Archive for March, 2012

For March 25, 2012: 5 Lent, Year B

The Reading            Jeremiah 31:31-34

The “weeping prophet” Jeremiah foretold the destruction of Jerusalem in the sixth century BC on account of God’s people being unfaithful. Amid the ruins, today’s reading announces hope and a new covenant: God will write God’s law on the people’s hearts, so that we do not forget God—and God will forget our sin.

The Epistle            Hebrews 5:5-10

The epistle to the Hebrews, written no later than 96 AD, is less a letter than it is a treatise of Christology—the study of Jesus—in terms of Jewish thought. The writer compares the priesthood of Jesus to that of Melchizedek, who blessed Abram in Genesis 14. Both priesthoods are without beginning or end, but Jesus’ priesthood is superior: he is fully human, fully God, and fully obedient to God.

Further thoughts

The approach of the end of Lent always brings to mind one of my favorite poems of the late 20th century, Peter Meinke’s “Liquid Paper”. The opening lines liken correcting fluid—Liquid Paper™ or Wite-Out™—to a parson that pardons sins, then to a memory-blotter. The poem continues, “If I were God, / I’d authorize Celestial Liquid Paper / every seven years to whiten our mistakes:”

we should be sorry and live with what we’ve done
but seven years is long enough and all of us

deserve a visit now and then
to the house where we were born
before everything got written so far wrong.

Similar imagery of God forgetting his people’s sins or blotting them out appears in the readings from Jeremiah and Psalm 51. The point in both readings, as in Meinke’s poem, is surely not that our sins stop existing or that we get out of doing anything about them. In fact, the old 1928 Book of Common Prayer identifies with clinical precision our problem with what it calls “these our misdoings”:

The remembrance of them is grievous unto us;
The burden of them is intolerable.

It is remarkable how little misdoing is required to convince a human being that There Is No Help for her and she has no business admitting in decent company how much help she needs—or, for that matter, even presuming to appear in decent company. One can try to shed that burden on her own, but most of us fail utterly.

Jesus, being human, knows the weight of that burden. It is that intolerable burden that each of us bears, multiplied by all the souls on this beautiful and yet blased planet, that hangs with him and on him on the cross.  Our part now is to keep using the means of grace—the bread and wine, the fellowship, the admitting of our sin—and to extend them to each other by all means possible.

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For March 11, 2012: Third Sunday in Lent, Year B

The Reading            Genesis 22:1-14 instead of Exodus 20:1-17

The reading from Genesis last week showed us the covenant through which God promised Abraham and Sarah their long-awaited son. This week Abraham is obliged to choose between the life of that son and obeying the command of the God who gave him.  It is a difficult story.

The Epistle            1 Corinthians 1:18-25

The first letter to the Corinthians addresses a church community in conflict: the groups that Paul calls “the Jews” and “the Greeks” have different ideas about many things, including who and what God must be. Their ideas of God are too small, however—and so are ours.

 

Further thoughts

For this Sunday’s Old Testament lesson, the Revised Common Lectionary has scheduled Exodus 20:1-17, the Ten Commandments. It resonates with today’s psalm on the power and magnificence of God and God’s decrees; it plays fairly well with the epistle to a community that is struggling to reconcile law and grace, and it works with the gospel as Jesus breaks some social conventions for the sake of the honor of God’s house.

Instead, we have Genesis 22:1-18; in English we call it “the Sacrifice of Isaac”, though it might go better under the Hebrew name Akidah, which means ‘binding’. Whatever its name, this reading is much harder to square with the celebratory tone of Psalm 19. How well it comports with the other readings depends on how one interprets it (and them, though to a lesser extent)—and its interpretation has been hotly debated over the centuries.

Commentators who take the Akidah at face value—Abraham giving the ultimate proof of his obedience—generally see it as prefiguring the sacrifice of Jesus, though the parallel is shaky as regards the consent of the victim, the identity of the wielder of the knife, the availability of a substitute, and even the whole affair as test.

Other commentators balk at the idea of a God who expects a human parent to knife his own offspring; some of these see in the passage a vivid way to forbid child sacrifice, which was widely practiced at the time, and a few suggest that Abraham—who had successfully confronted God to save the inhabitants of Sodom—failed God’s test by obeying when he ought to have resisted. This leaves us, however, with Abraham in a double bind: obey God but kill the son, or save the son but defy God.

A handful of commentators note that the text contains a misstatement and a significant silence. God calls Isaac Abraham’s only son—but Abraham has had another son in Ishmael, albeit a son he has expelled into the wilderness. The silence is that of Sarah: Isaac is indeed her only son, named by God for her laughter, but here she is not only voiceless but invisible. Did Abraham, gauging her probable reaction, keep her in the dark?

Perhaps this is where the Akidah connects with the epistle. Perhaps the signs and wisdom of Paul are demonstrations of power and esoteric secrets, and the call of Christ is to radical openness so that the love and counsel of the community can keep an individual from going off the rails.

Or perhaps Genesis 22:1-18 is simply a brutal, difficult text.

For March 4, 2012: Second Sunday in Lent, Year B

The Reading    Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
On the first Sunday of Lent, last Sunday, we heard God’s first covenant with humanity, symbolized by the rainbow. Today’s reading recounts the second covenant: God promising that childless Abram and Sarai, despite their age, will have a son, and giving them new names—Abraham and Sarah—in token of the promise.

The Epistle    Romans 4:13-25
The letter to the Romans is written to a church community of Jews and Gentiles; some of the Romans might not have known about God’s covenant with Abraham, and others who knew about it might have misunderstood how it works. It is explained here for both as a matter not of what we do but of God’s unfathomable and unstoppable grace.

Further thoughts
Following on from week 1, the week 2 Lenten readings call us to continue considering the covenants that God makes with us: we contemplate what we deserve, what we get, and what we do next.
In Genesis, Abram and Sarai are an elderly couple, “as good as dead”, as Paul puts it in the Epistle, their hopes for a son dashed on the rocks of time. They have made alternative arrangements for the future: Abram has named his kinsman Eliezer of Damascus his heir, and Sarai has arranged for Abram to sire an heir by her slave Hagar; this was widely accepted practice for the time, though in this case it has produced a good deal of domestic strain.
Then God makes a new covenant: the heir for which Abram and Sarai have yearned, the child on whose birth they have given up, will be born to them, as God makes of them Abraham and Sarah, parents of millions.
Verse 17, which has been omitted from the lectionary, records Abram’s immediate response: he falls over laughing. Chapter 18 of Genesis, left out of this season’s lections, also gives us Sarai laughing in incredulity as she wonders how, after all the years and all the tears, this promise could possibly come true.
Yet, as Paul tells us, the two of them do believe, sooner rather than later—and it is their faith in God’s promise, not their own virtue, that makes them righteous before God. It is their faith in God’s faithfulness that somehow makes it possible for God’s promise to take hold in their own flesh.
What a staggering thought. What did it take for Abraham and Sarah to forget all the reasons it was crazy to hope long enough to believe God, really, deep down?
And what will it take for us?

For Feb. 26, 2012: First Sunday in Lent, Year B

The Reading            Genesis 9:8-17

As Lent begins, we think about human sin and God’s mercy. Today’s reading comes after the great Flood. We hear God’s promise to all creatures never again to destroy the world, no matter how much our sinfulness grieves God, and the sign of this is the rainbow.

The Epistle            1 Peter 3:18-22

The first letter of Peter, written by a church elder in Rome, makes an explicit link between the great Flood about which we heard in the first reading and baptism. The Flood destroyed disobedient humans. It is sobering to think of baptism as a means through which God moves to drown our disobedience.

 

Further notes

One thinks of baptism as a gentle process: tip a little water from a scallop shell onto a baby’s tender scalp, or at most dip a youth or grownup in the Baptists’ full immersion, whether in a specially built pool or in the wilder water of a river. In either case the person baptized is literally supported. The priest cradles the infant; I for one love to watch a priest whose own family is complete gazing at the child in her arms and getting herself a “baby fix” in the course of administering this delightful sacrament. The Baptist baptism is almost a liturgical dance, and it takes a certain amount of practice to do gracefully: as the pastor and the baptizand stand thigh deep in water, it is the baptizand’s part to relax at the knees and not struggle while the pastor—who may be holding the baptizand’s nostrils shut for him—quickly lays him down into the water and brings him back upright again.

The first letter of Peter tells us that baptism, whatever form it takes, is prefigured by the epic Flood of Noah. Now the reading from Genesis today gives us the end of the process, with God promising never, ever again to destroy the whole world by flood. This promise is the first great covenant between God and humanity. The Flood that gets us this covenant, however, is a violent process.

Did the Flood prefigure baptism by washing away the human propensity to do wrong? I think we know the answer to that. The verses after today’s selection from Genesis tell us that, as soon as the world dried out enough, upright Noah discovered wine, got blind drunk and exposed himself. And things have only gone down the drain since then.

We could instead look at baptism as a kind of epic flood. A huge flood changes the landscape permanently. It sweeps away familiar landmarks, creates new ones and makes new growth possible. It overruns the banks we assign it and astonishes us with its power. Baptism does these things. In baptism is God’s self-binding promise never to destroy the human soul, even when our sin deserves it. Through it is God’s declaration that no other power has the right to condemn us—not a government, not Satan, not the church nor even our own deep shame and guilt—because Jesus is our claim on righteousness. We don’t always recall this as we ought, but let us look to the rainbow and remember.

For Feb. 22, 2012: Ash Wednesday

The Reading            Joel 2:1-2,12-27

Locusts are grasshopper-like creatures that swarm by the billions, darkening the sky and devouring every green leaf for miles. This is the army that Joel tells us has descended as a sign of the day of the Lord. Joel calls every living soul in Judah to drop everything and turn to the Lord with fasting and weeping.

The Epistle            2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

For Joel, the day of the Lord was bringing bad times. Paul also is convinced that the day of the Lord is right now. For Paul, however, the day of the Lord is a day of salvation—and a day in which those who love God serve gladly in every way possible as the ambassadors of God’s great love to the whole world.

 

Further thoughts

Cultures differ in how contrition is expressed, but in most cultures some expression is expected—and healthy.

If I stand on someone’s toe, it is not enough for me to feel sorry. I have to act. The owner of the toe needs to feel me move off it, see my shoulders droop, and hear me beg pardon—but so do I: I must register my error and confess it in order to own it. As we heard a few weeks ago, when Jonah preached that God would destroy Nineveh, everyone from the king on down put on mourning clothes and gathered together to pray earnestly for God’s mercy; the demonstration was toward God, but for the Ninevites themselves the changed clothes symbolize the changed hearts throughout the city. Similarly, Joel calls the people of Judah to assemble publicly and weep partly as a sign for the Lord to whom they turn but also for the people of Judah themselves.

Nor is it enough to go through the motions if I in fact refuse to feel contrite. If I apologize chiefly to impress an the onlookers, or if I apologize for standing on the toe without moving off it, my words will ring hollow. At that point I have offended yet again. Thus Joel counsels the people of Judah that what they should rend is their hearts: torn clothing that does not reflect a spirit of repentance is really nothing but a costume. Jesus makes a related point: public piety and almsgiving run the risk of being better theater than theology, if the gestures of praying and giving fail to flow from and lead back to love of God and of God’s children.

Being contrite, then, is a good thing—in its time. There is a point past which too much contrition is too much. Once I am off the toe and have asked and been offered forgiveness, continuing to apologize and apologize for having been on the toe starts to sound a bit like declaring that I alone have the right to determine how forgivable I am. If I have repented sincerely and been forgiven sincerely, it is time to square my drooping shoulders, give thanks, and turn to doing what needs to be done. Paul’s great laundry list of difficulties and obstacles is neither a boast of his superiority nor a ploy for our sympathies, but rather a sober account of what he and we can surmount thanks to the grace that lifts up our chins, dries our tears, and strengthens us to go back out to bear Christ into the world.