Friday, February 25, 2011

We're Not Forgotten -- A Lectionary Meditation

Isaiah 49:8-16a

1 Corinthians 4:1-5

Matthew 6:24-34

We're Not Forgotten!

One of humanity's greatest fears is to be forgotten. Whether we're extroverts or introverts, we want to know that someone cares about whether we live or die. The words Jesus is said to have uttered from the Cross, words that come to us from Psalm 22, express clearly our fears:
My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but I find no rest. (Ps. 22:1-2).
The promise of Scripture is that God does not forget. Even when we feel alone and despondent, God is present with us. These are words that give hope and solace in difficult times, when we feel as if God has forgotten us. Such words don't make the journey less arduous, but they provide a sense of strength. But the Scriptures that remind us that we're not alone, also remind us that God comes to us in community. The two go together.

As we listen to the voices speaking to us from the week's lectionary texts, we hear this reminder that God is present, but we also hear, especially in the Pauline text, a reminder that God is present in and through the community. The latter voice may be subtle, but it is there, in the words about trust. Indeed, community rests on the foundation of trust.

As we most often do, we start with the voice that speaks to us from the first testament. Here is the voice of the prophet who speaks to us from out of the exile, speaking to people who have experienced desolation, who have experienced imprisonment. They were a people without a home. This is a word that resonates with many living in our own time, people feeling the pangs of decreased value in homes, salaries, and retirements, unemployment and foreclosure, along with rising prices in other areas of life. There is great uncertainty about the future. Revolutions in the Middle East and the expansion of globalization. There is the reality that the gap between the richest members of society and the poorest is growing, while the middle class is shrinking. We know the darkness. It surrounds us. We feel it every day.

But even as Isaiah gives voice to our sense of being alone and forsaken, the prophet speaks a word of hope and salvation. A light will shine in the darkness. Songs of joy will erupt from the people. Indeed, they will feed from the bare heights and experience neither hunger nor thirst, neither scorching wind sun nor will the sun strike them down. This is because the Lord will lead them to pasture and flowing waters. The impassable mountains will become roads and the people will come from North and West to reinhabit the land. We may feel forgotten, but as the prophet states on behalf of God, "Can a woman forget her nursing child or show no compassion for her child?" Yes, we might find examples, but like the compassionate and committed mother, the Lord will not forget, for the Lord has "inscribed you on the palms of my hand."

All is not darkness. There is hope, for God is with us. But we know that there is need for God's presence to be tangible. We are not created to be alone - as the second creation account makes clear - God discerned that it was not good for the man to be alone (Gen. 2:18) and so God created a partner who fit with him, to share life in all its forms with him. Paul's brief words from 1 Corinthians 4 don't speak directly to the issue of forsakenness or community, but it is implicit in the words spoken to the people of this congregation. Indeed, the entire letter is focused on helping this people live together in a way that is healing and empowering. The focus is on Paul's claim to be a servant of Christ and a steward of God's mysteries. He knows nothing that can be held against him - nothing worth taking to court. As far as he is concerned, God alone is able to judge. The word is - don't pronounce judgment before the Lord comes, for it is the Lord who brings light to our darkness. In this case it is a light that illuminates the things that are done in darkness. Although the Pauline text is not as directly related to the themes present in the word from the prophets or from the Gospels, there is a word here this important. It is the word "trustworthy." For the community to be a place of healing and hope, so that we needn't walk this path alone, there needs to be trust, and as we know trust has become scarce in our day. The wary forward requires that the people of God become trust-builders. It is not an easy path. It requires that we not fall into cynicism and suspicion, but rather leave the judging and the revealing to God. Yes, be discerning, but do so prayerfully and carefully, so that the community might exist for the good of the world, that together we might all be servants of Christ and stewards of God's mysteries.

Finally we come to the Gospel. It is another passage from the Sermon on the Mount, though the lectionary skips from the end of chapter five into the middle of chapter six. The words about worship and prayer are set aside, so that we might hear a word that connects with the first text. It is a call to put one's trust in God. We worry, Jesus says, because we seek to serve two masters. But you can't do this. You can't serve God and the pursuit of wealth. One of the most scandalous parts of the Gospel is Jesus' constant challenge to people of wealth. He loves them and encourages them, but he also challenges them to let go of the pursuit of things that don't matter in the kingdom of God.

As we listen to this radical voice we are put in a difficult position. This is no capitalist God who is calling us into communion. We're not being encouraged to buy the latest car or fashion or to worry about what we'll eat or drink. There's no need to do this because worry doesn't do anything. I can't produce anything of value. It simply puts us in a position of enslavement. I hear this word, this call to seek God's realm, and yet I have a house payment, car payments, insurance bills, and the need to put food on the table. Over all I'm fortunate. The darkness hasn't closed in on me - though I've known the times when darkness seemed close at hand - perhaps not to the extent of so many others, but I know the feeling. So what do we make of this word from Jesus that tells us that we can't add an hour to our lives by worrying about what we'll eat or wear.

How do we respond to the premise that God knows our needs and will provide. What is it that God will provide and how will God provide? I'm cognizant of the word that was given to the Thessalonians who in their anticipation of the return of Christ seem to have gone off to the hillside to wait for the big event. The word comes - if you don't work, you don't eat (2 Thess. 2:6ff). So, is Jesus suggesting we simply sit and wait for God to come and give us food and clothes? I'm not so sure. Is Jesus providing a foundation for that innocuous Bobby McFerrin tune - "Don't Worry, Be Happy"? Some how I don't think that's the point. It is not a call to put one's head in the sand, but instead it's a call to get one's priorities in the right place.

In the end the word seems to be this: God is present with us on the journey, so that even as a mother would not forget her child, so God will not forget us. There is a trustworthiness present here that we are called to acknowledge. God has made a covenant and God is true to God's covenant. It is to this covenant that we are called to be servants and stewards, so that even as God is trustworthy, so might we, even as we seek the reign of God. When we do this, everything will fall into place. Thus, there is no need to worry about tomorrow. Instead, let us take care of today's challenges, which are sufficient for the day.

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