Fourth Sunday of Lent
Dignity/NoVA (March 21, 2009)
To be honest, I feel a little less prepared standing before you this weekend than I usually do. I say that not because I haven’t had time to look over the scriptures we just heard, not because I haven’t been able to think about them, to reflect on them, to study them, and pray about them. No, I say that because even with the attention I’ve given them over the past week or so … there’s something about them that I’m not quite sure I “get.” And so I struggle with coming to a “conclusion” about what the real message of today’s Scriptures is. In fact, I struggle with that because I see in the passages we just heard – the first reading from the Book of Chronicles, and then the two New Testament passages from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians and the Gospel of John – I see a real tension and conflict. It’s a tension that conveys different understandings of God and how God and humanity interact.
Let me say more about what I mean by that.
In the reading from Chronicles, we hear briefly about how the Chosen People, the Israelites, have essentially not been following God’s Law. The passage starts off by stating explicitly that the leaders (both political and religious) as well as all the people have been guilty of “abominations” and unfaithfulness, adding “infidelity to infidelity.” They ignored divine messenger after divine messenger, not heeding God’s word and call. And so, in response to this, the author of Chronicles tells us that God’s anger is roused and God allows the Chosen People to be attacked, to be conquered and to be sent into what is called the Babylonian Exile. This sort of dynamic is very familiar to our human lives – namely the dynamic that Behaviors have Consequences. In my work we provide information to parents whose children have certain challenges – and the ideas of Behavioral Interventions are based on this fundamental concept. One approach to this even uses the simple concept of ABC – antecedent, behavior, consequence. A small child has been told that the stove is hot and not to touch it; for whatever reason (curiosity? obstinacy?), the child touches the stove and immediately experiences the consequence of a painful burn. Even as adults we know that the things we do or say, our actions and inactions – these all can have consequences (sometimes severe) of how others relate to and interact with us.
And so on one level, we’re not surprised when we see this very human dynamic played out and mirrored in Humanity’s encounter with the Divine. The Chosen People were told how they should act and behave (the Antecedent); they chose not to follow God’s Law as the prophets revealed (the Behavior); and so God’s anger is stirred up and they are carted off into exile (the Consequence).
When we move to our two New Testament readings, however, we get a very different picture. The love and mercy that Paul speaks of isn’t offered because humanity has acted well, has followed God’s Law and is deserving of this Divine Reward. No, Paul states that “even when we were dead in our transgressions,” it was the freely given love and grace of God that restored humanity to life. Twice we hear the phrase, “by grace you have been saved.” Grace – the freely given gift of God’s very self – is not a consequence of our human behavior. If it is a “consequence” at all, it is a consequence of God’s own Nature – the Divine who brings us into being, who sustains us in this life, and who calls us to joy and happiness in eternal life.
And so we have these different and apparently contradictory perspectives of how God and Humanity interact. How, then, are we to resolve them? A bit of an answer can be found, I think in the Gospel passage from John.
In speaking to Nicodemus, we hear Jesus speak of those very simple yet profound images of Darkness and Light. Just a few sentences before we’re told that Nicodemus came to Jesus “at night” – highlighting the fact that he was a man whose faith had not yet been fully formed and setting the stage for later on in the Gospel when Nicodemus will encounter Jesus in the Daylight, symbolically signaling his growth in faith. John tell us that the person of faith – the one who lives “in the Light” – that person’s “works” are therefore seen to be good and as “done in God.” So – it seems – that there really isn’t a contradiction here, but simply a change in order. God’s gift of grace is not the consequence of or reward for good human behavior – it’s the other way around. Despite the fact that we still even in our own day hear “Christian” preachers and others proclaim that natural and human disasters are God’s wrath visited on humanity because of some perceived “sin” that didn’t fit in with their worldview or understanding of God – as in the case of HIV/AIDS and even Hurricane Katrina – the Christian perspective reminds us boldly that this is not the case. Because we strive to be people of faith, because we strive to have hearts and minds open to God’s free gifts already given – it’s because of this that we then also seek to do good works that are “done in God.” It’s the gift of faith that impels us to do good things.
Our task this Lenten season is to challenge our purely human way of thinking. As long as we continue to think that it’s our actions that cause God to love us, to care for us, to reward us with salvation – as long as we continue to have a purely human perspective on the Divine-Human interaction, then I think we will still be “in exile” in some form or another. Only when we are able to let go of the perspective that tells us we somehow deserve God’s love (or, conversely, God’s punishment) and are able simply to accept God’s love and mercy and grace as the pure gifts that they are … only then will we be freed enough truly to live in the light; only then will we be able to live and act and work like the Children of God we already are.