Friday, March 20, 2009

Friday, Third Week in Lent

Numbers 20:2-3, 6-13 / John 4:5-42

Shame is a powerful thing. It is shame that stays the hand of many a potential sinner. How many young men have kept their purity by refraining from visiting places of ill repute, in person or online, for the shame that would follow so base a pleasure? How many a mother has restrained her temper and her hand when confronted by a tired but unruly child at the market, the park, or the bus stop for the shame that would arise from a hard word or a cruel slap? How many bored shoppers or self-justifying employees have kept from stealing from the store or workplace, even the smallest and most trivial thing, for the shame of taking what is not theirs and they could easily afford? Shame is a powerful thing.

Nor does shame simply restrain us from evil. For those who have fallen, have yielded in intemperate passion or in cold calculation, in a slow and unchecked slide over many careless years or in a moment of dramatic rebellion, into sin, shame can call us back. Where our hearts are still stony, still slow to be moved, and the emotions which might stir us to contrition are far from stirring the dying embers of charity, it is often our sense of shame that calls us to repentance. To know what we have done, and to know who we are, to see the gap between the two and to want urgently once more to have our name, whether public or in our private estimation, match our deeds — there are times when this more than anything else can drive us to the confessional, and then to drink deeply of the cleansing waters flowing from the Rock of Christ in Holy Communion.

If that is so, if shame can bar from sin and return to grace those whom inner virtue cannot move, however well they try, then what explains the severity of punishment for Moses and Aaron at the waters of Meriba? Moses, that meekest of prophets, and Aaron, the faithful priest of God, in this one act find themselves barred from entering the Land of Promise. With years to go, and much to endure before they get there, these two holy men must labor for a prize they will never win for themselves. Like the faithless generation at the foot of Mt Sinai, these two will be left to die on the far side of the Jordan. And why? In the face of a murmuring people, a people who again and again refused to believe in the Lord God, who pined over and over for slavery when faced with the bracing challenge of freedom, Moses and Aaron had turned to the Lord. Seeking the people’s good, they implored the mercy of the Most High, and their prayers were not in vain. God, fully knowing the fickleness of his people, was all the same true to himself. In response to murmuring, God asked of Moses only a word, a word to a rock as hard as the hearts of his people. Yet, from that rock God would cause to flow a treasure, a fountain of living water. In the face of rebellion, of waywardness, God intended to respond with undeserved mercy and life in abundance. God would have his people know that his sanctity, his holiness, is never undone by our sinfulness and contending against him. Even before we have deserved it, God wills us to know he is merciful.

But this would not do for Moses. In place of a word, Moses struck the rock with violence, and not once but twice, in case his purpose was missed. In place of announcing God’s intentions of mercy and life as a testament to his holiness, Moses rebuked the people of Israel. What should have been a sign of undeserved forgiveness, a fountain of living water from a lifeless rock, Moses made into a chastisement, a mockery, and retort to the contending of Israel. Are we to bring water for you out of this rock? asked Moses, and he hoped they would hear the irony in his tone. God intended the people to know his sanctity through his mercy. Moses chose instead to cover God’s people in shame.

Shame, after all, is a blunt instrument, and some who are shamed turn forever from what is wholesome and good. Where some shame keeps from sin, others who are ashamed think themselves unworthy of anything good, and so embrace what is wicked as the only thing they deserve. Where some are turned by shame to repent, others are so shamed by their sins that to utter them before another, even if it means life, is a death they cannot endure. Shame has silenced the mouths of those whose bodies are broken in their own homes and those whose innocence has been stolen by others in whose care they were lovingly placed. Shame may be a powerful thing, but it can never be the final word. Where God’s mercy is to be proclaimed, where forgiveness has been declared, where God has already decided to pour out living water on those who thirst, the time for shame has passed. There is no room for shame to remain seated at the banquet table where mercy and grace have taken their rightful thrones.

This is why we, who have been washed by the living waters of Baptism, and who have drunk of that same spiritual rock in Holy Communion, are summoned not to shame the world, but to announce its forgiveness in Christ. We who have ourselves been the contentious Israelites, who have been the Samaritan woman at the well, who have known both what it is to have wandered and sinned again and again, and after searching everywhere else to find comfort, have ourselves heard those comforting words from Jesus, I who speak with you am He — we of all people must be a testament to the world of God’s holiness in our forbearance and kindness. It is in our welcome to the sinner, even the most hardened, and it is in our gracious listening to those in error, even those who worship Him whom they do not know, that God’s holiness will be known in his Church.

To be sure, where there is public and unrepentant sin, it is the duty of all the faithful and all people of good will to shame the sinner with hope of his repentance. But where God has forgiven, where the liberating words of the Gospel have been proclaimed, where the Lord has visited his people and chosen to dwell, to tabernacle with them, and to pour forth for them living water, then the time for shame is done. Then is the time for welcome and kindness. Then is the time to embrace the very one whose earlier sins and rebellion would have tempted even the elect to hard words and rejection. For in our gracious generosity, those who had before committed shameful deeds will come to know, first from us, and then for themselves, the very source of living water, our Lord Jesus Christ. Then they will be able to hold their heads high in our company and to say without shame, We will no longer believe because of what you have said, for we have heard for ourselves and we know that this is in truth the Savior of the world.

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