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Thursday, June 23, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Genesis 22:1-14, Psalm 13:1-6, Jeremiah 28:5-9, Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18, Romans 16:12-13, Matthew 10:40-42

This week’s readings call us to consider the kind of God we worship. The “Hanging in There” title assumes that we and God are in some kind of relationship. For those who have difficulty with the human descriptions we sometimes use to get at the deeper mysteries of God’s being, may I suggest that we are also dealing with a question about the kind of universe/cosmos with which we are in relationship. Is the “being” in which we live and move and exist friendly, supportive, and nurturing or threatening, challenging, dangerous, foreboding? Or, perhaps a mix of both?

So what about this “hanging in there”? The Bible calls it “covenant,” an agreement initiated by God in which God declares his unrelenting love for us and calls us to live as a beloved community. The Hebrew scriptures speak of God’s “steadfast love,” i.e., covenant-love. First, there is love behind the covenant that gives rise to the creation of the relationship. Then, there is the love which is faithful to the covenant. “I will love you because I said so, and I’m faithful to my word.”

That’s the “steadfast love” of the this week’s readings from the Psalms. “But I trusted in your steadfast love . . .” (Psalm 13:5) “I will sing of you steadfast love, O Lord, forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations. I declare that your steadfast love is established forever; your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens. You said, ‘I have made a covenant with my chosen one . . .” (Psalm 89:1-3)

Covenants set up a dynamic, however, that can lead to suspicion and accusation. If it seems like one party or the other is not living up to the contract, complaining is apt to begin. We see it in marriages, in business deals, in political campaigns, etc. Before the reference to the covenant in Psalm 13, we have the cries of an individual (or nation?) feeling abandoned. Where is that love you promised? “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me. How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” (Psalm 13:1-2) We get that way sometimes when things are not going well, don’t we?

Moving on in the consideration of “hanging in there,” we might ask is, “Is love about keeping score of wrongs?” That’s the phrasing The Good News Bible (Today’s English Version) uses in the last part of verse five in I Corinthians 13, the great love poem. “ . . . love does not keep a record of wrongs.” Some of us have been deeply affected by Paul’s discussion of Law and Grace. (“ . . . you are not under law but under grace.” - Romans 6:14) Unfortunately for some things took a turn which made the Old Covenant (and Old Testament) all about “law” without grace and the New Covenant (and New Testament) all about grace without “law,” so that two different ages of God’s activity were defined as “law” and “grace.”

Grace, for Paul, is that unconditional love that gives rise to the covenant. God loves us not because we obey a set of laws but because it is God’s nature. The love is free, unearned. While I don’t see these understandings of God as exclusive to either testament, i.e., both are present in both testaments, they call us to another way of examining God’s hanging in with us and our hanging in with God. As is often the case, Paul uses images we may find confusing and dated—in this case “slavery.” He’s using this human analogy he says, “because of you natural limitations.” (Romans 6:19) On the surface, it sounds as if following Christ is simply exchanging one slavery for another. We were once “slaves” of sin” (vs. 17) but are now “slaves of righteousness” (vs. 18). I don’t find the analogy very useful in interpreting my experience. I do find it useful to make a comparison between experiencing right living as a heavy burden in response to rigid laws and expectations, and experiencing right living as a response to unconditional acceptance and love which encourages and enables and empowers the best in me.

Paul (playfully?) asks if being under grace means we should go ahead sinning since it seems to make no difference. (vs. 14) At the beginning of the chapter he has asked it more sharply. “Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?” (vs. 1) In both cases the answer is “No. (Paul’s words: “By no means!”) It’s easy to let Paul’s logic and analogy set our heads spinning. I’m content to believe that I live and move and have my being in a loving reality which affirms and calls forth the gifts which have been implanted in me and enables me to commit myself to right living (although I always do so imperfectly and am even, at times, rebellious). I refuse to believe that the universe wants to beat me over the head with a set of rules until I cringe in fear, obeying reluctantly and resentfully. However he expresses it, I believed that is the God whom Paul would point us toward as well, and the God whose Way is demonstrated by Jesus and known in following him.

If Paul can be complex, we have two texts this week that simplify God’s agenda for us. The reading from Jeremiah talks about prophets who “preceded you and me from ancient times” prophesying “war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms.” (Jeremiah 28:8) They are prophets who arouse a spirit of fear. In the next verse, Jeremiah speaks of another kind of prophet, one “who prophesies peace.” “ . . . when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.” (vs. 9) The spirit of the Lord is not a spirit of fear but a spirit of peace.

The brief gospel lesson from Matthew defines our hanging in with God as a matter of welcoming him and his prophets and giving a cup of cold water to one of the little ones. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” (Matthew 10:40) We do not need to live in constant fear of falling short. “ . . . whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” (vs. 42) I’m not sure I can hang in there with a God who constantly showers me with hellfire and damnation. I’m pretty sure I can’t, but this God of peace, with a welcoming spirit, who notices when I give a cup of cold water to someone who is thirsty, I kind of enjoy hanging out with that God.

Now the God in the Genesis reading is another matter! God appears to put Abraham to the test, asking him offer his son, Isaac, as a burnt offering. (Genesis 22:1-2) I can remember from the earliest times I heard this story that I found it offensive—and scary. Was I in danger of being offered as a sacrifice? In fact, the whole “sacrifice” theology used to interpret God’s giving of his only son has, in recent years, come under attack as making God into a child-abuser. The parallels between that theology and this story seem evident.

The purpose of the story is just the opposite of what it might seem on the surface. In the end, good provides a ram for sacrifice. (vs. 13) It is a declaration (if, in the opinion of some, a fairly poor one) that, in contrast to some other religions of the day, our God is not a God who requires child sacrifice. God provides what is needed. It is a step ahead, if somewhat stumbling, in understanding what it means to hang in with this God. I don’t like what comes across as God toying with Abraham. If you’re not going to require child sacrifice, why go through this charade? The punch line of the story comes when Abraham names the place, “The Lord will provide;” the verse continuing with this observation: “ . . . as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” (vs. 14) They are words of comfort for those facing all kinds of challenges and disappointments, words to encourage those Jews who were in exile, even, perhaps, to those who see their children being wasted in war. I do not worship a God who metes out torture in any form. The provision is not always immediate and evident, but I can entrust myself only to a God who promises to provide.

So why such a clumsy story? A reason which struck me this time around (not necessarily primary in the writer’s mind) is the power of father and son relationships. Last Sunday’s celebration of Father’s Day is a reminder of those ties. Stories that test father and son ties touch the human heart deeply. That’s why we react to this story so strongly. The biblical writers know that if you want to pluck the strings of the human heart you dig into his (or her) commitments to family (both for good or ill). These are relationships which can be abused or can nurture great goodness. They are relationships in which our deepest humanity is called forth. “Father” (or “Daddy”) even becomes a way of addressing God. A story like this is a reminder that the intensity of the relationship God wants to have with us rivals that of family. Even Jesus took note of that fact. I hang in with God because God is family and one hangs in with family even when the going gets rough.

So, this week let us ask ourselves what understandings have been shaped in our experience of God. What does it mean for us to hang in with God? My hope is that we hang in there not out of cringing legalism and fear but out of the compelling attractive acceptance and inclusion of grace.
And again, if you have trouble using such graphic human imagery, just ask why it is that we hang in there at all. What is the nature of this cosmos that has conceived and sustains us? With all the bumps along the way, I’ve learned to trust it.

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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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