The Common Good
July 2011

God's Care Package is Bursting

by Enuma Okoro | July 2011

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary, Cycle A

It seems as if now, as much as ever, we could use reminders of God's faithfulness, compassion, and care. Our world is fraught with brutal responses to uprisings across the Middle East and North and West Africa. One natural disaster follows another. Countless lives are lost and others ruined. It is fitting to ask ourselves how God’s light will shine in this darkness. Who will bring comfort when all seems lost? During this season of Pentecost, we turn to God the comforter, who rescues us from our distress, from our own wretchedness, and from the wickedness that prevails in a broken world.

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We turn to a God who gives life and nurtures growth in abundance. God's provision and care come with gracious and merciful generosity. Yes, suffering is par for the course in this life, but those who choose to follow the path of life will be called to new growth and also to new deaths along the way. To live by the Spirit requires death to the things that do not lead to life.

The scripture passages this month point to a God who calls us to new life, who keeps God's promises to be with us, whose love is steadfast, whose presence is rampant, who enters intimately into our midst in ways that can only baffle, surprise, and humble us. This God brings us to our knees in prayer, praise, and hopeful expectation.

Enuma Okoro, of Durham, North Carolina, is the author of Reluctant Pilgrim and co-author of Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.

Cries and prayers are surely still rising from Libya, Ivory Coast, and Japan. People have lost their homes, loved ones, and livelihoods. The raging political storms that follow a natural disaster leave more pain and sorrow in their wake. Even as relief efforts continue, where can people turn for comfort in the midst of such suffering?

Genesis 24 begins with the witness of divine covenant. The servant tells us that God was faithful to Abraham, who trusted blindly. Barren Sarah had her promised son. God richly blessed Abraham, and now Abraham’s servant is trusting God to provide a suitable helpmate to provide comfort and companionship to Isaac. The God of compassion answers those who call, even if it’s not exactly the way that we planned. The psalmist (145:11) tells that holy comfort comes with power and provision to enable us, especially when we cannot assist ourselves. God meets us at our wits’ end (145:14).

Divine mercy and grace always exceed our understanding and expectation. As Paul testifies in Romans, God rescues us not only from the seeming hopelessness of external circumstances, but also blessedly from the hopelessness that arises from internal conflict within our human nature. Matthew 11:16-19 shows it is part of our sinful nature to foolishly and repeatedly reject the unending comfort God offers us in Christ Jesus. And the Matthean invitation of Jesus (11:25-30) shows that it is part of God’s foolish love to repeatedly reach out to us in holy compassion, faithfulness, and mercy.

[ July 10 ]
Life and Death
Genesis 25:19-34; Psalm 65:1-13; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

The God of comfort is also the God of life. We are all caught up in the cycle of life and death. We are all making daily choices to live either by the Spirit that gives life or by the flesh that tends to keep us self-absorbed, personally or nationally. Esau (Genesis 25) sold his future for immediate gratification. What parts of our future are we willing to sell for immediate gratification in our own lives, personally, nationally, and globally? What we do today with our money, our children, our neighbors, and our policies will determine on what kind of soil the seed of God has fallen in our lives (Matthew 13). How can we encourage one another to walk by the spirit of Christ that dwells in us and enables us to do what we by ourselves cannot do? What in us must fully die in order for new life to flourish?

To live by the Spirit, we turn toward the source of abundant life, the God who brings double fruit out of barren circumstances (Genesis 25:21-22). Both the Genesis text and the psalm reveal that God does answer prayer. God speaks into the life-and-death circumstance of our natural, physical world and into our spiritual lives. The God of creation is in the business of tending to the soil beds of our lives like a skilled gardener who knows when to sow, prune, weed, cut, and harvest. God also knows how to bring new, rich, and unexpected life out of lifeless situations.

[ July 17 ]
We Are Not Alone
Genesis 28:10-19; Psalm 86:11-17; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Though living by the Spirit, we are still called to be in the world. Our faith takes root in the people and circumstances of God's earthly creation. God is present with us in this place, just as God was present with Jacob as he left Beersheba. The famous ladder dream highlights two key characteristics of the God we serve. God keeps God's promises, and God descends to meet us wherever we are, wherever we need God. Like David in Psalm 86, we can turn to God to hear us, preserve us, deliver us, teach us, strengthen us, and comfort us. Matthew 13 points to God's active awareness of the things of this world. In our present time of deep strain on the environment, on families with unemployed providers, on families with sons and daughters still fighting a war, here is a word from the Lord: We are not alone. Evil does not win.

Paul reminds us in Romans 8 that suffering can be expected, even anticipated. That is not newsworthy. What is worth telling is that God is already showing up in the midst of the struggle. God offers signs to those to those who have the faith and hope to hear and see, without seeing everything. God appears in the Spirit and in the very presence of Christ. The hard reality is that redemption is a work in progress. But the beautiful part of that reality is that God in Jesus Christ has steeped God's self so intimately into suffering that we need not go beyond it. God descends beyond the point to which we are capable of going. Ours is a God of comfort, of mercy, a God who takes on flesh to put a cap on human suffering.

[ July 24 ]
Exceeding Generosity
Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 119:129-136; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Romans 8:31-32 is an apt place to begin. God is with us. God is for us. When we reach the end of our words and of our own reaching, God-in-Spirit intercedes for us and God-in-Christ redeems us to fulfill God's purposes. Will we ever get used to the fact that God's desires for us will always exceed our desires for ourselves? The very nature of God is one of abundance, fruitfulness, and exceeding generosity. It is written throughout scripture and marked in God's incarnate body, and it plays out in the fruitfulness of creation and the giftedness of our own lives. Even when life seems to play us a dirty hand or when we maneuver ourselves into our own corners, God is still in the business of unraveling new gifts out of less-than-benevolent circumstances.

In Genesis, Jacob is tricked out of his initial choice of a wife. Instead he gets two wives. Jesus descends from Leah's line. Rachel's progeny will save both Egypt and Israel in times of famine. Abundance. Fruitfulness. Exceeding generosity. Perhaps finding the blessing in our circumstances entails seeing with new, redeemed eyes.

The psalmist rejoices in the blessings and life found in God's precepts. We are easily dulled by the presumption that we know what God has to say to us and what we should say to God. The word of God is the great gift that keeps on giving if we are patient and faithful in our pursuit of God. Yes, the word of God is Christ, the pearl of great price. But those who mine the scriptures for wisdom and knowledge are like the scribe in Matthew 13:52, one who encounters the living word and repeatedly reaps new life from God's planted seed.

[ July 31 ]
A Fighting Posture?
Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21

Left to our own devices, we often choose death over life, manipulation over cooperation, violence over nonviolent striving, and turning away from instead of toward God. This is the human condition. God reaches for us to nurture us and draw us closer to divine life, where each person has enough, where provision multiplies, and blessings go full circle throughout creation. But, like Jacob in Genesis, we often assume fighting postures before God when God’s grace might bless us without our struggle and without our wounding. Like Israel in Romans, we often reject the plethora and the fullness of God's gifts. Like the disciples in Matthew, we often assume scarcity where there is holy abundance. We look in the wrong places for what will sustain us and we fail to believe that God equips us with the tools to provide for and nourish one another.

But, thanks be to God. The psalmist rightly proclaims that the creator, sustainer, provider, comforter, and savior is good to all. "The Lord is just in all his ways and kind in all his doings" (Psalm 145:17). God does not want to fight or strive with us. God does not call us to wrestle our blessings from God’s open hand. God generously offers, generously blesses, generously provides, and loves exceedingly beyond what we are even capable of receiving this side of redemption.

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