Back to School

This would be a good month to rest the terms “readings” and “passages.” These are lessons and we would do well to become students once again. Voices from the book of Proverbs and the letter of James—and poetically, the psalms—give us tangible instructions about practicing the Christian life. This Proverbs-James axis of practicality forms a natural bridge between the Old and New Testaments.

In some ways, we are provided spirituality by subtraction. Humility, silence, clarity, authenticity, and impartiality clear the way for God’s guidance and gospel practices. In other ways, we are invited into righteous action.

So there is little opportunity here to stroke our chins or generate lofty abstractions. The main reprieve from this no-excuses schoolroom comes in the love ballads in the first two passages of week one and in Proverbs in week three—though in the latter it is on the street and in the public square where Wisdom is making her voice heard.

The epistle of James might open a door to a deeply ecumenical (and even interfaith) call to humility and service. Proverbs and James draw from diverse traditions, from Jewish ethics to Greek philosophy. Ironically, these aspects of the practice of Christian life offer common ground with classmates in other faiths with a similar bias for righteous action.

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

September 3

Get Real

Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Who wouldn’t like to receive the sung praises of the Song of Solomon: “My beloved is like a gazelle” (even if the lovers personify God and the church or Christ and one’s soul)? Who wouldn’t enjoy a little of the adulation that the divinely inspired king receives in Psalm 45—he who smells sweetly of the aloes and cassia of exotic trees while traipsing through ivory palaces?

Get real. While the rhapsodizing of this week’s poetic forays into the Hebrew testament illuminate faith history, the immediacy of James and Mark call us to action in real time. They are far more emblematic of the entire month’s advisories. Which is to say: The party’s over.

If we are to be “doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (James 1:22), we must avoid the narcissistic temptation toward mirror-gazing and adopt a religious life with a fixed focus on caring for orphans and widows (James 1:23, 27). We must move beyond the religion of the Pharisees in Mark 7 that “honors [God] with their lips” while day-to-day actions display everything from slander and pride to theft and murder (Mark 7:6, 21-22).

We are tempted to obsess on possible defilement from what goes into us with too little concern for the justice or ethics of what comes out of us, Jesus teaches. Even as a people, we are frightened of defilement by ethnic and national diversity and too easily overlook a growing acceptance of torturing others.

Participants at a counterterrorism conference in Florence, Italy, called on the U.S. to close the military prison at Guantánamo, while Britain’s attorney general says, “The historic tradition of the U.S. as a beacon of freedom, liberty, and justice deserves the removal of this symbol.” Then there is the central challenge of our living faith tradition: Be doers of the Word—a Word of justice, peace, and reconciliation.

September 10

Love Everybody

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 125; James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17; Mark 7:24-37

In response to displays of racism at world soccer matches, it’s been good to see the “Say No to Racism” campaign emerge from soccer’s world governing body, as well as the formation of a “Football Against Racism in Europe” group. At a match in Rome, a neo-fascist flag could be seen waving in the stands near another that read “Gott Mit Uns” (“God With Us”).

First question: Where is the church? In all of the soccer hysteria, where are the pastors and priests calling on their parishioners to demand change from the teams and leagues they so adore? In James and Mark, the church and its members are instructed not to show partiality concerning which neighbors to love or which ethnicities to defend or economic classes to offer healing.

James 2 contrasts “acts of favoritism” toward the rich over the poor in the church with the “royal law according to the scripture” of “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (James 2:8). The rich in fine clothing are invited to their seats while the poor are told where to stand. These lessons are sadly contemporary.

Second question: Does the tendency of Christian denominations to build shiny new houses of worship in new (and predominately white) suburbs, while closing or selling churches in urban neighborhoods with racial or ethnic minorities, set the stage for shyness around soccer racism? Perhaps we can begin to find the answer in Proverbs 22:2: “The rich and the poor have this in common: The Lord is the maker of them all.”

In the sanctuary and the soccer match, our symbols and slogans will either create an ethos of conscience and compassion or one of exclusion and dehumanization.

September 17

Quiet Down

Proverbs 1:20-33; Psalm 19; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

Please read James 3:1-12 beginning to end, right now. Our tongues, it says, are like small rudders or small fires, able to turn big ships or set ablaze “the cycle of nature” (James 3:4-6).

It’s not just the effect of our tongues on our own lives, families, and communities that makes this such a serious spiritual issue. As the rich world—and increasingly the developing world—is saturated with the words, ideas, and media from the U.S., we are reminded that from “the same mouth come blessing and cursing” (James 3:10).

Proverbs warns of the “scoffing,” “waywardness,” and “complacency” that come from a deafness to Wisdom and her “cries out in the street.” So, too, does the gospel lesson spotlight Jesus’ rebuke of Peter and his tongue when Peter shoots off his mouth about “human” and not “divine things” (Mark 8:33). This after that same mouth spoke these blessed words: “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:29).

If James, Proverbs, and Mark don’t give us enough reason to curb our tongues, the psalmist announces that the “voice” of the heavens “pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge” (Psalm 19:2). If we listen, we will hear God speaking.

When my son Philip was small, he uttered words that struck us as beyond his years: “Dad, sometimes you say things that could just as well go unsaid.” My mouth fell open. Then—to my son’s delight, I’m sure—I closed it for a little while.

Sometimes we proclaim the good news best with our mouths closed. We can then give our lives for Jesus’ sake and the sake of the gospel.

September 24

Go Last

Proverbs 31:10-31; Psalm 1; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8; Mark 9:30-37

Chicago’s children just moved to the front of the line! In mid-June, the Chicago Public Schools and the city of Chicago announced their shared decision to allocate $1 billion over the next six years to build 15 new elementary schools and nine new high schools. From the Southside to the North Shore it’s going to be new desks and fresh playgrounds, adding as many as 9,000 seats in elementary schools and 7,000 in high schools.

The debates will commence about who gets what and what comes first, but this is a moment to picture Jesus, following an argument about who is the greatest, taking a child in his arms and saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37).

One can imagine the persistence and wisdom it took from teachers, principals, parents, and neighborhoods to get money of this magnitude flowing toward the needs of children. Theirs is a Jamesian wisdom that is “peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy” (James 3:17). What marvelous things happen when we are “willing to yield” for the children, the poor, the broken, or the forgotten. When we go last.

You’ll notice that the grounded meekness celebrated in James 3 is apparent in those who “delight in the law of the Lord” (Psalm 1:2). They are not defeated ones, but watched over by God and prospering in their own way from their faithfulness.

Proverbs 31’s “capable wife” provides a role model for all of us. Powerful, intelligent, and inventive, she provides for the poor and her family without being demeaned or diminished. Such is the one who chooses to be “last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35).

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