Lent 3A: Thirsting Anew

03-19-2017-Lent 3AOLD TESTAMENT:  Exodus 17: 1-7

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, click here

The Book of Exodus stands at the center of Israel’s faith tradition, primarily because so much of it is about the Exodus, itself.  The Book of Exodus begins the work of Moses.  The Book carries themes such as liberation, law, and covenant.  As to the arrangement of the Book of Exodus itself, the first 15 or so chapters are essentially a narrative about liberation.  (Essentially the deliverance of the Hebrews…the “Let My People Go” theme.).  Then beginning mid-way through Chapter 15, the tone shifts to the question of “Is the Lord Among Us or Not?” Following that is the charter of the holy nation, the pattern of the tabernacle, and then sections on sin and restoration and Israel’s obedient work.

The passage that we read is set in this second section and is part of what is sort of a “wilderness journey”.  Here, Israel’s life in the wilderness is very precarious.  There is no water to drink, no resources for living, and (easily) they begin to doubt God’s existence.  They think that God has deserted them.  Here they had done exactly what God had said and now it seemed that they were being left to die in the desert.  They complain to Moses, but Moses cannot make water.  He does not want to be blamed.  You know that Moses probably just wanted to run away, to get away from all of the complaining.  He also reprimands the Israelites for criticizing him and for testing Yahweh.  In essence, it seems that he, if only for a moment, equates his own leadership with that of God.

The second exchange includes God and produces a life-giving outcome that Moses could not produce alone.  The problem was solved!  In verse 7, the names given to this place mean “test” (Massah) and “quarrel” (Meribah).  The narrator turns the problem back toward the people.  In essence it becomes a story of “unfaith”.  What got in the way was not God’s lack of response but, rather, the Israelites lack of trust of God.  This story of “unfaith” sort of critiques that view of religion that judges God by whatever outcome the asking community received.  God does not reward and punish people based on whether or not they deserve it.

Now, in Israel’s defense, this was true thirst.  In this passage, I don’t think “thirst” implies a metaphorical spiritual thirst.  They needed water.  This story is set in the wilderness.  It’s hard for us to imagine true wilderness—no resources, no direction, nothing to sustain us.  And the desert must be the wilderness of all wildernesses.  Without trees, there is no way to gauge where you are or how far you’ve come.  Any shadow or dark spot is worthy of suspicion as something of which you must be aware.  And rather than the path being hard to see or hard to tread, it is continually changed by the winds and sands.  And yet, wilderness is over and over again the setting through which people find their faith.

Implicit in this story is an account of egos being tripped up—both for Moses and his followers.  The Israelites thought they deserved something better.  They thought that if they followed God and did what they were called to do, God would reward them.  They didn’t have the faith to know that God was with them.  They wanted it NOW.  And for Moses, he fell into the trap of thinking that he was doing everything right, that the people should just shut up and listen to him.  He forgot that he was instrument of God.

The image of thirsting is profoundly human.  It is a deep human need.  But when our needs become more important than the source from which we came, then fears and panic set in.  Alexander Baillie says that “one needs to keep on thirsting because life grows and enlarges.  It has no end; it goes on and on; it becomes more beautiful…One cannot be satisfied until one…ever thirsts for God.”

This is considered one of those “murmuring” stories of the Old Testament.  We do the same thing.  Perhaps our complaining and our murmuring gets in the way of our hearing God.  Several years ago, I was sitting in a room at Lakewood UMC in North Houston listening to interviews of ministerial candidates.  It was apparently a children’s choir room.  There was a sign on the piano that said “Listen louder than you sing.” Now if you’ve ever sung in a choir, you know EXACTLY what this is saying.  (Shhh!  Listen, feel the energy that the choir holds, the music that we can only create together.)  But I think it fits great with this passage.  What would have been different if Moses had done that?  What would have been different if the Israelites had done that?  What would be different if we did that?  

  1. a.      What is your response to this passage?
  2. b.      In what ways are the Israelites a mirror image of our own lives today?
  3. c.       What is your image of the wilderness here?
  4. d.      What is your image of the “path” down which God leads us?
  5. e.       What does our thirst have to do with our faith and our relationship with God?

 NEW TESTAMENT:  Romans 5: 1-11

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

This section of Romans begins a section on what Paul called the “true humanity” of God’s people in Christ.  There begins more of a focus on the connection that humanity has through Christ, rather than focusing on Jesus himself.  Essentially it is about what follows once one is justified by faith.  For Paul, this is the “new Exodus”.

The passage that we read focuses on a new relationship of love on both sides—both humans and God.  So God’s justice has led to that perfect peace.  (Keep in mind that this “perfect peace” is set in the midst of Rome, where Augustus Caesar had established the Roman Pax, which sought to move in on the entire world.  It doesn’t mean the same for us, but Paul essentially takes the “motto of the day” and turns it toward belief in God’s coming peace.)  Paul focuses on this as a different kind of peace, one that places its hope in glory, but one that will include suffering as part of that larger hope.  Paul maintains that we should indeed celebrate this suffering.  He claims that suffering produces patience, which produces character.  Indeed, suffering deepens hope.  Like the passage from Exodus, this thought denies that idea of God having some sort of reward and punishment system.  Instead, God enters our suffering with us.  And being in a “right relationship” with God means that we embrace all that is God—even the God who stays in the midst of suffering.

Walter Brueggemann claims that “suffering produces hope”.  He points out that the Jewish community has memories of the exile, of deep and profound suffering and that Christians have the memory of the cross.  It means that we engage so deeply in the suffering of the past and the suffering of the present, that we imagine something new.  Thomas Merton says that “the Christian must not only accept suffering:  [the Christian] must make it holy.”  That is probably strange to most of us.  Suffering is bad; suffering is unwarranted; suffering is something that we all try to avoid.  And yet, suffering happens.   I don’t think it’s helpful to dismiss it as the “will of God”, as if God is somehow sitting off somewhere calculating who to inflict next.  God is not like that.  We all have needs.  We will all suffer.  And where is God?  There…the place God is…is in the midst of all of the suffering.  God walks with us through it, loving us and holding us, and gives us a glimpse of what is to come.  God, remember, was there, even on the cross.  If nothing else, the suffering in the world reveals the heart of God, reveals all this is holy.  Paul said it better:  suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character and character produces hope…God’s love poured into our hearts.  He was right.  It is a celebration.  Because, you see, when we suffer, when we hurt, when the comforts of our lives are even momentarily stripped away, we are capable of seeing hope.  We are capable of imagining something new. From the darkness, we are finally capable of seeing and knowing the Light.  Suffering changes our perspectives and reframes what comes next in our lives.  It once again reminds us what God has done and what God will do. And it gives us the ability, finally, to see things differently.

God is continually giving newness.  God is continually reframing every moment of our life until all of Creation has been brought about right.  God is continually giving us the opportunity to glimpse what lies ahead, to see beauty even before it exists.  Even in this season of Lent, when we are surrounded by reminders of suffering, we are given holy glimpses of what is ahead.  If you count the 40 days of Lent, they do not include Sundays.  The Sundays of Lent are known as “little Easters”, opportunities to glimpse and celebrate the Resurrection even in the midst of the darkness.  That is the cause for celebration about which Paul wrote.

  1. a.      What is your response to this passage?
  2. b.      What does that “perfect peace” look like for you?
  3. c.       What is your image of suffering and how it relates to hope?
  4. d.      What meaning does that hold for us during this Lenten season?

GOSPEL:  John 4: 5-26 (42)

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

In this passage, Jesus’ ministry enters a new stage.  He leaves the confines of traditional Judaism and turns to outsiders, those who his Jewish contemporaries would have rejected.  First on the list are the Samaritans.  The less than civil relationship between the Jews and the Samaritans dated back at least 1,000 years before the birth of Christ.  Both believed in God.  Both had a monotheistic understanding of the one true God, the YHWH of their shared tradition of belief.  But where the temple of YHWH for the Jews existed on MountZion in Jerusalem, the Samaritans instead worshipped God on MountGerizim near the ancient city of Shechem.  And with that, a new line of religious understanding was formed.  The Samaritans believed that their line of priests was the legitimate one, rather than the line in Jerusalem and they accepted only the Law of Moses as divinely inspired, without recognizing the writings of the prophets or the books of wisdom.   What started as a simple religious division, a different understanding of how God relates to us and we relate to God, eventually grew into a cultural and political conflict that would not go away.  The tension escalated and the hatred for the other was handed down for centuries from parent to child over and over again.

So, here is Jesus breaking all of the boundaries of traditional Judaism.  He, unescorted, speaks to a woman.  He speaks to a woman of questionable repute.  And he speaks to the enemy. The truth is, there is nothing about this woman that is wrong or sinful or anything else that we try to tack on her reputation.  This woman was just different.  Her life had been difficult.  She lived in darkness.  And the most astonishing thing is that this seemingly low-class woman who is a Samaritan becomes the witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Once again, the Gospel is found not in Jerusalem and notMt. Gerizim but in our shared existence as part of this “new humanity”.

Now, the woman does miss Jesus’ point.  She looks upon Jesus as some sort of miracle worker, rather than seeing that he offers a new way of being.  Even this story deals with suffering—the woman surely suffered.  Good grief, she was there by herself—couldn’t even face the crowd.  And Jesus—well Jesus was just thirsty.  We all have needs; we all have fears—that is the nature of our true humanity.  And maybe the story teaches us that from our need we will realize who God is.  This woman’s new life begins when she recognizes Jesus’ true identity.  Maybe that’s our problem.  We are still looking for the Jesus that will make our lives easier rather than the one who will give us new life. 

  1. a.      What is your response to this passage?
  2. b.      Where do you find yourself in this story?
  3. c.       Where is Jesus once again today placed behind those boundaries of respectable and ordered faith?
  4. d.      What Lenten message does this bring about for us?

  

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 Thou hast made us for Thyself, and we cannot find rest until we find it in Thee. (St. Augustine of Hippo)

Too many of us panic in the dark.  We don’t understand that it’s a holy dark and that the idea is to surrender to it and journey through to real light. (Sue Monk Kidd)

The spiritual life does not come cheap.  It is not a stroll down a Mary Poppins path with a candy-store God who gives sweets and miracles.  It is a walk into the dark with the God who is the light that leads us through darkness. (Joan Chittister, Called to Question: A Spiritual Memoir, p. 91)

Closing

O come, let us sing to the Most High, Creator of the Cosmos;  let us make a joyful song to the Beloved!  Let us come to the Radiant One with thanksgiving, with gratitude let us offer our psalms of praise!  For the Beloved is Infinite, the Breathing Life of all.  The depths of the earth belong to Love; the height of the mountains, as well.  The sea and all that is in it, the dry land and air above were created by Love.

O come, let us bow down and give thanks, let us be humble before the Blessed One!  For the Beloved is Supreme, and we, blessed to be invited to friendship as companion along the Way!  O that today we would harken to the Beloved’s voice!  Harden not your hearts, as in days of old, that you be not separated from Love.  Be not like those who hear the Word and heed it not, thinking to be above the Most High.  For life is but a breath in the Eternal Dance, a gift to be revered with trust, an opportunity to grow in spirit and truth, That in passing into new Life, you enter into the Heavenly City.  Amen. (“Psalm 95”, in Psalms for Praying:  An Invitation to Wholeness: An Invitation to Wholeness, Nan C. Merrill, p. 197-198)

Ascension: When We Become

ascension

Originally posted on May 25, 2014 on this blog.

FIRST LESSON:  Acts 1: 1-11

To read the first lesson from this week’s Lectionary, click here

This passage begins with the first major issue:  Who will do it now?  Who will restore the Kingdom of Israel and restore God’s Kingdom?  But there is an underlying clear assumption that what Jesus began his successors will continue.  The assumption has nothing to do with duty or responsibility, but with sincere devotion to the truth that Jesus conveyed and the deepest desire for that truth to continue being spread throughout the world.  This assumption plays heavily into the way that the Book of Acts is constructed.  It has to do with the way the church and the people of the church pattern their lives after the life of Jesus Christ.

The phrases “through the Holy Spirit” and “the apostles whom Jesus had chosen” introduce that continuity and also introduces a partnership, a community if you will, that is being formed.  The Book of Acts begins with the assumption that the reader is already familiar with the Gospel of Christ and with Christ’s Passion, death, and Resurrection.  The Resurrection of Jesus is a theme of enormous importance for this book.  It testifies to Jesus’ faithfulness to God and confirms him as Lord and Christ.  Acts simply says that Jesus “appeared” to his disciples over an extended period of “forty days”.  There are differing opinions as to what these “forty days” represent.  It may have been a way to fill out the calendar between Easter and the Ascension.  In Old Testament writings, forty often refers to a period of preparation (such as forty years) during which God fully instructs people for their future work.  Essentially, Jesus gathers his followers after Easter to prepare them for their future without him.  His leaving is not abrupt; he has prepared them for his departure.

What we are told here is that waiting for God to act is an individual’s project, but it is also a community project.  Waiting with others is an act of solidarity.  They were joined together in a specific place to await God’s action.  But waiting on the Lord to act is not a passive activity.  They waited by praying, studying together.  Prayers are not offered to solicit God’s benefaction, which they have already experienced, nor to ensure that God would fulfill what is promised them.  Praying demonstrates the importance of unity and the resolve in accomplishing that to which God calls us to accomplish.

When we proclaim the Ascension as part of the Gospel, we are not, as Ronald Cole-Turner says in Feasting on the Word, saying that we believe that Jesus ended his earthly ministry with the equivalent of a rocket launch.  It is, rather, a belief that Jesus Christ ascended to glory.  It is inextricably linked with the Resurrection.  As Jurgen Moltmann put it, “Jesus is risen into the coming Kingdom of God.”  He is raised in power and in glory.  The Ascension is the gathering up of all who are in the Presence of God.  Our lives are suddenly swept into something larger than anything we can possibly imagine.  No longer is Jesus our personal teacher or our private tutor.  This is the moment when we enter into the Risen and Living Christ.  This is the moment that we begin to become.  The Kingdom of God is at hand.  And through faith, we, too, are made whole.  The absence of the earthly Jesus leads us to search for a God who is present in the world.

So, then, why do we, too, continue to stand here gazing up into the heavens?  For what are we waiting?  Jesus is gone.  And yet, the whole world is filled with the Spirit that has been left behind.  We are the ones called to do the work of Christ in the world.  So why are you standing there gazing up, hoping that something will change.  Just do it.  Get busy. 

1)      What is your response to this passage?

2)      What does it mean to speak of the “absence” of Jesus and the idea that that leads us to search for God?

3)      Where do you find yourself in this story?

 

 NEW TESTAMENT:  Ephesians 1: 15-23

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

This passage and the verses that precede it begin with sort of a thanksgiving prayer report.  But lest we spend too much time breathing our collective sighs of relief and thanksgiving, the author (possibly, but not definitely Paul for most scholars) claims that all this would not be successful if the church does not become known to others as a place of faith and mutual love.

This is sort of interesting—the letter begs the question as to how our churches become known for their faith in Jesus.  Is it a matter of reputation or a matter of publicity?  The phrase “with the eyes of your heart enlightened” describes the result of wisdom.  During this time, baptism was typically described as “enlightenment”.  In essence, it is a way of seeing God’s light through the darkness of the world.  But the letter warns its readers not to return to that state of darkness.

The concluding section of this passage is often recognized as the development of a creedal formula.  The audience already knows that Christ serves to mediate God’s gracious blessings from heaven.  Ephesians treats this exaltation of Jesus rather than the cross as the focus of God’s saving and redemptive power.  Ephesians probably does this to drive home a more permanent victory in Christ.

This idea of enlightenment is an interesting one when we think about The Ascension.  Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams tries to explain it in this way:  imagine what it is like when you first wake up in the morning.  When you put on the light, all you are conscious of is the brightness of the light itself.  Only gradually do your eyes adjust sufficiently to the light that you are able to make out other objects.  After a few moments, however, you cease to be conscious of the light itself, and start to see what else is in the room, as it is illumined by the light.  The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, says Williams, show him to have been like that initial morning light; at first Jesus’ resurrected self was so blinding that the disciples could be conscious only of him.  The ascension, however, is that moment when the light itself recedes into the background, so that Jesus becomes the one through whom we see the rest of the world.  (From Feasting on the Word, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., 2009,“Ascension of the Lord: Ephesians 1: 15-23 Theological Perspective”,by Joseph H. Britton, p. 510-512.)

The whole Resurrection is a restatement of authority, a revisioning of power.  It changes everything.

1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      What does the idea of “the eyes of your heart” being enlightened mean for you?

3)      What message do you think this holds not just for us as individuals but for our churches today?

GOSPEL: Luke 24: 44-53

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

In this passage, the verb for “opened” is the same that was used in the Emmaus story when their eyes were “opened” and the Scriptures were “opened” to them.  But the message of the Scriptures is, of course, not self-evident.  Here, Jesus opens their minds to understand the Scriptures.  Here, the proclamation of repentance and forgiveness of sins is opened to all—to all nations.  The mission, then, will begin in Jerusalem and extend to all nations. Jerusalem has up until now been the center and focus of the Gospel.

The Lukan Gospel is the only one that chronicles the departure of Jesus.  The Ascension both closes the period of Jesus’ ministry and opens the period of the church’s mission.  The final words of the Gospel lead us to an appropriate response to the gospel of the one who saves, sends, and blesses us.  The disciples received Jesus’ blessing with great joy, they worshiped him and praised God, and they began immediately to do what he had instructed them to do.  Here, then, is the completion of the Gospel drama, the narration of what God has done for us, the challenge of Jesus’ teachings, and the model of those who made a faithful and joyful response.  It is our new beginning.  It is our turn.  Essentially, Jesus has given us the “footprints” in which to walk.  It is not about legislation or rules or “what would Jesus do”; it is about incarnation, about becoming the embodiment of Christ.

Thomas R. Hawkins says it like this:

For forty days after the resurrection, Jesus remained among the disciples.  He taught, encouraged, and patiently prepared them for what was to come.  “Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them.  While he blessed them, he parted from them, and was carried up into heaven.” (Luke 24: 50-51)  Suddenly, the disciples were without their guide, their teacher, and their leader.  They no longer had an authority figure in their midst to tell them what to do.  Someone “at the top” no longer could explain everything to them…

They experience an expansion of being, an empowerment.  This empowerment authorizes them for ministry and mission.  They preach the gospel to every race, nation, and tongue already assembled in Jerusalem for the pilgrim feast of Pentecost.  It is an empowerment sparked by acts of inclusion rather than exclusion…Mutuality rather than subordination is the mark of the spirit’s empowerment…

When I was about 13 or 14, my father asked me to ride along with him as he cultivated a field of corn.  It was a tricky job.  The sharp blades of the cultivator had to pass between the rows of corn.  If we had veered a few inches to the left or to the right, we would have plowed out four rows of tender young corn plants.  The John Deere Model 70 did not have power steering, so holding the tractor and cultivator in a straight path was not always easy. 

After a few rounds down the 20-acre field, my father asked me if I would like to try driving.  Reluctantly, I sat down behind the steering wheel, popped the clutch, and took off down the field.  Steering was harder than it looked.  Forty feet of corn, in a four-row swath, were plowed out before I had driven five minutes.  My father gently gave me a few suggestions as I went awkwardly—and destructively—down the field and back.  After a few more rounds, my father asked me to stop the tractor.  I thought he had endured all the pain he could.  The carnage in the corn field was overwhelming.  He would tell me to stop.  I obviously was not controlling the tractor and cultivator.

Instead, my father dropped to the ground and said he had some chores to do in the barn.  I was to finish the field and then come in for lunch.  All morning long, in my father’s absence, I plowed my way back and forth across the corn field.  Huge sections of corn were torn out, roots exposed to the drying sun, and stalks prematurely sliced down.  But by noon I learned to handled the tractor and the cultivator.

My father’s absence was a sign to me that he trusted himself and what he taught me.  It also signaled that he trusted me.  His absence was empowering rather than disabling.  It authorized me to trust myself and trust what he had taught me.  I would never have learned to cultivate corn had I worked anxiously under his critical eye, hanging on his every gesture and comment.

That is the meaning of Ascension and Pentecost.  Jesus’ withdrawal becomes an empowering absence.  It is a sign that he trusts what he has taught us enough to set us free.  He refuses to allow us to depend upon him.  We cannot cling to him but must learn to discover his authority among ourselves.  Thus, he tells Mary not to cling to him but to return to the community of his disciples. (John 20:17).  This sense of empowerment and authorization is exhilarating.  It is like tongues of fire.  We name that experience the Spirit of the Living God.

We honor Jesus’ absence when we refuse to become little authorities, trying to fill up Jesus’ absence.  We honor Jesus’ absence when we help others experience the Holy Spirit through mutual collaboration rather than by making them passive, dependent, or subservient to our authority. (From Building God’s People:  A Workbook for Empowering Servant Leaders, by Thomas R. Hawkins, (Nashville, TN:  Discipleship Resources, 1990), 7-9)

I think this is one of the best depictions of what Ascension and Pentecost really should mean for us.  This is our becoming.  This is the point at which we become more than followers.  Through the Holy Spirit, we are empowered to embody Christ in the world.  It’s like God is saying more than just “have faith”.  We’ve heard that all along.  Here, God is saying, “Have faith in the faith that I have in you.  I know you can do this.  Sometimes it will not go the way you want it to go.  Sometimes it will look like it is all for naught.  Sometimes it will look like we are moving backwards.  Just have faith in what I have given you.  I have faith that you can do this.  Have faith in the faith that I have in you.  And go into the world and BE my disciple.”

1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      What does this “Holy Absence” mean for you?

3)      Why is that difficult for us to grasp? 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

The noblest prayer is when [one] who prays is inwardly transformed into what [one] kneels before. (Angelus Silesius, 17th century)

 The ultimate goal is to transform the world into the kind of world God had in mind when God created it. (Harold Kushner)

 As Annie Dillard once put it, “We’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build our wings on the way down.”…I don’t think transformation of any kind at all happens in this world of ours without some effort, some cost, and the willingness to leave something behind…But I think that when we begin to build our wings, it makes a difference in the world around us not because we seem dramatically other than who we once were, but because what we begin to offer back to the world is a little closer to what the world actually needs. (Kathleen McTigue, from “Build Your Wings on the Way Down”, 2006)

  

Closing

Let me bathe in your words.

Let me soak up your silence.

Let me hear your voice.

Let me enter your quiet.

Let me tell out your stories.

Let me enclose them within me.

Let me be the spaces between phrases where you make your home.

(Jan L. Richardson, In Wisdom’s Path, p. 96)