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Psalm 63:1-8 & Luke 13:1-9
March 24th– LENT III
Thursday morning I left the house earlier than usual. With spring break, I had no “getting kids ready for school” duties, and many of my regular meetings for the week had been cancelled. So, I took the chance to get to the coffeeshop early and do some writing. On my way down 41stheaded to Riverside, I could see the biggest, most amazing full moon, still pretty high in the western sky, it seemed to me. Then the glare hit me in my rear-view mirror as the bright red sun rose in the east. In that one moment, I could see the yesterday fading in one direction and the day to come rising in the other. It’s rare to be faced with both sides of the scale in such a direct way. Of course that often happens – the moon and the sun at the same time, the night and the day not nearly as separated as we often think of them. It’s not often so visible, though, which gives way to us thinking that these two “sides” are opposites, not connected parts of a circle.
The psalmist sings of this balance for us today, as we hear a prayer to God – a petition, actually – that is attributed to King David. It’s written from “the wilderness,” full of praise and the claims to need only God and God’s presence. “I seek you,” the song sings, “my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” I’ll admit it’s not a feeling I readily know. I mean there are times that I long for the transcendent, and times that prayer and fasting – from food, from social media, from the flow of life — can help me find meaning. But more often I find the presence of God right in the middle of life — in a good meal shared with friends, in a long walk, a good conversation rather than a vow of silence.
It can be easy to read a psalm like this and think that your faith efforts pale in comparison to the monk-ish discipline of “David,” seeking God with “all of his being.” That’s why our lectionary editing is so critical. What you heard this morning is a perfect Lent cut, full of the sacrifice and dedication that we’re supposed to have during this “somber” season of reflection. What better way to solidify that than have a psalm extolling such virtues, using words like “meditate,” “seek,” “thirst,” and “faint?” Maybe that’s why the lectionary reading stops right after all of this “smoke-blowing” directed at the God whose, “steadfast love is better than life.”
But the psalm goes on. The last few verses read:
But those who seek to destroy my life
shall go down into the depths of the earth;
they shall be given over to the power of the sword,
they shall be prey for jackals.
But the king shall rejoice in God;
all who swear by him shall exult,
for the mouths of liars will be stopped.
In other words, after all of that praise and discipline and soul-searching, David’s petition is for the crushing of his enemies, as if all of the praise is just buttering up God so that God’s judgment can be used in David’s favor. It seems like maybe someone needs to fast a little longer.
Of course, that might be how we think of God – a great wizard behind the cosmic curtain, available to deliver to us heart, or brain, or courage. But God is no vending machine, and judgment and mercy are not separate sides, one the full moon and one the rising sun. It’s a difficult lesson to learn, so difficult that Jesus has many, many parables about it. That’s the sure way to know what the teacher wants you to learn, look at the syllabus.
The story of the bent-over woman, is the story of a woman alone in the deepest sense of that word…without a name, forgotten, discarded, neglected, suffering, so ignored that she is literally bent over so her face is not visible. It is a story of God’s judgment and God’s mercy, met together…delivered together…experiencedtogether. This is what makes Jesus so controversial and dangerous in his time. He announces God’s mercy to those on whom the culture has pronounced judgment and he pronounces judgment on the ones who are supposedly recipients of God’s grace and mercy, helping both sides connect to the circle…helping us all to understand judgment apart from shame and mercy apart from absolution.
The story of the so-called “bent woman” comes after the scripture reading for today from the lectionary. But they are connected. The reading speaks of God’s judgment using perhaps two historical events for Luke’s audience, events that are lost to us now. One is some grisly event in which Pilate mingles the blood of Galileans with their sacrifices, perhaps a reference to a massacre of a group of Galilean pilgrims in Jerusalem. The other is the “tower of Siloam” which apparently collapses and kills many people. In both cases, Jesus raises the age-old theological quandary – where is God in suffering? He asks the gathered directly – do you think that these people did something wrong and therefore this tragedy was punishment from God? His answer is unequivocal – nope. That’s not how God works.
But it may be how wework. We pick winners and losers all the time. Our systems are completely structured by this…even the democracy that we supposedly enjoy here in the US of A could be seen as nothing more than the tyranny of the majority, or even the tyranny of the electoral college. Just a couple of years ago we had a debate held in the public forum. One side said, “Black Lives Matter.” Another side said, “all lives matter.” These two “sides” were presented often as if they were opposing sides, as if they were separate ideas, when the reality is that both are true, but they impact us the same way as Jesus presents us with God’s judgment and God’s mercy. If you are a person who has witnessed and experienced the very direct and costly ways that the culture around you does not value you in the same way as others based, in the only logic conclusion, on the color of your skin, then saying, “all lives matter” is not a display of mercy. It is not even true. It is only true IF black lives matter…and they don’t, at least according to any reasonable quantification of economics, criminal justice, employment, housing, etc. When we can effectively say that black lives DO matter, and the statistics bear that out, then, and only then, can we say that ALL lives matter. But by that time, we’ll probably have some other lives to pay attention to because ALL lives matter is a goal, not a destination. You never arrive, because there is always someone else to include, someplace else to visit, some other group or individual who is ignored, left out, forgotten.
We seem to have lost this capacity, perhaps no where more so than in this country. As we all reel from the shootings in Christchurch, and we bear witness to a nation that has not even waited until all of the funerals have happened to take decisive and bold action on the weapons of murder in their midst, we might be tempted to some introspection. After all, New Zealand is not exactly an unarmed nation. And they have gun ranges and their own version of the NRA. They have an opposition party in their government, but all of these agencies are on board with the change.
It makes me wonder. Has our glib “all lives matter” dismissal hardened our hearts so much that we cannot even see what lives don’t matter? And does that have a theological foundation? Has a fundamentalist theology, one that clearly designates winners and losers, one that makes God into a cosmic vending machine, doling out blessings and punishments on the good and the wicked, always demarcated neatly, one which has permeated our culture so deeply…has this theology shaped our hearts so inwardly that we are not able to feel in the same way that the kiwis have felt for one another…has it twisted us so much that we are incapable of seeing ourselves in other people, other religions, other identities, other nationalities, other, other, other?
I don’t want to think that. It feels so much like a judgment to me. Yet God’s judgment, in one way of looking at it, is an ever present gift. What Jesus reminds us is that God’s judgment always comes alongside God’s mercy. This is why Jesus wants to talk endlessly about repentance. Repentance has also gotten a bum rap. Jesus calls us to “turn around,” which is what repentance means, and we’ve made this into a singular event. We repent, get baptized and everything’s cool. Only it’s not. We continue to screw up, to act out of jealousy or anger, to break our word, to lie, to game the system in our favor and call it “hard work,” to close the door on some people because “The Bible Says” and call it “love.” We continue to be unable to experience someone else’s loss deeply enough to let us change us. Repentance is a journey. Jesus keeps bringing it up because we must keep doing it. It is our engagement with the divine circle that is God’s judgment and God’s grace and mercy.
Perhaps the more important thing for the story of the “bent over woman” to give to us is just that – for she is “seen” by so many in her time in the public square. They don’t know her name…WE don’t know her name. Her pain is visible and constant, yet we look for ways that this is herfault, we look away lest we imagine how we might end up there. Instead of opening our hearts with compassion, we take more vitamins, or insulate ourselves with possessions, or keep up with our yoga to insure our bodies never, ever fail. We keep the story at arms’ length, for fear of what it is really asking us to do.
Her story asks us to reconsider how we have ordered the world. It asks us to think about our own resources, about deserving and not deserving, about our “self-made-ness”, our obligations, the “common good,” the call on us when we have accepted that we are children of God to return the favor to others, too. In one way of looking at it, it is God’s judgment, shining a light on our so-called “wisdom.” Jesus standing with and for this woman whose name no one knows, comes in the long litany of actions in which Jesus, the son of God…Jesus, the messiah…Jesus, the savior of the world, gives away his power. He sees suffering and casts love not blame, he has power and gives it away. We, the parable tells us, don’t see at all…or we see and we disregard. When faced with a decision that asks us to consider being loving we instead ask, where are the figs? What value is this tree to me? What do I get out of this?
It’s as if the church doesn’t have a vision problem, it has a love problem. We don’t even know what love is, despite the many examples Jesus gives to us. If all lives did indeed matter, we wouldn’t have to saythat all lives matter. And if all lives truly did matter, we wouldn’t have to say black lives matter. But we do, because they don’t. We do, because we see and disregard. We do, because we still don’t know what love means. We get defensive when the judgment comes our way, rather than seeing it like the full moon in front of us, with God’s mercy rising like the sun behind us, part of a spiritually-vibrant circle. My yoke is easy, Jesus reminds us, my burden is light, but it is real, my friends. It asks us to be better, to try harder, to seek God’s love and then to make it manifest in the world through our own hearts and hands and feet. It is a love that begins at the cross, made manifest in opposition to our system of winners and losers, our animosity and divisions and hate, our quoting of “the rules,” and our insistence on knowing the heart of God. The good news is that despite our stubbornness, God just keeps on being God…
Thanks be to God.