Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16+Psalm 22:22-30+Romans 4:13-25+Mark 8:31-38
One of the blessings of this pandemic has been the accessibility of art, music, culture, lectures, and other experiences that we would not otherwise be able to enjoy without spending money to get there, buying tickets, and taking the time to do so. So much is available through Zoom and other streaming sites, and I have taken part in some extraordinary events.
One of these opportunities has been to take some continuing education in the form of a class on the book of Genesis taught by my Hebrew bible professor at Yale. I believe a couple of other All Saints folks are doing the same. I always enjoyed Joel Baden as a lecturer – funny and irreverent and wickedly smart – so I thought a refresher on the first book of the bible might be a fun refresher for me. And it has been.
In the class a couple of weeks ago, we looked at Abraham and the covenant. God promises Abraham three things – land, people, and a name that will be blessed to be a blessing. Three times in three variations this promise is made, in chapters 12, 15, and 17. Today, although we didn’t read it here this morning, the third instance of the promise appears when Abraham is 99 years old. The version of this we read this morning is from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans when he claims that Abraham’s faith was “credited to him as righteousness” (4:22). Paul further claims that “No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (20-21). And it just isn’t true! Abraham wavered, several times!
From the call of Abraham back in chapter 12, he went down to Egypt, passed Sarah off as his sister, had a child with the enslaved woman Hagar, and just after the part assigned from Genesis 17 today, he falls on his face laughing at the idea that heand Sarah would have a child at their age. In the next chapter, it’s Sarah’s turn to laugh. Of course they doubted. Of course they tried to work out the promise on their own. It’s what humans do.
The disciples were no different. In Mark’s gospel in particular, they are clueless about who Jesus is, none more so than Peter. Up to now, Jesus has been their teacher, the one who healed the sick and cast out demons and fed thousands. But now, his message turns, and Peter does not like it very much.
The way the lectionary compilers have set this reading apart, it almost sounds as if Jesus is saying that he came to suffer and die, that that is why he is here. There are those who follow this line of thought in their theology of the atonement – Jesus came only to die for our sins. Period. But if we read this passage within its context, what has come before and what follows, it is clear that Jesus came to proclaim a new world order where the last will be first and the first last, where the mighty are cast down and he hungry are filled, and it is this that gets him killed. Too many people were too invested in the status quo, and when Mark begins his gospel calling it “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1), he is automatically setting Jesus against Caesar, the other “son of God” and bearer of “good news.” Proclaiming God’s reign is going to get us into trouble, Jesus is saying, so be ready to take up your cross.
Today, we often hear people saying in times of trouble, “I guess this is the cross I have to bear,” and it makes me crazy because to bear one’s cross is to carry the cross-bar to the place of crucifixion, to be hoisted up and nailed to it, and to die a gruesome death right there on the side of the road for all to see as a warning.
We are currently in times of trouble with an uncertain road ahead. In her pastoral letter this week which you will find in this bulletin and in the e-news this week, our bishop writes a bit about these times and how to navigate them, saying
How are we to keep these forty days dedicated to God? We could start by bringing our authentic selves rather than an aspirational self into the presence of God. When Jesus heard of John the Baptist’s death, he went to a desolate place to be by himself (Matthew 14:13). Could it be that shock and sadness motivated him to be alone in sorrow and prayer? What happened in the short time that he travelled and arrived in a desolate place to restore his compassion for the crowd that soon followed? While we can imagine the scene, we cannot know for sure what took place in his time alone, but one thing is certain, Jesus was his authentic self.
Every year we are invited to observe a holy Lent. This year, I encourage you to bring your authentic self into Lenten observations. Your grief, gratefulness, sorrow, relief, anger, frustration, hopefulness, and all that is your response to this time are invited to observe Lent with you. The practices of Lent found in the Book of Common Prayer (p. 265) require facing the truths of this challenging time. While this is hard spiritual work, it is also freeing spiritual work. God loves us as we are and will not leave us stranded in wilderness or grief.
I think Peter was shocked at Jesus’s words about going to his death. Perhaps he saw a wilderness of grief ahead of him. And we know how often he and the others did not get it right. Just as Abraham did not get it right. And yet, God fulfilled the promise to Abraham, to Peter…and to us.
Our faithfulness does not have to be perfect. It does not have to be flawless and doubt free. It does have to be authentic, as Bishop Hughes wrote, taking our whole selves to God, warts and doubt and grief and all, and saying, “Here I am.” It’s really all that God is asking of us.