August 01, 2008

Third Sunday After Pentecost

by Debra Dean Murphy
What does it mean, I wonder, to hear this week’s appointed scripture texts if you are a Christian in Myanmar or in the Sichuan province of China? What would you make of all this talk of mountains shaking; the sea roaring and foaming; swollen waters on the earth; rain, flood, wind, destruction, death?

Those of us who have never experienced the kind of catastrophic devastation associated with cyclones and earthquakes can too easily romanticize the natural world, admiring only its beauty: a breathtaking sunset, a beautiful beach, a majestic mountain. As modern suburbanites and urbanites we’re happy with our isolation from nature’s wild, unpredictable side—as our neatly landscaped lawns and pretty container gardens make plain. We like nature well enough; so long as we can manage it—so long as it doesn’t try to hurt us.

But the Bible always presents the whole of reality—good and evil; sin and grace; beauty and danger—and this week we are asked to think about such routine biblical themes as corruption, violence, floods, earthquakes, shame, boasting, and foolishness.

We are asked to consider the “reversal of creation” that the flood story from Genesis points to. (The lectionary committee has chopped this passage to pieces, making it difficult to see the whole narrative arc—forgive the pun—and obscuring some of the resonances with elements in the earlier creation stories). Often, the Noah’s ark story is reduced to children’s fare (as the abundance of Noah’s Ark toys and baby bedding indicates) or it is used to test one’s loyalty to a flat, biblical literalism or to creation science. These approaches miss the point altogether, since the story is a parable about how our deep-seated violence grieves the heart of God and how, in being rescued from our violent selves, we can only be saved together.

In the gospel passage, Jesus uses rain, flood, wind, rock, and sand as metaphors in warning of the dangers of a flimsy religiosity. This passage comes at the end of the Sermon on the Mount and it’s a captivating conclusion—“the crowds were astounded at his teaching,” we are told. As usual, Jesus is preaching to believers, not to uninitiated outsiders. His words of judgment are for those who already believe they are doing the will of the Father: prophesying in Jesus’ name, casting out demons. But Jesus prophesies their end: “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”

Jesus tells them that there is nothing solid and lasting under the house they’ve built, and when challenges and difficulties arise, when the rains come and the violent winds blow, their rickety structures will collapse like a house of cards. We’re a little stunned to hear this, since their defense sounds a lot like our defense: “But Jesus, did we not do many deeds of power in your name?”

But to “hear these words of mine” is to obey me, says Jesus, and to obey is to risk everything—comfort, reputation, social standing, complicity with the status quo. To hear the words of Jesus and to act on them is to become like him. It is to find our life by losing it. As Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a person he bids that one come and die.”

But it’s not fatalism at work here. For to lose our life for the sake of Christ and the kingdom is to be brought into the ark that is Jesus; it is to be secure on the rock that can withstand the punishing rains and winds—tests of faith, persecution, despair.

To lose our life is to take up God’s desire for peace in the midst of humanity’s continual thirst for violence and war. As this week’s Psalm reminds us: “He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear.” This is not wishful thinking; it is not Niebuhr’s (and others') impossible ethical ideal. Peacemaking—as Jesus makes clear in the Sermon on the Mount—is the will of the Father and the way of his followers, here and now.

In C.S. Lewis’s book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Mr. Beaver says of the lion Aslan: “Who said anything about safe? Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” That’s the kind of God these texts speak of: not a cuddly deity, not the tame, nice god who just wants us to be nice, but a good God, a righteous King, a God of peace.

The apostle Paul speaks of the righteousness of God in the passage from Romans. Beginning this week we have sixteen consecutive Sundays with this letter. Over that time, Paul will ask us to consider the nature of salvation and the purpose of the law, among other things. This week we are reminded that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” We are justified not by our good deeds but by God’s grace. It is God’s grace, made manifest in the sacrifice of Christ, that makes our lives possible, that makes peace possible.

“Then what becomes of boasting?” Paul asks. No boasting allowed. No calling out, “Lord, Lord, we did all this good stuff in your name!”

No. In the end, we just jump into the boat that will save us from ourselves—from our self-righteousness, from our vain and violent ways. Our salvation lies not in the pious deeds we lay at Jesus’ feet, but in a transformed life that bears witness to the goodness of God.

I don’t presume to know how a Christian sister or brother in Burma or China would react to the lessons this week. But I hope that I am part of a community and that we are part of a community that believes what it confesses: that even though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea, we will not fear; God is with us. I hope that I am part of a community and that we are part of a community that believes in the totality of God’s love—a love that rescues us from the worst of ourselves; a love in which there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory; a love we strive daily to imitate, building our house not on sand but on the rock that is Christ Jesus, and acting on his words in the ways that make for peace.


Disclaimer: The reflections below are fairly scattered thoughts on this week’s lections. They are tentative more than definitive, suggestive of some themes and ideas that need much more development. But maybe there’s something helpful here for those working with the texts for Sunday.

(Originally published Friday, May 30, 2008)

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