In our daily prayers God was every manner of image and metaphor and meaning, and always, "God the Father." We never ever prayed to "God our Mother." What were women in the economy of God? The answer was only too painful: We were invisible. I had given my life to a God who did not see me, did not include me, did not touch my nature with God's own....Joan Chittister, "Called to Question"

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Reflection on Proper 16

A Reflection on the readings:
Exodus 1:8-2:10
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20
By Janine Goodwin

When I worked in special education, we had meetings about how we might best serve a student. In the best of those meetings, the student was present. We always began the conversation with a consideration of the student's strengths, going around the table and calling upon our knowledge of the student to call forth what she or he could do, enjoyed, might learn to do. Only then did we go on to the things the student needed to work on and the ways we might help him or her learn. Immense creativity and hope came from those meetings. I like to believe that God does that: looks at who God created us to be, and holds that in balance with our flaws, our wounds, the habits that hold us back, and invites us and our communities to work together so that we may all fulfill our varied callings.

The image of those meetings, those conversations in which we worked to create good conditions for learning for and with a student, returned to me when I read the stories of Moses' birth, Jesus' answer to Peter's statement of faith, and Paul's call to humility. I have come to understand the Bible itself not as an unchanging monolith, but as a living and continuing conversation about God. In present-day terms, many of the individual books are more like wikis than like blog posts made by an individual; they have been reworked over the centuries, and the voices of the sources and redactors blend and separate like the sections of a choir. Different books have different emphases and even different worldviews: the prophets are urgent about reform, the sages observe what is with a quiet detachment that shades toward cynicism. The Gospels are four different retellings of Jesus' life with four distinct perspectives and some disagreement even about the order and timing of events. Peter and Paul disagree about the nature of membership in the new conversation that is the developing church, and we hear different accounts of their stories in Acts and in Paul's letters. I believe that Scripture contains all things necessary for salvation, and also that it is a multiplicity of voices and visions about the God that no one voice or vision can fully define or contain. Those who put lectionaries together add to the conversation by selecting Scriptures and combining them in ways that may point out shared themes or contrasts, or both. Scholars give us the history and context that surround the books, and schools of interpretation point out the strengths, limits, and blind spots in the thinking of the original writers, the previous interpreters, and even ourselves. When we read Scripture, we add to that conversation in Bible study, preaching, and our own prayer. Even our private prayer over Scripture is a conversation not just with God, but with all those who have taught us about faith.

In the conversation of faith that is today's readings, there is a fascinating balance of humility and high calling, individual and group destiny. Paul warns, "For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think…" and in the conversation that is lectio divina, that phrase stands out to me. Yes, we need humility, but we also need to watch for the difference between humility and humiliation. Both come from the same root as "humus," garden dirt, but in humility we are grounded, and humiliation grinds our faces in the dirt. Some of us, most often women but not always women, are likely to have been taught early in our lives that we are worthless and that humility means accepting that projected worthlessness and being humiliated. We must remember that even when the prophets call the people of God to account with strong language, they do so because God loves the people and is calling them back into relationship. God's urgency is not because of our worthlessness, but because we do not live up to our worth and our calling to be a just and loving people. Jesus calls the outcast, the ones labeled worthless by their society, but Jesus does not call them worthless; the ones he speaks to with anger are the proud. The difficulty for us as individuals (and perhaps as communities of faith) is finding out where we judge ourselves too highly and where we are humiliated: both can exist in the same person at the same time. Psychology reminds us that wounded children vacillate between grandiose dreams and despairing fears of worthlessness, and neither is the truth about the child; the humble reality of daily living and healing is the process of learning to see our strengths and weaknesses and doing what we can do and are called to do in the world. Christian groups can be caught up in seeing themselves as the one right way or as a martyred minority: in either case, the focus on greatness or oppression is not a focus on the Good News or on the work before us. The point of our calling, as Paul points out, is not to look down on others or up to them, but to see them as colleagues in the task of caring for creation and giving the Good News to the world.

In a country that glorifies individualism and individual achievement, the calls of Moses and of Peter can too often be cast as stories of men called to be separate from the people, to be greater than the rest of us, to be larger than life. It's like focusing a camera on an athlete at the moment she wins an event: she appears to be alone, when in fact her triumph is the result, certainly of her hard work, but also of the effort and dedication of families, schools, coaches, doctors, organizations, and team members—even of the community in the stands that watches and cheers her on. Stories of greatness are stories of community. Prophets may seem to stand alone, but they are called to preach to a specific people. Even if they are cast out, they stand in relationship, in conversation, with the ones to whom they cry out, "God told me this!" Moses survives to lead his people out of slavery because the midwives, his mother and sister, and Pharaoh's daughter disobey the genocidal laws of their place and time. When Moses takes up the task he was called to do, the people do not follow him like sheep: they argue, gripe, and sometimes win a point or two about manna and water. Peter is one of the many disciples who follows Jesus and learns from him. He makes his statement of faith not long before he passes through the terror and confusion that lead to his betrayal of Jesus, and to Jesus' forgiveness and renewed call to "feed my lambs." His call leads him not into unquestioned supremacy and perpetual triumph, but into the conversations of the council of Jerusalem. Moses dies outside the promised land, and Peter dies a martyr: their lives do not end in what most people would call success. The calls of Peter and Moses are not calls to uninterrupted achievement, solitary glory, and unquestioned supremacy, but calls to bring their gifts and deficits into the conversation that is community. They fail and try again. They know their limits and their callings. They are grounded and humbled by the people they lead and serve. We can honor their leadership without being afraid to acknowledge their flaws and failures, because they are human. We can also notice that women may be called to lead as well as to support, but are kept from their full calling by the limitations of the community and its leaders. Miriam is a prophetic voice, but Moses chastises her. Mary Magdalene is the first witness of the resurrection, and Jesus calls her to tell the good news to the others, but she is not believed until men confirm her account.

Our communities, our leaders, and our conversation are holy and partake of God's power to create, but they are always limited. They are worthy of our work and trust, but not of our unquestioning obedience. Part of the call of the community is to question itself, its leaders, its past, even God. If we think we know everything God could ever have to tell us, we have left the conversation and are talking only to ourselves. Let us stay in the conversation, remembering, as George Rawson writes in the hymn, "We limit not the truth of God" that "The Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from his word."


mompriest said...

Thanks Janine, for this wonderful reflection...

Anonymous said...

Wonderful. I especially like the section on the bible, and how it is a complilation of many voices overlaid and often with different purposes, who all together join with our own in identifying a continued alive and vibrant discussion with God. Thank you.

RevDrKate said...

This really is wonderful, Janine, and merits more than one reading. There is so much here to be savored and thought about. Thank you.