Monday, March 9, 2009

Ashamed of the Gospel?

Readings for the 2nd Sunday in Lent are Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Romans 4:13-25; and Mark 8:31-38

True to my namesake, I stood by a parishioner’s hospital bed one day last week, thinking, “Gee, how can I read this Gospel, with Jesus giving a gloomy forecast of his own suffering? Don’t we need some uplift here?”

Fortunately, it took just a moment or two for it to dawn on me how exactly I was standing in the clogs of the fisherman. According to Matthew’s Gospel, that Peter said to Jesus, “God forbid, Lord! All this shall never happen to you!” And that Peter received the rebuke we heard today, which in The Message is paraphrased, “Peter, get out of my way! Satan, get lost! You have no idea how God works.”

As I say, it took just about the pause of one deep breath for this Peter to come to his senses and recall what good news it was indeed to this dear person in her hospital bed that our Lord had undergone great suffering, rejection, even death, and then was raised from the dead. In fact, that is the heart of the Gospel—and for a brief moment I was ashamed of the Gospel. I thought I would prefer a more upbeat reading.

That would be at least the second time in a week that I had egg on my face. Actually, the first time it was ashes, and that would be last Sunday when, at Worship Outside the Box, I had demonstrated to the children the imposition of ashes which begins the Lenten experience. Before I called for a couple of volunteers, I thought I’d make the sign of the cross on my own forehead. Afterwards, I handed each of them a tissue to wipe off theirs—but completely forgot that I was still wearing mine.

And so I appeared before you, last Sunday, causing some curiosity… and a few remarks which at the moment made no sense to me at all. What did Chuck Alberti mean, when he asked if I’d washed my face since Wednesday?

That experience has reinforced my commitment to speak of Lent as a season for paying attention—to our own experience, to the people and life around us, and to God in all and above all. Now I need to practice what I preach.

And that brings me to Abraham and Sarah, pioneer human beings in whom God evidently found integrity and consistency. St. Paul called Abraham “the father of all of us,” and presumably, to a less patriarchal audience, would have called Sarah the mother of us all. “No distrust made them waver concerning the promise of God,” Paul reports.

What intrigues me (and fascinates Paul) about this couple from Ur in the Chaldees, believed to be the ancient progenitors of the nation Israel, is how they were chosen by God before there was a divine covenant or set of laws to determine them as righteous. They were righteous because God saw righteousness in them… which speaks volumes about how God sees us human beings.

They became exemplars, not of religious obedience to a code of purity, and not of patriotic obedience to a code of nationalism—there was neither church nor state in their story, for they were before such things. And it’s not even clear that they were chosen because they were good people. What Paul says is that it all depends on faith. And that’s not faith as a noun, but more as a verb: Abraham and Sarah were people of whom it continues to be said, “No distrust made them waver concerning the promise of God… being fully convinced that God was able to do what God had promised.” They demonstrated the ability, the power, the commitment to trust God. They were faithing people.

And on that, says Paul, our life in Christ depends.

But notice how this bigger-than-life couple precedes the faith systems to which they gave their DNA. They are absolutely pivotal to the Old Testament, but they pre-dated Judaism. They are strong in the warp and weft of the New Testament, but they were assuredly not Christian. They are heroic figures in Islam, but can’t be called Muslims.

They are bigger-than-sectarian, outside-the-box exemplars that our ways are not God’s ways, our thoughts not God’s thoughts. They are walking advertisements that the promises of God are made more broadly across humanity than any one tradition can claim and franchise, and what God promises, because it rests on grace, can come to birth only in receptive trust.

Abraham and Sarah, claimed by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, present the most radical potential for the finding of common ground. And that they are remembered for leaving their homeland, becoming dislocated migrants seeking a promised land, says about the common ground we may find in their legacy that it has to be held with open hands in trust, not grasped with clenched fist. This is as true about the common ground of land and boundaries, which must be shared, as it is true for the common ground of cultural and religious dialogue, which requires open minds. The first and most famous trait of righteousness shown by this ancient couple was their willingness to leave behind all that they found familiar and walk each step of their journey daring to trust God.

And in that they show a power needed worldwide in these years of global recession. Paul calls it hoping against hope. At the age of nearly one hundred, their hope was not about retirement, but engagement. At such an age, their hopes were not all about their bodies but about the heart and soul they heard required of them. Their age placed them near death, but their vocation was to give birth to a new creation. At the very time they could have hoped to be neatly settled in a continuing care facility, they refocused their hope on the next generation and became inventive pilgrims.

To fast-forward into the language of the Gospel, they denied themselves, took up their cross, and followed God, losing their life as they knew it, in order to play their part in saving a new world order.

Does all this sound just too grim? Not enough uplift here? Watch out…

The sign of victory we wear on the brow is not the dollar sign, cultural symbol of success and self-reliance. It is the sign of the cross, symbol of spiritual movement from aching loss (Good Friday) through forsaken absence (Holy Saturday) to astonishing new life (Easter Day). This Gospel pattern will train us now, if we have ears to hear, eyes to see, and, like Abraham and Sarah, hearts brave to trust the God whose covenant love actually thrives in change and upheaval, loss and gain, death and rebirth.

(I am grateful to Mark S. Hanson, Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for the language in my last paragraph, describing the movement from Good Friday to Easter Day, found in his February 11, 2009 letter to colleagues on the subject of preaching.)