The Common Good
June 2005

Laughable, Historic Hope

by Robert Roth | June 2005

The most serious of events can seem,

The most serious of events can seem, well, funny at the time. Encountering God’s transformative actions directly, the first human response can be to break down into laughter.

In Matthew 9, a synagogue leader asks Jesus to help his daughter, who has just died. When Jesus tells the crowd "the girl is not dead but sleeping," they laugh at him. Until she gets up. When the Lord tells elderly Sarah and Abraham they are soon to have a baby together, Sarah starts to laugh to herself. Wouldn’t you?

The passages for June carry us from the hilarity of holy surprise to the necessity of trust, and from the paradoxes of love to the consequences of grace. God acts - and history changes. When the faithful hear God’s voice and respond, expect a turn of events.

In the all-too-bloody 20th century, some oddly funny things happened on the way to justice and liberation. Lech Walesa (the Black Madonna on his lapel) scaled the Gdansk shipyard fence and nonviolently led the Polish people to freedom. Mohandas Gandhi and his gun-less "army" liberated India from colonial rule. Laughter seemed normal to many as Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed the power of marching, singing, and going to jail.

The readings invite us to laugh at the surprises of salvation history. We are asked to consider how "the kingdom of heaven has come near" today (Matthew 10:7), and dare to make a public witness. Beware: Earthly kingdoms sometimes miss the humor.

Robert Roth is a writer and social activist who lives in East Lansing, Michigan.

June 5
Nations and Creation
Genesis 12:1-9; Psalm 33:1-12; Romans 4:13-25; Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26

Inspired by the balance, beauty, and life-generating dynamism of creation, the psalms offer songs of praise to the Creator. Because "the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord," "righteousness and justice" prevail in "the nation whose God is the Lord" (Psalm 33:5, 12).

Love, right relationships, and justice build the sort of national identity God desires. So when Abram is called forth that the Creator might "make of you a great nation" (Genesis 12:2), he must leave his former country behind and identify with the land to which he is sent and the faithful ones who are his companions.

As Abram builds an altar to the Lord at Shechem, a national identity emerges from the ground up, not the top down. The "counsel of the nations" and the "plans of the peoples" fall apart (Psalm 33:10) when they ignore the biblical imperatives of love and justice. Holy nation building requires the same cooperation and interdependence found throughout the whole created order.

Nations that revolve around the whims of a dictator or the exigencies of an economic system have found their gods. By contrast, Paul’s letter to the Romans asks Christians to see themselves as descendents of Abraham, depending on faith in "the God in whom he believed" (Romans 4:17).

This balance and generosity of spirit is to be sought not just within one’s own nation or government. Consider countries with primarily Muslim, Jewish, and Christian peoples - the Abrahamic faiths. With the right spirit, we can hear hope in Paul’s words that the God of Abraham blesses all and is "the father of many nations."

Jesus’ images of earthy humility in Matthew 9 are of great value to those of us in rich nations. We share the temptation of the Pharisees to count ourselves "the righteous" and miss the fact that Jesus is at the table of the rejected "sinners" (Matthew 9:10-13). Believing that our prosperity suggests the Lord dines with us, have we missed his departure to bring healing to those places where illness and hopelessness are rampant? Holy is the people whose priorities are healing the children and blessing the elderly. God desires mercy.

June 12
Trusting that God Provides
Genesis 18:1-5; Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19; Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35-10:23

Hospitality is born of a grateful theology of abundance. A gracious sharing with others (where just societies flower) comes from a thankful response to God. "I love the Lord because he has heard my voice," sings the psalmist, and "what shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me" (Psalm 116:1, 12).

Remembering that the justified are the unjust who have become just, we wonder: When many of us have so much while others have so extraordinarily little, how will we begin to let go? Along with finding the gratitude of the psalmist, we need the faith exemplified in this letter of Paul’s. We see what God has done that we might trust what God will do.

God imparts astonishing gifts in these four passages. A baby is delivered through the aged Sarah and Abraham. Vast bounty and loosened bonds are conferred upon the psalmist. Love is poured into Paul’s heart. Were Jesus’ astounding teaching, proclamation, and cures not enough, the apostles are empowered to do healing themselves.

What does trust in action look like? Abraham and Sarah receive their divine visitors at midday and respond with expansive hospitality (even before that divinity is recognized). This hospitality includes water for their feet, rest under the tree, bread, milk, and more. Paul’s realization of being justified by faith in God’s goodness allows him to boast in his sufferings, trusting that it will lead to endurance, faith, and hope (Romans 5:3-4).

In 2005, millions of God’s children desperately wait upon our capacity to trust God, that we might do a little letting go. Economist Jeffrey Sachs, who now leads the Millennium Development Goals program at the United Nations - whose mission is to cut extreme poverty (which Sachs terms the "silent tsunami") in half in 15 years - repeatedly advocates this small letting go: If each person in the rich nations gave $2 a year for bed nets in malaria-stricken nations, the lives of 1 million children would be saved each year.

Simple as that. The unjust being made just often is, but it means trading our dependency on greed and violence for a theology of true abundance.

June 19
Creative Paradox
Genesis 21:8-21; Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17; Romans 6:1-11; Matthew 10:24-39

In jazz, the goal is not to make a trumpet mimic a sax or a drum set sound like an acoustic bass. It is, paradoxically, to coexist in a peaceful, creative tension. With a measure of respect and compassion - love, perhaps - it makes for some incredible music.

I once heard Wynton Marsalis speak of this needed tension. He said that a piece of improvisational music demonstrates a conflict being worked out because the players have different things to say and to do. They each play their solos, riffing and bouncing off one another until the whole matter is beautifully resolved. Conflict? Cooperation? Both?

Jesus teaches that things are often not as they seem. He demands that we live with the greatest of life-giving paradoxes. In Matthew 10:24-39, he tells us to "not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul" and how his engagements will turn family members against one another. Then comes the hard part! It is a spiritual paradox writ large: "Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it." If we’ve long been taught to take charge and seize the day, it’s time to improvise!

Back to the history of Israel, the very roots of these Christian paradoxes. This time, Sarah doesn’t laugh. She banishes her servant Hagar and Hagar’s son Ishmael, lest he play with her son Isaac and compete for inheritance, Abraham having fathered both boys.

Who needs this Egyptian slave and her son? Here’s the wonderfully creative paradox: God needs them. Isaac and Ishmael are different, yet the same. From both of them God will make a great nation (Genesis 21:17-18). God will hear them, see them, and in different ways save them.

Paradox orchestrates our other passages, from the psalmist’s "improvisation" on nations bowing down and enemies being prayed for to the "sampling" of Romans 6 calling us to die with Christ that we might live with Christ.

June 26
The Ethics of Grace
Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42

It has often been said that the best commentary on scripture is other scripture. This being the case, reading Paul’s words in Romans 6:14 illuminates all of this week’s readings: "For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but grace" (italics added). God’s power, incarnate in Jesus Christ, ends the dominion of sin and death. This divine authority is the grace-filled power that is ever bringing life, even life eternal.

To be under law, in the context of Romans, is to be without grace. In Genesis 22:1-14, God tests Abraham by asking him to kill his son Isaac on the mountain as a sacrificial offering. Then grace prevails over law, life over death. An angel of the Lord calls off the slaughter and God provides - as Abraham foretold - and a ram takes Isaac’s place on the altar.

In Psalm 13, law would have provided a way to lash out at the enemies bringing pain upon the one who laments. But the psalmist lives under grace and not law, singing in joy of God’s grace, "because he has dealt bountifully with me" (Psalm 13:6).

In Matthew’s gospel, the power and dominion of grace take the shape of ethics based on grace. Without knowing there is a reward in store, those who do the right thing, loving freely, find themselves blessed. Life generates life, grace upon grace. Jesus forms the ethical life not around the rigid, detailed rule of law, but out of the amazing grace of compassion - "whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones."

The opposite ethic - all law and no grace - undergirds an age-old practice that still lives on in a handful of countries: capital punishment. The convicted person is told, in stark opposition to Paul, "you are not under grace but law."

One ethic is symbolized in a cold drink of water, the other in a lethal injection. In a moment of grace, 72 men left death rows this March because the U.S. Supreme Court decided that laws allowing for the execution of people for crimes committed when they were 16 or 17 years old were unconstitutional. However, much of the world has watched as the United States, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia have executed hundreds of people in the last 20 years. They wonder: Who is their God?

May these scriptures offer commentaries on our lives and our nations. May they call us to an ethics of grace that inspires hope and brings life - ethics that will even cause laughter.

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