Stop the Violence!

2nd Sunday of Lent (B)

To say the story of Abraham and Isaac is difficult is a grave understatement. Abraham was a man whose longstanding personal relationship with Yahweh had developed over time through a series of tests and trials [see Genesis 12-22] and included a promise that he would father a great nation. Abraham had learned that Yahweh was trustworthy and kept promises; therefore he had no reason to doubt. But then he was asked to offer up his firstborn son to prove his worthiness. If a great nation was to come from this one man, his total commitment must be guaranteed. What better test  than to ask for what was most precious to him? Recall that in Abraham’s day human sacrifice was not uncommon. Also, recall that Abraham was prevented at the last minute from carrying out the sacrifice. He had passed the final test and became the father of the Hebrew nation.

Still, that happy ending does not change the fact the entire story line is unsettling and gruesome.  What kind of loving god would ask such a thing as a test of one’s faith? What if Abraham had objected? Maybe he did, but followed through nonetheless. We don’t know because the scripture does not tell us. Verses 3-8 which are omitted from today’s reading render an unemotional narrative of Abraham going through the motions: cutting the wood he would use, locating the place where the sacrifice would take place, arranging for there to be no witnesses, and carrying the fire and the knife that he would use to slaughter his son. Each step of the way the tension mounts, and Isaac’s innocent question about the animal they would sacrifice slowly reveals the horror of what is about to take place. The reader asks, “Is this really going to happen, is this what God wants?

Abraham’s anguish over what he thought he was being asked to do was not as important as his absolute knowledge that God is trustworthy. Surely he was confused and likely devastated by God’s request, but had personal knowledge of God’s love and faithfulness. This is the paradox of faith: the willingness to surrender what is most precious ultimately reveals the  bounty of what has been promised.

What does God expect from us? The the story is telling. At the very last minute Yahweh sends a messenger to stop Abraham, saying, “Do not lay your hand on that boy, do not do the least thing to him.” The message can be understood two ways. First, although we can’t fully understand God’s plan we need to trust that God truly has our best interests in mind. Our faith tells us this is true. Our commitment comes from our willingness to listen and  say “Yes, Lord” especially in times of extreme difficulty. Second, acts of violence are entirely in opposition to God’s plan for creation. God’s message is “Stop the violence!”  Rabbi Eitan Weiner-Kaplow of Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Synagogue explains: “In reading this story we recognize the critical lesson is that God does not want the death of human beings as a sign of faith and a sign of doing God’s will. Therefore the lesson for this time has got to be, we all have to come together to end war and stop the violence and stop the sacrifice and stop the killing.”

As an evangelizing people our witness to the Good News must reflect both of these points with a trusting commitment to God and an active commitment to peace.

ART: Section from Rembrandt’s The Angel Stopping Abraham from Sacrificing Isaac to God. 1635

“You can give up all the candy you want and still be trapped in the old mind.” Richard Rohr, OFM

Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM © Center for Action and Contemplation

Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM © Center for Action and Contemplation

If you don’t know Richard Rohr, OFM, and have not read any of his books or articles, or have heard him speak, please stop what you are doing, click this link to learn about The Center for Action and Contemplation, which he founded, and at the very least, subscribe to his daily meditation so you too can be enriched on a daily basis by his fresh contemplative expressions of radical compassion. Each brief reflection is drawn from one of Rohr’s published works. I’m not exaggerating, people. Rohr simply nails it day after day. Today’s reflection on religious maturity is particularly poignant during Lent.  I am pasting it below as a way of introduction.

“People who are in early stage religion usually love the “two steps backward” quotes in the Bible. They seem to be drawn toward anything that’s punitive, shame-based, exclusionary of “wrong” people, or anything that justifies the status quo which just happens to be keeping them on top socially, economically, and religiously. They start by thinking that’s what religion is about–maintaining order and social control. God is sort of a glorified Miss Manners. They emphasize the Almighty, All-Powerful nature of God, who is made into the Great Policeman in the sky to keep us all under control (or at least everybody else under control!). Now you see how revolutionary God’s “new idea” is that was revealed in Jesus. Suddenly we have a God that is anything but a policeman, a God who finds grace in those who break the law, and finds life and freedom among the lepers and the sinners who do not have good manners. This is now an upside down universe, and I am sad to say most Christians have yet to participate in this Divine Revolution.

Mature religious people, that is, those who develop an actual inner life of prayer and outer life of service, tend to notice and imitate the “three steps forward” quotes in the Bible. First they change their life stance–and then they can be entrusted with the Bible. For all others who will not change their life position, the Bible is mere information and ammunition. It would be better if they did not read it! Only converted people, who are in union with both the pain of the world and the love of God, are prepared to read the Bible–with the right pair of eyes and the appropriate bias–which is from the side of powerlessness and suffering instead of the side of power and control. This is foundational and essential conversion, and it is the biblical characters themselves that first reveal this pattern, which then becomes obvious as you look around the world that we live in. The Greek word ineffectively translated as “repentance” in the Bible quite literally means “to change your mind” (metanoia), which is what this season of Lent is supposed to be about. It is not about giving up candy! You can give up all the candy you want and still be trapped in the old mind. You can give up no candy at all, but still allow yourself a total “revolution of the mind” (Ephesians 4:23). That is what Lent is about.

Adapted from Gospel Call for Compassionate Action (Bias from the Bottom)
in CAC Foundation Set (CD, MP3 download)

Truth seeking involves the willingness to change lanes with the powerless, not settle into the righteous rut of certitude. Let’s go for a ride.

Live the Questions.

Rilke-by-L.Pasternak1928

Portrait of Rilke by Leonid Pasternak – 1928

1st Sunday of Lent (B)

One of my favorite Christmas gifts last year came from my husband. He gave me and both of our daughters copies of A Year with Rilke. This book includes daily readings culled from the poet’s published works and letters. Inside the front cover of each book my husband suggested “we could all read the daily poem as a small way to stay connected throughout the year.” Our daughters are on their own now,  and one currently lives halfway across the country. Still, we regularly share with one another stories, articles, links, and podcasts that we think are interesting, so this gift has real meaning for each of us.

While I find each day’s reading thought provoking, I find Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” to be the most memorable, and in fact, many of these linger well into my day. The following excerpt from February 18, for example, is a gentle reminder to step back, resist the urge to create neat piles, allow chaos a dwelling space, and live with the unfolding mystery of life. This is a good practice in general, but has particular value during Lent.


Live the Questions

I want to ask you, as clearly as I can, to bear with patience all that is unresolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves, as if they were rooms yet to enter or books written in a foreign language. Don’t dig for answers that can’t be given you yet: you cannot live them now. For everything must be lived. Live the questions now, perhaps then, someday you will gradually, without noticing, live into the answer.

— Worpswede, July 16, 1903, Letters to a Young Poet

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) has been called “the greatest German poet of the twentieth century” (The Economist). I’m going to bypass writing a short biography of the poet and just point you here instead.

Barrows, Anita, and Joanna Macy. A Year with Rilke: Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke. 1st edition. New York: HarperOne, 2009. p 49.

You can find the book here, or at your favorite bookseller.

Insiders, outsiders, and everyone in-between

6th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

It’s hard to believe, but the stigma of leprosy is still alive and well, and by that I do not refer to the unacceptable social alienation suffered by many of our brothers and sisters. I mean it literally. In a report dated January 22, 2015, Reuters news agency reveals the presence of discriminatory laws in around 20 countries where leprosy survivors’ rights to marry, work, study and travel are limited.

Although leprosy was once believed to be highly contagious, nowadays cases are quite rare and are easily treated with antibiotics. Still, being cured is apparently not enough; millions suffer a lifelong stigma rooted in antiquated laws and fears. In some countries entire families are regularly evicted from their neighborhoods and left to live a life of unbearable loneliness.

In Biblical times, any variety of dermatological conditions could be suspected as leprosy. Once spotted, a person afflicted with a “scab, pustule, or blotch” was obliged to meet with the priest whose positive diagnosis included no cure, only immediate isolation from the community. Of course, the reason for quarantine was to prevent the spread of the disease, particularly in public worship spaces. However, the outcome was the creation of colonies which separated the clean and the unclean who also could be understood as the whole and the broken, the insiders and the outsiders, the useful and the useless.

Throughout the Gospels we see Jesus removing barriers, bridging the gap between insiders and outsiders, returning broken people to wholeness, liberating the socially alienated and bringing people to a new understanding of what his Father’s kingdom was really about. Jesus is both the great emancipator and the great unifier. In her book of reflections on the lectionary, God’s Word is Alive, author Alice Camille writes “Jesus understood that people needed community more than they needed a cure.” She’s right. And while we might not be lepers, nor are we possessed, and we might not have a wilted hand or a sensory disability, many of us suffer from isolating social conditions. Loneliness, for example, is one which continues to magnify the distance between social insiders and outsiders.

A friend of mine who struggles with loneliness told me it reaches its peak when she is in a crowded place. There, she says, she is neither an insider nor an outsider because from her point of view those two labels still imply some kind of community to which she does not belong. When she shared with me her sense of Jesus in the midst of her desolation I suggested that perhaps her loneliness and desire to belong were a mirror of God’s longing for her and for the entire world. Think of this. Might the divine spark which dwells in each of us, and in whose image we were created, drive our desire to build meaningful and life-giving relationships? Yet, for countless unacceptable reasons a vast gap still exists between those who fit in and social outcasts. As an evangelizing people  we are compelled to seek the missing, widen our welcome, eliminate barriers, heal brokenness and loneliness, practice forgiveness, and work to unify God’s people in all that we do, just as Jesus did.

Today’s readings can be found here. 


http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/01/22/us-health-discrimination-leprosy-idUSKBN0KV27T2015012

Image © Depositphotos.com [Daniel Dunca]