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AUGUST 31, 2008: TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

Jeremiah 20, 7-9
Romans 12:1-2
Matthew 16:21-27

As we know from many of the late George Carlin's comic routines, coming into contact with organized religion is part of almost every person's faith experience. Nothing the matter with it, as long as the organized religion we encounter helps us accomplish what it supposedly was created to do: have an experience of God working in our daily lives. Problems arise, as Carlin frequently pointed out, when organized religion only provides us with an experience of organized religion.

Thankfully we don't have that problem when we listen to today's three readings. Each of our sacred authors deftly cuts through organized religion and presents us with a picture of God acting in our lives - for better or for worse. It's at this point of our faith experience that we go "one on one" with God - no intermediaries.

Jeremiah begins our series of readings, referring to Yahweh in the most insulting terms used in all Scripture. (We're once again in Jeremiah 20; the chapter no clinically depressed person of faith is ever to read.) Though most translators render the passages' first words in rather innocuous terms like "You duped me!" or "You tricked me!" scholars like Carroll Stuhlmueller have reminded us that this specific Hebrew verb is often employed in the context of rape. Jeremiah's so angry and frustrated with Yahweh's treatment of him that he can only fall back on the warning all parents give their young children as they send them off to school alone: "Don't ever get into a car with a stranger!" The prophet regrets not heeding their advice. He got into Yahweh's car, was overpowered, and, like all sexually abused people, has never been the same again. Once he agreed to be Yahweh's prophet, Jeremiah's life has turned into a nightmare.

The worse part of his experience is that he can't reverse the process. "I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more. But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it." Entering a relationship with Yahweh has entrapped him for the rest of his life. It's like trying to resign from the mafia.

Paul certainly can identify with some of Jeremiah's God-experience - especially the part about it being an open, life-time commitment. One's life is totally changed by it. ". . . Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice . . . do not conform yourselves to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God . . . . "Making God's will our will every day of our lives is both the most rewarding and frustratingly painful experience of those lives.

Paul's doing nothing but following the example of Matthew's Jesus. No one reaches the life Jesus offers without going through the death Jesus demands. Matthew copied today's narrative from Mark, following his three-fold pattern of a prediction of Jesus' passion, death and resurrection, followed by a misunderstanding, and then a clarification. In this series, Peter's granted the privilege of the misunderstanding. Along with the famous "Get behind me Satan!" command, he's also reminded, "You are thinking not as God does but as human beings do."

When one thinks as God, one accepts God's value system, no matter how different and painful that is from our own. Yet even if, like Jeremiah, there's no belief in an afterlife as we know it, there's still the life that comes from the relationship itself - at least on some occasions.

Doesn't surprise me that many people prefer organized religion over actual experiences of God. Lot less pain, and none of the pitfalls which come from a personal commitment to a real person. Didn't surprise George Carlin either. It helped make him an oft-quoted and wealthy man.