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Degrees of Hardness

Degrees of Hardness

    The lections this past Sunday (February 24, 2008) paired Moses' miracle at Rephidim with Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman by Jacob's well.  The connecting theme is, of course, water, water to live by and water to live by eternally. No one at Vanderbilt has ever asked me to select Scripture readings, but should they (and they won't) I would recommend that the passage from Exodus featuring Moses be combined with one in Matthew 16:13-28 featuring Peter.  The connecting theme then would be breaking rocks. 

    Let me explain.  The people of Israel have just begun their journey from Egypt into the desert south of the Promised Land. Deserts are notoriously short of water.  With H2O rations low the troops begin to complain, that Moses leads them out only to make them die of dehydration.  Rephidim, as a consequence of Israel's complaint, is renamed Massah ("quarreling") and/or Meribah ("testing").  Complaints are silenced only when Moses strikes a boulder with his staff, the same one that divided the Red Sea waters, and drinking water gushes forth. 

   Perhaps the Lord was teaching the desert pilgrims about artesian wells.  We have one in Vermont.  We struck a far more resistant rock than Rephidim on our hillside.  We struck it  with a cast iron pipe six hundred feet long, just to get enough water to provide for ten families, not twelve families with a thousand members each.

    But I digress (like I always do!).  At Caesarea Philippi the shattered rock is Peter.  Simon's bold confession that Jesus is the Christ earns him a new name, Peter, which means "rock" in Greek.  But no sooner does the Galilean prophet predict that Peter would be the foundation on which the church would be built than the Rock tempts Jesus to forgo his mission, the cross. For this gross misunderstanding and stubborn insistence Jesus gives Peter yet another name, a very unflattering one, Satan.  It should have broken Peter's heart, but we have reason to believe, with a rooster as a witness, that the Rock continued to be blockheaded and  hardhearted until his Friend is seized, condemned, and crucified. Then the Rock melts with bitter tears.

    Now, gentlemen especially, consider the maleness of Peter.  He must have been forty or more when he signed on to discipleship.  That's a dangerous age for a man, forty.  It's about the time in life when a fellow starts to think he knows something.  It's that time in life when, seeing the incompetence of everyone else around him, he begins to fantasize about being his own boss.  Of course, nothing in the Gospel account hints that Peter was about to set up a rival business to the Gloucester fisherman.  Just that, having been there and been that, a forty year old man, restless, wanting to break free, it doesn't surprise me that Peter at that moment in Caesarea Philippi might begin to lecture Jesus on what the future should hold in store for the savior of the world, palace and crown, not prison and cross. 

    Professor Wilhelm Pauck, in a seminary class on John Calvin, speculated that the Calvinist doctrine of double predestination (according to which we are at the moment of conception, and maybe earlier, destined to go either to heaven or hell, and nothing that transpires on earth will make any difference) was developed on the basis of the Geneva Reformer's experience with men of middle age, who, hell or high water, wouldn't change their ways or their opinions. 

    Pauck didn't say it, but I can vouch for it, from personal experience, that between forty and seventy we macho men get even worse.

    So which is the greater miracle: striking a vein of water in a rock or breaking the hardness of heart of a man in his decades of strength?  getting water out of granite to slake the thirst of tired pilgrims or getting the springs of water of eternal life into a soul who doesn't think he needs it?  

    You know what I think.  Right, that the harder job is taking the recalcitrant Rock, pouring an ocean of grace into him, and making him, a middle aged man of all things (!), into the foundation of a two thousand year old institution: that's not just a miracle, it's an eternally transformational event.  Which means there may be hope even for an old sinner like me and you (even if you're neither old nor male).  Like the ads lately on TV, featuring a swarm of locusts at a gas-tank fill-up, and the other about a contagion of neighborly kindness, it's never too late to get in tune with the generous and loving impulse behind the creation.  Ebenezer did it one Christmas in Merrie Olde England. Zacchaeus did it, climbing down from his perch in a sycamore tree.  My Brooklyn friend Eddie did it, put the cork back in the bottle and, with AA's help, got sober and assumed his family responsibilities.

    Others have done "it," by which is meant swallowing pride, listening to the correction of others, and following in the wise and merciful footsteps of Jesus, heeding his measure of a person's worth (what you give not what you get), stepping back from a position of cocksuredness to one of humble certainty, and just using your life for something and someones beyond yourself and your own tight circle.  It may not be the best translation of the first Beatitude, but the old RSV's turn of phrase gets it right for Pete's sake: "Blessed are the poor in spirit..."  Not out of our strength, but in our vulnerability do we step over the threshold into the kingdom. 

    Peter could borrow the words of another forty year old knucklehead by the name of Paul (yes, yes, please understand that my assumption of and assault on apostolic obtuseness is predicated on the thesis that it takes one, RWH, to know two, P and P), who also had his stony heart shattered by grace (another story for another time).  The Apostle Paul writes this benediction for Peter and Paul (maybe Mary too) and Bob that, while recounting the insults to his pride he has endured, "I am content with weaknesses,... ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong."

      Getting water out of rock is tough; getting the refreshing waters of eternal life into the Rock and his fellow rockies takes all the ingenuity and persistence of heaven.  But it's well worth it.



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