Monday, July 06, 2015

The Confoundingly Messy Mixture of Bad and Good- Lectionary Readings for July 12

This week's readings from the Revised Common Lectionary (2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 and Psalm 24 or Amos 7:7-15 and Psalm 85:8-13; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29) can be found at Vanderbilt's Lectionary page.

We like things to be neat, to easily fit into categories. We want good news to be all wonderful, no "buts" anywhere. We want bad news to be total, as well. We might hope for a "but" in the midst of bad news, but if we're honest, it's easier to wrap our minds around something totally awful.

Scripture keeps confounding that desire by giving us a mixture of both. Sometimes the good and the bad balance each other out, but most of the time they sit side by side, somehow coexisting with no attempt to reconcile themselves. Only the most robust theological gymnastics can get us to a place where a passage fits our desired "all or nothing" mold.

In 2 Samuel 6, David is bringing the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem. This victory parade marks his full ascension to the throne, the end of years of conflict where it looked like the end for him too many times to count. Yet in the midst of the victory parade, his wife, Michal, the daughter of the recently deceased former King Saul, looks at the parade and despises David "with all of her heart". And we know that David quickly gets complacent and bored on the throne, leading to misery for nearly everyone in his life. Good news and bad sit side by side.

In Amos 7, the news is mostly bad. Israel has been getting it so wrong for so many generations that it seems as if God has finally run out of patience with them (if that idea doesn't sit well theologically, it bears mentioning that like many other  Old Testament texts, Amos was compiled and redacted during and after the time of exile being foreshadowed- we simply have to consider the bias in the source). But we know that in time the people will return, that the walls of Jerusalem will be rebuilt, that Temple worship will happen again, for a time. Good news and bad sit side by side.

The New Testament texts are similarly messy. Paul waxes poetic at the beginning of his letter to the Church at Ephesus about how what happened in the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the culmination of what God has been up to all along, how this beautiful cosmic symmetry is good news for you and I, and how it all makes sense in the end. But the means by which we get there, particularly the suffering and death of Jesus of Nazareth, and to a lesser extent the trials that the early church is facing and their need for this kind of encouragement from Paul make a hard road toward the happy ending. Good news and bad sit side by side.

It's pretty much the same story in Mark's gospel. We're told in a flashback how Herod Antipas is freaked out by Jesus because of his lingering guilt over what he did to John the Baptist. His insecurity and itchy trigger finger overcame what tiny shred of decency he had. His very opportunistic wife/sister-in-law and stepdaughter/niece (ewww...) manipulated him into showing how weak he really was. But John's exit from the stage makes room for Jesus. In another telling of the story, John himself says, "He must increase and I must decrease" (John 3:30). John's martyrdom is a piece of cake compared to what Jesus endures, so part of being the lesser of the two ends up being the better option.

Sometimes the good and bad news that come to us in these readings balance each other out in a Zen-like way. But most of the time, just like in real life, they exist side by side, sometimes having very little to do with one another other than proximity.

That's why the Bible is so frustrating. That's why the Bible is so wonderful.

The Bible is so human and so divine at the same time. All these things that seem like they couldn't possibly coexist do, just like you and me. And mysteriously, unexpectedly, God is somehow in the midst of it all, somehow making sense of this giant mess we have made. It doesn't fit neatly into our preferred artificial categories.

It's confounding. It's messy. It's real. This is our story.

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