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Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121:1-8, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17 OR Matthew 17:1-9

We human beings are prone to keeping score. We play games and revel when our score is higher than that of our opponent. We count nuclear stockpiles and body bags to see which nations are the mightiest. We imagine God spying on our activities and keeping score. Scores are a way of measuring our worth, we imagine, so God must keep score. How else can we know who gets into heaven or who is valued and loved by the Almighty?

Thirty years or so ago I took a sabbatical at Pendle Hill, a Quaker study and retreat center in Wallingford, Pennsylvania. Among those in residence during my three month stay was a Roman Catholic sister who became a table tennis companion. We refused to keep score during our daily games of ping pong. We played as long as we were having fun and had no idea who won or lost. To many it seemed to be taking things a bit too far. Maybe it seems so to you.

And what does it have to do with the lectionary readings for this coming Sunday? The various lessons are a reminder, for me, that I don’t believe in a God who keeps score.

The short reading from Genesis is one of the accounts of God’s “covenant” with Abraham. A covenant is an agreement between two parties. Those who are part of the Judeo-Christian tradition have a history which includes several agreements between God and God’s people. The covenant with Abraham is a promise that he (Abraham) will be the father of a great nation, a nation whose people will be blessed. (Genesis 12:2)

This promise is one which gives rise to the notion of a “chosen people” and a “promised land,” ideas whose influence has reached beyond Hebrew and Israelite history. They were applied by some of the founders of our country to America, and, in the Middle East, they continue to be part of the debate. Some talk about American “exceptionalism,” and many have a sense of “entitlement” about various benefits. We are a special people and deserve special treatment. I suspect many readers of this blog find such thinking troublesome. I know I do.

It can be tempered a little if one notices that the blessing is something to be passed on. “I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing . . . in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (vss. 2-3) Unfortunately, that can be interpreted as what some have called “manifest destiny.” Of all the nations on earth, we are blessed, so it is our job to go out and save everybody else. We are superior and we must bring those who are inferior up to our standards. I doubt that there’s much peace in that direction, yet we’re still out there thinking we can solve the problems of every nation in the world, when the truth is that we don’t always do a great job of managing our own affairs.

The epistle reading from Romans looks at the Abraham story and puts it into a whole new context. The readers of this epistle may have had a tendency to think they could earn their way into God’s good graces, that if they just did the right things they would “deserve” God’s love and rewards. Paul reminds them that this was not the case with Abraham. God didn’t bless Abraham because he deserved it. Paul may have been remembering God’s declaration to his people in Deuteronomy 7:8 that they were chosen simply because of divine love not because of merit.

Many in all ages keep score using a set of rules or laws. The people in biblical times were no exception. How well you kept the Law was often taken to be a measure of your worth before God and one another. Abraham, however, lived before the Law was codified, before Moses went up to the mountain and received the tablets of stone. The blessing he received, Paul says, cannot be based on that scoreboard. The only thing Abraham did was trust and have faith and step out on the basis of a promise. He believed. (Romans 4:2-5) God is not a scorekeeper. God is a lover.

If the reading from Romans reminds us that we can’t keep score on the basis of our good deeds and obedience to a set of rules, the Gospel reading from John suggests that neither can we keep score on the basis of how well we understand.

The writer of this Gospel tells the story of Nicodemus a man of stature and intellect. He probably feels that it could be damaging to his reputation to be seen consulting with Jesus, so he comes at night. (John 3:1-2) His encounter with Jesus includes two verses that are frequently quoted. The phrase “born again” comes from the King James translation of verse 3, more appropriately translated in the New Revised Standard Version as “being born from above.” Since I don’t intend to focus on that in this blog, it is sufficient to say that I believe (and not I alone) that it refers to being born into a new way of looking at things, dying to and/or expanding the limited outlook we often bring to the affairs of this world.

The encounter ends with the oft-quoted words, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (vs. 16) Many might see this as the focus of the passage, and perhaps it is, although some see it as a later addition. Whatever its place in the scheme of things, verse seventeen needs to be read along with it, for too often those who quote John 3:16 use it as a threatening weapon, forgetting the words, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the word, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (vs. 17)

When I read the entire passage, I notice how much of it is about “understanding.” The notion of being “born again” blew Nicodemus’ mind; it offended his intellect; he did not understand. (vs. 4) He asks, in verse 9, “How can these things be?” Jesus answers with a question, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”

I suggest that a key verse is verse eight: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” What a blow to this man who was proud of his intellect! Jesus reminds him that at the center of faith is a great mystery, something we can’t quite get our minds around. If we can’t earn our way into heaven by good works, neither can we capture God’s Spirit in a cute phrase or sound bite. We can’t ace a test and come out at the top of the class assured that we are one of God’s favorites. What God has for us is simply blowing in the wind, and in that wind, I believe, is love beyond measure, so great that there isn’t room for it on the largest scoreboard in the world.

The alternative Gospel lesson is the same one used two weeks ago on Transfiguration Sunday, so I won’t comment further on it.

Applying the notion of scorekeeping to the Psalm, I see the suggestion that we not rely on how many points we have scored, or can score, to assure that we have a place in life. Instead we need to remember that our “help comes from the Lord . . . The Lord is our keeper . . . he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.” (Psalm 121;2, 5, 7-8)


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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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