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Tuesday, September 23, 2014
2:33 PM | Posted by Rick Skidmore |
Lectionary Scriptures: Exodus 17:1-7 AND Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16 OR Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 AND Psalm 25:1-9, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32
Scripture reading, for me, is not always a straightforward process. My mind makes all kinds of unexpected connections that may or may not be there for others, nor are they necessarily there in the intent of the writer. Those connections, often influenced by some other reading I’ve been doing, are what you sometimes get in this space.
This week my mind was reminded that we’re often left with as many questions as answers in our reading of scripture and our theological ruminations. Last week I noted that biblical answers often are shrouded in a bit of mystery. What is God’s name? “I Am Who I Am” or “I will be who I will be.” Not exactly precise and definitive. The name given this food in the wilderness, Manna, is a question. “What is it?” This week when Jesus is asked about the source of his authority, he turns the question back on his questioners in such a way that they end up responding, “We do not know.” Jesus then says, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” (Matthew 21:23-27)
My wife and I have been reading a book by Rachel Held Evans. The title is Faith Unraveled: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask Questions. I have learned that faith is as much about questions as it is about answers. A curriculum used in some progressive churches is called Living the Questions. I’ve been blessed with a high tolerance for living with unanswered questions. I know that is extremely difficult for some. Why can’t we just have clear and simple answers so that everything makes sense?
It may well be that there is a lot more fuzziness in life than we want to admit. Many are familiar with the derogatory political use of the term, “Fuzzy Math,” but how many of us know that there is a formal and respectable area of study called, “Fuzzy Mathematics”? The same holds for “Fuzzy Logic.” My current venture in mind-stretching reading has been Brian Greene’s "The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality.” Brian Greene is a physicist at Columbia University, a leading expert on quantum physics and string theory. In this book he uses the word “fuzzy” at least 24 times. I’ve not gained enough understanding to begin to try to explain such uses of “fuzzy,” the very use of the word suggesting that clarity is not fully possible. Here’s an example from Greene’s book: “ . . . quantum mechanics makes things jittery and turbulent,” he says, going on to speak of a field that “will undulate up and down at this or that speed,” its “value” undergoing “a frenzied, fuzzy, random jitter.” And we thought scientists had it all figured it out!
One of the questions that continues to come up in our breakfast discussions centers on one of the slogans of the United Church of Christ: “God Is Still Speaking” Our question: Where and how is God still speaking? Or How do we know what God is saying? I can’t give a final answer that does not include some fuzziness, and I’d be a bit afraid of anyone who thought he or she had the final word on the matter. People claiming to be guided by an exact knowledge of that God is saying are often much to be feared.
This week’s lectionary readings, however, set my mind to thinking about that question again. I see some clues, probably a bit fuzzy.
Exodus 17 gives us another story about complaints in the wilderness, this time about water instead of food. (vss. 1-3) God directs Moses to strike a rock in the presence of the elders. Water comes out of it and the people’s thirst is quenched. (vss. 5-6) It seems like a miracle but perhaps the rock simply marked a place where water was available. Maybe God guided Moses' eye so that he noticed it, much like seems to have happened in the story of the burning bush. The result is taken to be a sign of God’s presence. “He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’” (vs. 7)
Is it too much to suggest that an important step in hearing God still speaking is to pay attention, watch for the unexpected, see signs in the rocks and streams around us? Maybe, but I can live with being surprised by that kind of fuzziness.
The reading from Psalm 78 tells the same story in more poetic form. “He split rocks open in the wilderness, and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep. He made streams come out of the rock, and caused waters to flow down like rivers.” (vss. 15-16)
The reading from Ezekiel represents a move beyond the sins of the fathers being visited upon a thousand generations. Here we are now in exile, in a foreign land, without the temple. We’re beginning to see that our relationship with God is something within, beyond all the familiar rituals. Each person is responsible for his or her own relationship with God. (Ezekiel 18:2-4) Granted there are images of death as punishment for sin that we find hard to digest (vss. 26-27), but there is also God’s declaration, “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone.” (vs. 32)
Toward the end of the reading we find a call that surfaces more than once in the book of Ezekiel. “ . . . get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!” (vs. 31) Is this perhaps part of what it takes to hear God still speaking? It requires a new way of viewing reality. It requires paying attention from a new center. Can we then see the value of every life? “Know that all lives are mine,” God says in vs. 4. If we pay attention to the lives of those around us, perhaps we will hear God speaking and can, “Turn, then, and live.” (vs. 32) It’s all a bit fuzzy, but maybe it’s the kind of fuzziness through which God works.
I believe Paul, in the reading from Philippians, is making a similar point when he instructs his readers to “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 2:5) Now there’s a lofty ideal. View and experience life through the mind of Jesus. Relate to one another in the humble manner of service you see in him. Our breakfast discussion wondered whether humility required a poor self-image. (See vss. 3-4) Humility is seen here more as a contrast to selfishness and is fleshed out with the example of Jesus, whose faithfulness to his commitments led him to a cross. (vss. 5-8) The passage ends with the declaration that “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (vs. 13) When we see God at work in acts of humility and service, we may well be witnessing God in the act of still speaking. Trying to discern where that is happening can, at times, be a bit fuzzy, but paying attention to the work of humble service to others can give us new insights into God’s ways.
There was a wonderful retired school teacher in one of the congregations I served. I called her “my warm fuzzy.” Her presence always stirred up embers of faith in me that were on the way to losing their glow. When I talk about “fuzzy theology,” I’m not always talking about that kind of “warm fuzzy.” God may be speaking in the midst of conflict, in moments when we are challenged by injustice, by daily headlines, etc. In all cases, we need to pay attention, on the lookout for a thirst-quenching word, or experience, in the wilderness.
Beyond the question of authority in the Gospel reading is a parable about two sons. One says he will do the job he is given; the other declines. The one who agreed to go does not; the one who declined ends up going and doing the work. (Matthew 21:28-30) The context is not unlike that in last week’s parable---the issue of the inclusion of the Gentiles. Jesus asks, “Which of the two did the will of the father?” (vs. 31) The point in almost any context is that actions speak louder than words. In this case, even tax collectors and prostitutes are included. (vss. 31-32) The parable underscores the focus of the Philippian reading. Pay attention to what people are doing, how they are relating to one another, if you want to hear God speaking.
Perhaps the reading from Psalm 25 sums up this attitude of attentiveness, a prayer for the kind of heart and spirit that allows us to hear God speaking through the fuzziness of everyday life. We don’t have all the answers, but we can live with the questions, daily seeking God’s leading and steadfast love.
“To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul . . . Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me . . . Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love . . . Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, Lord! . . . God leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.” (vss.1, 4-7, 9)
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Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.
Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.
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