Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Hard, Sharp Edge of the Gospel

Reflections on the Third Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 7-Year A

At this week's Bible Study, we all arrived feeling rather worn and stretched by life and the challenges that God has raised in our lives. The readings for this coming Sunday, and the Collect we will pray in worship, struck us all...hard. The first reading from the prophet Jeremiah started the provocation. The passage offers his reflection the on struggles he endured under the influence of his charge by God to proclaim judgment on the people of Israel, and his attempts to deny it. On the one hand, he faces persecution for his exclamations. On the other, the word and will of God dwells in him with such intensity that when he refuses to let it out, it burns in his bones like fire. In the text following just after Sunday's reading, we found that he goes so far as to curse the day of his birth, preferring that he would have been born still, rather than endure the weight of this prophetic, eruptive charge placed on him by God. We read that dour passage with both frustration and affirmation rising up in us. You see, in a life that is touched by God, it is not that unusual that we should at times be faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges, ones set before us by God that are enough to cause us to doubt God's enduring and steadfast love for us. Why get upset at that occasional, awe-full bump in the road? Because if we treated each other like that, people would wonder at the least that is the way it can feel. It would be more pleasant, we humor ourselves, if God would not have quite so much confidence in us.

That is the hard, sharp edge of the Gospel. It is the Everest of faith, a summit of service to God in which we are given challenges that exceed what we know we can do while equipped only with what we assume to be the most basic of skills and tools. God told Abraham and Sarah that they would become first time parents as nonagenarians. God wrestled Jacob at the riverside, putting his hip out of joint. God led the people of Israel through the desert wilderness, only to bring them to a Promised Land filled with other people. God put it on Jeremiah to proclaim the horrid to the wicked, and to suffer privation and rejection as the sole voice of judgment. God directed Daniel to speak truth to a power that could not only snuff him out, but his entire people, culture...even the memory of them.

The precedent of God hitting us with more than we can either ask or imagine is not new. What is novel is our experience of that summons in the here and now. What is God asking of you that feels like an impossibility today? What do you dread that God will ask of you tomorrow? 

Quick answer, in case you hadn't guessed already: the seeming impossible.

Then what's the point? 

The point is that God sees more in us, and is able to accomplish more with us, that we can ask for or imagine. Simple affirmation to offer up, but when we start to live it out we begin to realize that it is only in the most challenging calls that we can even begin to plumb the depths of the work that God is able to accomplish in us, in our lives and with our unprepared and reluctant wills and witness.

Paul work hard, very hard, to help us through this conundrum. Paul points to the material hope we have in Christ. I appreciate the effort. The downside is his honesty. These challenges feel like we are being challenged to death. The depth and intensity of these types of labors might not BE death to us, but they feel like it. The challenges threaten our egos, our previous certainties, our desire for peace (or at the least, quiet). They disrupt us and knock us off center. They remind us that change sometimes really does feel like death, or dying. Paul doesn't deny that feeling. He affirms and confirms it. Christ Jesus sustained all of these trials, and the outcome was and is resurrection. Take heart, it really is that tough sometimes, says Paul.

Jesus is only slightly more pastoral: He affirms the level of difficulty that a life in service to the Gospel and to God presents. He also affirms that God is not an absentee commissioner. God is attentive, present and involved in our involvements. God has an eye on the sparrow, and at the same time is giving us full and undivided attention. In other words, God is totally engaged with us. That's grand, but it also means that we are by extension utterly and totally (and visibly) accountable to God for the work at hand.

The life of a faithful disciple is a beautiful one. I try to live it with occasional effectiveness. I see it blooming in the people around me all the time. The downside of this reality is that God's not offering the conditional assent we would prefer. I would much prefer to be of use, than to be "use-full" to God's purpose. Why? Because being "of use" means I am in control. Being full of use means that I am out of control of the situation.

That is the beauty, and weight, of God's abundant grace and glory. We have a God who is extravagantly and passionately engaged in our lives, who invites us to become a part of the Divine work of the healing and redemption of creation. When we willingly answer that invitation, then we get the full measure of grace needed to begin to accomplish God's work and purpose...and that is overwhelming. The good news is that at the other end of that transformational work, we are made whole in a new life in Christ. We also are able to bring others along on that journey.

It is BEING transformed that hurts, because it knocks us out of stasis and into a more dynamic place of existing. We are no longer a cold, static lump of ore, hidden in the ground. We are a heated, raw, mutable metal being forged, fashioned and tempered for use aa a tool for the construction of God's heavenly domain.

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