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)

Epiphany 6A: The Reordered Way

crossing-the-roadOLD TESTAMENT:  Deuteronomy 30: 15-20

Read the passage from Deuteronomy

Brought out of the land of Egypt, the Israelites are now given a depiction of what they should become—a people of obedience to the law and devotion to God.  This is their very life.  They are told to love God or perish.  If they devote themselves to God and to becoming the people that God called them to be, they will be blessed.  But this is not to be taken legalistically.  Rather, the people are being called into relationship with God, into the relationship that nourishes and feeds and gives them life.

The truth is, they have already been released from slavery, have already been redeemed from perishing.  Egypt means captivity; devotion to God means freedom.  It is a call to not yield to fear, to not cower into the past but rather to go toward God, to go into the future with devotion and obedience.  This reading is a sort of weaving together of the past and the present.  The past is part of them but it is not all there is.  God waits to take them to freedom.

And now they hear this call to renewal, a call to be who God calls them to be.  Think of them standing at the threshold of new life, ready to go on.  But first they must hear who they are.  It is not a promise of prosperity if one follows God, such as we often hear today; rather, it is a promise of life.

For us, too, obedience, going toward God, represents life.  When faith falters, self-centeredness takes over, fear and insecurities move in, and we forget exactly who we are and who we’re called to be.  Life is about choices.  Choices bring dignity to life.  God gave us the wonderful gift of free will, the gift of the power to choose.  (In fact, in giving us that, God gives us a small piece of the very Godself.  God gives up a part of God for us.)  But our choices affect us and they affect the world.  Some bring blessings; some do not.  Blessings are not rewards for a choice well-chosen; they are, rather, life-giving consequences of living and being the way were are created to live and be.

The Book of Deuteronomy is not merely a simplistic guide to health and well-being.  It is not merely rules.  That would be entirely too simple.  And this passage is not meant as a threat.  It is instead a way of teaching or instructing.  Some see it as a sort of summary of the entire Torah itself.  It is God’s love pleading with us to return.  These are not just demands, but something to which one can listen to guide him or her home.  It is the way to justice and righteousness, to the life that God has always envisioned we would have.

 

  1. What does this passage mean for you?
  2. What is difficult about it?
  3. What changes if we read it legalistically as opposed to life-giving?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT:  1 Corinthians 3: 1-9

Read the passage from 1 Corinthians

Again, Paul’s letter is in conflict with the culture and society to which the Corinthians are accustomed.  Their loyalties are misplaced and because of that, disunity has set in.  There are those that have led them and, it seemed, have nurtured them.  They probably feel that they owe them something—at least some level of devotion and loyalty, if nothing else.

Paul doesn’t seem to be necessarily warning against false prophets or ineffective leaders here but rather displaced loyalty.  One human cannot “belong” to another (hence the misuse of the Scriptures about slavery 150 years ago).  Rather, we all belong to God.  It is God to whom our loyalty should be given.  And realizing this will unify us with one common purpose.

Paul sees this as true maturity.  And as long as these people don’t get that, they are mere infants, still needing basic instructions in the ways of God.  They see themselves as a spiritual and righteous people following devoted leaders.  But they have a long way to go.  For Paul, righteousness and spirituality comes with being “in Christ”.  Differing leaders, then, should not be in competition, but should be co-workers with God.  In other words, their ministries should be complimentary, not competitive.  For Paul, these divisions are doing nothing for spiritual growth and are, in fact, pulling the people away from what is right and good, away from their unity in Christ.

Perhaps, then, this is a call for us to take a good hard look at our leaders and the way we live as Christians in this world.  Divisions?  Quarreling?  Jealousy?  They are all indeed rampant in our world.  But Paul claims that if we see ourselves as one in Christ, all of these divisions, all of these misunderstandings would fall away, our divisions would be healed.  The question is “to whom do you belong?”

 

The late Henri Nouwen often spoke about his journey to L’Arche, a community of mentally handicapped people and their assistants, trying faithfully and simply to live the Gospel together.  Nouwen, assigned to work with Adam, a twenty-four-year-old epileptic man who could not speak or dress himself, spoke of his real fears.  A university professor who was far more comfortable with matters of the head than of the heart, he was now assigned the task of bathing and dressing a grown man.  Over time, fear gave way to something new:

“Somehow I started to realize that this poor, broken man was the place where God was speaking to me in a whole new way.  Gradually I discovered real affliction in myself and I thought that Adam and I belonged together and that it was so important…I want you to understand a little better what happened between Adam and me.  Maybe I can say it very simply.  Adam taught me a lot about God’s love in a very concrete way.”  (In Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, by Richard M. Simpson, p. 355, noted as from Henri Nouwen, “Journey to L’Arche”.)”

 

I can’t help but read this passage and think of our own culture and even our own denomination.  I mean, if unity was important enough for Paul to call the Corinthian church out of itself and away from the false alignments that they had created, then what words would Paul have for us?  Paul doesn’t seem to be near as worried about the subject of the quarrels or who is right and who is wrong but that fact that there was disunity within the church.  No one is “right”; no one has the upper hand; no one can lay claim to the church.  The Church is God’s and God is the one with whom we are aligned.  Nothing else really matters.  Now don’t get me wrong.  I have never advocated just standing back and doing nothing.  There are things that are just wrong.  There are places where we are not the open and inclusive people of God who we are called to be.  But there is a way to talk; there is a way to act; there is a way.  Maybe when we remember that we are the people of God, we will look at things differently.

 

  1. What does this passage mean for you?
  2. How can this be applied to our own cultural context?
  3. What would be different if we actually heard what Paul was saying?
  4. What does this passage say about Christian maturity, about, as we United Methodists put it, “Christian Perfection”?

 

 

GOSPEL:  Matthew 5: 21-37

Read the passage from The Gospel According to Matthew

Once again, we have more wisdom from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  This is no pretty little story—just straightforward teachings.  You see, we really ARE supposed to do this.  There are contrasts with those teachings that are “usual” all through it. (“You have heard…but I say to you.”)  It’s a pretty radical way of looking at things.  And here, it is not just behaviors; it also applies to attitudes and emotions.  Indeed, it is about every aspect of our being.

Jesus acknowledges what the “usual” view of righteousness was (and perhaps is)—that a murderer will be judged, that those who leave offerings will be rewarded, that adulterers will be punished, etc.  Sure, we know all that.  Jesus is a good teacher.  He starts with what his hearers know and to which they can relate.  But Jesus’ whole point is that it’s not enough.  Jesus doesn’t frame his words as prohibitions but rather expectations.  It’s his way of not abolishing the law but fulfilling it.  Following God is not about following rules; it’s about going beyond them.

Once again, we are reminded that God came in Jesus Christ not to enforce the rules, but to reorder the world itself.  God does not have a checklist or a lucky-number scorecard.  Rather, God became flesh, dwelt among us, and showed us what it meant to live with an ever-present God in our midst.  Once again, the choice is life.  But abundant life demands a lot.  We are not called to be right or good; we are called to not only avoid sins, but to live as those whose God is in our midst.

Now, that said, we often get hung up on the specifics of this passage.  Murder we get.  But, then, anger is a little harder.  I mean, anger is a valid human emotion.  But when anger becomes destructive of the relationship, it needs to be stopped.  Maybe it’s a call to learn to talk to each other.  I don’t know.  The one about divorce always hangs us up.  So is that a call to stay in a marriage that is not good for those involved?  Well, keep in mind that in the first century culture in which this was written, a man could just divorce his wife for no reason, shutting her out and leaving her penniless and alone.  In effect, it was what we would talk about as abandonment.  So, Jesus is saying, “you owe her something.  She is a valued person.”  What it boils down to is that we need to learn to read these words of Jesus the way that Jesus meant them rather than the way our society looks at them.  Jesus’ words were calling us to be something more, calling us to be different.  And if something in our life keeps getting in the way of that, then we need to let it go.

This Way of Christ is, in effect, a reordering of everything we know.  It is the way to life abundant.  But it demands more and it promises more.  The laws are not about keeping us out of trouble or, for that matter, even statements on morality.  They have to do with relationships, with that Body of Christ embodied in our midst. So how does our community and our culture treat everyone?  Where are those places where we as a community fall short?  Where have we forgotten that it is not about rules and laws; it is about relationship, about unity, about living the Way of Christ?

 

  1. What does this passage mean for you?
  2. What is the most difficult part of this for you?
  3. Why is this so difficult for most of us to grasp? What keeps our focus on “rules” so firmly in place?
  4. What would it mean if we really listened to Jesus’ words?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

When people get to invent their own gods, they invent gods that demand very little. (Steve Bruce, 20th century)

I discovered that in the spiritual life, the long way round is the saving way.  It isn’t the quick and easy religion we’re accustomed to.  It’s deep and difficult—a way that leads into the vortex of the soul where we touch God’s transformative powers.  But we have to be patient.  We have to let go and tap our creative stillness.  Most of all, we have to trust that our scarred hearts really do have wings.  (Sue Monk Kidd)

Whatever is honored will be cultivated.  (Plato)

 

 

Closing

God bless our contradictions, those parts of us which seem out of character.  Let us be boldly and gladly out of character.  Let us be creatures of paradox and variety; creatures of contrast, of light and shade, creatures of faith.  God be our constant.  Let us step out of character into the unknown, to struggle and love and do what we will.

                                    (Leunig, Common Prayer Collection]