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I’m a theme sort of guy. I like to find common threads and see connections across lots of scriptures, including the sometimes seemingly random weekly selections from The Revised Common Lectionary. Sometimes it just doesn’t seem to come to me.
This is such a week. Perhaps it is because we got back late Tuesday from celebrating our son’s wedding and our granddaughter’s playing Ursula in The Little Mermaid---both in Hawaii where they live---to find a message on our answering machine that Margie, my wife, was to start chemo on Thursday morning. It wasn’t unexpected, but seven hours at the oncology center made a long day. We have to go back this afternoon (Friday).
All that’s not to dismiss this week’s readings. In fact, I found them particularly rich. I just didn’t find an integrating theme. There are some references to light and seeing. “For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light---for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true . . . (E)verything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, ‘Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” (Ephesians 5:8-9, 13-14) Then there are the words are spoken by Jesus as he is dealing with questions of blindness and sight in the presence of “a man blind from birth.” "As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” (John 9:1 & 5) After restoring the blind man’s sight, Jesus says, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind,” prompting the Pharisees to ask, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” (vss. 39-40)
All did not go well with the Israelites when they escaped from Egypt. They got hungry and thirsty and began to complain. “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” (Exodus 17:3) After all, we can’t live very long without water. I suppose there’s nothing much more panic-inducing than extreme thirst. I really (really!) can’t imagine it. And then to have to watch your children suffering. How much worse can it get?
It still goes on in parts of the world. Experts tell us that the most critical geopolitical issue in the coming years is probably water and its distribution, and attempts to control it by various political and tribal and national entities. So, water and suffering are related.
Then there’s the issue of suffering, in and of itself. Why me? Why? Why? Why? It’s a question that has plagued humanity since the beginning of time. How can a good and loving God allow such pain and suffering and conflict and destruction? Rabbi Harold Kushner’s 1981 book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, is still widely read. For many, it was one of the most helpful attempts to answer a question that has no fully satisfactory answer. Notice that the title talks about “When,” not “Why.” Kushner, and I believe much of the Bible, assumes that bad things will happen to everyone. The critical question is, perhaps, how we respond when they do. It can be relatively easy to live “by faith” when we are comfortable and things are going well. Sooner or later, though, some challenges are going to come our way.
This week’s lectionary readings got me to thinking about how human beings choose up sides, often dividing life into “us” and “them.” Over the years people have also had very definite ideas about whose side God is on, or whether or not “we” are on God’s side.
During the years of my childhood and youth, we used to sing, with great enthusiasm, “Who is on the Lord’s Side?” by Frances R. Havergal. “Who is on the Lord’s side? Who will serve the King? Who will be His helpers other lives to bring? Who will leave the world’s side? Who will face the foe? Who is on the Lord’s side? Who for Him will go? By Thy call of mercy, By Thy grace divine, We are on the Lord’s side, Savior, we are Thine.” I’ve since come to see it as more than a bit arrogant. We were trying to declare our faith, but a little humility mixed in wouldn’t have hurt!
In my early life, playground games and sports used to involve “Choosing Up Sides.” The “alphas” in the group were always the team captains, the ones doing the choosing. They took turns calling out the names of those each wanted on his or her team. I knew I was going to be one of the last, because most of my genes didn’t contribute to athletic prowess. Today, I believe this method of choosing teams has been largely abandoned, but what if we didn’t have to choose up teams at all?
Both the tendency toward exclusivity and nationalism and the sensitivity to a God who is all inclusive are present in the Bible, and we still are deeply influenced by a sense of tribalism.
I write this on Ash Wednesday. It is the beginning of the Lenten season. What am I supposed to do with this plethora of texts, since I’ve included the Ash Wednesday reading along with the readings for the coming Sunday?
I decided it was time to do a little research into the origins of Lent. The most common association many probably make with Lent is the nation of “giving something up” for the duration, say sweets or TV or Facebook. Our breakfast meets on Tuesday, this week Mardi Gras (i.e., Fat Tuesday). It’s a day marked by pancake feasts in many of the communities where I served as pastor, a day to indulge a feast before the fasting.
As a seasonal observation, Lent did not get established until the 4th century, although there were a gradually lengthening fasting period (starting with a day or two), usually before Easter. Many believe that the practice originated as a way of preparing for baptism, which frequently occurred at sunrise on Easter morning. Even this, of course, is disputed by some historians, but I’m content to hang my thoughts this week on that understanding of Lenten origins.
Lent can be a season for reflecting and focusing upon the meaning of our baptism. It is a time for bringing one’s life into focus, for discovering what is “the one important reality” of our lives. I think of it as a time of introspection, of self-examination, a time to ask what are the foundations upon which our lives have been built, are built, and are being built.
Our lives, our thoughts, our actions, our world, become so cluttered. Can we, during the season of Lent, peel through some of the things that are less essential, some of the distractions, and move to a place where we can celebrate what truly gives meaning?
There’s a bit of cloudiness in this week’s readings. Exodus tells a story of Moses going up Mt. Sinai. A “cloud covered the mountain” and “Moses entered the cloud.” (Exodus 24:15 & 18) Psalm 99 says the Lord, “Mighty King” and “lover of justice,” “spoke to them in the pillar of cloud.” (Psalm 99:7)
In the reading from Matthew, we have the story of Peter and James and John on “a high mountain” with Jesus. Jesus is “transfigured,” his face shining “like the sun” and his clothes “dazzling white." Moses and Elijah appear. “Suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them” and a voice spoke from the cloud. The reading from II Peter is presented as the memory of one of the participants in the mountaintop experience. “We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.” (II Peter 1:18)
So---what happens in clouds? It set me to thinking about some of the ways in which we talk about clouds.
A new use has burst on the scene in recent years as we have begun to talk about computing storage and activities that take place in “the cloud.”
If one takes this week’s readings in the order the lectionary uses, the first verse and the last verse are astounding, challenging, maybe even seeming to be a little unrealistic. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” (Leviticus 19:26) “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)
Let’s take a minute first to look at the meaning of the biblical words. The word “holy” is the word for “saint.” The instruction is to “Be a saint!” That’s not much help, is it? At the same time, who has not said, “Oh, isn’t she a saint?” Still, when we say that, we tend to be putting the person on a platform above most people, making him or her a little “holier than thou.” Remember, though, that Paul speaks of all the followers of Christ as saints. (Look at Philippians 1:1, for instance, which is addressed “to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi.” Other letters are sent “to all God’s beloved . . . who are called to be saints.” See Romans 1:7, for example)
To be holy, or to be a saint, means to be set aside for, or dedicated to, God’s use. What if we thought of being “holy” less as some specialized state of being and more as our lives being something to be used in the service of God, in our nitty-gritty everyday living?
I have a long-time ambivalent relationship with law---not that I’ve ever thumbed my nose at it or been a scofflaw. My basic predisposition is toward obeying the law, as well as the mores and social customs of the society in which I live. I was thought of as a “good” boy, and was comfortable with that designation. Because of a death of one who graduated from high school with me, I recently pulled my senior yearbook out and was looking through it. Remember all the messages that got written on the pages of that keepsake? In entry after entry I was referred to as “a good kid.”
Nevertheless, underneath the conformity there has always been a little bit of a rebellious spirit. I’ve long believed in peaceful civil disobedience in the face of injustice. I participated in marches and demonstrations for peace and racial justice in the 60’s and 70’s---never resorting to violence, I must add.
Furthermore, I’ve always been uncomfortable allowing the legal system to define who I am, the essence of right and wrong, and the meaning of life. There’s more to life than can be transcribed in a legislative act. In theological discussions from my earliest memories, on through seminary, and in years of ministry, I and others have struggled with the balance between works (or obedience to law) and grace. Is it our conformity to law (our works) or grace (the fact that God simply loves us) that “saves” us? I am not comfortable with either extreme. James reminds us that faith, without works, is dead. (See James 2:14-18) Actually the whole notion of behavior that gets us into or keeps us out of heaven has become somewhat alien to me. Rather than talk about being “saved”, I want to talk about living a life full of meaning, finding fullness of life in my day-to-day routines and in the shaping of societal structures that promote and support and enable that. So, part of the question is whether or not strict obedience to the letter of every law contributes to that kind of fullness and meaning.
Most of this week’s texts address the question of obedience to the commandments, or laws, of God.