Monday, June 30, 2008

good questions

Our celebrant yesterday always says something to trigger my own questions, my own issues with this religion I profess to love, and have supposedly devoted my life to. She's the chaplain for a prestigious New York University and I suspect her students have plenty of questions of their own to trigger her own internal debate.

Yesterday's readings alone are enough to put a damper on anyone's admiration of a God who asks the impossible... just to test us? I always go back to my own deep-seated belief that I agreed to whatever tests I have to take before I was even born... that God and I sat down and had a conversation and what happens in this life is a result of that conversation and those agreements. (It may be fairy-tale thinking, but it works for me.)

In the Old Testament lesson (Genesis 22:1-14) poor Abraham, after proving several times that he was willing to obey God's outlandish directions, was asked to kill his only remaining child. He'd already thrown out his first-born... left him and his mother to fend for themselves in the desert... Now, God says, "Go kill the only one left, the child of your heart, the promise for your future generations." God does not say: "this is a test, this is a drill, you will be graded on your response." Besides, you have to wonder just how traumatized Isaac was after being tied up, laid on a stack of wood, seeing a knife in his father's hand. "Hey Mom, guess what Dad tried to do to me while we were away!"

And then there's Pauls letter to the Romans: (Romans 6:12-23) He's going on and on about the tremendous difference between being a slave to sin and a slave to obedience. Hey, either way, it's still slavery.

Last, there's the Gospel of Matthew... (Matthew 10:40-42) the end of the passage where Jesus has come to bring the sword and not peace... trying to get some justice into mix. If you do these things you will be rewarded... give a little child a drink of water, for one thing. For most of us that sounds pretty reasonable. In America we carry our bottled water everywhere, whether we buy it new or keep refilling from the tap. In backpacks and purses, you see water bottles of every shape and size.

But in Jesus' time and place, our celebrant explained how outrageous a command that might be. In the desert "Water is Life and Life is Water." In the culture of the day, water was scarce, and only the strong and the useful were allowed just enough to survive. There was no concern with so many ounces a day to promote good hydration and regular bowel movements. You got just enough, no more. Children and the elderly did not work, could not carry heavy loads; they were disposable because they were not useful. It was not cruelty that prompted this outlook, it was survival.

So for Jesus to suggest that you pour out your precious water by the cupful for a child was just as outlandish as God's command to Abraham. (Like Father, like Son.)

In closing, she asked us the exact same question that our celebrant of a week ago asked: What is the Scripture saying to us NOW? What does Christ call us to know/to do in this generation? Knowing the context of the words does help us to make better sense of what was written and why. Knowing that child sacrifice was a common practice in Abraham's time helps us understand that the need for this kind of sacrifice was being overturned, not promoted. Knowing that slavery was a normal part of life in Paul's time helps us understand his language. Understanding that water was more precious than gold helps us understand how important it was to Jesus that a new kind of justice be understood.

But we can't leave it there. What is the Scripture saying to us NOW? What does it mean to us? How will we change because of any new meaning we take away? She gave an example: the things/people we thought were disposable are precious to God. Another thought: The culture of sacrifice is alive and well even now. Scapegoats abound in every walk of life. Why is that? And if it is a part of the nature of God, what must we give up? Perhaps it is only our idols we must abandon? And if so... what are our idols?

As always... good questions. Need time and meditation to grasp the answers.

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