To prepare for this summer’s preaching schedule, I started reading the gospel of Luke again, from the beginning. (In manageable snippets, which is to say, less than a chapter at a time!) In the Revised Common Lectionary, we’ll be following Jesus on his journey through Galilee and the environs, until he sets his face toward Jerusalem (Luke 9:51), and then we’ll continue on the road with him as the tension mounts. Each of the gospels has its particular flavor, and I wanted to remind myself about Luke’s.
It’s the only gospel that begins with a sort of prequel, the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, an older couple who amazingly become the parents of John the Baptist. We’ve begun to read an epic when we open the gospel of Luke. The one who comes before also has a surprising birth story, and the people who will bring him into the world are courageous and faithful in the face of other people’s disbelief, just like Mary and Joseph. Mary comes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, and hearing the affirmation of someone who knows and loves her, she sings an amazing song in praise of God, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-56). Her song declares God will turn the world upside down in the person of the baby she is carrying, bringing down the powerful and feeding the hungry, scattering “the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” (Luke 1:51, New Revised Standard Version)
In Luke 1:50, she makes this claim:
“His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.” (NRSV)
I’m afraid I’m not particularly God-fearing. I don’t walk around wondering if God will strike me dead. I do, however, honor God. I do hold God in an awe so huge it spills off the page and writing about it seems too small.
Here’s another way of translating that sentence:
“He shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honors him as God.” (Common English Bible)
Honor sounds more like it to me. But fear is the word we know from so many translations — those who fear the Lord, we read — and many people cling to a fear-based faith. They like the fear-worthy Divine Father, the terrifying King on the Throne, because the King on the Throne will surely, surely smite someone, somewhere.
There may be days, occasionally, when I wish I believed in that God, believed my Lord and Savior would strike down the homophobes and the racists, the pedophiles and the kidnappers, the parents who buy rifles for their kindergartners, the depravedly indifferent legislators who sell their souls to the gun lobby, and the gun lobbyists, too.
But just as I don’t believe their God will smite me for loving another woman, I don’t believe my God will smite them. I believe our God, whose angels repeatedly tell us to NOT fear, reigns over all of us with a love so deep and wide and high that no one falls outside of it.
So the hard part, then, is for us to honor God’s love for the people we find unlovable or disagreeable. No one said it would be easy, especially not Jesus, which will become clear as we walk farther down the road with him.
Martha Spong is a United Church of Christ pastor, a clergy coach, editor of The Words of Her Mouth: Psalms for the Struggle, and coauthor of Denial is My Spiritual Practice (and Other Failures of Faith) with Rachel Hackenberg.
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