Lectionary Commentaries for July 8, 2012
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 6:1-13

Emerson Powery


Before Mark reports John the Baptist’s death, the only story in which Jesus is not the primary subject (6:14-29), Mark tells the story of Jesus’ hometown rejection.

Rejection at Home (Mark 6:1-6)

For the first time in Mark’s story, Jesus entered his hometown synagogue.  [Compare the parallel account in Luke (cf. Luke 4:16-30), which occurs at the opening of Jesus’ public ministry].  His successful activity in neighboring synagogues, like Capernaum (e.g., 1:21-27), would have led readers to expect positive results here as well.  Also, the previous healing occurred in the home of a neighboring synagogue leader (cf. 5:35-43).  These positive results would not continue here.

The audience’s “astonishment” (exeplessonto) at Jesus’ “wisdom” (sophia) — perhaps a reference to his parables, as some scholars suggest — would remind readers of the first synagogue appearance in which the spectators were “astounded” because “he was teaching them as one with authority unlike the scribes” (1:22).

On this occasion, however, the amazement immediately turned negative as the crowd vocalized a series of questions that led them to the issue of Jesus’ own origins.  And, they — hometown folk — seemed to know all too well from where he came.  If anyone had the right to question Jesus’ origins, it should be those who knew him best.  Their description of him as “the carpenter,” “the son of Mary,” ignored any mention of a father figure.

So, they know a lot about his family.  This information would be a direct insult on Jesus’ character, his honor, in first century culture, hinting at one who was conceived illegitimately.  This type of history, with a fatherless lineage, would be “scandalous” to them (skandalidzo is translated as “took offense” at 6:3).  Unlike Matthew and Luke who cleaned it up, Mark did not alter the tradition and include a father (cf. Matthew 13:53-58; Luke 4:16-30).  Rather, the tension between Jesus and his family or hometown was an on-going sub-plot of the story (cf. 3:20-21).

Despite the hometown’s assessment, Jesus provided an alternative self-designation:  “prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown” (6:4).  By referring to himself as a “prophet,” he associated himself with a long line of counter-cultural figures within Israel. In the Gospel of Mark, others would also view him in this way (cf. 6:15; 8:28).

In an honor/shame society, “prophets” would have received honor (cf. 11:32).  But the traditional wisdom of the age was that this occurred generally in places in which prophets were less familiar.  Indeed, as Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh stress about the cultural mores in antiquity, “honor was a limited good.  If someone gained, someone else lost.  To be recognized as a ‘prophet’ in one’s own town meant that honor due to other persons and other families was diminished.  Claims to more than one’s appointed (at birth) share of honor thus threatened others and would eventually trigger attempts to cut the claimant down to size.”1 This was the issue at stake.

Their reaction seemed to surprise Jesus.  Such “faith,” or the lack thereof (apistian, “unbelief” in 6:6), amazes even Jesus!  Furthermore, the absence of faith challenged Jesus’ ability to perform healing miracles.  At first, the text indicated that he could not do anything there (6:5); then, the author corrected himself by adding an exception clause.

On the one hand, it was clear that Jesus’ healing authority was intimately interrelated with the faith of others (cf. 5:34, 36).  On the other hand, Jesus could overcome the absence of faith when he desired to do so.  Throughout the story, Mark promoted faith as a critical element in the healing mission of Jesus.  But faith was not essential.  Faith was not a necessary condition in any absolute sense.  God’s freedom cannot be limited in that way.  The end of this passage provided an explicit example of this perspective.  [The language hinting at Jesus’ inability due to lack of faith was apparently too difficult for Matthew who altered these words to emphasize Jesus’ volition: Jesus “did not do” (Matthew 13:58).]

The Disciples’ Mission (Mark 6:7-13)

The rejection at Jesus’ hometown synagogue did not hinder the mission for long.  In fact, it may have given impetus to the commissioning of the twelve for their first assignment.  This was why Jesus had chosen “twelve” in chapter 3.  Since that point, they were preparing for their own mission.  In chapter 4, Jesus taught about the nature of God’s reign, providing private instruction for them.  In chapter 5, Jesus performed liberating acts for them to witness.  Finally, just before he sent them out, the mission experienced unexpected rejection, as a signal of what was to be expected in their work in the movement (see verse 11).

Differences in the Gospel accounts may simply have reflected the various missionary strategies in early Christianity.  For example, only in Mark did Jesus command the disciples to take a staff and wear sandals.  This may imply the length of their journey.   Dependence on hosts would be important in each Gospel strategy, but in the Markan missionary plan the disciples were more prepared.  Also, there are two other significant features in Mark which should be highlighted.

First, they were to continue the Jesus movement in households.  This was not unanticipated, in light of Jesus’ own successful activity in the homes surrounding Galilee. In this narrative, Jesus’ message and activity in the synagogues had been growing less impressive as the story went on, including the latest rejection in 6:1-6.  Synagogues, with established religious traditions and authorities, were not always susceptible to new ideas and activities that may have represented a new move of God!

So, Jesus prepared his disciples for potential rejection.  Wherever rejection existed, so would judgment: “shake off the dust that is on your feet” (6:11).  [The Didache suggested that a false prophet would be one who stayed longer than two days (11.4).]  Yet, according to this account, their mission was successful (6:12-13).  The disciples, clueless in several earlier stories, apparently understood enough to carry out this mission effectively.

Second, while continuing Jesus’ message of “repentance” (metanoein), their use of “oil” was distinctive.  Such a mediating “medicine” was not anticipated from chapter 3.  No provisions of this kind were mentioned in Jesus’ earlier words.  Since Matthew and Luke omitted the reference, its use may actually have reflected a later practice in the Markan community.  But it was a common custom that was known in the wider culture (cf. Luke 10:34) and utilized in some circles of early Christianity (cf. James 5:14).

1Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, 2nd ed. (Fortress Press, 2002), 212.

First Reading

Commentary on Ezekiel 2:1-5

Fred Gaiser

Preachers may “understand” this text too quickly — as in, Yes, I get it: The preacher is called, like Ezekiel, to proclaim a hard word of God to a recalcitrant people.

True, the people will resist, but the preacher is called not to be popular but to be faithful.

There is truth in such a reading, to be sure, but we probably need to go deeper. First, of course, we should quickly dismiss the conclusion that we are proved faithful precisely by our unpopularity. Maybe we are merely ineffective or inattentive or just plain lazy. The text calls not only the congregation to examine itself, but also the preacher.

Still, that is not the main message of the text. To determine that message will require us to ask, first, to whom the text is addressed and for whom it is meant. As it stands, the text is a word for a particular prophet during the hard days leading up to the Babylonian exile of Israel, but, since this text has now become Holy Scripture, its message can be read or overheard not only by the prophet but also by those to whom the prophet once spoke and to whom he still speaks. It was probably meant that way from the beginning. The prophet is warned to be faithful, but we (every “we” in every age), overhearing the call to the prophet, are warned to pay attention, because the message is one of life and death.

The text first addresses ancient Israel. But what will happen when it finds its way into a Christian pulpit? Is the preacher automatically the “prophet” of the text? Have we not claimed post-Pentecost that the spirit of prophecy has been poured out on all believers? More, Ezekiel was a priest. Have we not similarly claimed that in Christ we now belong to a priesthood of all believers? So, now who is the proclaimer and who are the hearers of this Ezekiel text?

Moreover, though the office of Christian pastor retains elements of the office of Old Testament prophet, the two are not identical. So, no, we preachers don’t want to hear this text too quickly and apply it only to ourselves. The task of sentinel is an essential but not sufficient description of the pastoral office. The occasional hard word of accusation, whether from the pulpit or in the face-to-face encounter, must be joined by the gentle word of the pastoral caregiver and the absolving word of the liturgist.

There is certainly a word here for preachers: faithfully proclaim the word of God — even though, as was true for Ezekiel, this may have bad consequences for the preacher. God never promised us a rose garden! (Well, God might have, actually, but we don’t seem to be there yet.)

But there is a word here for parishioners as well: faithfully bear witness to the word of God — even though, for them too, there may be hard consequences. But we don’t want to jump to that latter conclusion too quickly either. The text need not promote paranoid preachers or paranoid parishioners, as though “we” are the righteous, and “they” are the “rebels.” (We have quite enough of that kind of religion around.) We (pastors and parishioners) are both the righteous and the rebels, and the word that comes from us must be the word for us as well.

Yes, Ezekiel proclaims a hard word, and he does so dramatically. He uses both words and what we might call “performance art” to name and denounce the idolatry of his generation. No doubt, he got their attention! (Might we figure out how to employ symbolic acts or “performance art” in our own proclamation and worship services to name the idolatries within and around us today? For us, too, that might get people’s attention. Would we survive it?)

Yes, Ezekiel’s word is hard, because the word of God is always a two-edged sword. Perhaps the only way for us to proclaim God’s word with equal effect is by making it part of ourselves, by immersing ourselves in it, even by eating it, as Ezekiel does (2:8-3:3 — a section that we should include in our proclamation, since, curiously, this extended text never gets picked up elsewhere in the lectionary). When that happens — when we “eat” the text — even the hard word becomes, for Ezekiel and for us, “as sweet as honey” (3:3), since God’s word, law and gospel, always seeks to promote life. That and only that — the sweet life in God and in Christ — should be the goal of our proclamation, not a condemnatory rejoicing in the destruction of others and in our own hardheaded righteousness.

True, the prophet, the preacher, the faithful Christian is called to be a sentinel like Ezekiel (3:17-21; 33:1-9), and the sentinel’s job is precisely to be alarming, because disaster is coming over the horizon. That may require hard, disruptive, and unpopular words, but once the disaster is perceived, the one saved from death by the sentinel’s alarm will say, “Praise the Lord!” and recognize that the hard word was, in fact, sweet.

None of this will happen unless the word we proclaim is true and applies to all. The line of our text, “they shall know that there has been a prophet among them,” is repeated in Ezekiel 33:33, where people will recognize the validity of the prophet’s words because they have become self-evidently true. Thus, our task as preachers and Christians is not to rant about this and that or to rage against the “others” and the rebels, but to point to the one whom we confess in faith to be self-evidently “true” — Jesus Christ.

Jesus fulfilled Ezekiel’s vision completely. He “ate the scroll” fully, hard words and sweet words, so that in him the word became flesh; then, everything he said and did bore witness to God’s insistent determination to save us and the world from whatever disaster is coming (from outside ourselves or inside ourselves), so that all might live. That is the role of Christian sentinels today — pastors and parishioners: to bear the word so that others might live.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10

Samuel Giere

This pericope focuses on David’s coronation and capture of Jerusalem.

When facing this text the preacher is faced with a choice regarding verses 6-8, left out of the reading according to the lectionary.  The first choice leaves things as, skipping the donut hole of verses 6-8; the second reads the whole, verses 1-10.  The first focuses on David’s coronation and reign as the LORD’s blessing of him.  The second, however, sees a fuller (yes, I vote for option two!) picture, is more honest about challenges within David’s story, especially in relation to Christ’s, and is ultimately less susceptible to error and more preach-able. 

Textual Horizons

While the spirit of the LORD has rested upon David for some time,1 the formal coronation takes place in Hebron.  David, now thirty years of age, has proved himself as a leader faithful to the LORD.  This should not be interpreted as though David were a figure like Mohandas Ghandi or Martin Luther King, Jr.  Rather, David is poet and musician and blood-stained warrior.  He is the one who carried Goliath’s severed head back to Jerusalem2 and the one who could play the harp so well as to fend off the evil spirit of the LORD from Saul.3

He is the one who immediately prior to today’s text hears of the vengeful murder of Saul’s son Ish-bosheth (a.k.a. Ishbaal).  When the two men who killed Ish-bosheth brought his head to David as evidence of their great act, he rewarded them by killing them, cutting off their hands and feet, and hanging their bodies beside the pool at Hebron.  In short, prior to David’s coronation, the LORD’s anointed is no model on non-violence.  Yes, he is a great leader, a strong warrior, and a skilled musician and poet.  At the same time, he is ruthless and not to be worshipped. 

The coronation happens at Hebron.  There is no crown or scepter to pass down.  Rather, the people recognized the LORD’s anointing of David, the elders recognized him as king, 4 and David made a covenant with them as their leader.  If we were to skip the donut hole in the pericope, we would move from David’s coronaton, including the detail that he was thirty years of age when crowned, that he reigned forty years, [donut hole], that he occupied and reigned in Jerusalem, and that David’s greatness was because the LORD, the God of hosts, was with him.5 

While there is nothing wrong with talking about David’s coronation and reign over Israel, it is wrong to paint the picture too nicely, sterilizing it of its ugly or more challenging bits.  “The king and his men marched to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land…”6  David’s first action as king is to take Jerusalem.  And yet again, he proves his military acumen by hitting the city where it was vulnerable — through the water system.  As the text recalls, “David had said on that day, ‘Whoever would strike down the Jebusites, let him get up the water shaft to attack the blind and lame, those whom David hates.'”7 

At this point in the narrative, David’s cunning move of sending his troops in through the water system gets just a bit lost.  Our reading needs to come to a screeching halt.  David sends his soldiers to attack the blind and the lame, those whom David hates?  The text here cries out to be explained if not corrected.  The Masoretic Text, where the Ketiv reads “those whom David hates,” also includes a Qere option that is passive, “… the blind and lame, who are hateful to David.”  This is no easy thing.

To top it off, the text then builds upon David’s ire with a justification for the exclusion of the blind and the lame from the Temple.  “Therefore it is said, ‘The blind and the lame shall not come into the house.'”8 

Just who are these blind and lame?  It is possible that this is a taunt used by the Jebusite defenders of the city.  The city is so well fortified that even the “blind” and the “lame” could keep you out, David!9  It could equally be a slur by David of his enemies, calling them the “blind” and the “lame,” a solution that would mesh with David’s hate of them.  However, the etymological move in verse 8b is most problematic, “Therefore it is said, ‘The blind and the lame shall not come into the house.'”  Which house is this?  It could be the house that King Hiram of Tyre built for David that is mentioned just after this pericope,10 though this is unlikely.  More likely is that it is an etymological statement about admission to the Temple,11 even though the Temple is not built until Solomon’s reign.12 

With all the difficulties of this text, it is important that the juxtaposition that the text itself gives us of David’s coronation, his conquering of Jerusalem and this oddly prominent prohibition of the blind and the lame from the house (of the LORD) be held together.  For, if I may be so bold, the interpreter of scripture, especially for the purpose of preaching, must always work to avoid avoiding the difficulties!

Preaching Horizons

I want to move toward the preaching of this text within the framework of testimony.13  The testimony to Israel’s God in this text — donut hole and all! — is dissonant.  David, the unlikely slayer of Goliath, has become king over Israel, and the text testifies that David’s greatness is because “the LORD, the God of hosts, was with him.”  At the same time, David’s indignation is justification for closing off the temple to the blind and lame.  Indeed, there is counter-testimony to this in the Old Testament,14 a counter-testimony incarnate in Jesus the Messiah, son of David, of whom Matthew reports in his version of the cleansing of the temple:

He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den or robbers.”  The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them.15

11 Samuel 16:13
21 Samuel 17:54
31 Samuel 16:23
4I am reminded of the traditional choice and coronation of the kings of the Scots.  As I recall the story from there, each of the Scottish noblemen would bring with them to Scone (pronounced SKOON) a boot full of earth from their reign.  They would dump the earth on the place traditionally called Caislean Credi or the Hill of Credulity.  It was on this place that symbolized common ground that these Scots “elders” would choose their next king. 
52 Samuel 5:10
62 Samuel 5:6
72 Samuel 5:8a
82 Samuel 5:8b
9Something akin to Isaiah 33:23: Then shall indeed much spoil be divided, even the lame shall seize booty. (JPS)
102 Samuel 5:11
11The LXX makes this reading clear by ending verse 8 with “into the house of the LORD.”
12Strange as David’s declaration is, nowhere in Scripture does it say that the blind and the lame in general are omitted from the Temple.  There are stipulations against priests who are blind and lame, among other “blemishes,” making sacrifice (Leviticus 21:18), and against making sacrifice to the LORD of any blind or lame livestock (Deuteronomy 15:21).  It should also be noted here that there are a number of sectarian text from Qumran that go “well beyond” any biblical texts to exclude the blind and the lame from the assembly, cf. Saul M. Olyan, “The Exegetical Dimensions of Restrictions on the Blind and the Lame in Texts from Qumran,” Dead Sea Discoveries 8 (2001) 38-50. 
13A nominal though not substantive nod toward Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997).
14Jeremiah 31:8, and also Isaiah 35:5-6.
15Matthew 21:13-14


Commentary on Psalm 123

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Fifteen psalms in the middle of Book Five of the Psalter, Psalms 120-134, all share a common superscription, “Songs of Ascents”.

The verbal root of “ascents” is “to go up.” The frequent references to Jerusalem and Zion in this collection of psalms (Psalms 122:1, 6; 125:1, 2; 126:1; 128:5; 129:5; 132:13; 133:3; 134:3) may account for their superscriptions. Since Jerusalem sits on a hill, no matter where one comes from, one always “goes up” to Jerusalem. Pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem to celebrate a number of annual religious festivals, including Passover, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Tabernacles may have sung the Songs of Ascents as they traveled along. 

Others speculate that the “ascents” referred to in Psalms 120-134 are the steps of the temple, which Ezekiel calls “ascents”. In Ezekiel 40:6, the prophet sees a man going into the gateway of the temple, “going up its steps.” The Mishnah (a collection of rabbinic traditions that date from 200 BCE to 200 CE, also called “The Second Torah”) states, “fifteen steps led up within [the Court of the Women] to the Court of the Israelites, corresponding to the fifteen songs of the steps in the Psalms, and upon them the Levites used to sing.” And, “The Levites on harps, and on lyres, and with cymbals, and with trumpets and with other instruments of music without number upon the fifteen steps leading down from the Court of the Israelites to the Women’s Court, corresponding to ‘The Fifteen Songs of Ascent’ in the Psalms; upon them the Levites used to stand with musical instruments and sing hymns.”

Although these fifteen psalms most likely come from a variety of times and places in ancient Israel, the message of the collection as a whole is that Jerusalem is the place for the coming together of the people of God for celebrations and commemorations and for acknowledging the goodness and help of the God of the Israelites.

If we read the Songs of Ascents as a chronological whole, we may understand Psalm 120, the first Song of Ascents, as the lament of an individual who is far from the holy city and is besieged by falsehood, deceitfulness, and haters of well-being. Psalm 121, the second Song of Ascents, is a hymn of thanksgiving sung by the psalm singer on the approach to Jerusalem; the hills of Jerusalem are in view and God guides the singer’s feet.

Psalm 122, the third, is a song of thanksgiving sung in celebration as the pilgrim psalm singer arrives in Jerusalem and enters the city gates. Psalm 123, the fourth Song of Ascents, is categorized as a community lament, although it begins with the voice of an individual: “To you I lift up my eyes” (verse 1 — see Psalm 122). In verse 2, however, the community of pilgrims adds its voice, “thus our eyes (look) to the LORD our God” (verse 2). Once inside the city gates, the psalm singers  turn their eyes away from the world described in Psalm 120 — “the lip of falsehood and the deceitful tongue” (verse 2) — toward God and address God directly, asking the deity to show them favor.

Psalm 123 begins with the voice of the individual (“my eyes” — verse 1) and joins with the voice of the community (“the eyes of servants” — verse 2). The worshipers lift their eyes to the Lord, just as the psalm singer in Psalm 121 lifts the eyes to the hills. The “you who are enthroned in the heavens” is an epithet for the God of the Hebrew Bible (for references in the Psalter, see Psalms 2:4; 11:4; 115:3, 6).  

The pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem compare their trust in God to the trust servants place in their masters and mistresses. Servants look to their masters and mistresses and stretch out their hands to them in supplication. Masters and mistresses look upon their servants and stretch out their hands to show favor in kindness and generosity. In like manner the pilgrims stretch out their hands in supplication to God who must and will stretch out God’s hand to show favor to the servants.

The word translated “mercy” in the NRSV and NIV, comes from the Hebrew verbal root which means, literally, “to look favorably upon.”   The expression of trust in God’s mercy becomes a twice-repeated petition in verse 3, followed by the reason for the petition. As with most laments in the Psalter, the oppressors of the psalm singers are not named — they are simply identified as “those at ease” and “the proud.”  The psalmists feel overwhelmed with contempt and mockery.

The Hebrew word, from the root is repeated in verses 3 and 4, translated first, in verse 3, as “more than enough” and, in verse 4, as “more than its fill.” And interestingly, the word translated “scorn” in verse 4 is from the root which literally means “speak with a stammering tongue.”

The singer of Psalm 73 describes such oppressors:

Therefore their necklace is pride;
and violence covers them as a garment.
Their eyes bulge out with fatness;
their hearts overflow with follies.
They scoff and speak with malice;
Loftily they threaten oppression.
They set their mouths against heaven;
and their tongues range over the earth.  (73:6-9)

As the pilgrims enter Jerusalem, they turn their eyes toward God and away from those who scorn them and hold them in contempt. They begin with words of trust in God (verses 1-2), recalling times in the past when God showed them favor just as a mistress shows favor to her servants. 

Because of the past experience, the worshippers can approach God with words of complaint and petition to show favor to them once again in the midst of their oppression. Richard Clifford, in The Abingdon Old Testament Commentary, characterizes Psalm 123 as a “primer on prayer” in which the psalmist “lifts his or her eyes to heaven, symbolically forswearing every other means of support” and “embraces the status of servant and waits, eyes fixed on the hand of the Lord.”

May each of us, as we enter the sanctuary of God, turn our eyes away from the world and its distresses and distractions, and look anxiously to God for favor and compassion. 

Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Corinthians 12:2-10

Sally A. Brown

Today’s second reading comes from the part of 2 Corinthians that some interpreters call Paul’s “foolish” letter (2 Corinthians 10:1-13:13).

Whether these chapters circulated as a letter independent of the preceding nine or not, the underlying issue is tension between Paul and the Corinthian church over Paul’s authority and credibility. Evidently, itinerant peddlers of rival versions of Christian faith had won the ear of the Corinthian church. It was fracturing.

Paul’s response shouldn’t be mistaken for the huffy rant of an out-preached preacher or a jilted suitor. The apostle uses the classic trope of the “boast,” yet gives it an unexpected turn: he foregrounds not his exceptional spiritual experience, but his weakness. His being and message are congruent: both testify to the God savingly revealed in a crucified man (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18-31).

Fascinating as we preachers may find these facts, starting with them may not be the best way to begin the sermon. Pew-sitters may have some idea what the early Christian community in Corinth was like, or they may not; either way, they may or may not care. Preachers will have to do some brisk work in the first 60 seconds of the sermon to get the congregation on board.

A preacher might decide to appeal to our culture’s enduring fascination with the supernatural. A spate of popular films and television shows in the last few years play with the ever-intriguing possibility that we live side-by-side with realities just beyond our sensing. Mythical creatures might be real. The veil between life and afterlife may be thinner than we know. Not only we, but the long-dead, may pass through our homes or brood at national battle sites.

Segue then to Paul, caught up into “paradise,” whether “in the body or out of the body,” he does not know (verse 3). We can explore this ecstatic experience briefly — what did he see? What is it like to hear things unsayable? — and yet, with Paul, we will have to lay it aside. Paul reports his out-of-body experience almost reticently. He isn’t going to tell us what he saw, and he can’t tell us what he heard. And that will have to do, because it is not the point. It is not in mystic ecstasy but in weakness that this man knows himself most surely “in Christ.” 

This points us to another possible starting point for preaching; one that aims from the sermon’s beginning toward the latter half of the reading (verses 7-10). This preacher might start with the widely-circulated idea that when events turn against us, it’s divine retribution for sins of the past. The boss announces that “company ‘downsizing’ means you.” The doctor delivers a chilling diagnosis of chronic or life-threatening illness. The dull ache in the lower back tightens its grip, squeezing out thought and sleep. Is this divine justice? Punishment for things done and left undone?

Paul never even hints at such a possibility. He testifies that his struggle with physical vulnerability revealed to him more surely than any divine ecstasy could the nature of the power of God: this is a power that manifests itself in this world in and through weakness. One need not embrace the idea that God “plans” our difficulty or suffering to agree that God’s power can sustain us there. And yet that is not the end of the sermon; the end of the sermon is that power viewed through the cross, not the power of spectacle or domination, is the power that can make us whole.

It may be timely for the preacher to focus less on individual experience and more on a congregation’s collective experience. Then the ecclesial situation that evoked Paul’s testimony will take a more front-and-center role in the sermon. Maybe, like us, the Corinthian Christians hungered for deeper spiritual experience. Is that how the itinerant teachers got their toe-hold?

Such hunger, in itself, is legitimate. Contemporary Christians are rediscovering such spiritual resources as contemplative prayer, Ignatian discernment, and walking the labyrinth. But for congregations as for individuals, spiritual roots may grow deepest and strongest as we struggle together through experiences we cannot, and would not, construct or choose. A dwindling budget, struggle over an issue of doctrine or procedure that is splitting the community right down the middle, or the loss of key leadership can either make or break a congregation. We have to risk trusting each other at new levels, pray with much at stake, and practice the kind of Spirit-fueled compassion and ingenuity that finds a way where there appears to be no way.

Several weeks after the shocking death of 13-year-old Trayvon Martin in a suburban Florida neighborhood, students, staff and faculty at the seminary where I teach gathered on the quad to mourn, to read out the names of dozens of persons of color who have died such senseless deaths, and to ponder what is being asked of us. As I looked around the crowd, many deliberately wearing “hoodies” — the face-shrouding garment Trayvon wore, as do so many middle-school kids and teens — it struck me how many who had gathered had deep troubles of their own: profound losses all too recent, daunting financial situations. Some would soon graduate, with families to feel and no sign yet of a job. And yet there they were, praying, ready to be called by the Gospel outside of themselves in trust that God is at work among us, burdened and vulnerable though we are, to challenge and change the way power works in this world.

The culture is eyeing the churches these days, testing our credibility. Congregations may imagine that they cannot think about public witness until their internal problems, doctrinal and budgetary, are all resolved. But it may be precisely our internal challenges that press us into the kind of engagement with each other and with the Spirit that can turn us, sooner rather than later, away from cloying self-absorption and outward to the world God loves. Even in our weakness, maybe even because of it, we become credible witnesses of saving news in this frantic, fearful world.