“I Am What Comes After Deserving”
The news is bad today. But then the news is so very often bad.
Where to begin? Violent conflicts in the Ukraine, Syria, the Central African Republic, and so many others grind wearily on, with all the predictable innocent pain and suffering that drags along in the wake of tired, old, struggles for power. A volcanic eruption in Indonesia displaces more than 100 000 people. There is political unrest in Egypt and Venezuela. There are the places that we need only name to know that there is bad news: Afghanistan. Iraq. North Korea. Iran. Haiti. And all of this bad news takes place while our eyes are mostly fixed upon a very expensive extravaganza for the rich at a resort on the Black Sea.
There are local brutalities and tragedies as well, of course. A fifteen year old boy dies in Calgary from a combination of starvation and neglect from his parents. A city councillor in my hometown is killed in an avalanche in the Rocky Mountains nearby. Similar things are, I assume, happening wherever you happen to live. And then there are the myriad more personal infirmities that become part of the furniture of our everyday lives. Those we love and care about struggle with chronic pain, relationships that were once full of life and beauty die slow, wasting deaths in front of our eyes, ordinary, unremarkable human cruelties continue to leave their mark on the naive, the neglected, the uninfluential and uncool. On and on and on it goes.
Throughout Epiphany I’ve been preaching on the Psalms. This hasn’t always been easy. Each week when I turned to the lectionary readings, I would notice other texts that I would much rather preach on. The beatitudes, for example, or moving passages on peace and justice from prophets like Isaiah and Micah. Or what about Paul’s profound words about the foolishness of the cross and the wisdom of the world? So many better options than these hopelessly optimistic or pitifully naive ancient expressions of praise to the God who brings good news for the good and bad news for the bad.
But we decided upon the Psalms. And so, each week, Israel’s prayers. Each week, Happy are those who walk in the ways of the Lord… The Lord will watch over the righteous… Happy are those who trust in the Lord… Their descendants will be mighty… They will have wealth and riches… They will never be moved… The wicked will gnash their teeth and melt away. The Lord will watch over you and not let you stumble… Over and over, this straight line between virtue and blessing, between wickedness and punishment. Over and over, this view of life as a vending machine where if you put the right things in, you get the right things out. If only the world worked this way.
The blindingly obvious truth that anyone who pays even half attention to the way the world works is that this is not a place where virtue is consistently rewarded nor where vice is consistently punished. It just isn’t. We know this. Of course, the psalmists did too. There are far too many other psalms in Israel’s songbook that acknowledge this full well (Why do the wicked prosper?! Where are you, God?! When are you going to do something?!). And the fact that virtue is not rewarded in the way that (some) of the Psalms seem to suggest that it (sometimes) is does not make virtue any less praiseworthy or right. But still. It’s hard to read some of these Psalms with all the bad news ringing in your ear.
It is good to read the Psalms with Jesus in mind, I think. At least it’s good for me. Because Jesus is the most obvious example there could be that the world is a screwed up place that does not easily reward human goodness. The Season of Lent is not yet upon us, much less the glad hallelujahs of resurrection that follow. But I spent part of this morning reading a beautiful chapter on the story of Jesus from Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic. I was struck, particularly, by this breathtaking passage portraying a God’s-eye view of Jesus’ crucifixion. I have read few more moving portrayals of what, in Jesus of Nazareth, God does with the bad news and we who make it:
[H]e isn’t just feeling the anger and spite and unbearable self-disgust of this one crowd on this one Friday morning in Palestine; he’s turning his bruised face toward the whole human crowd, past and present and to come, and accepting everything we have to throw at him, everything we fear we deserve ourselves. The doors of his heart are wedged open wide, and in rushes the whole pestilential flood, the vile and roiling tide of cruelties and failures and secrets.
Let me take that from you, he is saying. Give that to me instead. I am big enough. I am wide enough. I am not what you were told. I am not your king or your judge. I am the father who longs for every last one of his children. I am the friend who will never leave you. I am the light behind the darkness. I am the shining your shame cannot extinguish. I am the ghost of love in the torture chamber. I am change and hope. I am the refining fire. I am the door where you thought there was only a wall. I am what comes after deserving. I am the earth that drinks up the bloodstain. I am gift without cost.
I am. I am. I am. Before the foundations of the world I am.