Paradox and Nuance, March 7

Paradox and Nuance

Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22

                                             Rev. Catherine E. Schuyler                      

Catskill, Palenville, Quarryville UM Churches, online; March 7, 2021


When my daughter Charis was a toddler, we found this wonderful book called What Does the Sky Say? (Nancy White Carlstrom; Eerdmans, 2001).  It has pictures of a little girl looking up at the sky in winter, when the sky asks her to build a snowman, on a sunny day at the beach when the sky invites her to frolic in the waves, at night when the sky shares fireflies with her, and even on a day with clouds and sun, when the sky encourages her to try out a bicycle ride anyway.  Beautiful pictures and a little girl experiencing ups and downs and making good decisions were all winners for me as I looked for books for my little one, so it wasn't until I had read it through for her a few times that I turned to the very last page.  There, all by itself, were verses 1-4a of Psalm 19:

The heavens are telling the glory of God;

and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

Day to day pours forth speech,

and night to night declares knowledge.

There is no speech, nor are there words;

     their voice is not heard;

yet their voice goes out through all the earth,

      and their words to the end of the world.


What does the sky say?  The question has fascinated us for centuries.  The sky speaks, even though it has no words.  The statement doesn't make logical sense, and its irrationality is readily admitted in the text of the psalm.  There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth.  Certainly this is not a science textbook, nor is it a history book.  This is the language of poetry.  Yet this isn't even metaphor or simile, having one thing stand in for another which is harder to talk about.  This is pure paradox – self-contradictory, proclaiming one thing and then declaring its precise opposite.  It's not an unknown literary trope; writers sometimes push us to think more deeply by asserting that two utterly opposite things are true.  And we only understand it as we are willing to expand our tendency to want absolutes into a willingness to live with nuance.


If we are willing to delve deeper into the text, the point is that the sky – and the mountains and the rivers, and the rocks and stones themselves – cry out glory and praise to God simply by being, simply by existing as the beautiful works of divine art that they are.  Even as we hear the word of God so definitively in the Ten Commandments, we are reminded that words are not the only form of communication there is, that Being, Existence itself, sings praise to God, even by those of us whose work is built on words. In this year when singing together is unsafe, the sky still sings God’s praise.


Psalm 19 is not the only example of paradox in Scripture.  Justice and mercy are both expected and experienced behaviors of God, yet they are certainly opposite at their core.  Justice is about doing what is right and fair according to God's ways.  It is about insisting that those without power are given access to power and that those who are poor are given access to food and shelter and dignity.  Justice requires that all people be treated with respect and fairness.  So the prophet Micah declares that the Lord requires that we do justice.  Other prophets chime in with the same call. Amos insists that we treat the poor with dignity, and the laws and commandments in Leviticus tell the people to govern the nation fairly for all the people, whether or not they have great standing in society.  What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice?  And to love mercy.  Mercy is, of course, the opposite of justice.  Mercy is not 'fair' at all.  It is the gift of forgiveness when we don't deserve it.  It is overlooking that which we have done wrong, and which others have done wrong, and restoring relationships when they have been broken.  What does the Lord require of you? Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.  Part of the walking humbly is the willingness to live with the paradox that both justice and mercy are asked of us, simultaneously, in the same lifetime, in the same life.


Scripture celebrates other paradoxes.  There is that story of a king who will rule all Israel who is born in a stable and welcomed by grimy shepherds.  There is Jesus' proclamation, offered over and over throughout the gospels that the first will be last and the last will be first.  The Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount are filled with paradoxical statements.  Blessed are those who mourn. Happy are those who are hungry and thirsty.  And the challenge that we hear so often in Jesus’ preaching:  Whoever would be great among you, must become your servant. And whoever would be first among you, must be the slave of all.


Then we hear the words of Paul, declaring that God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.  What?  But how else to explain a crucified king, the triumph of a Messiah who conquers death but still bears the scars of pain and suffering?  There are so many in our world who want only victory, only joy, only success.  That’s not the gospel we proclaim, because it’s not the story of Jesus.  “Meekness and majesty… suffering to give us life, conquering through sacrifice…” Graham Kendrick’s whole hymn wrestles with the paradoxes in the person and ministry and work of Jesus.  “Love indestructible in frailty appears.” 


This is the truth we proclaim.  And we wrestle with it, because this is what life, real life, looks like. We don’t always win, any of us.  We live, sometimes rejoicing, sometimes weeping, sometimes hoping, and at other times in deep despair.  We claim our gospel as truth precisely because it witnesses to all of life, not only to the successes and the mountaintop experiences.  It is in the paradox of life and death together that we find our salvation in Christ, in the midst of it, not in spite of it.  That’s Paul’s profound declaration here in the beginning of 1 Corinthians.  God’s salvation for us comes through divine weakness and vulnerability.  And that is good news.


We live with the paradox that the ones we love most powerfully, the ones who bring us the most joy in our lives, are also the ones who are capable of hurting us most deeply.  It's not a paradox we can argue with; it's simply the reality of love itself.  It can only be avoided if we choose not to love.  Jesus' offer of life itself, abundant life, true life, is wrapped up in the deliberate decision to love deeply, knowing it will hurt.  Our hearts will be broken when we love, because death or disappointment or something else will eventually end it.  And it is in that love that will break our hearts that we find the depth and meaning that life has to offer.     


We understand Jesus' anger in the temple today because we know that our deepest anger, like his, comes from our deepest loves.  Anger only happens when we care intensely.  Our challenge, therefore, is not to avoid feeling anger, or love, or pain, or joy.  Our challenge is how to hold onto the love and let the anger run through us, how to act lovingly and with integrity without letting go of our passion.


Faith is not about absolutes. Paradox, unresolved opposites existing simultaneously in our lives, in our thoughts, and in our hearts, is precisely what makes faith faithful.  Our faith is not simply a list of commandments which we follow to make things work.  It is the ethics of justice combined with our constant falling short and our regular need for mercy.  Living with paradox forces us to recognize nuance, a path between the extremes that gives us room to learn and grow.  Faith is the way we struggle with the paradoxes of our lives, recognizing that humans have struggled with paradox, and lived with paradox, and found meaning in paradox, for thousands of years. 


We don't live neat lives tied into a pretty bow, but mixed-up, raucous, sometimes chaotic lives.  So we give thanks that our God, our faith, and our relationships all include the reality, and the gift, of the coexistence of utterly opposite truths.  We give thanks for paradox.  Amen.

Exodus 20:1-17

20Then God spoke all these words: 2I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3you shall have no other gods before me. 4You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. 7You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. 8Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

12Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 13You shall not murder. 14You shall not commit adultery. 15You shall not steal. 16You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 17You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.


Psalm 19

The heavens are telling the glory of God;

and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

Day to day pours forth speech,

and night to night declares knowledge.

There is no speech, nor are there words;

     their voice is not heard;

yet their voice goes out through all the earth,

      and their words to the end of the world.

In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun, which comes

     out like a bridegroom  from his wedding canopy,

     and like a strong man runs its course with joy.

Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them; and nothing is hid from its heat.

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;

the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple;

the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;

the commandment of the Lord is clear,

     enlightening the eyes;

the fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever;

the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.

More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;

sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.

Moreover by them is your servant warned;

in keeping them there is great reward.

But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults.

Keep back your servant also from the insolent;

     do not let them have dominion over me.

Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.


1 Corinthians 1:18-25

18For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” 20Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.




John 2:13-22

13The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.



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