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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Lectionary Scriptures:  Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31, Psalm 8:1-9, Romans 5:1-5, John 16:12-15

What’s a human life worth?  A human life is worth crying over.  I’m talking now especially about those who die in tragedies, shootings, wars, accidents.  Those who die of natural causes after a long and productive life are also worthy crying over, of course.  Even those who die after a life of dissipation or rebellion or destructiveness.  Maybe they are among the saddest cases.  The living are of infinite worth too, but for now my being weeps over the hurricanes, school and mall shootings, bombings by terrorists, those with warped minds, and those engaged in tribal warfare and battles over territory and rights.

I’ve had too much of it.   I want to scream---to shake my fist at God and say, “NO MORE!”  I want to lock all those who engage in terror into a room and go in and shout at them.  Of course I can’t do that when it’s a hurricane we’re talking about.  Well, maybe I could scream at those who cut corners so there were no safe places to hide.  I know also that screaming just escalates the situation, that somehow the healing ointment of love needs to be poured on the waters so that new relationships and patterns can emerge from a soothing and calm atmosphere.

But I still feel like screaming!  My psyche is overwhelmed.  And my wife Margie, who’s more emotionally sensitive and responsive than I, can hardly watch the TV anymore without exclaiming and moaning.

Someone always pops up when the question, “What’s a human life worth?” is asked and gives a dollar figure based on the chemical makeup of the human body.  I don’t even have gold fillings any more so I guess the value of my body has depreciated.

I’m asking a deeper question, a spiritual and philosophical question, an existential question.  The lectionary reminds me that it is Trinity Sunday and that I should be writing about the texts for that day.  American culture reminds me that it is the weekend on which we celebrate Memorial Day and I should be writing about the dead (especially veterans) who lie in our nation’s cemeteries.  I don’t know that I’m going to do either head on, although I’ll try to work a little with the lectionary readings.  I rarely, perhaps to a fault, set aside the lectionary for the events of the day, although often I find some connections.  This week I wondered how many of those in Moore, Oklahoma would find comfort and strength in puzzling over the mysterious and complex issues of attempted explanations of the Trinity.

Many have commented on the fact that there are no words or explanations that have much significance in the face of the kind of events we have experienced in recent times (and, for that matter, throughout history---remember the Holocaust?), and then they usually go on to add their words to the babble that arises in such times.  I’ll probably do a little of the same.

One of the clichés often lifted up as a sign of hope speaks of the caring responses that arise when tragedies occur.  Local people reach out to help one another and to put arms around those who need the comfort of a heartfelt embrace.  Emergency responders push the limits of endurance and reasonable risk.  Medical teams, construction teams, and others pour in from around the country.  There’s a lot of compassion in the human spirit and that’s worth something.  People of faith see it as God-given---maybe even as part of what it means to be created in the image of God.  I, too, find hope in that, but I pause when I think of the destruction that also arises from the human psyche and political machinery at times.  That’s a question for another time, also unanswerable.

I also want to mention my observation of the number of people, particularly in the recent Oklahoma devastation, who talk about praying, about coming through things all right (even if they have suffered massive losses).  The political leaders, when asked what is needed, almost always put prayer at the top of the list.  (Again, I cringe every time someone talks about God rescuing them when I know there were others who were gruesomely killed.  We’re so quick with answers when events defy and offend any reasonable mind or explanation.)

I still find comfort, however, in that human spirit which reaches out to comfort and help.  Compassion may be the highest of human instincts.  I also have heard more than one person say that all the possessions they have lost are nothing compared to a child of theirs that has survived (or not survived).  We’re back to the question of what a human life is worth.  We may chase after beautiful homes and powerful automobiles and the latest in electronic devices, but there are moments when we realize that all that is just vanity (to use a word from Ecclesiastes) compared with the deeper meanings of life, of each individual human life in particular.  There’s something very “Christian” and spiritual about that.  At our best we know that the significance of life is far more than our possessions.

At least three of this week’s lectionary passages connect with one or more of the “persons” of the Trinity.  They offer neither explanation nor developed doctrine.  That’s no surprise because “trinity” is not a biblical word.  It’s a doctrine that arose later in the life of the early church.  We talked a little about that doctrine at our lectionary breakfast this week, and I (who am preaching this week) will say a little more on Sunday.  All I’m going to say about the Trinity here is in a few comments on those three readings.

In Proverbs the Spirit (what we call the Holy Spirit) is given a name:  “wisdom.”  Wisdom, a feminine voice, speaks.  (Proverbs 8:1)  “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.  Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth . . . When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep . . . then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human raced.”  (vss. 22, 27, & 30-31)  Some will remember that the New Testament speaks of Jesus as being present at the creation also.  Whatever the significance of the various manifestations of divine reality, they are not just passing historical phenomenon appearing in a sequence.  Whatever God is God’s creative and loving nature is from eternity to eternity.

Romans 5 uses language that makes both Jesus and the Holy Spirit instruments of God’s peace and love.  “ . . . we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ . . . God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given us.”  (Romans 5:1 & 5)  This is no developed doctrine of the Trinity, but the reading does include words that some might want to apply to the many tragedies that beset us.  I offer them not as words of comfort or causal sequence, but as words to ponder when we have faced near despair in our loss and suffering.  “: . . . suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hopes does not disappoint us . . .”  (vss. 3-5)

The few verses from the Gospel According to John talk about the Spirit, but they come in a section
which has Jesus repeatedly declaring, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.”  (John 14:11, among other places)  In John 14:20, he speaks of a day when we will know that “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”  Now he describes the Holy Spirit (“the Spirit of truth”---John 16:13) as taking “what is mine” and declaring “it to you.  All that the Father has is mine.  For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”  (vss. 14-15)    Earlier he has said of the Spirit, “ . . . he abides with you, and he will be in you.”  (John 14:17)  Whatever difficulty some of us may have with these as literal lengthy speeches by Jesus, they depict a unifying presence (the Spirit of truth) that inhabits the Father (God), Jesus (God Incarnate)---and us.  There’s something to chew on if you want to wrestle with a doctrine of the Holy Spirit!

That leaves us with the reading from the eighth Psalm, which takes us back to the question of human worth.  It’s not exactly a scripture from which to begin a discussion of the Trinity, but I do see it as connecting with God as seen in human form.  It’s not just Jesus, but each one of us as well, who are, in some way God incarnate.  Here’s what the Psalmist has to say:  “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?  Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.”  (Psalm 8:3-5)  Earlier translators apparently couldn’t entertain such thoughts and put us a little lower than angels.  From the very beginning we are told that human beings are made in the image or likeness of God.  (Genesis 1:26)  It is not just that we are “a little lower than God”; it is that we partake, in some mysterious way, of God’s very being.  We are part of the way in which the Trinity expresses itself.  How much is a human life worth?  It is worth so much that God invested God’s very life into humanity by taking on flesh in Jesus and by creating us in the divine image.  Sounds to me like worth beyond measure, worth that stretches our mind beyond comprehension.

When tragedy strikes, when human beings are struck down, it is God’s image that suffers and dies in each human life.  It happened once on a cross, and it happens again and again.  We can argue about the different levels and meanings in each instance, but we can’t look, and truly see, without seeing God.  

The Gospels record that when Jesus died, his mother and other women looked on.  I’m sure there was weeping.  Luke 23:48 says, “ . . . when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts.”  What is a human life worth?  It’s worth crying over.  Every person---the ones who died in tragedies or on the battlefield, those of our family and others who have gone on before us and lie in the cemeteries of the world, and those still alive around us---was/is created in the image of God, “a little lower than God.”  Tragedies may call us to remember that, but every day as we walk among the living, there is opportunity to remember and live this truth.

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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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