Sunday, March 20, 2011

11-03-20: 2nd Sunday of Lent

Second Sunday of Lent
Genesis 12:1-4 / Psalm 33 / 2 Timothy 1:8-10 / Matthew 17:1-9
The images of earthquake and tsunami from Japan last week were, to say the least, unnerving; the massive destruction only surmounted by the hovering threat of radiation poisoning on a massive scale. At times like these human empathy seems to overcome cultural and religious differences and the nobility of the human spirit shines through the darkness of such cataclysmic events.

But not everyone reacts with empathy. As in the aftermath of 9/11 and the earthquake in Haiti, it’s never long till someone feels the necessity to interpret the events “biblically” - as a sign of divine punishment. Jerry Falwell, interpreting 9/11 and the brutal murder of 3,000 people as God’s punishment on America for its permissive attitude toward gays. Pat Robertson, claiming that Haitians had made a pact with the devil and so must suffer the devastation rendered by last year’s earthquake. Now, TV’s Glenn Beck has suggested the Japanese tsunami was an act of divine wrath because we’re not following the Ten Commandments – though he doesn’t explain why the tsunami hit them if we were the ones in a state of non-compliance.

These kinds of accusations, of course, can never be proven or disproven. What such reactions illustrate is a certain desperation regarding faith. If God isn’t responsible for such cataclysmic events, then we are all subject to nature’s seeming capriciousness; while, if I believe that my obedience to God will protect me from the cruelty of nature, then I can feel more secure in the face of terror. Although media types like Beck and Robertson do us no service by their proclamations, they do represent a deep-seated dilemma for anyone who struggles with biblical faith: does the Bible really predict future events? Is Nature merely a vehicle for the divine will? Is God as capricious as the Bible sometimes presents him?

The reading from Genesis this week is a case in point. In the hands of biblical literalists, the call of Abraham is the reason for much of our present political turmoil in the Middle East, because the call of Abraham is intimately bound with the promise of land and nationhood. God tells Abraham to “Go forth” from his home “to a land which I will show you.” There, in that promised land, God pledges to make of Abraham a great nation. And so, millennia later, Israelis continue to claim “the land,” building homes on property already occupied by others and claiming it their divine right to do so. To be fair: If we take the Bible literally – how can we possibly disagree?

But, then again, what about the promise of that great nation, “more numerous than the sands on the shores of the sea”? Current demographics demonstrate that, although Christians now outnumber Muslims by just over a billion people, the rate by which Islam is increasing far surpasses that of Christianity. Thus Islam, not Christianity (and certainly not Judaism with a mere fifteen million adherents worldwide) is the religion of the twenty-first century and of the foreseeable future. Might we not then read the divine promise as having already been fulfilled, but not in the way we expected? Abraham has become a great nation – but through Ishmael’s progeny, not Isaac’s: the biblical prophecy has become a Qur’anic one. In other words, you can read into the Bible (and the Qur’an) virtually anything you want – but it might not get you any closer to the truth.

If a reasonable faith is to survive this literalist onslaught, the biblical God so often depicted as arbitrary and capricious must be understood in historical context – that is, although inspired, the Bible remains a product of the culture and circumstance of those who wrote it. Such a fact demands we interpret the biblical revelation with the use of reason and experience. Apart from the specifics of an ancient real estate deal Abraham worked out with God, the import of the Genesis story has more to do with hope than property. Abraham, at a very old age, is invited to reinvent himself, make a fresh start of things, leave his old life and begin a new one. In the wake of the devastation in Japan, where so many have lost everything, might we not invoke that biblical promise of hope - rather than focus on the hackneyed theme of retribution - in understanding the signs of these troubling times?

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