Tuesday, June 28, 2016

God Our Mother

In 1969, after Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church updated its lectionary. Instead of one list of readings that was repeated every year, the new lectionary used a three-year cycle that opened up "new" parts of the bible that hadn't been read in church for centuries. Even more astounding, in addition to the gospel and epistle lessons, a reading from the Hebrew scriptures was added, which meant that congregations were regularly hearing passages from the Old Testament for the first time in many generations. Most amazing of all, this reform was so well-received and admired that within a decade many Protestant churches had adopted similar changes to their lectionaries.

In 1994, after nine years of trial use, the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) was officially published, and the United Methodist Church, Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church (USA), Lutheran Church (ELCA and Missouri Synod), and dozens of others began using it in their worship. Although very similar to the Roman Catholic lectionary, the RCL introduced one critical difference. In the season after Pentecost, instead of offering only an Old Testament lesson and psalm that thematically paralleled the assigned gospel lesson, it offered an additional continuous track through various books of the Hebrew Bible without regard for the other lessons. This alternative was labeled "Track 1," thus given an implied preferred place, and was promulgated because the authors of the RCL wanted to avoid any hints of anti-Semitism that might be inferred from having paired OT lessons and gospel lessons in a way that implied the former was an explicit and exclusive foreshadowing of the latter. Although it seems good and right to avoid anti-Semitic practices, making clear connections between Old Testament and New Testament texts is not necessarily wrong, and I, for one, enjoy encountering the different voices on the same theme even if a link of causality is never asserted.

Our parish is a "Track 2" parish, which means that each week there is an implied link between the first lesson and the gospel. Usually it's obvious, but sometimes--in weeks like this one--the link is hard to spot.

On Sunday, Jesus will send out seventy missionaries with a harsh warning: "See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves" (Luke 10:1-11, 16-20). But, earlier in our worship, we will have heard the prophet words of tender encouragement: "I will extend prosperity to her like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse and be carried on her arm, and dandled on her knees" (Isaiah 66:10-14). What's the connection? I'm not really sure. But, given the beauty of the maternal images in that passage from Isaiah, I don't really care.

The metaphors used to portray the comfort God is offering his people is sensual, deep, and motherly: "Rejoice...that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious bosom." The author was intimately familiar with what it meant to be a mother who comforts her wailing child by feeding it at her breast. That image of nourishment, comfort, and intimacy isn't often employed in the bible. Typically, when I think of salvation images in the bible, I think of God's work as being expressed in masculine terms that belong in a recruitment ad from the U. S. Navy--a military victory or a rescue operation. To imagine God dandling us on the knees of his holy city, bouncing us up and down as we squeal with delight, is a long way from celebrating the deaths of the infidel and the impregnable security of the city's walls. How delightful!

As I wrote yesterday, the gospel lessons are going to challenge us for the next several weeks. As Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem, moments of comfort and tenderness will be hard to find. Perhaps the pairing of these two passages gives the preacher a new way to express the saving work that will unfold once Jesus arrives at the holy city. No, Isaiah did not have Jesus of Nazareth in mind when he dreamt of Jerusalem's rescue, but Luke would have known what Isaiah wrote centuries earlier. Maybe it's not unfair to lay the two on top of each other and use a particular expression of the hopes of God's people to shade our understanding of the hope expressed in Jesus. Surely, in this challenging season of our journey to Jerusalem, it is ok to stop and linger in a moment of God's tenderness.

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