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Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Lectionary Scriptures:
Ash Wednesday:  Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 OR Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 51:1-17, II Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
First Sunday in Lent: Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7, Psalm 32:1-11, Romans 5:12-19, Matthew 4:1-11

I’m writing this on Ash Wednesday.  I’ve listed the lectionary scriptures for today and for the coming Sunday (the first Sunday in Lent).  We had both sets of readings before us at our weekly breakfast discussion yesterday morning.

In our discussions we frequently note that our old ways of understanding some scriptures and doctrines don’t work very well any more (if at all).  We haven’t worked our way to adequate new understandings.  Most of us are not willing to just throw the scriptures out, so we sort of muddle along at times.  Sometimes we even find God in the middle of the muddling.  We are buoyed up by a spirit of supportive love in our relationships with one another, sensing that that spirit of Love comes from a creative force at work around and within us.

Many of us have dabbled in the published attempts of others to find new interpretations that have meaning for us where we are today.  I, at least, haven’t done enough of that.  My attempt to find new forms for interpreting old truths is still a work in progress.

At least two or three of those troubling doctrines are present in this week’s lectionary readings---sin, in particular “original sin,” which one cannot discuss without getting into without talking about repentance and forgiveness, and the meaning of Jesus’ death on a cross.  These are topics that often define the meaning of the season of Lent.

The reading from Genesis is the story of the serpent in the Garden of Eden feeding Adam and Eve’s desire “to be like God, knowing good and evil.”  (Genesis 3:1-5)  The story is, of course, a myth, i.e., a story told to explain the origin of something or an underlying truth of life.  For many, this story has been used as an explanation of the bad choices all of us make at one time or another.  It’s the way we are as human beings.  We are born sinful.

Some rebel against that interpretation, suggesting that we are born inherently good, or at least a blank slate on which good and evil have not yet been written.  Whatever myth one uses for explanation, my experience is that we (myself included) are capable of both great good and great evil.  One only has to look at events in Ukraine or Syria or Israel and Palestine to see some of the things humans do to one another.

The Genesis story, of course, can also be seen as a myth of choice.  Some have read it as a coming of age story.  At the very beginning of our religious story is a God who leaves us free to choose---for better or worse.  It also can be read as a story about our headstrong willfulness---wishing to pursue whatever we want without restraint.  When someone tells us something is forbidden, we may take that as in challenge.  It now becomes something we most certainly must do.  Notice the instruction in Psalm 32:9---“Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you.”

So, the Genesis story need not be about “original sin,” but we do have a reading from Psalm 51 in which the Psalmist says, “I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.”  (Psalm 51:5)  For many of us, Psalm 51 has been a Psalm of beauty and assurance, a Psalm of forgiveness.  “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin . . . Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”  (vss. 2 & 10)  What sounds almost like wallowing in sin, however, now tends to turn some of us off.  “ . . . my sin is ever before me . . . let the bones that you have crushed rejoice . . . Do not cast me away from your presence . . .”  (vss. 3, 8, & 11)  It does probably express where David was after the prophet Nathan called him to account for his treatment of Bathsheba and her husband.  Some of us have certainly had occasion to wallow, to feel deep regret for things we have done.

The reading from Romans places Jesus’ life and death in the context of the Genesis story, with Adam being the source of sin and death and Jesus being the source of grace and life.  “For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift of the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many . . . just as one man’s trespass led to the condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.”  (Romans 5:15 & 19)

Some of us refuse to allow our understanding of Jesus to be limited by this lens.  Marcus Borg’s book, Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power – And How They Can Be Restored, has been popular in our congregation.  He sees himself on a mission to redeem the deeper meanings of frequently used Christian words and doctrines.  His work is so multi-layered that anything I say here is apt to be selective and not adequately representative.  Here’s some food for thought, though, that moves us beyond the simple language of sin and forgiveness that has dominated so much of Christian talk.  Each is a quote from Borg.

“Christian language and liturgy need to speak not just about sins in the plural and our need for forgiveness.  They also need to speak about sin as a power that holds us in bondage.  They need to speak about Pharaohs who rule our lives, the Babylon in which we live as exiles, the self-concern that dominates us, the blindness and limited vision that is the natural product of growing up in a particular time and place.  They need to speak about the ways we have wounded and been wounded and our need for transformation and healing . . . Sin matters.  But when it and the need for forgiveness become the dominant issue in our life with God, it reduces and impoverishes the wisdom and passion of the Bible and the Christian tradition.”

It’s interesting that the Gospel lesson for the first Sunday in Lent is Matthew’s account of Jesus’ temptation.  It can, of course, be seen against the backdrop of temptation in the Genesis story.  I wonder, however, whether it might be read as a political story, an account of Jesus’ internal struggle with the powers of his age, and a “myth” about our own struggles.  The sin to which he is tempted is writ large.  It does not focus upon petty private moral matters.  It is a confrontation involving the powers and values that will reign in God’s kingdom.

At heart, repentance and sacrifice and forgiveness are about the reign of love in all things.  Borg notes that the Greek roots of the word for repentance mean “to go beyond the mind that we have.”  “Sacrifice and love often go together.  People who sacrifice their lives most often do so because of a greater love . . . So . . . we can speak of Jesus sacrificing his life, being willing to die because of his love for others, without in any way implying that God required his death as a sacrifice so that we can be forgiven . . . Jesus sacrificed his life.  He offered it up as a gift to God---not because God required it, but because he was filled with God’s compassion for the kingdom of God---a different kind of world.”

In the Ash Wednesday reading from II Corinthians, Paul, in speaking of his own ministry highlights values which prevail over all hardship.  “ . . . as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God . . .” (II Corinthians 6:4-7)

Borg connects his insights specifically with the season of Lent.  He talks about dying “to an old identity and way of being and to be born into a new identity and way of being.  The death and resurrection of Jesus embody the path of personal transformation.  This,” Borg says, “is also one of the core meanings of the season of Lent: to journey with Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem, the place of death and resurrection---of transformation.”

Other lectionary selections offer perspectives on the season of Lent.  It is a season with a dark side, even as we’ve just come through the Epiphany season of light.  Jesus turns his face toward the threat of death that awaits him in Jerusalem.  Joel speaks of “a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!”  (Joel 2:2)  Without getting into the threats to God’s people in Joel’s day, Lent can be seen as a season when we are called upon to face up to and face down the darkness at work in our individual lives and congregations as well as in the political machinations of this world.

Isaiah 58 and the Gospel lesson for Ash Wednesday, speak of fasting, a ritual observed by some during Lent.  The fasting that God wants is “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undue the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? . . . if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom will be like noonday.”  (Isaiah 58:6-7 & 10)  Now there’s an agenda for Lent.

At the same time, Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, talks about doing all this things, fasting, praying, giving alms, in secret---not just for show after the manner of “hypocrites.”  (Matthew 6:1-6 & 16-18)  The punch line, however, in this section of the Sermon of the Mount, and perhaps for Lent, comes in verse 21.  Verses 19-20 have contrasted storing up earthly treasures with the treasure of things that last.  “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Perhaps Lent can be a time to ask where our treasures are.  Perhaps it can be a time to face the darkness in ourselves and our world, to find ways to take old truths and experience them anew so that we are able to live according to values that are a challenge to the dominating powers of this world!

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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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