective to which the whirlwind Voice is calling Job. It recognizes the Creator stretching out the heavens and speaking through the winds.

In the midst of crisis, Jesus tells the disciples that to be “great,” they must become slaves (Mark 10:44). As servants of the poor, might we indict a nation in moral crisis? Sure. Simultaneously, we must let go into God’s hands and turn our questioning to one another.

October 29

In Confrontation

Job 42:1-6, 10-17; Psalm 126; Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 10:46-52

Bartimaeus to Jesus: “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus to Bartimaeus: “Go; your faith has made you well” (Mark 10:51-52). Are we sure we want to see?

Job to the Lord: “Now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6).

In the end, confrontation. Bartimaeus goes face-to-face with Jesus, pleading for sight. Job goes eye-to-eye with God and must take a long look at his own life and repent. Hebrews calls us to approach God—through Jesus Christ—that we might find salvation.

These stories have happy endings. Job’s fortunes are doubled from where he began, his sheep number 14,000, and his daughters have unsurpassed beauty. (And, oh yes, he lives another 140 years.) Bartimaeus never again visits an ophthalmologist. The Hebrews have their great high priest.

These endings show the way to new beginnings, where the integrity of the faithful powers the way of salvation for all, where we can now confront the great needs of all God’s people and other beloved creatures. How does thatconfrontation look? “It is a crime to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages,” Martin Luther King Jr. said to striking sanitation workers in Memphis in March 1968. We would do well to remember the witness and words of those who have gone before.

“Preaching the Word,” Sojourners’ online resource for sermon preparation and Bible study, is available at www.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep

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