Sunday, June 9, 2013
First Cup—Lectionary Sunday
Lectionary readings: 1 Kings 17:8–24; Psalm 30; Galatians 1:11–24; Luke 7:11–17
God is for us—what does that statement mean?
Sunday’s readings suggest some answers: it means that a widow's dead son will live again (1 Kings and Luke). It means that the archest enemy will become the greatest friend (Galatians). It means that your deepest sorrows will be turned into greatest joy (Psalm).
The readings for today show God reviving a dead son, Jesus reviving a dead son, God retrofitting a fearsome foe, and the psalmist praises God for turning “mourning into dancing” and taking away his “sackcloth” and clothing him “with joy.”
Well, I can’t discount the texts, can I? Simply dismiss them as idealistic fantasies? Yes, I could actually. Many have dismissed the texts as fiction and walked away. Others have said, well, that was then and this is now; those things just don’t happen anymore. Others assert that it's all our fault; we don’t believe enough—or hard enough—or trust enough. My life, however, has not been what the texts seem to imply. A baby born to die. Parents who, after long and good lives of obedience and service to the church, slipped out of reality through dementia and Alzheimer’s to, at last, death. One of my most challenging experiences growing up was watching my pastor care for his wife as she lived on for years a victim of multiple sclerosis—caring for her with such profound love, meeting her every need, literally carrying her wherever she needed to go—even as he cared for children and served his church. I could go on, but don’t need to. It seems that life more often offers the opposite of what these passages seem to be saying.
What do I make of these? Frankly, I don’t know what to make of them. It is always a problem with scripture, I think. Holy texts are so demanding and difficult—no matter how hard we work at simplifying them in order to “explain them.” Yet, we are still stuck with these texts and this consistent, unyielding biblical perspective that God is exactly the kind of God Elijah obeyed, the psalmist sings, Paul confesses, and Jesus reveals.
We are still stuck with the deep, underlying conviction of this whole Holy Book: that the transcendent God of the universe loves us intimately and desires to be in loving relationship with us: God is love.
Is this where the word paradox raises its troublesome head—or is this only an easy way out: It is all mystery. In a sense, it makes it all easier, doesn’t it? It is true but it is also perhaps too dismissive: it’s a mystery. Ah.
Somewhere Merton wrote: “There is, in a word, nothing comfortable about the Bible—until we manage to get so used to it that we make it comfortable to ourselves…. Have we ceased to question the book and be questioned by it? Have we ceased to fight it? Then perhaps our reading is no longer serious.
“For most people, the understanding of the Bible is, and should be, a struggle: not merely to find meanings that can be looked up in books of reference, but to come to terms personally with the stark scandal and contradiction in the Bible itself….
“Let us not be too sure we know the Bible just because we have learned not to be astonished by it, just because we have learned not to have problems with it.”
I find these readings today, using Merton’s words, uncomfortable, scandalous, contradictory [paradoxical], and serious. Yet, I still don’t know what to do with these readings. I affirm that God is personal and actively at work; I know that in my own life, although more often than not God has not answered my prayers—with the exception of my ever more constant cry of “Lord have mercy”; “Christ have mercy”; Lord Jesus Christ have mercy.” To my knowledge, no one has been healed because I asked, in faith, for such healing; my experience is more the opposite. Certainly, no one has been brought back to life because I prayed so.
I do connect more with the Galatians passage because I do have some experience of mourning turned to gladness (and I am exceedingly grateful for that). I have seen enemies become friends. God has worked transformation in my own life—as trite as it sounds, I am a better (holier? godlier?) person than I was when I began my adult journey. I’ve had my Damascus Road experiences; in fact, I have to get knocked off my feet on a fairly regular basis. I know the redemptive power of friendships. Yet, as parent, as pilgrim, as spouse, as churchman, as educator, there are more unanswered prayers than answered. And, perhaps most scandalous of all, is my sense that the unanswered prayers are those I have prayed for others. That seems just wrong, doesn’t it?
Where does this leave me with these texts: I’m not walking away. I’m staying on my journey. My questions remain as serious as they ever were and perhaps more so. As Thielicke once said, I’m standing before the question. I might go so far as making a faith statement: that I live on my tiptoes, hoping that this God will one day make all things clear even as I now see “through a glass darkly.” I refuse to give up on the serious challenges of these texts. Simply because I’m still living, more often than not, in “A dark night in a city that knows how to keep its secrets.” I am still living “on the 12th floor of the Acme building, one man…still trying to find the answers to life’s persistent questions….”