Thursday, February 17, 2005

Lent 4: God is in the details

The story of Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman in John 4 is a tiny literary masterpiece. It reminds me of an elegant miniature such as one might see in an illustrated manuscript such as the Hours of the Duc de Berry. Every detail is pregnant with meaning. But the first detail to note is not the text itself but the context. In John 3 Jesus had a long and involved theological discussion with Nicodemus, an articulate, learned leader of the Pharisees. In chapter 4, Jesus has another long and involved theological discussion, but this time it is with a Samaritan woman. Nicodemus was a person of high standing in his community, but this woman (as we shall see) had absolutely no standing. And yet Jesus treats her with the same respect and consideration he showed for Nicodemus.

Second, note the time of day. John tells us that it was "about noon" when Jesus stopped to rest and the woman came out to the well. This is strange, because women did not come to the well in the hottest part of the day. Rather, they came out at dawn or dusk because it was easier to carry home the heavy jars of water when it was cool out. Apparently, this woman does not want to associate with other women, or they do not want to associate with her.

Thirdly, Jesus speaks to her: "Give me a drink." In the first century Jewish men did not even speak to their wives in public, much less would they speak to women outside their own family. Here Jesus addresses a women to whom he is not related, a Samaritan, and (as emerges in their conversation) a woman of dubious reputation. More than anything else, this little story of the Samaritan woman illustrates Jesus' willingness to transgress social boundaries.

But the most telling and poignant detail for me is this: "the woman left her water jar." Of course, this could just be accidental. In her excitement she could have forgotten the heavy jar. But I believe that the author is telling us something. This nameless Samaritan woman had asked Jesus for living water. How appealing that must have sounded to a woman who day after day had to go to the well at a time when she could avoid the company of others. I believe that she left the heavy jar behind because she did not need it any longer; she had received the gift Jesus promised -- living water.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Lent 2: Born again? What was wrong with the first time?

One of the things about Christians that puzzled the Romans is that Christians were not an ethnos, a people. Jews were a people; Persians were a people; but Christians could be from any ethnic background.

In the first century, one worshiped the gods of one's family. Christianity involved a deliberate choice to worship the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, rather than the gods of one's family. In the case of Jews who became followers of Jesus, it involved a decision to recognize that the God revealed in the Torah was now fully and completely revealed in Jesus. In either case, one's ties to one's family were at least attenuated or (more often) completely severed.

These things hover in the background to Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus. "No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above." Jesus' words astonished Nicodemus because it was precisely through his birth, his connection to his family, that he hoped to see God's kingdom, and he had a firm Biblical basis for believing this. That was exactly what God had promised to Abram long, long ago. God's promise to Abram was not that the earth would be blessed through him or even that all human beings would be blessed but that the families of the earth would be blessed through him.

Paul was confused about this, too. In writing to the Christians at Rome, he argued that what God meant was not that the blessing would fall upon the physical descendants of Abraham but to those who shared his faith, in other words, his spiritual children. But that is not really what Genesis says.

Jesus' words to Nicodemus are still startling. "You must be born from above (or in the more familiar version, "born again")". They tell us that like Abram we, too, have to strike out into the unknown and if necessary, to leave family behind. But they may be especially good news in an age of alienation and estrangement. Jesus invites us into a new family. He tells us that there is a place for us, a community where we will be at home.

The Apostles' Creed is the basic baptismal statement. In the early church, the bishop would ask the shivering catechumen standing in the cold, running water, "Do you believe in God?" And she would reply, "I believe in God the Father" as the bishop poured water over her head. Three times the bishop would ask and three times the catechumen replied, "I believe." However, when the church decided to include the Nicene Creed in the liturgy, the faithful stated their faith not as "I believe" but as "WE believe". We enter the waters of baptism as individuals but we emerge from them as a new people, God's own people. We go into the font an I; we emerge a WE.

Lent 1: Temptations

Today's reading from Genesis is the account of the so-called "fall". I say "so-called" because the word "fall" never appears in it. For that matter, neither does the word "sin". According to Genesis, the cause for the breach in the divine/human relationship is disobedience. Another key category in this story is "knowing." The forbidden tree is the tree of "knowledge"; the serpent says that if they eat of the tree God "knows" that their "eyes will be opened"; "knowing good and evil" makes one "like God"; and finally, the human couple "know" that they are naked.

It might be more interesting if the lectionary included verses 18 through 25 of chapter 2. Three things happen in those verses. First, God acknowledges the human being's need for companionship. Up until this point God has declared everything to be good, but for the first time, God declares something to be NOT good: "It is not good for adam to be alone." (NB: The NRSV translates adam as "the man", but this is a little misleading. The Hebrew word adam does not specify gender. The human being is not differentiated as male and female until Eve is created.)

Second, God brings the animals before adam one by one. This is one of the most humorous episodes in the Bible. The text implies that God wants to see if adam will pick one of the other animals to be his partner, but alas, none of them is suitable.

Finally, God creates a partner for adam. Now, humankind is differentiated into male (ish) and female (ishah).

It would be good to include these omitted verses because the irony of the story of the fall is that no sooner has God given adam a helper than the helper becomes the catalyst for disaster. Presumably, the serpent was one of the animals God offered to adam as a helper. So the helper especially created for adam and an animal who was a potential helper instigate the event that brings about exile from Eden.

If we include the omitted verses, then it becomes plainer than ever that Augustine was right about evil. According to Augustine, evil is privative. Rather than being the opposite of good, evil is good that has been twisted. Eve sees that the fruit is "good for food" and a "delight" and a source of wisdom. The crime is not inherent in the fruit; the crime is the misuse of the good. Furthermore, neither Eve nor the serpent is bad. Eve is the partner God created to remedy the problem of human loneliness, and the serpent is also God's good creation.

Similarly, the Tempter does not offer Jesus anything that we would regard as a sin or a crime. He offers him bread, world rule, and popularity. Does anyone doubt that Jesus would have used the bread to feed the hungry or that he would have ruled wisely and well? And surely he would have used his status as a celebrity to promote his teaching. But in each case there was a catch; Jesus could only acquire the good ends (bread, power, and fame) by using questionable means. Sometimes the end justifies the means; more often it does not. An idealistic politician influences legislation on behalf of a generous contributor, thinking that she is on the side of the angels on most issues. A police officer uses a little muscle to get a criminal to confess. Once we set out on the wrong path toward good ends, the path tends to diverge more and more from our goal.

The Reformers spoke of the Christian life as being simul justus et peccator ("simultaneously justified and sinful"). Calvinism is notorious for claiming that human nature is "totally depraved". The phrase is unfortunate, but the idea behind it is worth rehabilitating. Calvin's idea was that even at our best we are still estranged from God, and that is a good thing to keep in mind.

The meaning I take away from this is that our greatest temptations come not from the shadows but from the light. A friend of mine is fond of saying that an excess of virtue is worse than an excess of vice because there are no restraints on virtue. The greatest evils are not done by those notorious criminals but by the "brightest and best" who have convinced themselves and a few others that they know what is best.

At every moment we are confronted with the situation that Adam and Eve faced. The greatest temptations are not grotesquely evil. They are things that may be in and of themselves just as the fruit appeared to Eve: wise, good, and "a delight to the eyes". But take care: one choice leads to paradise and the other to exile.

Friday, February 04, 2005

A New Light: The Last Sunday in Epiphany

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth... and God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light”. Have you ever thought about the fact that God created light before God created the stars, the givers of light?

A thread of light connects all three texts this meditation is based on: There was the mysterious light shining from Moses’ face that frightened the Israelites. In 2 Peter the author speaks of the “prophetic message” he delivers as a “light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts”.

And finally, there is the story of the Transfiguration, the story of Jesus’ journey to the top of a high mountain, accompanied by Peter, James, and John. While there the disciples saw Jesus transformed into a being of light: “While he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white”. And they saw Jesus talking with the long-dead prophets Moses and Elijah.

I am inclined to think that the transfiguration of which we speak today was not so much in Jesus as it was in Peter, James, and John. The light that they saw pouring from Jesus had always been there; they just had not seen it before.

The life of Jesus had already shed a radically new light on the world. The poor had been regarded as unloved and unwanted by God, but in the light that Jesus brought they came to be seen as special objects of God’s favor. “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. Tax collectors and prostitutes were shunned, but Jesus cast an entirely new light on their status when he shared meals with them. “He receives sinners and eats with them”. (Luke 15.2)

To the learned Pharisee Nicodemus, who came to him “by night”, Jesus brought light. “Very truly, I tell you, Nicodemus, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3.3). “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light...” (John 3.19) Jesus saw that Nicodemus’ real need was not a theological discussion but a radically new way of seeing. And Nicodemus, who arrived in the dark, left amidst God’s blazing light.

And then there was the “man blind from birth” (John 9.1) that Jesus and his disciples encountered in Jerusalem. But even the disciples were in darkness, for they saw this sightless man as nothing more than a theological dilemma: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9.2)

However, Jesus saw the man and his blindness as an opportunity to do the work God has been doing ever since the first chapter of Genesis: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him”. (John 9.3) And taking the dust from which God had made Adam and the water with which he makes the new Adam, Jesus gave that man blind from birth God’s first creation and gift to the world—light.

Today’s gospel retells the story of a moment when Peter, James, and John suddenly saw Jesus for who he was—a man filled with God’s light, the light that God created even before he hurled stars and moons and planets into the inky void.

The New Testament speaks of a world hovering between light and darkness. According to 2 Peter we are in that dim moment just before “the day dawns and the morning star rises” (2 Peter 1.19).

According to John’s Gospel Jesus is “the light of the world” (John 9.5). The darkness has not overcome the Light, but neither has the Light quite overcome the darkness. There are still those who, like Nicodemus, prefer to do their business by night. There are still those who saw not a great and wondrous miracle when the blind man was healed, but merely a sinner violating the Sabbath code.

The light of which the New Testament speaks is not so much about heavenly bodies or luminous filaments; it is about opening our eyes and stepping out of the shadows. It is about taking the risk of adopting a new perspective.

There is darkness in every life. There is an unwillingness to see in each one of us.
A child who awakens from a nightmare may see the face of a monster on her wall, but when Mother switches on the light, it becomes the laughing face of a clown in a picture.

The Bible tells us of Saul who became Paul, blinded on the road to Damascus, who had seen the followers of Jesus as enemies, but suddenly came to see them as brothers and sisters.

We hear the gospel story of the Transfiguration twice every year: Once on the the last Sunday in Epiphany and the second time on the Feast of the Transfiguration. By eerie and unsettling coincidence the Feast of the Transfiguration, August 6, is also the anniversary of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. The overwhelming light generated by that nuclear explosion was quite different from the light that shone from Moses’ face or the light of Peter’s message, much less the light that frightened Jesus’ disciples atop the Mount of Transfiguration.

My father served in the Pacific, and I am deeply grateful that the destruction of Hiroshima prevented an invasion of Japan in which he would have fought. But even though the bombing of Hiroshima brought a terrible war to a quick end and probably saved the lives of thousands of troops, both Japanese and American, nevertheless it took the lives of thousands of men, women, and children.

For over forty years men and women saw the world in the light of nuclear destruction. The light that Jesus brought invites us to see the world in a radically different perspective.

Years after hostilities between the U.S. and Japan and its allies ended American veterans of World War II returned to the sites of mighty battles and so did their German and Japanese counterparts. Men who once saw each other as enemies, now see each other as neighbors.

A little over a hundred years ago here many in this country saw black people as slaves. But now we have learned and are still learning that black and white people alike are “created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights...”

According to the Talmud, a Jew must pray at dawn. But that begs the question, when is dawn?
It is said that a young student came to his teacher and asked, “Rabbi, when is dawn? Is dawn the moment when the last star fades from the sky, or is it when the sun creeps above the horizon?”

The wise old teacher replied, “No, my son. Dawn is the moment when you can look at the face of another and see not an enemy but a friend.”

In the light of Hiroshima we came to see half the world as our enemies, dedicated to our destruction. And we saw ourselves as their enemies, and dedicated ourselves to their destruction.But in the light of the Transfiguration God invites us to see the poor as heirs of heaven; to see sickness not as divine punishment but as an opportunity to do God’s work; and to see each other as sons and daughters of God.