The Common Good
November-December 2002

Living the Word

by Kari Jo Verhulst | November-December 2002

Bible Study

I used to wake at 3 a.m. with a start, jolted awake by the certainty that we had made God up. Given the dispassionate nature of the world, and the banality of our cruelty and self-absorption, the idea of a loving, present God seemed overwhelmingly absurd—a feeling as sad as it was terrifying. Thus it has been a great and humbling relief to discover that I exist in the company of millennia of God-lovers who also awaken to this dreadful sense of improbability. Those wiser than I—rabbis and poets, theologians and preachers—locate these midnight churnings squarely within the life of faith. I heard one say that if you're not convinced you're making it up at least a third of the time, you're spiritually dead. "So," I now say to myself on nights like these, "this is what it is to be alive."

To live in the Triune God is to "accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete," to borrow from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Living in the hope of our fundamental confession—that God, who is, has come in Jesus to dwell irrevocably with and in us, full of grace and truth—requires a radical abdication of control, reminding us that it is God, not us, who has both the power and the responsibility to make good on God's promises. This release of control renders us vulnerable even as it frees us to receive. For God's promises are effective—they free us to risk disappointment and give us the courage to relinquish our most critical defenses, so we can grieve past disappointments and permit ourselves to desire and yearn once again.

Advent attunes our ears and clears out our hearts so that the Creator of all can awaken us from numbness with the sharply vulnerable cry of a newborn. Spend these days praying for the freedom to risk hoping again. Make it a discipline to bring your disappointments and hungers—including your fear of hoping, your terror of aloneness—before God.

Kari Jo Verhulst, a Sojourners contributing writer, is an M.Div. student at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

November 3

No More Masks
Micah 3:5-12; Psalm 43; 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12

Jesus' public castigation of the scribes and Pharisees comes after their many attempts to lock Jesus into debates that would expose his interpretive hand. Concerned with preserving the truth entrusted to them, and quite possibly hoping he would show them a way out of the inherent compromises that attend leading a people living under occupation, the quandaries they threw Jesus' way revealed an inability, if not a refusal, to consider that their own beliefs and leadership were themselves in need of a radical renewal.

Jesus does not criticize their praxis or teachings per se, but rather their failure to remember that their religious tradition was a received gift, not a fixed deposit. Their phylacteries and fringes were given as tactile reminders of who they are—covenant children of the uniquely sovereign God. Yet they have turned them into barricades that secure their prestige and privilege. Rather than teach holiness and fidelity in such a way that their people were freed to love and serve God and one another, they turned the tradition into a burden "grievous to be borne," as the King James Version words it (Matthew 23:4).

Human beings possess a remarkable ability to turn any good gift into a self-protecting commodity. While the exaggerated pomp of the scribes and the Pharisees makes them easy targets, this text calls us to recognize our own fortresses of arrogance or fear, which prevent us from giving ourselves away. What in our own religious worlds and priorities do we turn into masks? What of our own beliefs—about ourselves, about God, about others—do we treat as possessions, rather than as ways into life in the always-dynamic God?

November 10

Healer and Restorer
Amos 5:18-24; Psalm 70; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13

The call to watchfulness narrated by the parable of the 10 bridesmaids is stark in its demand for vigilance. Its surface meaning seems simple enough: Keep awake, and tend to that which will equip you to recognize and be received by the Son of God, lest you be left outside as a result of your own negligence.

But the timing of the kingdom, and the bridegroom's return, bends and twists around our sense of past, present, and future. The day of reckoning is located at an unknowable day and hour (Matthew 25:13), yet takes place within the kingdom-come, an event that the passage's beginning suggests is yet in the future: "then the kingdom of heaven will be like this" (Matthew 25:1). The kingdom is not yet, and yet has come; it precedes the coming of the Son, and yet is brought by his coming; it is a state of being and place in time, and yet is always erupting and just around the corner.

This disregard for linearity challenges our fixed creation-fall-redemption paradigm. The reconciling, re-creating work of God that Jesus announces is not confined to that moment in history. Jesus' life, death, and resurrection do not change God or God's way of being to and with us. Rather, Jesus makes known to us the healing, restorative work of God, which has always been and always will be, and which can heal and repair both past and future.

The immanent kingdom exists in and out of time and comes outside of and within us. God is at work whether we recognize it or not, and yet unless we allow ourselves to be grasped by God's presence, we will remain outside of the banquet. The good news is that the bridegroom comes not just once, but over and over again, opening wide the banquet door to see if we are ready to be received into his feast of hospitality.

November 17

Give Extravagantly
Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18; Psalm 90:1-8, (9-11), 12; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

The parable of the talents is potentially quite dangerous for people of our age. Far from depreciating talent and performance, we prize the exceptional and award prestige, money, and status to those we most want to emulate. Jesus' apparent warning to "get out there and make the most of what you've been given" can form into an insidious self-criticism among people who realize that they have been given much, and will thus be held accountable for much. This generates a paralyzing cycle of self-scrutiny that makes action terrifying for fear of its inadequacy.

I took a hiatus from this parable when I was in my early 20s and desperately anxious over whether I was using my gifts to the fullness of God's intentions. At that time in my life, the God I heard in Jesus' words had deposited gifts in me as a kind of commodity—investments I was expected to make a good return on. Only I was too fearful, too faithless, or too stupid to figure out what to do with them. Such a God was not only inaccessible and impossible to please, but rather unable to save me from myself.

Surely Jesus is not interested in reinforcing such narcissistic and self-perpetuating anxiety. Rather, the "wickedness and laziness" Jesus rails against is the presumption that we possess anything at all, least of all ourselves. His ire is aimed at the hoarding that comes from the fear of being inadequate, as well as our ingratitude for having been made who we are. As Paul writes, "the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable" (Romans 11:29). They are of the very stuff of God, and thus we ought to consider blasphemous our cherished habits of self-criticism and our addiction to comparing ourselves to others. Who we are is a gift itself, freely offered from God's extravagant generosity, given to and for the world. The point is not to perfect our particular gifts, or ourselves, but to quit hoarding ourselves from others, and instead step out in faith that we have been given all we need.

November 24

Christ the King
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 95:1-7; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

This last Sunday of the liturgical year, called "Christ the King" or "Reign of Christ," explicitly points to God's sure and sovereign claim to this world.

Ezekiel promises that the lost and stray will be sought and brought back—the injured bound up, the weak strengthened, but those who "pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals" will be scattered. This picture-perfect vision of justice—the bullies cast out, the weaklings receiving favor—resembles the revenge-fantasies of everyone who has ever been picked on.

But Matthew's portrait of justice shakes up our presumed categories by suggesting that we might be counted among Ezekiel's "fat and the strong." The acts Jesus describes stem from a sense of the world informed by God's ordering of the universe, which cannot be entered into without relinquishing everything that keeps us fat and strong in our self-sufficiency. It would be easier for us if the moment of reckoning came just once, at the hour of our death, or at that final judgment. Then we could live life as if we still had time to indulge our love of self—to nurse our fears and store up a bit before we have to give it all away. But the "Son of Man" greets us every day of our lives, asking insistently that we give ourselves entirely over to him.

The Reign of God, and Christ the King, demands absolute allegiance. Jesus' words are no mere suggestion of charity, but a call to abdicate our love of strength so that we might embrace that which most terrifies and repulses us, including our own vulnerability and nakedness. What saves us from ourselves, and from despairing at how impossible a call this is, is the unshakeable truth that we cannot save ourselves, just as, when lost (and when aren't we getting lost?), we cannot find ourselves. The shepherd never ceases seeking and will rescue and draw us to himself. Once there, he sends us out in his Spirit to feed, clothe, and befriend.

December 1

The Pain of Creation
Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37

Jesus' harrowing picture of darkened skies and falling stars is a jarring start to Advent. In the preceding verses of Mark 13, Jesus, with unsettling resignation, warns of the unparalleled suffering that must come before the "Son of Man" comes to "gather his elect...from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven" (Mark 13:27).

We understandably resist Jesus' insistence that his coming means certain wars and rumors of wars. Given the way such apocalyptic words have been abused to over-interpret history and abdicate human agency, many of us avoid such texts altogether. But along with such resistance is our desire that the peaceable kingdom would come peaceably, winning over all opposing forces with winsome charm. But this betrays how deeply the forces of resistance lie and how firmly they intend to hold on to their power.

The apocalyptic sensibility present in this text possesses a deep conviction that God is working out salvation, regardless of how horrible and hopeless the present world might appear. Within the history of Israel, this theological stance emerged as a vital corrective to the tradition that emphasized that God acts in history. Kings and their parties readily abused this view, claiming God's blessing upon their decisions and propaganda, and leaving their people little, if any, theological room to criticize.

It is no accident that apocalyptic literature, and its reminder that God acts in trans-historical and supernatural ways, finds favor among people who are socially and politically under siege. The fierceness of beasts and the violence of the cosmic and natural disasters give language and image to how intensely terrible the world can be. Advent waiting is an invitation to solidarity with all that groans under the birth pangs of the new creation.

December 8

Radical Receiving
Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15; Mark 1:1-8

After last week's cosmic signs and meteorological wonders, Isaiah's promise of comfort and tenderness comes as a great relief. No matter how lost we might be, despite how fragile and fleeting we are, God will come and gather us in his arms.

That God comes for us has both everything and nothing to do with us. God comes, again and again, because that is who God is; God seeks and finds us, again and again, because that is how God is. This love is impossible to behold, and cannot be grasped, for it is God's very self. Our inconstancy—as short-lived as the grass and flowers of the field—cannot change God, nor alter God's love, which compels but does not coerce us toward receiving it. Our freedom to say no to God, however, is a remarkably paltry freedom, one that pales in comparison to our freedom to say yes. Because when we act on the capacity to receive the living God, however faltering and fearful we remain, we experience ourselves as most fully alive.

The freedom from fear, the depth of openness, the indiscriminate hope such a love makes possible leads to an equally incomparable suffering. It is the suffering of aching with God over the very suffering we cause and perpetuate out of self-protection and fear, as well as in the name of what is just and good. The love of God takes down all other loves, including what we consider just. It robs us of our right to condemn, replacing it with a shocking mercy that knows no ends. This is no arrogant benevolence parading as prophecy, or willfulness disguised as vision. The state of being so-loved is one of rampant porousness—a combination of childlike vulnerability and elderly wisdom that comes from coursing with the love, and the agony, of God.

"The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9).

December 15

Look Again: It's God
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; I Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

The wildly unself-conscious John the Baptist is an unsettling poster child for Advent. His strange diet and desert costume resist domestication. He's harder to clean up than Mary, the expectant mother, whom we love as long as she doesn't complain too loudly of morning sickness or hemorrhoids. He won't let us overlook him the way Joseph, with his fragile ego and paternal insecurities, permits.

The truth remains that even if we think we love the smelliness of the sheep and the rudeness of the camels; even if our Christology is low, our Jesus fleshy, our God motherly; we only embrace the aspects of humanness, and of Jesus himself, that suit our desires and designs. This makes reading the gospels a constant act of iconoclasm—an opportunity for the Spirit to break through to us in the most unexpected of ways.

God's refusal to remain within our expectations irritates us as much as it does the priests who come down from Jerusalem to find out who John is. John cannot answer them in their terms, for John does not fit into their fixed categories of revelation. John is "the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.'" No more, no less.

The challenge that this strange exchange poses is: What and who shatters our categories of acceptable mediators of God? Are we willing to receive from whomever God chooses as a vehicle for revelation? Can we accept the gift in an old-school priest, a born-again enthusiast, a woman celebrant, an angry discontent?

Quite often the face of God we need most comes through the people we are most threatened or repulsed by. More often than not, they represent that which we most revile about and within ourselves. God's preferential option for that which is castigated stems not from a capricious need to assert sovereignty, but because God considers the reviled lovely to behold. Our only hope for salvation is to let go of our standards and accept that which God considers worthy, up to and including ourselves.

December 22

Risking Shame
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Luke 1:47-55; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

Consider just how much God places into fragile, human hands. The divine answer to torments past and present—to cruelty and addiction, to our seemingly endless capacity to abuse and manipulate—is a baby, whose soft flesh and smell might not have been, had not an unknown girl risked shame and found the courage to say yes.

Growing up, I was taught to consider Mary the luckiest of girls, and I'm not even Catholic. My Sunday school teachers told us (erroneously, it turns out) how Mary and her friends grew up wondering if they would be God's choice to give birth to the Messiah. We pictured them wondering aloud to each other "will it be me?"

We had no idea.

Mary risked so much in saying yes to God. Dire social consequences, to be sure: the end of her betrothal, the shame of her family, quite possibly death by stoning. I imagine these threats struck her immediately upon hearing the angel's announcement, and lodged in her stomach.

Add to that the prospect of bearing a child whose future was so entirely out of her hands. Her dreams and plans, her visions of motherhood, all threatened. Then there was the weight her baby would carry. So tiny, so fragile, born to carry the hopes and fears of all the years. How would he know? Would she be the one to tell the little guy, who wouldn't begin to control his bladder for another two, three years?

What calmed her fears, what eased her soul enough so that she would feel and hear the "yes" now rising from her belly? Surely not Gabriel's description of being overtaken by the power of the Most High. No, I imagine it was his report of Elizabeth, now miraculously with child, calling down the memory of Sarah and Hannah, that assured Mary she was not alone and sent her, running, to her elder relative and friend.

December 29

Recognizing the Divine
Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 148; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:22-40

When Mary "set out with haste" (Luke 1:39) to visit Elizabeth, it was her voice in greeting that caused the baby, John, to leap in Elizabeth's womb. Something beyond the ordinary had come to pass. Elizabeth, attuned to the strangeness of God's ways by her impossible pregnancy, had been given the bodily sense to recognize that the child kicking in her womb did so in praise of his maker's strange and wonderful ways.

Anna and Simeon manifest this same wisdom. These old souls spent their lives waiting for the redemption God had promised. Surely this promise inhabited most all of the children of God to some degree, rising occasionally to the surface and taking form in a distinct longing or hope, but then fading back into the far recesses of being.

But Anna and Simeon lived distinctly in the perpetual presence of this promise. Their entire lives were charged with its recognition, and so they apprehended their world and all in it in relationship to God's certain faithfulness. These contemplatives, who appeared so oddly out of touch with the world as it was, knew far more about it than those whose days were spent mastering the marketplace.

In the baby Jesus, they recognized the distinct presence of God—that same presence that caused Elizabeth and her baby to burst forth in praise of the God for whom nothing is impossible. What characterizes this wisdom, however, is its recognition that God's coming—that very thing so long awaited and hoped for—cannot help but upset all existing claims to power, and thus lead to the falling of many. "The inner thoughts of many will be revealed," Simeon tells Mary, "and a sword will pierce your own soul too" (Luke 2:35).

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