Lent 2A: Hey…Just Take the Other Road

the-road-less-traveledOLD TESTAMENT:  Genesis 12:1-4a

Read the passage from Genesis

Remember that the importance of Genesis is that it makes the first claims about God’s character, God’s relationship to the world, and about God’s relationship to humanity.  It is, then, the very foundation of our beliefs.  Genesis reminds us that God’s work does not occur in a vacuum, but is shaped by the world and the historical setting.

The first eleven chapters of Genesis focus primarily on humanity, which proved to be a pretty rebellious lot. First we get kicked out of some metaphorical garden, then we hear tales of deceit and murder.  Then a massive flood ravishes us and wipes most of us out.  So our answer is to build a tower to get up there and see exactly what God is doing.  We don’t start well.

So, in the twelfth chapter, as what we call the “Patriarchal History” begins, there is a shift to a focus on one particular family.  In the passage that we read, interpreters usually consider vs. 1-3 to provide the key for the rest of Genesis.  All of a sudden, the camera zooms in to a single family of nomads in a small town in Mesopotamia and, finally, to a single individual.  This is where the history of Israel begins.  And although Abram will never actually see his future, his response will shape it. The responses focus on nationhood and blessing for the entire family and others through them. The thing is, Abram is called to leave (in order of intimacy) his country, his clan, his home and journey to whatever it is that God will reveal to him.  But the divine promise will begin during Abraham’s lifetime.  And, further…those who treat Israel in life-giving ways will also receive a blessing.

Abram is chosen to be the one through whom God’s blessing is showered upon the whole world.  But in order for this to happen, Abram is told to leave what he knows, to in effect sever ties and go to a new place. (We at this point immediately jump to what that would mean for us.)  But remember that Abram’s family was nomadic.  They probably didn’t really have a concept of home anyway.  And there really wasn’t a family, to speak of—Abram had probably long ago outlived his parents and he had no children.  So what was he leaving?  Maybe God was calling him away from hopelessness and loneliness and finally showing him purpose, showing him home.

And the Lord promises that Abram will not be alone.  And, more than that, God promises blessing.  No longer is this just one person or one family; it is the conduit to God showering blessing throughout the world.  And yet, Abram was as unlikely a candidate as a candidate can be.  For one thing he was getting on in years.  And, besides that, this old married couple had no children.  Sarah was considered barren.  How in the world could she produce offspring?

So, Abram is being called into the unknown and is told to leave everything he knows behind.  Talk about wandering in the wilderness!  It’s a great Lenten passage.  How many of us would leave behind everything that we are and everything that we have and enter the unknown as a blank slate on which God can begin to draw a masterpiece?  Abram is called to be a blessing, the Hebrew Parshas Lech Lecha. It becomes an integral part of the Genesis story and is used eighty-eight times in the book.  A blessing is a gift.  It involves every sphere of existence.  It is more than what we 21st century hearers have allowed it to be.  It is not payment for a life well-lived. “Being blessed” is being recreated.  (For Abram, this meant moving from a life of nomadic purposelessness to being the “father of a great nation” and, thousands of years later, the patriarch of three world religions.)  It takes time.  I think to be a blessing means that one enters the story.  God calls, God promises, and God walks with us.  That is how God is revealed.  But the blessing doesn’t come and the blessing doesn’t continue unless one enters the story.  God calls, God promises, and God blesses.

 

  1. What is your response to this short passage?
  2. What does this speak to you about calling?
  3. So, what does that mean to you to be a “blessing”? How do we misconstrue that meaning?
  4. How does this passage speak to us in our Lenten journey?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT:  Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

Read the passage from Romans

The main part of the fourth chapter of Romans revolves around the idea that Christians, Jews and Gentiles alike, are now found to be part of Abraham’s offspring.  Now this in and of itself was quite a stretch.  After all Abraham was considered a unique part of what it meant to be a person of the Jewish faith.  But Paul is claiming that the promises and blessings of Abraham extend to ALL people.  But the audience that Paul was addressing was as diverse as our society is.  They all grew up with “acceptable norms” that Paul was now telling them was not even necessarily the way of God.  So, all these things that they thought would make them “right” with God didn’t really matter at all.  It had to be hard for them to hear.

The assumption had always been (and probably is for many hearers today) that Abraham was blessed because he followed God, because he DID was God told him to do.  But Paul is now contending that it had nothing to do with what Abraham did or what laws he followed but the fact that he had faith in God.  God is not waiting around for us to do something; God blesses us as children of God.

Paul’s claim means that Abraham was not made right before God because he had rightly observed the laws.  The right relationship was not something that Abraham had earned.  It was freely offered from God because Abraham believed in what God had promised and what God offered.  It wasn’t even BECAUSE Abraham believed.  It was just that Abraham’s belief meant that he was in right relationship.  Paul is almost contending that our belief is a fruit, rather than a reason for, a right relationship with God.  The right relationship is a free and undeserved gift.  (Sounds like grace to me!)  For Paul, God’s goodness was manifest in Christ and yet was also there all along.  And God’s goodness was there for all, whether or not they followed the rules.  Faith cannot be defined; it must be lived. This was a totally new way of looking at faith for these hearers.  Who are we kidding?  It’s new for many of us too!

 

An important part of the Lenten journey is learning to reject old patterns and old ways of being that keep us from accepting God’s gift of grace and new life.  But before we reflect on one such challenge, Paul’s challenge to the law, let us first think about how difficult and challenging it is to change something more mundane; something like crossing the street.

If one was raised in North America one learned, as a child, to cross the street looking first to the left, and then to the right. Why? In North America cars, by law, drive on the right hand side of the road. So, when we travel to the British Isles, something that is second nature to us — crossing, can become dangerous and life threatening. When stepping off the curb we must first look to our right lest we are hit by oncoming traffic. In London they recognize this is a major problem for foreign visitors. If you look down while standing at an intersection you will often see stenciled, in large white letters, the admonition “LOOK RIGHT.”

The old way of thinking about Abraham, Paul tells us, is to think that Abraham was honored and praised by God by his works. Paul wanted people to look in a different direction. Look not to the works of the law, but to faith. (From commentary on this passage by Lucy Lind Hogan, available at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=3/20/2011, accessed 15 March, 2011.)

 

  1. What is your response to this short passage?
  2. What, for you, is “righteousness”, or being in “right relationship” with God?
  3. What would change if we viewed our belief as a fruit of right relationship rather than a prerequisite?

 

 

GOSPEL:  John 3: 1-17

Read the Gospel passage

Note that Nicodemus, a Jewish leader, a Sanhedrin, under scrutiny, seeks out Jesus.  This is, obviously, a good thing.  But he does it under the cloak of night.  (“Those who prefer darkness to light”)  He cannot let on that he is following Jesus—giving in to this rebel, this radical.  But he publicly acknowledges Jesus—as rabbi (teacher), as “from God”, and as a leader of the community. In this passage, the Greek word anothen means both “from above” or “again” or “anew”.  So this passage becomes ambiguous.   To be born anothen speaks both of a time of birth (again) and a place of birth (above).  It implies that the Kingdom of God is both temporal and spatial. But Nicodemus focuses on one meaning (again) and protests that that is impossible.  But Jesus brings about new images, including those of water and the spirit (implying Baptism).

When you read this, you do sense that Nicodemus must have been a good teacher.  He was astute and knew what questions to ask.  He was diligent as he studied and explored to get to the truth.  But how could he believe this circular reasoning that Jesus was espousing?   Part of the problem, it seemed, was that Nicodemus and Jesus had completely different understandings of what “believe” was.  Nicodemus had, after all, accepted Jesus’ propositions.  He had probably even taught it.  But Jesus was not asking for people to believe what he did or believe what he said.

There is a difference between believing Christ and believing IN Christ.  Believing IN means that you enter into relationship, that you trust with everything that you are, with everything that is your life. It is much more visceral than Nicodemus was really read to accept.  Nicodemus wanted to understand it within the intellectual understanding of God that he had.  But Jesus was telling him that there was a different way.  Jesus was inviting, indeed almost daring, Nicodemus to believe in this new way, to turn his life, his doubts, his heart, and even his very learned mind over to God.

“How can this be?”  Those are Nicodemus’ last words in this passage, which sort of makes him a patron saint for all of us who from time to time get stuck at the foot of the mountain, weighed down by our own understandings of who God is, without the faintest idea of how to begin to ascend.  But there’s Jesus.  “Watch me.  Put your hand here.  Now your foot.  Don’t think about it so hard.  Just do as I do.  Believe in me.  And follow me….this way!

Jesus wants Nicodemus to see the difference between dead religion and living faith.  To borrow an analogy from Jewish theologian Martin Buber, he wants him to see the difference between reading a menu and having dinner.  Until you are born of God, you will always be an observer rather than a participant in the spiritual quest.

Yet the “menu” offered by religion may look so intriguing that the feast of transforming faith can be missed.  Menus describe.  They communicate information about the meals served by a particular restaurant.  This is what religion does.  It describes what God is like, what doctrines should be believed, what rituals should be practiced.  Nicodemus had religion.  As a Pharisee, he had been reading a menu for years, so preoccupied with knowledge about God that he had missed the joy that knowledge of God can bring.  (From From Sacrifice to Celebration:  A Lenten Journey, by Evan Drake Howard, p. 19)

 

  1. What is your response to this short passage?
  2. What does the term “born again” mean for you? What meaning is conveyed with these two meanings.
  3. What is the difference between believing Christ and believing in Christ?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

Blessing is one of the ways that God makes the presence of God known here and now. (Joan Chittister, in Listen with the Heart:  Sacred Moments in Everyday Life, p. 8)

There are few people who realize what God would make of them if they abandoned themselves into [God’s] hands and let themselves be formed by grace. (St. Ignatius of Loyola, 16th century)

Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair. (G. K. Chesterton)

Closing

 

My heart’s eyes behold your Divine Glory!  From whence does my help come?  My help comes from You, who created heaven and earth.  You strengthen and uphold me, You, who are ever by my side.  Behold!  You who watch over the nations will see all hearts awaken to the Light.  For You are the Great Counselor; You dwell within all hearts, that we might respond to the Universal Heart—Like the sun, that nourishes us by day, like the stars that guide the wayfarer at night.  In You we shall not be afraid of the darkness, for You are the Light of my life.  May You keep us in our going out and our coming in from this time forth and forevermore.  Amen. (“Psalm 121”, in Psalms for Praying:  An Invitation to Wholeness, Nan C. Merrill, p. 269)

Lent 2B: Paradox and Laughter

paradoxes-crossOLD TESTAMENT: Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, click here

First of all we need to be aware that we have left out part of this passage. But the passage contains God’s promise to Abraham, a promise that is everlasting. Essentially, God promises to be God to Abraham and Abraham’s offspring. What is omitted from our lectionary is the way that the covenant is to be lived out for Abraham and those that came after him in the Jewish faith—land, offspring, circumcision. It is not that the directive to circumcise becomes a condition of the covenant itself, but rather a sign of the relationship.

The passage was probably written during the time of exile in Babylon. In the sixth century before the birth of Christ, Israel was devastated by the destruction of their city and its temple, the center of life, both political and religious. You know they were wondering where the covenant was. So the Priestly writer reminds them that God is there, that God promised an everlasting covenant, that God promised to always be with them and that God has faithfully kept that promise. This was a promise to hold on to even in the midst of the darkness of exile. It is a way of establishing (or re-establishing) the people’s identity. First, God appears to Abram and announces God’s presence. Abram falls on his face, incredulous at who is actually speaking to him. And with the covenant, Abram becomes Abraham and Sarai becomes Sarah. The covenant signifies a shift in who they are. God promises that Abram will have descendants. And they laughed. Well, of course they laughed. It was ridiculous. Abram and Sarai were old. All logic told them that their childbearing years were not just running out but were way behind them. It just didn’t make sense. But surprisingly, God often doesn’t make sense.

And by retelling the covenant, by reminding the people over and over again of this everlasting promise, it lives. This becomes a personal story of God’s faithfulness to the people. The covenant moves into the future tense. It becomes something for which we are waiting and moving toward, which makes sense to read it during our season of Lent. (And, as we know, Abraham and his family that received this covenant never saw it come to fruition. It was enough to just live with the promise. It is a lesson to us all.) And it then calls us to look at our own covenant and our own relationship with God, as well as our own sign of that covenant in our baptism.  That’s the crux. Truthfully, the promise means nothing without that relationship, without our entering into relationship with God and living the promise itself.

This passage is the story of Abraham’s identity. Abram and Sarai are named “father of many people” and “princess of many”. Now Abraham and Sarah have a new identity, an identity that comes from this established relationship. The names and the new identity were bestowed by God but they come to be as they are lived out in relationship. That is what it means to be a covenant people. For Judaism, this is the establishment of their identity as a people. This is where they become the children of Abraham and the religious community is defined. And living out that identity is about believing and trusting in this promise that was given through Abraham.

In this season of Lent, we, also as covenant people, stop and take a good hard look at our identity, at the way our relationship with God is lived out in our lives. The promise given Abram was, when you think about it, at least far-fetched and on some level downright ludicrous. But then, most of God’s promises are. We miss reading the part of this story where Abram fell down laughing. And when he told Sarai, she did the same. Was it nervousness, disbelief, or something else that brought laughter? We in our 21st century boxes probably think it a little irreverent. After all, would you dare laugh at God? Well, good grief, don’t you think God is laughing at us sometimes? Perhaps laughter is what brings perspective. It brings humility; it brings a different way of looking at oneself. Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “Humor is the beginning of faith and laughter is the beginning of prayer.”

Abraham laughed. Sarah laughed. And I’m betting God laughed. (You can just imagine the inside joke between the three: “This is going to be good. No one will ever believe this could happen.”) Maybe laughter is our grace-filled way of getting out of our self and realizing that, as ludicrous and unbelievable as it may be, God’s promise holds. Maybe it’s our way of admitting once and for all that we don’t have it all figured out, that, in all honesty, we don’t even have ourselves figured out, that there’s a whole new identity just waiting for us to claim. In this Season of Lent, we are called to get out of our self, to open ourselves to possibilities and ways of being that we cannot even fathom. Go ahead and laugh. It is only the beginning. The promise holds.

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What meaning does the covenant hold for you?
  3. In what ways does the covenant shift who we are?
  4. What does this say about relationship with God?
  5. What does the idea of God not really making sense mean to you?
  6. What does the idea of the covenant living in “future tense” mean for you?

 

NEW TESTAMENT: Romans 4: 13-25

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

Paul suggests here that faith is and has always been the primary basis of a relationship with God. This makes it possible for him to put Jews and non-Jews on the same level. What matters for both is faith. What matters is the belief that God can do what seems impossible, what doesn’t make sense. For Paul, this was the point of Jesus’ coming. He understands Jesus’ death as an inclusive representation of all humanity. He entered into death which he sees all humanity condemned by its own sinfulness and then rose from the dead. All human beings, then, through Jesus resurrection can enter into relationship, into covenant with God.

In our pragmatic 21st century minds, sometimes it is much easier to grasp at the obvious and to make that the basis of our belief. But, as Paul reminds us, if our whole faith system depends on nothing more than adhering to the set of laws or interpretations that have been laid down by those that came before us, what good is faith? Remember that faith is about relationship. The law is not bad. In fact, it’s usually a necessary construct to help us understand, to help us point to that which we believe. But it is not the end all. It is not the God who offers us relationship.

There is a story told among Zen Buddhists about a nun who one day approached a great patriarch to ask if he had any insight into the Nirvana sutra she had been reading. “I am illiterate,” the man replied, “but perhaps if you could read the words to me I could understand the truth that lies behind them.” Incredulous, the nun responded, “If you do not know even the characters as they are written in the text, then how can you expect to know the truth to which they point?”

Patiently the patriarch offered his answer, which has become a spiritual maxim for the ages: “Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right?” (from a commentary by Daniel G. Deffenbaugh, available at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=3/4/2012&tab=3, accessed 27 February, 2012.)

Now I don’t think Paul would in any way dismiss religion or even the rules. He’s just reminding us that they have their limitations. They are not God. In fact, it is easy for them to become idols of worship in and of themselves (and last I read that was frowned upon!). But they have their place. They provide a systematic way of at least attempting to understand something that, in all honesty, really makes no sense to us. (And, to turn it around, professing to be “spiritual and not religious” actually has a good chance of becoming a religion in and of itself.) An authentic faith, it seems, is one that weaves what doesn’t make sense into understanding, laughter into prayer, and a grace-filled encounter of the Divine into our everyday life. It is about both transcendence and meaning and, on a good day, the weaving together of the two into a Holy Encounter with the Divine Presence that it always in our life.

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What meaning does this “inclusiveness” mean for you?
  3. What does this say to you about covenant?
  4. In what ways do we “idolize” our religion?
  5. In what ways are the “rules” of religion important?
  6. For you, what does an “authentic faith” mean?

 

GOSPEL: Mark 8: 31-38

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

Here, when Jesus begins to speak of his suffering, Peter will have none of it. Jesus rebukes him, then, with the familiar phrase directing Satan to get behind him. Rather than an anthropomorphic view of evil, this is more than likely a way of Jesus reprimanding Peter for espousing human values, rather than God’s. The writer of Mark’s Gospel makes us think about our own faith. The passage portrays Jesus as a model for the disciples. Each time Jesus speaks of himself as the suffering servant, we find the disciples preoccupied with the opposite, or with what makes sense to them in terms of the world in which they live. But Mark tells us that true disciples should be ready to take up their own cross.

It is the ultimate paradox, as many things of faith are. We have to lose our life to find it, die to live, and give up everything to gain everything. (Who writes this stuff?) Essentially, discipleship is an out and out clash between the values of the world and the things that God holds dear. After all, we are told to protect our own first; Jesus said to give yourself away. We are told to save ourselves first; Jesus compels us to risk our life to save another. (It would be like the flight attendant telling you to put the air mask on your neighbors first and then, when everyone is set, go ahead and put your own on. Well, that would never happen!)

Now this was as foreign to those first disciples as it is to us. The disciples, like us, aspired to power and greatness for themselves as well as for Jesus. Like us, they probably wanted to be on a winning team. And, like us, they did not want themselves or those that they loved so dearly to suffer. But Jesus would have none of it. And it was hard to fathom that Jesus would, in their view, give up so easily. So who could blame Peter? He’s just like us! Even in this day, most of us are still looking for Super Jesus to come and make everything OK. But that’s not what we’ve been promised. That’s not what this way to the cross means. And to dismiss it with Anselm’s 11th century notion of Jesus being killed as a substitute for us sort of takes us off the hook. What happened to that relationship thing? We’re not asked to just believe in Christ; we’re asked to follow….all the way to the cross.

Now most of us are probably not going to be asked to give up our life for another. After all, we live pretty safely and pretty comfortably in the big scheme of things. So, what does that look like for us? What does it look like to bear our cross? Now I’m not talking about the cleaned-up, shiny cross at the front of the sanctuary! I’m talking about Golgotha, about standing up for what is right and for one’s beliefs whether it’s inconvenient, uncomfortable, or just downright dangerous. And even though most of us will probably never be hung on a cross for what we believe, we are called to live with different values, to let go of the things that impress the world—power, greatness, financial security, etc.—and to follow where God leads.

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. So, what does that mean, to “take up one’s cross”?
  3. What is one denying by doing that?
  4. What are you being called to give up in your life to follow where God leads?
  5. How much of your life are you willing to relinquish to follow Jesus to the cross?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

Faith without humor becomes fanaticism; humor without faith becomes cynicism. (Conrad Hyers)

 

Spirituality basically teaches us that the inside of things is bigger than the outside. (Richard Rohr in Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality)

 

We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us. (Joseph Campbell)

 

Closing

O God, from whose eyes the measure of our faith is not hidden, wrench from us now all religiosity, all rules and regulations of our scheduled selves that separate us you’re your Holy Spirit.

 

O God, who calls each of us by name to be the church, give us love enough to make a difference, give us vision enough to follow, give us endurance enough to hold steadfast in the face of the unholy.

 

O God, who claims us as disciples, bless us now and touch us with your holiness that we might have commitment enough to be good news to [all the world]. Amen.

(Excerpt from“Have Mercy on Us”, from Kneeling in Jerusalem, by Ann Weems, p. 35)