This Week in Scripture, 12/4/11

A little late, partly because reasons and partly because there was so much to work with this week that I had trouble deciding where to focus.  A lot of good lines in this week’s scriptures, particularly famous ones and ones I know from classical music pieces. “Comfort, O comfort my people” and “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd” (both from Isaiah 40); “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Psalm 85:10).

But what I really find myself thinking about is the reading from the second letter of Peter 3:8-15a, so much so that I am going to give it in its entirety:

Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed. Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish, and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.

This is the passage that always comes to mind for me when I hear or read about the sort of Christian who seems to form the popular opinion of what Christians are today: the one who wants this to be a “Christian nation,” not in the sense of promoting love between neighbors or aiding the poor and oppressed but of making sure no other voices are heard and people who stand out or commit “sin” by their definition are punished. The one who, far from holding out the promise of grace from a loving God to others, seems creepily gleeful at the prospect that those different from themselves will burn forever, hopefully starting as soon as possible. The one who prays for Judgment Day to hurry up and get here.

There are, of course, lots of places in the Bible I would take to imply that God does not endorse this kind of attitude in His followers, that what He wants as our guiding principle is love, not vengeance.  Likewise there are lots of places where He warns us that if we are hateful in our condemnation of others, it will count more against us than them. But this from Peter is a particularly direct and, bless him, tactful reminder that this warning applies to our thoughts on the Judgment itself. Even if it ultimately means an age of righteousness, dude, the elements will melt. What kind of person wishes that on anyone?

It sounds in this passage as if Judgment is something of a last resort: perhaps (in fact certainly, in context) He would prefer for us to do at least some of the work of saving the world ourselves. And “saving” anything in the New Testament, at least, almost always involves things like healing and feeding and forgiving. Things many of us sadly remain bad at, particularly those of us who get the most excited about condemning each other to fiery judgments.

God is waiting, and the patience of the Lord is salvation. Maybe He is giving someone time to have a change of heart – maybe the person you’re yelling at or about. Maybe you.  Maybe you’re getting a minute to think about whether you really are without sin before you cast that stone. Maybe you’re being given time to ask yourself whether you really know better than God who needs punished and when it needs to happen. Whether it really is holy, or even decent, to hurry toward the end of the world.


This Week in Scripture, 11/27/11

It’s the first Sunday of Advent, and therefore of the liturgical year. I’m going to try to make a point of posting on this topic every week throughout Year B (as we Episcopalians lovingly call it), but being a falliable mortal being, I make no promises.

Taken as a set, this week’s readings set the stage by contrasting the pre-Christ and post-Christ worlds.  In Isaiah 64:1-9, the prophet begs God to show Himself to His people like He did in the old days (as with Moses, say), and laments that in his present time, God hides His face and punishes humans for their iniquities. He ends with, “Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.”

Psalm 80 reflects the same theme, lamenting present punishment and asking God to send His blessings again. Verse 16 says “Let your hand be upon the man of your right hand, the son of man you have made so strong for yourself.” While of course Jewish readers of the Psalms don’t interpret it the same way, Christians tend to read “the son of man” as a title of Jesus. By that interpretation, the Psalm asks for Christ’s arrival, and goes on to describe the effects of Christ’s coming: “And so we will never turn away from you; give us life, that we may call upon your Name. Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.”

Putting the reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians 1:3-9 right after this turns it into an answer to the prayer, as Paul promises the Corinthians that “in every way [they] have been enriched in him” and that “He will also strengthen [them] to the end.” “God is faithful,” he says. Those who ask for God will be answered.

Finally, in the gospel reading from Mark 13:24-37, we skip over the initial incarnation entirely, and Jesus describes how He will come in the end: He also says, in words that one always wants to go over in bold yellow highlighter for “Judgment Day is X” people, “about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

And then He says, several times, “Keep alert…keep awake.”

There are several ways to look at this command: both of the ones I’m going to mention here are informed by my knowledge of other faiths. One, particularly if you read this within the context of parables like that of the wise and foolish maidens with their lamps, is “do what you’re supposed to be doing, because you never know when you’re going to be called on it.” Even polytheistic gods might show up unexpectedly one day, disguised as ordinary people, and pass judgment on whole cities based on the treatment they are shown during their visit. (In fact, angels do exactly this a few times in the Old Testament. The actual judgment, of course, they leave to God, but they gather and present the evidence for Him and carry out the sentence.)

For my money, reward and punishment systems are not the highest form of moral decision-making, but in all honesty there are plenty of people in the world for whom it is the highest form they can attain.  And it’s better than nothing, as virtually every human culture seems to agree.

But there’s also a possible sentiment here that most people would think of now as something Eastern: be aware of the moment. Perhaps there was a time when we saw God as residing just in heaven, just in the great temples (like the one in Jerusalem, the destruction of which Jesus foretells): but even if that used to be so and not just our imagining, now God has come down from the mountain and moves through His creation at will. The Holy Spirit, for example, is said multiple times to abide with all Christians, forever. “Forever” is not something that starts someday far from now: “now” exists within “forever.” Be with the Holy Spirit now. Recognize that you already are. Notice God’s creation all around you right this moment; have your eyes open to what He might wish of you right this moment.

This week in Scripture

I’ve been thinking about posting reflections here about some of the readings we do on Sundays, but I am a procrastinator, and I also worried about not knowing enough to really render opinions on these things out in public. I’m kind of a perfectionist (I know, people who know me personally may now reel back in shock).

This week, our Gospel passage was Matthew 25:14-30. For those both unfamiliar and disinclined to go and look it up, this is a parable where Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to the story of a master going on a journey and leaving money with three slaves. They are to watch after it until he returns. When he does, two have traded or invested the money and now have more to give him than they started with, and they are rewarded. The third fears that the master is harsh and unfair, so he hides the money away and gives it back exactly as-is, and is punished.

Now, this is the kind of story that used to strike me as a demonstration of how not-cool the Christian God was. All that talk about the third slave gnashing his teeth in the outer darkness, and he technically didn’t do anything wrong! That’s not fair, is it? How Old Testament! (In the sense where some people, most of whom haven’t talked to Jewish people much about it I’d imagine, use “Old Testament” to mean “Mean God,” as opposed to the New Testament’s “Nice God.”) In fact, if I remember correctly, this was the way it struck me only a few months ago when I was reading. But now it doesn’t. Why not?

The point of this story isn’t actually about what’s “fair.” I think to a large extent, we cling to the idea of what’s “fair” and what we’re owed when we’re afraid of getting cheated out of something. But what I think about now when I read this passage is that it’s a parable. What God gives us isn’t actually money, is it? It’s love. All through both testaments, what God gives is not only right judgment (which He does give) but above all, love and mercy. Although it’s money in this particular parable, it more often appears symbolically as light. And there’s lots and lots of other passages about not hiding lights under bushels and not being stingy about the love to God and our neighbors.

Love isn’t for hoarding; it isn’t for burying under the rock beside the tree and making sure nobody finds it. It’s for trading with others who love us back, and investing in those who need love and mercy – which is, you know, pretty much everybody. By doing this, we multiply the amount of love and mercy in the world by inspiring it in and teaching it to others. (Honestly, the majority of religious or moral paths of any seriousness that I know of, know this.  The line I tend to remember most for this is from a dedication ritual for the Fellowship of Isis, where the teacher lights a candle for the student with the words , “Light shared is not divided, it is multiplied.”)

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