2.19.2008

Third Sunday in Lent

Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

If you touch a hot stove, you get burned.

If you spend more money than you make, you go in to debt.

If you stand in the rain, you (or your jacket) will get wet.

If you don’t have water in the desert, you will die.

It seems that there are consequences to our actions. Some people go so far as to imagine that every action has some sort of consequential (if not equal and opposite) reaction—a butterfly flaps it’s wings in Columbia which eventually causes an Avalanche in Austria.

One question that seems to bubble up this week is whether or not God is subject to the same rules of logic and society and human relationship to which we are bound. Can we assume that the Action = Consequence logic works with God as we might observe it working in the world around us?

This week we are presented with several examples of biblical logic, If / Then statements, and examples of actions and consequences. Not all of those consequences seem logical in light of our own experiences or understandings and beliefs.

In Exodus we see Moses in a space where he is pretty consistently questioning his call out of slavery. These are Israelites who have not yet received the Ten Commandments from Yahweh, and the rest of the group is not as confident as Moses because none of them have actually had the chance to speak with God yet. Right before this scene, the people had been desperate for food and suddenly manna and quails appeared to feed them. They are early in their time in the wilderness and they arrive in Rephidim (which means “resting place”). It seems they are still expecting a comfortable journey out of slavery and a quick and expedient resolution to their problems. And so they blaze up with complaints about their thirst so loud and angry (“testing and quarreling” in the text) Moses is afraid they might stone him to death before it is over. So he prays to God for help with these people and God intervenes and provides them water from a stone. The people gripe and God comes through for them again, or so it seems. (Notice the Elders got to see God….at least God says he will stand in front of them on the rock.)

Does this mean they had God on a string? Is this how we are to relate to God? We make an angry pleading request and God relents?

When we read Psalm 95 we see a writer who, looking back at history through his own experience and the experience of Israel projects that the Testing and Quarreling of the Israelites came with a price. The Psalmist believes that because of their quarreling and testing of God, that generation did not enter in to the Promised Land. He emphasizes the importance of only trusting God and never testing God.

The assumption seems to be that we as humans have God at our beck and call, any time we test God, God will respond AND there will be consequence to our testing.

In the story of the Samaritan woman at the well we see another application of this logical, Action = Consequence scenario. At first, the woman is caught in the cultural assumptions about how she and Jesus are from different backgrounds and their society places expectations on how people of each gender will or will not act. She assumes because she is a Samaritan woman and he is a Jewish man, he will not talk to her. She assumes because he has no bucket, there is no way he could offer her any Water. She assumes that water from the well is all that is needed to quench thirst. The Disciples assume that it is only physical food that would offer Jesus (or them) the nourishment necessary for life. Jesus offers the Samaritan woman different provisions, not in response to her complaint about what she has, but as an alternative to what she has.

And in Romans Paul again constructs this entire section based on assumptions of how We understand human relationships to work. He knows that for him, it would be difficult for a human to die for another righteous person, much less an unrighteous one. And so he extrapolates that because he (or you or I for that matter) would have a difficult time sacrificing ourselves for other humans that might be sinful or ungrateful, God would have the same difficulty; and as a result, this should make us (as human recipients of the sacrifice) all the more grateful.

As American society, we seek rational outcomes. We look for cause and effect relationships. We strive to develop skills and abilities that enable us to achieve specific things. But the recorded experience of Israel – which informed the life of Jesus Christ and his teachings – didn’t often play out in neat cause and effect scenarios.

When reading the lectionary for any week, a key question is what ties these verses together. One theme this week is our expectations of action and reaction and God’s response. Another theme is how we respond to provision. A third might be how the readings differ in perspective on human relations with God.

This weeks’ scriptures need to be wrestled with. They don’t fit our logic structures in tidy ways and they raise fascinating questions for us.

  • When does God respond to our cries for help?
  • What is the appropriate response for God’s provision?
  • Do our physical needs trump our spiritual needs?
  • What other themes surface for you as you read?

O Lord my God,
teach my heart where and how to seek you,
where and how to find you.
Lord, if you are not here but absent,
where shall I seek you?
But you are everywhere, so you must be here,
why then do I not seek you?…
Lord, I am not trying to make my way to your height,
for my understanding is in no way equal to that,
but I do desire to understand a little of your truth
which my heart already believes and loves.
I do not seek to understand so that I may believe,
but I believe so that I may understand;
and what is more,
I believe that unless I do believe I shall not understand.

—Anslem

2.12.2008

Second Sunday in Lent

Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17

Because I said so….

What child hasn’t heard those dreaded words? And really, among parents, grandparents, babysitters, etc. reading this, who hasn’t uttered those words…at least once?

Because I said so.

It is a familiar answer to questions that begin with “Why?” Sometimes it’s an impatient answer, an answer given as the “last ditch” effort on the tails of any number of reasonable, logical explanations. Or sometimes it is the answer that comes first in an effort to end any further questions.

It’s no disgrace to admit that for adults, even those who have read the bible over and over again, this is a book full of things that “just happen” - things that don’t seem to have a logical explanation…or at least not an easy-to-grasp, rational explanation. Things whose best answer might be “because I said so.”

In the readings for this week, people are faced with challenges to the expected, to what was really “knowable.”

Sarai, Abram’s wife, is barren. In the Genesis passage for this week, God calls Abram to journey to a new land. In exchange, God promises to bless Abram, to make of him a great nation. WOW. In this ancient tradition, to be childless was “the end of the line.” God, while asking Abram to make a journey of faith, is also telling him that he will continue his family line. Now the text doesn’t give us any of Abram’s internal dialogue, we only know that he went.

The Psalmist writes with great enthusiasm about God who is present for us when we need help. He praises God who keeps us in our comings and in our goings, ensuring that we are safe from any harm that might come our way. There doesn’t seem to be much question about God’s support or protection in this Psalm of praise.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he reflects on the ancient story of Abram and Sarai (Abraham and Sarah after God enters covenant with them and Israel). He is working through the concept / question of salvation by faith or salvation by works with the church in Rome. Guiding them through some basic questions, he reminds them that God promised Abram a nation, and in spite of some wrong turns and some weak faith, God provided to Abram what was promised.

In John’s testament, a Pharisee named Nicodemus comes to ask a few of his own questions of Jesus. Questions are a good way to find out more information or to clarify understandings (which is one reason why the answer “Because I said so” is so frustrating!). Nicodemus seems to be having some trouble wrapping his arms around the idea that God has a bigger plan for Jesus. He is used to being a guy who has the answers. Nicodemus is a part of a religious system that does not leave a lot of room for doubt. He is struggling with believing what he cannot see and touch. He’s having a hard time accepting that he cannot “know.”

Most of us encounter things that we cannot “know” regularly on our faith journey. Most of us keep going even when rational explanations cannot be found. It’s at times like these, when we are faithful and attuned that the answer, “because I said so” seems good enough. We learn we have to trust that God calls us in to places we must go…..and, if we spend enough time moving in the direction of God, we will find all of the answers we need.

  • Last week, Adam and Eve were told by the serpent that if they ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, their eyes would be opened, and they would be like God. Did that really happen?
  • Are answers to our questions always satisfying?
  • If it did, would there be any difficulty understanding God?
  • What questions do you have/have you had when you feel/felt God calling you to a journey?


Psalm 121
I lift up my eyes to the hills-- from where will my help come?
My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.
He who keeps
Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.
The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.
The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.

2.08.2008

First Sunday in Lent

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

The bible is pretty easy to understand, right? Let's start at the beginning.

When we read the story of Adam and Eve in the garden, we read about their disobedience, and we see there were significant repercussions for their actions. And so, one of the important take away lessons is that we should avoid disobedience and always obey God so we can avoid the pain and embarrassment of being found out and punished.

Obey God and no one gets hurt. Sounds simple. Right?

Well...not so fast.

If we skip ahead to the story of Jesus in general and specifically Jesus being tempted in the desert, we see that obedience to God (or God's Spirit) might end up being difficult or painful. We see that Jesus obeys God and, along with a multitude of wonderful outcomes, he gets second-guessed, ridiculed, excluded, and eventually killed.

Hmmmm....this throws off our formula some.

And then it gets even more complicated when we get an explanation from Paul about what happened. This passage kicks up all sorts of fun questions for us like would Adam and Eve have died if they had not sinned?

Let's look at this week's readings a little closer to see if we can get any help.

In the reading from Genesis we notice God doesn't tell Adam and Eve what the Tree of Knowledge "is." He just tells them that they will die. It is the serpent that explains to them their eyes will be opened and they will be like God. And it is Eve who adds that God has instructed them not even to touch the tree. What does it mean that the serpent was somewhat correct--Adam and Eve did not die (immediately) when they ate of it as God originally claimed. What does this mean for us when, at least in the short run, God does not appear to be right?

The Psalmist writes about people who are forgiven and about sin that has been forgotten. There is an offer of instruction and guidance for those who are willing to be diligent students and listen and follow. There is forgiveness for those who ask. This is the lived experience of Israel, through their covenant relationship with God. They understood (well, at least they understood some of the time) that the relationship with God was a long-term one that would have ups and downs. Do we have that understanding of our relationship with God?

Paul likely wrote this letter to Rome before the Gospel account (Paul wrote somewhere around 55 and Matthew was written somewhere between 70 and 90). This passage casts Jesus as Adam's foil. As Adam (and Eve) are "in the beginning" the first to act against the guidance of God, Jesus is obedient to his death on a cross and is positioned as the "end" of the power of sin in the world. What if we take Paul's letter to Romans less as a testament about atonement for sin but more as advice and insight about ethical living: ".just as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous."

Matthew's account of Jesus encountering The Tempter in the wilderness reveals Jesus' responses to temptation. We assume Jesus knew Torah and its stories and guidelines, however in this story there really is no direct advice against sin or even toward absolute obedience to dictates. He is relying upon God, living by the word of God, by the worship and reverence of God. He is depending on God and how he understands that relationship to work. He is willing to go out in to the wilderness, fast, and encounter these temptations because he knows he must remain faithful over the length of the relationship.

So, what does that bring us to here? There is no cut and dried answer-it is more like we get to view a range of experience. Consistent in these stories is a relationship with God. Adam and Eve experienced God walking with them in the garden, and Jesus prepared for his time in the wilderness by fasting and praying (deepening his connection to God).

We often want to boil this whole "God thing" down to simple formulas. We want hard and fast rules that we can adhere to that make everything simple to understand and so we can have an easily identified path for us to walk. Unfortunately, it turns out there are no formulas. The primary piece of guidance we can hold on to is that it is important to tend to / pay attention to / give primacy to our relationship with God.

  • How often in this world are consequences absolute and completely understood
  • ahead of time?
  • What has Grace to do with this?
  • Are we wired by our collective history to extend Grace?
  • Could it be that our individual efforts to be obedient, to be reliant upon a
  • relationship with God, can actually shape righteousness, justification, and
  • life for others?

"You should pray like this: Our Father in heaven, help us to honor your name. Come and set up your kingdom, so that everyone on earth will obey you, as you are obeyed in heaven. Give us our food for today. Forgive us for doing wrong, as we forgive others. Keep us from being tempted and protect us from evil." (Matthew 6.9-13 Contemporary English Version)