Reflection for October 4, 2015
Genesis 2:18-24, Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12, Mark 10:2-16
Gee whiz. Could the common lectionary committee have selected three more offensive readings than these? What were they thinking? First there is the reading from Genesis. For decades women have complained about this passage because who wants to be made from a man’s rib? There is way too much dependency implied in the reading. And then for at least a few years, women have been joined by the Gay and Lesbian LBGT community, many of whom view this text as the source of right wing insistence that marriage can only be between a man and a woman. And for quite a few decades, those who live alone are not affirmed by these words at all.
And as if it were not enough to offend at least half the people in the room before the first reading is over, the gospel reading usually manages to offend all of the divorced people in the room as well.
And if by some chance there is someone left who is not put off by the first and third readings, the second reading seals the deal, especially for Lutherans. Martin Luther did not think the book of Hebrews should be in the Bible. And if you came to church this morning expecting to gain direction for your life or to get insight into anything, that second reading leaves us baffled as we wonder about how inscrutable a passage can be. What is that peculiar combination of verses from Hebrews 1 and 2 about? Who knows? And to be honest, who cares?
Then after offending the women, the gay community, the single people, those who are divorced, those who are thoughtful, those seeking solutions to real problems in the wisdom of the scripture; the readings finally paper over the whole mess with a final reference to loving children. We all love children. And puppies and apple pie. That should make us all feel good. Wow. Talk about a preaching hole. It’s going to take at least a couple of hours to dig our way out of all of this. And who has that kind of time? Are the Packers playing this afternoon?
Well, since we don’t have the time needed to work our way through the matters at hand given to us by the lectionary readings, let me note a few things.
First, despite the fact that we don’t like the readings, we don’t discard them. We accept them as they are. We don’t discard the committee decisions with which we are unhappy. That’s part of being an adult and living in community.
The assigned readings for each Sunday are like relatives in our extended families. Our families nurture and support us. But at times some of the people we are related to are pretty hard to live with. Many of us have a difficult relative in our extended family that will make Thanksgiving dinner a challenge: an Uncle Harry who believes that ever since the visitors from space landed at Roswell, there has been some international plot to slowly kill us all by putting strange things in the water, and the only way to avoid Armageddon is to escape to the north woods and join some survivalist group who wants to become an independent country.
Over the years we’ve all learned that it doesn’t pay to argue down Uncle Harry. He is just part of our difficult lineage. Instead, faced with the difficulties of family life at Thanksgiving, we find our own bearings, our own values, and we resolve to live by those. Uncle Harry’s holiday rambling actually helps us clarify what is really important and how we want to live. And so it is with these readings. Oh, Uncle Harry, look at the time! Let’s not spend the next couple of hours arguing about these readings. Let’s just use the readings to highlight what might be important for us here and now: things like sex and relationships and that cross of Jesus.
Whatever you think about Genesis and Mark, they take partnership in relationships seriously. And it is enough to lift up that seriousness. Regardless of who is in the partnership and regardless of how that partnership is shaped (and relationships come in all shapes) the love and affection between partners in households and families is extremely important: too important to easily dismiss and important enough to call all people in all relationships to lives marked with honesty, respect, mutual support and consolation, and tender affection regardless of how those relationships are defined, who is involved, and how new or old the relationship is. Of course there will be failure in relationships as there is in every dimension of life. But people of faith take partnership seriously and understand its importance.
The reference to children at the end of the Mark reading is actually a comment on the importance of trust. Trust is the attitude learned in childhood that allows the child to relate to others and believe in the kingdom of God. Trust is the foundation of relationships, marriage, friendships, partnerships, and households. Trust is also the foundation of social, community and economic life. Trust is the foundation of life together. When trust is lost, it takes a long, long time for it to come back; if it ever does. In their odd way, these readings call us to mutual support and consolation, tender affection, honesty and respect, so that we can trust one another in our homes, congregations, and communities.
This leaves us with the inscrutable second reading. Let me briefly talk about Hebrews: this first century essay on sacrifice. All through the essay, Jesus is making purification for sins, atoning for the sins of the world. His death is the one great and final sacrifice.
One of the interesting things about first century religious practice, when Hebrews is written, is how quickly the sacrificial system died in all the cities of the Roman Empire in just a few decades. Suddenly people were no longer going to temples to kill animals to appease the gods or to atone for their sins. New religious winds were blowing. People were meeting in groups to share their beliefs and experiences, their prayers and rites of unity.
So in this environment, in Hebrews Jesus is portrayed as the final sacrifice. Sacrifice is no longer needed. We don’t need to kill animals any more to appease God. The sacrifice of the blameless spotless Lamb of God ends the need for this.
Hebrews is an essay following the new religious winds of its time. We do not live our faith by sacrificing animals. Instead, we will meet in groups, reflect on the word, help each other along, and remember the sacrifice of Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed. And then slowly but surely we build lives based on that allusive thing called trust, while we mutually support each other in our good times and our bad.
Now there is one way in which first century Jesus people were not following the winds of religious change. They were unique in one particular way. In the first century gods and great people did not suffer and were not humiliated. They were exalted in power and glory. But the Christian God faced suffering, humiliation, and even death. This was new.
Jesus was even crucified, publically humiliated. He suffered death and was buried. And that suffering is in this reading, as it is in almost every book of the New Testament. Early Jesus people took suffering as seriously as they took their relationships. They understood that we all go through hell at one time and in one form or another. And when we do, we know that God is with us. God not only knows that suffering is part of the human condition, but God actually is humiliated in the life of Jesus. God is suffering with us when we face humiliation, loss, despair, and the ultimate loneliness that comes to us all regardless of the shape of our relational lives.
Oh, these readings on the surface are a horrible mess, but even these readings drive us to what is most important: the need to work on building our relationships and the ultimate loneliness that comes when we are overwhelmed by the humiliations of this life. For through it all, like children, we trust that we will make it because God is with us. So, in honor of these readings, let us raise a glass to the Uncle Harry’s of this world, who in their own strange way, help us ground ourselves in what really matters.