Lent 2A: Hey…Just Take the Other Road

the-road-less-traveledOLD TESTAMENT:  Genesis 12:1-4a

Read the passage from Genesis

Remember that the importance of Genesis is that it makes the first claims about God’s character, God’s relationship to the world, and about God’s relationship to humanity.  It is, then, the very foundation of our beliefs.  Genesis reminds us that God’s work does not occur in a vacuum, but is shaped by the world and the historical setting.

The first eleven chapters of Genesis focus primarily on humanity, which proved to be a pretty rebellious lot. First we get kicked out of some metaphorical garden, then we hear tales of deceit and murder.  Then a massive flood ravishes us and wipes most of us out.  So our answer is to build a tower to get up there and see exactly what God is doing.  We don’t start well.

So, in the twelfth chapter, as what we call the “Patriarchal History” begins, there is a shift to a focus on one particular family.  In the passage that we read, interpreters usually consider vs. 1-3 to provide the key for the rest of Genesis.  All of a sudden, the camera zooms in to a single family of nomads in a small town in Mesopotamia and, finally, to a single individual.  This is where the history of Israel begins.  And although Abram will never actually see his future, his response will shape it. The responses focus on nationhood and blessing for the entire family and others through them. The thing is, Abram is called to leave (in order of intimacy) his country, his clan, his home and journey to whatever it is that God will reveal to him.  But the divine promise will begin during Abraham’s lifetime.  And, further…those who treat Israel in life-giving ways will also receive a blessing.

Abram is chosen to be the one through whom God’s blessing is showered upon the whole world.  But in order for this to happen, Abram is told to leave what he knows, to in effect sever ties and go to a new place. (We at this point immediately jump to what that would mean for us.)  But remember that Abram’s family was nomadic.  They probably didn’t really have a concept of home anyway.  And there really wasn’t a family, to speak of—Abram had probably long ago outlived his parents and he had no children.  So what was he leaving?  Maybe God was calling him away from hopelessness and loneliness and finally showing him purpose, showing him home.

And the Lord promises that Abram will not be alone.  And, more than that, God promises blessing.  No longer is this just one person or one family; it is the conduit to God showering blessing throughout the world.  And yet, Abram was as unlikely a candidate as a candidate can be.  For one thing he was getting on in years.  And, besides that, this old married couple had no children.  Sarah was considered barren.  How in the world could she produce offspring?

So, Abram is being called into the unknown and is told to leave everything he knows behind.  Talk about wandering in the wilderness!  It’s a great Lenten passage.  How many of us would leave behind everything that we are and everything that we have and enter the unknown as a blank slate on which God can begin to draw a masterpiece?  Abram is called to be a blessing, the Hebrew Parshas Lech Lecha. It becomes an integral part of the Genesis story and is used eighty-eight times in the book.  A blessing is a gift.  It involves every sphere of existence.  It is more than what we 21st century hearers have allowed it to be.  It is not payment for a life well-lived. “Being blessed” is being recreated.  (For Abram, this meant moving from a life of nomadic purposelessness to being the “father of a great nation” and, thousands of years later, the patriarch of three world religions.)  It takes time.  I think to be a blessing means that one enters the story.  God calls, God promises, and God walks with us.  That is how God is revealed.  But the blessing doesn’t come and the blessing doesn’t continue unless one enters the story.  God calls, God promises, and God blesses.

 

  1. What is your response to this short passage?
  2. What does this speak to you about calling?
  3. So, what does that mean to you to be a “blessing”? How do we misconstrue that meaning?
  4. How does this passage speak to us in our Lenten journey?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT:  Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

Read the passage from Romans

The main part of the fourth chapter of Romans revolves around the idea that Christians, Jews and Gentiles alike, are now found to be part of Abraham’s offspring.  Now this in and of itself was quite a stretch.  After all Abraham was considered a unique part of what it meant to be a person of the Jewish faith.  But Paul is claiming that the promises and blessings of Abraham extend to ALL people.  But the audience that Paul was addressing was as diverse as our society is.  They all grew up with “acceptable norms” that Paul was now telling them was not even necessarily the way of God.  So, all these things that they thought would make them “right” with God didn’t really matter at all.  It had to be hard for them to hear.

The assumption had always been (and probably is for many hearers today) that Abraham was blessed because he followed God, because he DID was God told him to do.  But Paul is now contending that it had nothing to do with what Abraham did or what laws he followed but the fact that he had faith in God.  God is not waiting around for us to do something; God blesses us as children of God.

Paul’s claim means that Abraham was not made right before God because he had rightly observed the laws.  The right relationship was not something that Abraham had earned.  It was freely offered from God because Abraham believed in what God had promised and what God offered.  It wasn’t even BECAUSE Abraham believed.  It was just that Abraham’s belief meant that he was in right relationship.  Paul is almost contending that our belief is a fruit, rather than a reason for, a right relationship with God.  The right relationship is a free and undeserved gift.  (Sounds like grace to me!)  For Paul, God’s goodness was manifest in Christ and yet was also there all along.  And God’s goodness was there for all, whether or not they followed the rules.  Faith cannot be defined; it must be lived. This was a totally new way of looking at faith for these hearers.  Who are we kidding?  It’s new for many of us too!

 

An important part of the Lenten journey is learning to reject old patterns and old ways of being that keep us from accepting God’s gift of grace and new life.  But before we reflect on one such challenge, Paul’s challenge to the law, let us first think about how difficult and challenging it is to change something more mundane; something like crossing the street.

If one was raised in North America one learned, as a child, to cross the street looking first to the left, and then to the right. Why? In North America cars, by law, drive on the right hand side of the road. So, when we travel to the British Isles, something that is second nature to us — crossing, can become dangerous and life threatening. When stepping off the curb we must first look to our right lest we are hit by oncoming traffic. In London they recognize this is a major problem for foreign visitors. If you look down while standing at an intersection you will often see stenciled, in large white letters, the admonition “LOOK RIGHT.”

The old way of thinking about Abraham, Paul tells us, is to think that Abraham was honored and praised by God by his works. Paul wanted people to look in a different direction. Look not to the works of the law, but to faith. (From commentary on this passage by Lucy Lind Hogan, available at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=3/20/2011, accessed 15 March, 2011.)

 

  1. What is your response to this short passage?
  2. What, for you, is “righteousness”, or being in “right relationship” with God?
  3. What would change if we viewed our belief as a fruit of right relationship rather than a prerequisite?

 

 

GOSPEL:  John 3: 1-17

Read the Gospel passage

Note that Nicodemus, a Jewish leader, a Sanhedrin, under scrutiny, seeks out Jesus.  This is, obviously, a good thing.  But he does it under the cloak of night.  (“Those who prefer darkness to light”)  He cannot let on that he is following Jesus—giving in to this rebel, this radical.  But he publicly acknowledges Jesus—as rabbi (teacher), as “from God”, and as a leader of the community. In this passage, the Greek word anothen means both “from above” or “again” or “anew”.  So this passage becomes ambiguous.   To be born anothen speaks both of a time of birth (again) and a place of birth (above).  It implies that the Kingdom of God is both temporal and spatial. But Nicodemus focuses on one meaning (again) and protests that that is impossible.  But Jesus brings about new images, including those of water and the spirit (implying Baptism).

When you read this, you do sense that Nicodemus must have been a good teacher.  He was astute and knew what questions to ask.  He was diligent as he studied and explored to get to the truth.  But how could he believe this circular reasoning that Jesus was espousing?   Part of the problem, it seemed, was that Nicodemus and Jesus had completely different understandings of what “believe” was.  Nicodemus had, after all, accepted Jesus’ propositions.  He had probably even taught it.  But Jesus was not asking for people to believe what he did or believe what he said.

There is a difference between believing Christ and believing IN Christ.  Believing IN means that you enter into relationship, that you trust with everything that you are, with everything that is your life. It is much more visceral than Nicodemus was really read to accept.  Nicodemus wanted to understand it within the intellectual understanding of God that he had.  But Jesus was telling him that there was a different way.  Jesus was inviting, indeed almost daring, Nicodemus to believe in this new way, to turn his life, his doubts, his heart, and even his very learned mind over to God.

“How can this be?”  Those are Nicodemus’ last words in this passage, which sort of makes him a patron saint for all of us who from time to time get stuck at the foot of the mountain, weighed down by our own understandings of who God is, without the faintest idea of how to begin to ascend.  But there’s Jesus.  “Watch me.  Put your hand here.  Now your foot.  Don’t think about it so hard.  Just do as I do.  Believe in me.  And follow me….this way!

Jesus wants Nicodemus to see the difference between dead religion and living faith.  To borrow an analogy from Jewish theologian Martin Buber, he wants him to see the difference between reading a menu and having dinner.  Until you are born of God, you will always be an observer rather than a participant in the spiritual quest.

Yet the “menu” offered by religion may look so intriguing that the feast of transforming faith can be missed.  Menus describe.  They communicate information about the meals served by a particular restaurant.  This is what religion does.  It describes what God is like, what doctrines should be believed, what rituals should be practiced.  Nicodemus had religion.  As a Pharisee, he had been reading a menu for years, so preoccupied with knowledge about God that he had missed the joy that knowledge of God can bring.  (From From Sacrifice to Celebration:  A Lenten Journey, by Evan Drake Howard, p. 19)

 

  1. What is your response to this short passage?
  2. What does the term “born again” mean for you? What meaning is conveyed with these two meanings.
  3. What is the difference between believing Christ and believing in Christ?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

Blessing is one of the ways that God makes the presence of God known here and now. (Joan Chittister, in Listen with the Heart:  Sacred Moments in Everyday Life, p. 8)

There are few people who realize what God would make of them if they abandoned themselves into [God’s] hands and let themselves be formed by grace. (St. Ignatius of Loyola, 16th century)

Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair. (G. K. Chesterton)

Closing

 

My heart’s eyes behold your Divine Glory!  From whence does my help come?  My help comes from You, who created heaven and earth.  You strengthen and uphold me, You, who are ever by my side.  Behold!  You who watch over the nations will see all hearts awaken to the Light.  For You are the Great Counselor; You dwell within all hearts, that we might respond to the Universal Heart—Like the sun, that nourishes us by day, like the stars that guide the wayfarer at night.  In You we shall not be afraid of the darkness, for You are the Light of my life.  May You keep us in our going out and our coming in from this time forth and forevermore.  Amen. (“Psalm 121”, in Psalms for Praying:  An Invitation to Wholeness, Nan C. Merrill, p. 269)

Proper 25C: The Humble Heart

OLD TESTAMENT:  Joel 2: 23-32

BlessingRead the passage from Joel

We don’t really know when the Book known as Joel was written.  Some scholars think that it may have come about as early as the ninth century BCE and some think that it may have been right before the exile.  Most place it sometime between 500 and 350 BCE.  Assuming that, the Babylonian exile and dispersion are in the past.  There is no mention of a king or royal court, and the priests and elders are the community’s leaders.  The walls of Jerusalem have been restored.  There doesn’t seem to be any external unrest threatening the community.  The prophet uses the traditions and earlier prophecies to frame his message.  Sometimes he borrows whole parts of other prophets’ messages.  He is calling for the continued work of the prophetic word even in this time.

The setting is apparently following some sort of natural disaster—perhaps a locust plague associated with a drought.  And in the understanding of that time, the disaster would have been a pronouncement of God’s judgment upon a sinful people.  And yet, God renews not only the people, but the face of the entire earth.  Hope abounds.

In the passage that we read, the gift of rain depicts God’s righteousness, or the fulfillment of relationship.  The rains become a symbol of the restoration not only of fertility of the ground but a restoration of the covenantal relationship with God.  All the hardships of the past will be reversed.  God will once again bestow covenant blessings on the repentant and faithful people.

In v. 28, “afterward” probably refers not to the time following these events but rather that indefinite time of the coming of the day of the Lord.  At that time God will pour out God’s spirit on ALL flesh.  The prophet prophecies that the people will have direct communication from God. Joel is the first prophet to introduce this idea of the “Day of the Lord”.  Joel promises that all who call upon the Lord will be delivered.

It’s sort of interesting.  Keep in mind that the Hebrew understanding of a “day” begins not with sunrise but with sunset (like the Sabbath).  The “Day of the Lord”, for the prophet Joel, begins at night.  It begins in darkness.  Keep in mind that this is after the exile, but their land, their ownership, has not been restored.  The prophet is then talking of God who will send help for the people.  And the people will respond joyfully.

Maybe that’s the whole point.  We walk in darkness.  But this is the beginning, the beginning of God’s Kingdom flooding into our midst.  It has already begun.  We are not there.  It is still too dark to see sometimes.  But there is a faint glow as the sunrise begins to peek through the clouds.  We are there—now—at the beginning.  (Wasn’t there something in Genesis about that?)

Through the words of the prophet, the people came to understand that what they have might have been taken away because of the injustices that they had allowed to persist there.  Think about this:  The holiness of God cannot share quarters with sin and injustice.  The idea of “God’s holy city” is not some sort of utopian paradise; it has to do with justice.

In his book, Credo, William Sloane Coffin says this:

 

“And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice…”  “Justice is to sort out what belongs to whom, and to return it to them.”  (Brueggemann).  Justice then redescribes the world.  And to do justice as God does justice is to intervene in the social order [of the entire world]…(William Sloane Coffin, Credo, p. 63.)

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What, for you, is meant by the notion of the “Day of the Lord”?
  3. What does it mean to “call upon the Lord”?
  4. What is your image of this “holy city of God”?

 

NEW TESTAMENT:  2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

Read the passage from 2 Timothy

As we come to the end of this second letter to Timothy, Paul makes a last testimony (or possibly some of Paul’s last words were used to make the impact here).  Paul’s realizes that his time is drawing to a close.  His death is imminent and clearly in view.  The impact that this is intended to make is to allow it to influence and mold our lives for the better.  Paul was indeed looking back on his own life, but at the same time, he was asking those who shared it with him and those who would share in his memory (that, of course, would be us) to keep going, to keep the faith and strength in God, to keep on keeping on in the name of Christ.

It is a reminder that discipleship is not about being “blessed” or, I would think, even being “right”; it is about perseverance through faith and doubt, through high points and low points, through life and through death.  The lesson of this passage, then, is that only when reality and life is accepted unconditionally, can there be that unconditional trust that remains confident in God through, as well as despite, everything.  Through these words of Paul, we are told to press on now, not toward something that we do not know or cannot grasp, but to the God that is there now.  That is the message that should be proclaimed.

This passage is used a lot for funerals and memorials.  It is an assurance that the person that we have lost has achieved the “prize”.  And yet, what does that mean?  I struggle with the concept of heaven as just another “place”.  For me, eternity is a new way of being, whatever that looks like or feels like and in some mysterious way, that eternity is mixed in with our lives even now.

In an article in The Christian Century, Michael Battle writes:

 

What will heaven be like? In London’s Sunday Telegraph of April 27, cancer-stricken Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu remarked in an interview: ” I wonder whether they have rum and Coke in Heaven? Maybe it’s too mundane a pleasure, but I hope so — as a sundowner. Except, of course, the sun never goes down there. Oh, man, this heaven is going to take some getting used to.”  What will heaven be like? Scripture leads us to believe that heaven will be the completion of our earthly existence. We will have no need of an exploding star (the sun) or a lifeless planet (the moon) to be our light. We will have no need of jihad because all nations will be healed by eating the leaves of a tree of life. Shouldn’t this make us rejoice? Shouldn’t we take great delight in the knowledge that we will be complete, in need of nothing? We should, but as Tutu points out, we have our own image of what delights us. 

If I asked everyone on the planet what do you most desire, what would “complete” you, I would have as many answers as there are people….The ultimate answer to what heaven is like is this: God…Archbishop of Wales Rowan Williams helps us to address our fears. How, he asks, can we be in heaven knowing that others are in hell? In other words: How can heaven be heaven if there is a hell? We must understand heaven as God’s presence through the practices of mercy and humility. We must gain the vision of God’s unrelenting love…Our answer to what heaven is like should be a common answer — uninhibited presence with God. As Tutu said:

It is enough just to be there. You know how it is when you are sitting with someone you love and hours can go by in what seem like moments? Well, in heaven, eternity itself will pass in a flash. In heaven we will never tire. We will never be bored because there will always be such new sides of God that will be revealed to us.

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. So what is our image of the “prize” before us?
  3. What is it that most gets in the way of our discipleship here and now?
  4. This seems, somehow, to be a call to surety even in the presence of doubt. What do our doubts say about our faith?

 

 

GOSPEL:  Luke 18: 9-14

Read the passage from The Gospel According to Luke

The parable that we read this week begins by giving us a sense of what it’s about.  We are told that it is being told to some who trusted in themselves and regarded others with contempt.  Keep in mind.  This is the eighteenth chapter of Luke.  There is a sense as we spin toward the end of Pentecost that the messages are becoming more pronounced, more directed toward us.  For the writer of Luke, the story is becoming more and more centered on God and what that means for salvation.

This idea of “trusting in oneself” is one that leaves a person blind to one’s position before God.  But still, they “go up” to the Temple to pray.  The Pharisee stands alone, in an effort to maintain his purity and cleanliness before God, attempting to shield himself from the riff-raff and undesirables of the world that might get in the way of his relationship with God.

It is interesting that both begin their prayer with “God”, but the Pharisee’s prayer immediately turns back to himself, speaking in the first person.  He continues talking about himself in an effort to “prove” his piety to God (and probably to himself).  He asks nothing of God.  He presumes, rather, that he is seen as pious and faithful.  He gives no evidence of humility.

But, in his defense, remember that the Pharisees were the learned and admirable sect within Judaism.  They were known for their ability to interpret the Scripture, their right living, and their prayer life.  They refused to swear allegiance to Caesar.  Their name “Pharisee”, means “separated one” even from the Jewish community.  They had to remain pure and clean to do their job.  Their main focus was to obey the laws of God and make sure that others did the same.

But the tax collector, standing far off, implying a feeling of unworthiness before God, simply asks for mercy.  “Have mercy on me, O God, a sinner.”  Nothing more is said.  The tax collector “went down to his house justified” because his humility was a sign of faith.  In his prayer for mercy, he reveals the depths and freedom of God’s forgiving love that are not limited by righteousness in this world.

The parable leaves it up to us to figure it out.  Who was the humble one?  Who exalted himself?  And who is seen as faithful in the eyes of God?  This parable is not, though, just a warning about pride and haughtiness.  Grace can only be received by those who have empathy for others.  Even if the Pharisee had been truly self-reflective, how could he be at one with God if he is blind to the needs and lives of others?

We tend, sometimes, to become “pharisaic” about Pharisees.  It is hard to reposition ourselves to look at the whole world, even those with which we disagree, as our brothers and sisters.  The tax collector did not come bargaining with God.  He knew where he stood and he knew that God would still be willing to embrace him.

Here are some excerpts from “Praying With a Sideward Glance”, by Paul D. Duke.  It appeared in The Christian Century in October, 1995: (available at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1058/is_n28_v112/ai_17649075)

THE PARABLE about the Pharisee and the tax collector neglects to mention that the Pharisee was singing “Amazing Grace” on his way to church that day. Or that as he said his prayer, there were tears in his eyes. He feels this stuff. He is awash with religious emotion, truly moved to gratitude for the life God has blessed him to live. Ask him on his way out what he thinks of the tax collector, and he will tell you, “There but for the grace of God go I.” He will even think that he means it.

The parable also neglects to point out that the tax collector, when he has wiped his eyes, blown his nose and gone home, will not be quitting his shady job. He can’t see any options; it’s a nasty business, but he’s stuck in it. Tomorrow he’ll again take money from his neighbors, hand some of it over to the empire and put some aside for himself.

To see the Publican as honorable and the Pharisee as a creep makes the story false, curdles it to a dishonest (and easily anti-Semitic) morality tale and sends us straight into the trap of saying, “God, we thank you that we are not like this Pharisee!” Better to see him as he is–a thoroughly decent, generous, committed man–and to see the Publican as a compromised, certified stinker.

I know which character my church depends on. I know which one pays the bills, teaches the lesson, visits the sick, feeds the hungry. I’d love a churchful of people with his commitments–people who care enough to fast, people who tithe on all their income and who thank God that they can. As in Jesus, day, it’s people like the Pharisee who hold the community together and keep the faith with diligence and passion. We can’t color him sinister. He’s not J. R. Ewing in a choir robe. He’s a better man than I am, and probably better than you.

Someone should draw a cartoon of a congregation at prayer with thought balloons over each head. Worshipers would be saying, “Thank you that I’m not like these fundamentalists” or “Thank you that I’m not like these liberals” or “Thank you that I’m above all this.” Our capacity for smugness is astonishing. In the nation and in the churches, what a rage is on to assure ourselves and define ourselves by who we are not like. Could there be a better indicator that we have no idea who we are? When our eyes move away from our own shadowy hearts, there is no place left to look but at someone else, and no comfort but in claiming: Well, I’m not like that!

God be merciful to me, a sinner,” whispers the man who is not at all good, but who is at least looking at his own lousy heart. And offering it. He’s not unlike the woman whom Jesus would soon see in that very temple, the one who throws her last two pennies into the plate. Like the widow’s gift, the tax collector’s prayer is poor, not given from any abundance but from his need, and it’s all that he holds in his crooked hands. And somewhere Someone cheers.

The story is set in a fine little frame. It begins, “Two men went up . . . a Pharisee and a tax collector.” Now two men go down, but the tax collector is shown first, as if he leads the way. Nothing is said of his counterpart’s destination, but the tax collector has a justified homecoming. After this kind of prayer, you go home. It’s the grand old gospel reversal again–God undoing the order of things as they are in our temples, exalting those of low degree in a great surprise of mercy, filling those whose eye is single” with light enough to return home.

Humility is typically a hard thing for us to grasp.  It involves being able to see the truth about who we really are and accept others as they are.  And more than that, it leaves room for us to see the grandeur that is God.  It allows us to be who were are called to be in God’s order, rather than who we envision ourselves to be.  It enables us to prepare to receive God into our lives—not the God we want or the God we think we need but God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, who loves us more than we can even fathom, on the days when we are sinners and the days that we get it right and the days (which is most of them) when we don’t even know which we are.

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. At the beginning, who do you think the “some” to which Jesus was speaking were?
  3. Be honest…who of us looked at the Pharisee with the thought,” Thank God, I’m not like that Pharisee!”?
  4. Who is it that we pharisaically hold in contempt?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

Too often we picture God as some immovable rock, when in fact it is God and God alone who never rests.  I only quote Scripture:  “He neither slumbers nor sleeps.”  It is God who says, “Behold, I create all things new.”  Therefore God’s most persistent enemies must be those who are unwilling to move in new directions…If you choose, you’re sometimes wrong; but you never choose, you’re always wrong. (William Sloane Coffin, Credo, p. 72)

Doubt is the shadow cast by faith.  One does not always notice it, but it is always there, though concealed.  At any moment, it may come into action.  There is no mystery of the faith that is immune to doubt.  (Hans Kung)

 

What makes humility so desirable is the marvelous thing it does to us; it creates in us a capacity for the closest possible intimacy with God.  (Monica Baldwin)

 

 

Closing

 

Deliver me, O Jesus,

From the desire of being loved,

From the desire of being extolled,

From the desire of being honored,

From the desire of being praised,

From the desire of being preferred,

From the desire of being consulted,

From the desire of being approved,

From the desire of being popular,

From the fear of being humiliated,

From the fear of being despised,

From the fear of suffering rebukes,

From the fear of being forgotten,

From the fear of being wronged,

From the fear of being ridiculed,

From the fear of being suspected.

Amen.

from A Simple Path, by Mother Teresa, p. 37.