Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ reproduces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for March 3rd: Exodus 5:10-23; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; and Acts 7:30-34. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
I once heard that there is an ancient linguistic connection between the basic, fundamental word for the number five and the word for fist. That’s kind of sad. As language was developing, speakers may have felt a natural connection between counting out five on their fingers and the natural inclination to present those five fingers as a fist.
Even if you open the fist and extend it in greeting as a handshake, this gesture emerged to demonstrate to the one you have encountered that you are unarmed, you hold no weapon in your hand. It seems that violence is endemic in our human story. As such, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes posited that humans in the state of nature, that is their natural condition, were brutal and engaged in constant violence against each other, and that this is why they forfeited their individual freedoms and submitted themselves willingly to the protective authority of monarchs. Hobbes so the constancy of violence as so traumatic that it was better to be not-free than free.
We have been and continue to be surrounded by violence. It is an unavoidable reality that religion cannot write over like a palimpsest – a piece of writing material on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces from the original remain. If you read the history books of the Old Testament, it is an unfortunate reality that bad things happen to good kings and good things happen to bad kings. The Bible does its best to explain this reality away, but just like the palimpsest the original reality remains.
And yet, through all this incessant repetition of violence in the world, faith speaks uncowed. Its promises heard without faith appear false and misleading. Heard with faith, however, these promises give hope, and hope can be powerful. In today’s readings, the Psalmist writes to a constantly threatened nation of Israel in the name of Yahweh: “Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honour them.”
Long after Israel had been defeated, long after the Temple in which the Psalms were sung was destroyed, the Psalms speaking of deliverance nonetheless remain an inspiring part of Holy Scripture. Violence is a constant, but the message of our faith continues to speak of a better world. There’s a profound difference between pollyannish and faith’s hope. We’re not talking make-believe. We’re talking make-what-we-believe. Faith’s constant repetition of God’s protection in the face of violence’s reality is that it does not have to be this way.
And so God enters our world in Jesus. Surrounded by violence, He loves us, delivers us, protects us, rescues us and honours us by giving us a way out of violence even though He succumbs to violence. I know the power of Stinger anti-aircraft and Javelin anti-tank missiles, but I’m moved by the power of unarmed Ukrainian civilians who surround tanks and of Russian soldiers who will not shoot other Slavs. What if people’s revulsion with war, the killing of children, the bombing of civilians, the tears of wives and mothers, the deaths of sons became the next pandemic? What if we make-what-we-believe when faith tells us repeatedly the God will deliver? Maybe in the life and the death of Jesus God is delivering us by showing us a better way. And during Lent hopefully we will find the means and the time to think about this more deeply.
If you’d like, here is the link to the Southern New England Conference’s daily reading schedule: www.sneucc.org/lectionary.
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