This morning I led Morning Prayer at Sunderland Minster for the first time since March.
The Old Testament reading, Judges 15:1-16:3, part of the Samson saga, is a litany of abuse and violence, against women, animals, the natural environment and the communities that depend on the fruit of the earth, tribal rivals—the whole passage is concerned with the evils of ‘othering’—and even the built environment.
For some, this passage (and others like it) is reason enough to reject the Bible as worthy of shaping community, and to reject the community that holds it to be authoritative. Personally, I am glad that this passage is in the Bible, confronting me to recognise that there is nowhere I can stand outside of such a cycle of hostility, no community I can join that is above such things. I am not exempt.
Where is God in this passage? The spirit of the Lord rushes upon Samson to free him from his captivity; and, after Samson has routed his enemies, God responds to his thirst by splitting a hollow place and bringing forth water. We can see this as divine approval; or we can see it as grace: as the loving favour of God to even the most undeserving of sinners, or, those estranged from their neighbours and captive to destruction.
The passage is paired with Luke 18:15-30, in which we see Jesus interrupting the endless cycle of violence, just long enough to see whether others will step into the vulnerable space created. He interrupts his disciples in their intent to order people who were bringing infants to Jesus to stop; telling them that they must become as a little child if they are ever to enter into the kingdom of God. He interrupts a certain ruler (or, a man with enormous privilege in an unjust world) who is seeking even greater fulfilment through gain; calling him to give away his wealth to the benefit of the poor. In a world of enmity, calling him from a position of neutrality to be a peacemaker, one with God-given authority to participate in the active positive relationship between God and humankind, made possible by God’s initiative and revealed in the person of Jesus.
The ruler baulks, and walks away. The disciples don’t really get it, but stick with it, with wrestling with the call of Jesus on their lives—which is a call into community, the people of God, those who are in Christ.
The word of the kingdom is new every morning, always calling us afresh to know grace, and peace. However uncomfortable the reading from Judges; however barely-more-hopeful the reading from Luke; both readings this morning bring me back to this.