Between a Rock and a Hard Place

3rd Sunday Lent, 3-19-17

Exodus 17:3-7; Ps 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9; Romans 5:1-2, 5-8; John 4:5-42

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Our first reading – is so much like the society we live in; I read it and I think about shopping malls and huge department stores full of children demanding every thing that catches their eye. Just two chapters before, God had opened the Red Sea so the Israelites could walk thru on dry land and the Egyptian army, which was pursuing them, was destroyed.  The Israelites had their freedom after generations in slavery.  Then in the next chapter, the people had become discouraged in the desert and feared they would be without food.  God provided them with quail for meat and manna for bread, as much as they needed.  Now there is an uprising because of the scarcity of water; the people are full of anger and rebellion, and Moses fears they will kill him by stoning, the death reserved for someone who has sinned against the community.

But I don’t find it amazing the people were full of blame and empty of faith in the face of all their blessings. What I find amazing is that God doesn’t sweep them all into a garbage bag and start over with a new nation.  Sorry, I know that was a Grinch-like, heart-two-sizes-too-small thing to say.

But Moses nearly worked himself into a nervous breakdown over freeing these people, and there is no hint that the faintest idea of thanking him ever crossed the people’s minds. We would say he was “between a rock and a hard place”, and a miracle of God was the only thing that saved him.  No wonder we see deserts as places of trial, temptation, hardship – and we see water as life-giving, cleansing, refreshing, freeing, forgiveness.

By the time our Psalm was written, someone had figured this out. Our Psalmist says, “For he is our God, and we are the people he shepherds, the flock he guides; let us come into his presence with thanksgiving.” But notice that the Psalmist uses the image of a “rock.”  Moses had feared that rocks would be hurled at him by an unruly mob and he would be killed.  Then rock had been a geo-physical thing in the desert, used by God for the miracle of water, almost an image of grace.  Now the Psalmist speaks of God as the “Rock” – an image of steadiness, reliability, permanence, dependability, an instrument of safety, certainty, and protection.  Being between a rock and a hard place is all right – if God is your rock.

St Paul backs up the image of the Psalmist. He says, that “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  Paul had been a “Grinch” of a guy before he encountered the Risen Christ on his way to Damascus.  Now, he deeply believed, even as he waited on death row to be martyred, that God’s love, the rock of his salvation, would bring him to eternal life regardless of the most difficult “hard place” one can imagine.

And then we read John’s account of “the woman at the well.” I have a confession to make about this woman.  At first, when I read about her, I liked her even less than the rebellious Israelites in the desert.  She comes alone to the well, not with the other women, as she should have; she spoke to Jesus, as she shouldn’t have.  She’s pretty bold, even hard in her responses, saying, “Are you greater than our father Jacob?” She’s not ashamed of immoral behavior, but blunt and in-his-face about where the Samaritan’s place of worship.  Given a little attitude in her voice when she says, “I know that the Messiah is coming…he will tell us everything”, her response is rock-hard, rude.  No wonder she was alone and shunned by the community.  No wonder the women had decided this woman was beyond their help, a lost cause, evil.  She seems to have chosen the hard place she’s in, determined to deflect any attempt to help her with stony bitterness.

Then a miracle happens that makes Moses and his staff hitting the rock look simple. All Jesus says to this woman is, “I am he, the one speaking with you.”  These few words accomplish in seconds what it took 40 years to accomplish with the Israelites.  She not only took to heart what he said, but she was quick to abandon her water jug, having accepted the living water.  She told the others with such intensity and certainty that they believed her and come to Jesus themselves, saying, “We know that this is the savior of the world!!”

Perhaps the woman would have done well in our society, been a great corporate CEO with her edgy repartee, blunt questions, and boldness in sorting out a situation. Perhaps the rigid limits on women in that society, reflected in my own negative initial assessment of her, contributed to her outcast status.

Maybe the love that Jesus felt for all God’s lost children was enough to dissolve the stony fortress this woman had constructed around herself.  Maybe it was a miracle healing; the living water of the Spirit broke open her rocky heart and that water power-cleaned her soul.  I don’t know what happened.  She was like a forgotten potted plan, wilted and dying, suddenly transplanted near a running stream of water, becoming a strong, food-yielding tree.

I do think some conclusions to these readings are warranted. I have 4 to offer:

  1. God loves us, despite how badly we behave. God gives us freedom from oppression long before we learn how to live freely. We need to look to God for ways to get out of our hard places.  Love can provide enormous freedom.   Status quo and expectations can be jails.
  2. God is the faithful one. Us – not so much. But God is good and provides for us.  God created a world that gives us water and food and shelter and all we need, if we look.  God gives us good people to pray for us, who lead us in God’s ways, if we listen.
  3. The Psalms are full of wisdom. We need to give thanks, we need to worship, and we need to recognize we are God’s people. We need to make sure our hearts don’t get rocky.
  4. People are not always what they appear to be. Society is not always just. Outcasts are loved by God and sometimes used to wake the rest of us up.  All of us need a brain-flush on occasion with some living water of repentance and renewal.  Lent can happen at any time.

 

 

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Just Two Sentences

Paul’s death row letter to Timothy tells us how to face hard times for the sake of the Gospel.

2nd Sunday Lent A, 3-12-17, Genesis 12:1-4a; Ps: 33:4-5, 18-20, 22;  2 Timothy 1:8b-10; Matthew 17:1-9

We have a pivotal turning point in our first reading. It is the beginning of the story of Abraham.  It is the point in Genesis where the creation story ends and the history of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all start.  It is the birthplace of so much – a place where a scholar could do their life’s work.  But today we’ll pass it by.  Our Gospel reading is a high point of Matthew’s revelation of the divinity of Christ, just after Peter proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.  It is a mountain-top experience in every sense.  But today we’ll pass it by.  I love the 33rd Psalm, but today we’ll pass it by.  For what?  For two sentences from a short letter to Timothy, which we only read once every three years, and often ignore.

So, are you thinking, “Did they nick her brain during the eye surgery?” Or hopefully, “Who was Timothy, why did St. Paul send him a letter, what’s it got to do with Lent?”

All good questions! Timothy was a young man, the product of a mixed marriage.  His grandmother, Lois, and his mother, Eunice, were Christians.  His father, who goes unnamed, apparently was not.  Timothy was steeped in the Good News since birth.   He traveled for some 15 years as Paul’s traveling companion throughout Asia and Greece, the entire distance of Paul’s 2nd and 3rd missionary journeys, as well as special trips to Jerusalem.   He was with Paul in Rome when Paul was first in prison.  Then he had been “ordained” by Paul and left in charge of the church in the Greek city of Ephesus.  In short, Timothy, like Paul, had given his life, his time, his money, his efforts, and even his safety to spread the Good News of the Risen Christ – as Paul’s helper.

Paul suggests that Timothy was sometimes dismissed as just a young kid who didn’t know much (Paul writes him, “Let no one look down on your youthfulness”); and that Timothy was a little overwhelmed sometimes ( Paul tells him to “use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments”).   I will never forget the first time I really studied the journeys of Paul and Timothy, as described in the Book of Acts and Paul’s Epistles.  Without exaggeration, I can tell you it was truly amazing, thrilling, scary, and at times I cried.  You might decide to study it yourself. I can help.

Well, let’s take a look at those two sentences we have today. I have to tell you that Paul would have failed any English class writing assignment I’ve ever encountered.  His sentences stretch to the moon and back, and frankly, that’s one of the reasons you seldom hear homilies from the 2nd readings.  What your missal has as two sentences really is one big train-wreck of a sentence.  I made 10 complex-enough sentences out of it in attempt to make it understandable.

First sentence –Paul is saying to Timothy: “Don’t despair in the hard times and don’t give up. Continue to share with me, to join me in the suffering we have done for the sake of spreading the gospel. We do it all through the power of God.”  Paul continues with second sentence, “Remember, it is God who has saved us. God called us to proclaim the gospel.  God called us with a Holy Calling.  It was not because we did such great works, but it was according to God’s own purpose, God’s plan for the world.  God lavishly gave us the grace to do it…grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus since before the beginning of time.  God’s grace now is personified in Jesus, who destroyed death.  Jesus brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel.”  Two amazing sentences.

Scholars pretty much agree that this letter was the product of time Paul spent waiting in prison, waiting to be put to death in Rome.   The end of his letter tells us Paul knows his end is very near.  This is a death-row letter, looking back at his life as the big picture, the final summary.  And his life had been interwoven with Timothy for many important years.  And with the oppression of Christianity probably near its height, Paul is wondering what will happen to those Christian communities he established and nurtured and prayed for.  Will anything he worked for, literally would give his life for, survive?  It is a letter that could have wilted into self-pity and despair, except for the faith behind it.  Paul tells Timothy “God has not given us a spirit of being timid, but of power and love and discipline.”  He writes, “I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that Christ is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him.”  Finally, Paul advises, “Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you…be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”

This is beginning to sound like Lent, ah? When you give your all and it all seems to be going down the drain.  When you are discouraged, and your friends and family are no where to be found.  When you have to decide to speak up or shut up.  When you are certain of your values, and feel alone.  When you look into the future and you see the end.

Paul wrote, “Know the strength to bear the hardship comes from God.” God didn’t choose us because we could win our battles single-handedly, but we were called to do what was right and true and just, to be holy and part of God’s kingdom.  Christ Jesus has already won the battle – abolished death, opened the way to eternity, shined the light to show the way home.  Guard the truth in your soul, like Abraham and King David and Paul and Timothy, and our Lord Jesus.  Lent is a time to settle firmly into the unshakeable rock of faith.

Grasphing the Gracious Gift

1st Sunday Lent A,  3-5-17; Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7 ;  Ps: 51:3-6, 12-13, 17; Romans 5:12-19Matthew 4:1-11

 Grasping the Gracious Gift   

This reading from the second & third chapters of Genesis always makes me sad. It is likely one of the most used and abused, most misinterpreted passages in the Bible.  It has been used to prove that women should be oppressed, that men are spineless wimps, that God’s creation is faulty, and that both humans and snakes are inherently evil – when that was never the intention of the story.

What was the intent? It’s a beautiful creation story and by far more sophisticated in its vision than anything comparable found in the ancient world.    It is older than the story we find in Genesis chapter one, and shares themes with other creation myths in the Mesopotamian region.  And just in case you feel the need to explore your Bible a little more closely, check out the creation story in the book of Ezekiel chapter 28 that you’ve probably never heard.

But there are two things we really need to pay attention to here. First – the eternal question of evil.  God in chapter one is said to create a good world.  God is pleased with it.  When you read Proverbs chapters 3-8, you find this theme again and again.  So, where did the cunning of the serpent come from, and why did it lie to Eve?  Interesting question, but that’s not really what we need to know, so I ask the 2nd question, and that is- what was Eve’s reason for making the choice of listening to the serpent’s lies?  The text tells us, “the tree was… desirable for gaining wisdom.”  The serpent had said, “Your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods (little “g”) who know what is good and what is evil.” Sometimes I wonder if the story suggests that in Eve’s ears, she heard that she would be like “GOD”?

So what was humanity’s relationship to God when they were created? God had created humankind, and blew the breath of life into man.  God gave mankind the power of naming the animals, and thereby giving man power over animals.  God gave these humans the very best of everything.  In chapter one, the creation of humans is the climax of creation, the grandest and greatest of creation, actually in the divine image.  We are not God, but we are a reflection of God.

And somehow Eve thought that the glory of God, the wisdom and knowledge of God was something she and Adam could grasp by eating a piece of fruit. It is a concept still pitched by marketing snakes.  Buy this car, and you will look rich and powerful and women will be attracted to you.  Drink this diet soda and your body will be sleek and desirable.  Take this drug and your sports performance will be Olympic.  It’s the same old lie.  And why do we still fall for it?  Because we want to grasp the goal without developing the grit.

What does scripture say? Look at Philippians 2: 5-11:  “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,  and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Which is why in Psalm 51 David doesn’t say to God, “The devil made me do it.” Instead he claims his evil choice of taking another man’s wife and having her husband killed.  David admits his desire to be all-powerful (like God) is wrong, too great to be grasped.  He asks instead for the “joy of (God’s) salvation” – a joy which God, and only God, freely gives to those who empty themselves of the pride of power, the need to control that which they did not create, the desire and greed for that which was not theirs to grasp.

St Paul, in his letter to the Romans, reassures us there is a way out of our folly. He teaches that although these impulses of pride and control and desire haunt us, “how much more did the grace of God and the gracious gift- of the one man Jesus Christ overflow for (us).”  What was the gracious gift?  It was his good and selfish choice of being obedient and coming to us as a humble man to face and overcome our murderous actions – actions which grow out of pride and power and control and desire.

Of course, Jesus was never one to simply tell us how to live and walk away, shaking his head at our endless repetition of the same bad decisions. He demonstrates it for us, he lives the trials; he shows us success and gives us solutions.  Our reading from Matthew is only one example of that.  He is tempted at his most vulnerable, when he was near starvation, when he saw power at hand and close enough to reach for, when he was shown glory and fame in its most magnificent and attractive forms.

Shucks, I hear the word “temptation” and I think of double chocolate cake with Breyer’s mint ice cream with chocolate chunks in it. But the solution is still the same- obedience.  Trying to grasp the joy of the stomach or the joy of ego or the joy of stuff never really works, only the freely given joy of the soul lasts beyond the end of the day.

This time of Lent is when we re-set our moral compasses, when we hold out our intentions in the cold light of day and ask if we act with justice and love. We look at those things we do without thinking the rest of the year and consider the fruit of our actions.  What do we seek to grasp, what do we reach out for?

Of Kings and Cabbages, of Christ and Celebration

11-20-16 Readings:  Samuel 5:1-3  Ps 122:1-2, 3-4, 4-5 ,Colossians 1:12-20,  Luke 23:35-43

Most of us have some pretty weird images in our minds when we hear the word “King”. Perhaps you think of TV images of British royal family, with huge spectacles of weddings, the gloved hand waving slowly from the motorcade, and the invasive pictures taken by the tabloids.  Maybe you think of palaces, golden crowns with jewels, and social elites.  Some think about the King Arthur stories or movies of heavy handed monarchs with no compassion for the impoverished peasants they rule.  All in all, kings are not like anything in our lives, and, as students of American history, we may even have a cultural dislike and distrust of kings.

So we find ourselves at a loss to understand why we would celebrate Christ as a King. I will suggest that we should travel back in time, back to King David of the Old Testament.  I pick this point in time because we are about to begin the season of Advent, and will soon read that Jesus was of the family of David; there is something special about the Kingship of David.

Our 1st reading comes from 2nd Samuel, the book of history about the reign of David.  Saul was the 1st king of Israel.  God directed his prophet Samuel to anoint David as the next king.  After Saul’s death, all of the tribes of Israel came to David and announced, “Here we are, your bone and your flesh.  (When) Saul was king, it was you who led the Israelite army out (to war) and brought them back (triumphant).  (God) said to you, ‘You shall shepherd my people Israel (in their relationships with each other and with me) and shall be commander (of the military forces) of Israel.’”  This marks the moment when twelve tribes, previously only loosely connected, really became a unified kingdom.  What were they saying?  Their sense of solidarity under David’s rule was so strong that they refer to Genesis 2:23, when God makes a woman from the man and Adam exclaims, “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”  The tribal leaders of Israel are declaring their people to be one with this King who was chosen by God.

Our Psalm offers a snapshot of exactly this – all of the tribes in Jerusalem, flowing up to the temple together.  The people are rejoicing in each other as they feel the unity, and they rejoice at being together and in worshiping God as one community.  This is also an image of the heavenly Jerusalem, where for eternity we come to God, cleansed of our ideological differences, as one body in love.

From this we get powerful images that transcend culture and time. We are all one in God.  God walks closely with us; God is the source of all that is good.  Amazingly, God took David, an adulterer and murderer, a warrior and politician, and used his gifts to make a unified people out of twelve tribes which had fought among and against themselves.  We too, can be somewhat less than perfect, and still be God’s beloved people, in a mutually loving relationship, and our gifts can be used to bring peace and community from hatred and chaos.

But we cannot miss the image of warrior in this story, because that image led to the popular idea of the Messiah, or Christ, as a military leader, a King like David, who subdued all of Israel’s enemies.  The people of Jesus’ time were more than willing to believe that the Messiah would destroy the Roman armies that oppressed them, and would bring peace to Israel once more.  As a result, the Romans took no chances with this “so-called” Messiah.  The sign, “This is the King of the Jews” makes the crime against Roman power clear.  It is the lowest of mean-spirited domination to use the title of “King” in this way.  The crucifixion of Christ offers an opportunity for the rulers, the soldiers, and the thieves to mock Jesus, this man who apparently will do nothing to save his own life.

But love that is willing to suffer is greater than the power to dominate.   Jesus is indeed a King, but his reign does not end at the temporal limits of one place or time.  He tells the thief who defends him, that “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

What is it with that “today” thing? It is a term Luke uses to announce a significant and almost breathtaking change.  While not necessarily some measure of time, it marks an event has begun a new day in our lives.  At the nativity story in Luke 2:11, the angel tells the shepherds that “Today a savior is born; he is Christ the Lord.  In the synagogue of Nazareth in Luke 4:21, Jesus reads from Isaiah 61 that he has been anointed to preach, proclaim, recover, and release, and says, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing”.  In Luke 19:9, Jesus says of Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house…for the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”  Suddenly, the Kingdom of God has broken through and the unexpected, the unimaginable has happened, “Today,” St Paul would say in Colossians, “(We were) delivered from the power of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

And so, an entirely new image of “king” has entered our lives. It is the reversal of all that we may have been thinking.  He is the king who serves us, not the mighty monarch we cower before.  He is the king who died at human hands, so that we can join him in eternity, not the warrior who sends us out to fight his battles.  He does not have an army.  He has no need to protect himself, but he shields us.  He forgives those who offend his laws; he does not punish but restores.   He does not tax, but invites us to his banquet.  He is ridiculed, scorned, mocked, and appears politically powerless, yet he performs miracles and leans his ear to the softest whispering of a prayer.  This is a King who has no need of violence or vengeance, no use for envy or lust or desire, yet he controls the wind and the waves.  This King is innocent of any sin, yet knows all of our follies, loving us while we are at our worst.  This King needs no riches, furs or purple robes, but is himself the source of all beauty.

In the end, we call Jesus “King” because our vocabularies do not yet know the fullness of his Glory. The Title “King” tells us more of what he is not than what he is.  But he gave us a concrete gift that we hold dear.  Jesus left us the gift of the Eucharist, where we draw together, like King David’s people, where we can be joyful as we recall his life and teachings, his death and triumphant resurrection, where we know we are one with the body and blood of our Christ, and will be forever.