So first, a confession: I decided to take on, as my Lenten discipline, a cycle of reading the lectionary and reflecting on it. I haven't done well by that. Mea culpa. But, on the other hand, there are more experiences than just that that I would like to reflect on and share with you, O dear reader. So allow me to do so...
The Revised Common Lectionary for the First Sunday in Lent:
The basic story for the first Sunday in Lent involves Jesus going out into the desert. There is no direct mention in it this year, but we teach that he goes out for 40 days of fasting and prayer. And we attribute the motive for this event to the Holy Spirit. I always chuckle at this last part, only because I found this joke last year:
However, last week, I found myself enthralled by the words of my friend Vant, who was preaching. He suggested that we look at the three temptations of Christ as more types or categories of sin. In the first temptation, the devil told Christ that he should make loaves of bread out of the stones in front of him. Vant suggested that this was a temptation of bodily wants and desires, and that this is the basic deprivation we make ourselves endure when we are fasting. Next, the devil told Christ to cast himself down from the highest point because angels would come and catch him, also proving that Jesus was the Son of God. The type of this sin has to do with security and death, namely, that Christ has been so certain of his status, and here, if he partakes of this demonstration, he could be proven to be simply mortal, no different than any other. Last was the devil saying that he would give Christ to rule everything that sparkled, if he would only bow down and worship the devil himself. This was a temptation of power.
Now, there's a whole sermon in this (go figure, I heard Vant give it... and you can download a podcast version of it here) so all I'll say is this: I had never thought about this story that way before. I've always taken it that this story was intended to prove that Jesus was God's Chosen One (please read: chosen by the Judeo-Christian god, YHWH). More recently, I saw the humor exemplified in the joke above. What Vant presented was much more subtle and moving. And so I am thankful for what he said.
The Second Monday of the Second Odd-Numbered Month:
The next night, Monday, I went to Loaves & Fishes with my EMMA Young Adult group (to learn more about them and what I've been doing with them, read this post). It was a good night of service; members of our group felt uplifted by what they felt they offered to the guests who ate at Loaves & Fishes. I had a much less acceptable reaction: I was angry because an old man told me off.
Let me give a little background: one of the things we decided we valued in this service opportunity was sitting and eating with the people we served the meal to. It was the aspect of proverbially "breaking bread" with the marginalized ones and we wanted to make a point of breaking down that barrier. So when my turn came to eat, I went to sit at what looked like the bachelors' table. I sat and I listened and I asked a few questions. One thing led to another and one guys leans over the table toward me and says "I wanna tell you somethin'... Look around. You know, at least half of these people don't have anyplace to go to tonight. You should feel thankful to have a warm house and a warm shower to go home to."
I was not expecting it, so I agreed with him, said I was aware, said that I was thankful for what I had. I tried telling him that things aren't so easy for my wife or I, either, but he just kept saying things like that, said I had no idea, that I had it so good and it seemed that no amount of yessiring or nahsirring would get him to stop. He finally finished his dinner and left.
I think what made me so angry was that he talked at me like I was ignorant, like I have no idea how bad the situation actually is for so many people. To a certain extent, he was right. But moreover, I was angry at him because he thought I had had him figured out and he had decided that he would set the record straight. And that sentiment is exactly what I wanted to do with all the old church folk who have "supported" me in my discernment of vocation or who have bestowed upon me their "life wisdom."
I figure that now, most of you are reacting in any number of ways. You may think "it was wrong of him to do that to you," or, "Maybe he just needed someone to listen," or, "Do you think this is a God moment?" And, frankly, I don't care. Before I start looking for the signature of God in this instance, I just want to hold it up, examine it, dwell with the emotion of it. Because it's been a week and I'm only now I finding myself able to write clearly about it. All I'll say is that I hope my presence made as much a mark in his memory as his made a mark in mine. But that may just be vain.
The Revised Common Lectionary for the Second Sunday in Lent:
I want to switch gears quickly and write about the lectionary for today, the Second Sunday in Lent because I'm writing on Sunday, even though I'll publish on Monday...
The lectionary today is the story of Nicodemus coming to question Jesus. What I find most striking in this story is that Nicodemus is so literal, despite so much symbolism and so many metaphors around him. For example, Nicodemus comes by night to talk to Jesus, while one of Jesus' symbols is the light. It sets up a juxtaposition for who is "enlightened" and who is still "in the dark." There is also the metaphor of being "born again," which Nicodemus takes and proceeds to ask Jesus how a man could climb back into his mother's womb to be born a second time. When I was young, I chuckled at this one because I thought this man was silly, wanting to go back into his mother's womb. It seemed gross to me. But the point is that Jesus tries to point out something about how following him requires a transformation and, in trying to make that transformation understandable and relatable to the people who heard him preach, he tried to use common metaphors. Which were then promptly taken and misunderstood.
All that acknowledged, however, this story is definitely one that I could hold up to say I understand the scripture as a retelling of Jesus' ministry and that, in retelling it, it becomes a little more magnificent, it goes a little farther into the realm of legend, takes on a little more mythic proportion. And in all of that, it gets a little farther away from being merely history.
One more comment about the lectionary and then I'll be done. This gospel reading includes the famous John 3:16, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life." I've often struggled with this verse because, despite being a statement of love, I have seen it used as a weapon so many times. I've seen it used in times where people seem to be saying Listen here, God loves you and you had better love him back, because he died for you and you owe it to him to love him that much back. I don't like that. I would rather see the statement of love and not the statement of guilt. And I often hold up John 3:17 to do so: "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him." I like that because it points out that this whole Christian thing is not about condemnation, but rather salvation, pointing out that this world here in front of you is not all there is; I think we participate in larger metaphor; we are involved with a deeper reality that transcends what is right in front of us. And that gives me comfort.