March 1, 2015: May God’s words alone be spoken, may God’s words alone be heard. Amen.
This week we have part two of the three part lectionary offering in Lent about God’s covenants with us. Last week it was God promising to all of creation never to do harm again following the great flood. Even creating a little reminder – a string around the divine finger – the rainbow. This week, the covenant is with Abram and Sarai – later Abraham and Sarah – and all of their descendants. Now, rather than creating a sign for God, there is a sign for good ole Abraham and Sarah and everyone else for generations and generations…and yet we don’t hear about the sign. It is hidden in the verses that are missing in today’s lectionary assignment…perhaps with good reason. The sign – the reminder of the covenant…well, it isn’t a pretty rainbow. It is – circumcision – God really truly cuts a deal this time around. Ouch! One can appreciate the lectionary editors viewpoint, right? I remember a story I heard once.
It seems a priest, a pastor and a rabbi walk into a bar to share a drink and talk shop. Someone makes the comment that preaching to people isn’t really all that hard. After a few rounds, one thing leads to another and they decide to do an experiment. They will all go out into the woods, find a bear, preach to it, and attempt to convert it. Easy enough for me, living in Sussex County, but thankfully, I was not a part of this merry band of clergy.
Anyway, the next day back in the bar, they share their stories. Father John is bandaged head to toe and on crutches. He reports, “When I found my bear, I read to him from the Catechism. Well, that bear just started slapping me around. So I quickly grabbed my holy water, sprinkled him, and Blessed Holy Mother, he became as gentle a lamb. The bishop is going out next week to give him first communion and confirmation.”
Reverend Billy spoke next from his wheelchair, an arm and both legs in casts. In his best fire-and-brimstone oratory he claimed, “Well brothers, you know we don’t sprinkle anything. But I found me a barr and read to him from God’s Holy Word! But that barr wanted nothing to do with me. So I took hold of him and we began to wrassle. We wrassled up one hill and down another until we came to a crick. So I quick dunked him and baptized his hairy soul! And just like you said, he became as gentle as a lamb. We spent the rest of the day praising Jesus and I signed him up for New Members class.”
They both looked down at Rabbi Goldstein who was in pretty bad shape — an IV drip, full body cast and lying in a hospital bed. The rabbi sighed in pain and reflected, “Looking back on it, circumcision may not have been the best way to start.”
Hmmm…might be right about that Rabbi. And, I am not really sure it was the best way to enter into covenant for a whole lot of reasons, but nevertheless, here we are. And it really isn’t the sign of the covenant this time that is important. It is the promise – the covenant – that God chooses to enter into with humanity that is central to the story, so it would seem the lectionary editors were right.
So, we have the first covenant – God with all creation after the flood. The second covenant – God with the descendants of Abraham, Sarah, and later Hagar. And next week, we will hear about God entering into a covenant with the people of Israel on Mount Sinai. Why would we start Lent with these stories, and what have they to do with what we hear Jesus telling us in the Gospel lesson today about what it means to be his disciple?
Good question! Anybody have an answer? Rats…well, here is mine…
Covenants change things. For Abram and Sarai it begins a journey that changes who they are, right down to their names. Covenants change the parties involved. Relationships, covenants, are life changers – well, they are if we really abide by them.
“By their very nature, promises commit us to behaving in certain ways in the future. Since we can’t know what the future will bring, we cannot tell now what keeping a promise will actually cost us. We can’t know when it will become inconvenient to keep it. [As a result, we frequently see in our] society that we build escape clauses into our contracts, look for loopholes in our agreements, insert weasel words into our guarantees, or hold out for renegotiation. Getting stuck in an old promise, we think, is only for those not nimble at sidestepping[;so,] we have manufacturers who refuse to honor their product warranties, politicians who renege on their campaign promises, corporations that shuck their pension obligations and ordinary people who make exceptions to their promises to one another. We live in a world where many promises just aren’t taken that seriously.”
Okay, that is true sometimes, but what has that got to do with the readings we get these first few weeks of Lent?
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. And THAT, is what Jesus is really talking about in the Gospel.
Jesus tells his disciples “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” And perhaps the most important word in that sentence is “deny.” The greek word ἀπαρνέομαι meaning to deny or disown or disregard, is found in only one other context in the New Testament…and it involve Peter as well. It is when Jesus tells Peter that he will deny him three times.
The denial Jesus is talking about isn’t abandoning our current occupations, or leaving our homes, or our families to go off into some convent or monastery. The denial is to deny far deeper than that, and in a sense, Jesus is calling us to stop denying.
See – that’s it…it isn’t about denying, but stopping the denial that is already a part of in our lives. Remember, the denial of Peter was not an act of abandoning his home, but it was a denial of the incarnate God. Peter denied his relationship with Jesus, and in that act, he denied his relationship with God. Jesus is asking us to stop denying who we are – people of the covenant. To stop our denial of our relationship with God. But to do that, we have to understand covenant, right?
The author of this passage of Genesis certainly wanted to drive home the idea of covenant – God says it four times in this one little passage. And we need to pay attention, because being in covenant is all about being in relationship, and being in relationship is not a selfish act. It can’t be. And it is our self-centered nature that Jesus was asking us to deny. That is what we need to deny or give up in Lent.
Lenten disciplines make claims about our identity – of who we are – people of the covenant – people in relationship with God. It isn’t about giving up chocolate or red wine, but about giving up our denial of who we are, giving up our focus on our own priorities and giving ourselves over to who we really are, to being in relationship with humanity and divinity. That is the denial – that is the cross we pick up – the cross of identity.
Lent is about returning to relationship with God – the one who willingly calls us into covenant. And this covenant with God is not just with our individual selves, but with everyone. It is a communal thing, in as much as God’s relationship is not with us alone, but with all of humanity. Not just the ones that look, or think, or act, or love like us – but everyone, everywhere!
Lent is a communal thing too. It is not something we do alone. As one commentator noted, “Lent is this radical communal experience in many ways. People willing to wear crosses on their foreheads when buying groceries. People willing to talk about their Lenten disciplines — out loud, even to strangers…. It’s embracing the truth that you can’t live in this world, you can’t live your life, without your self being in relationship.”
That’s the denial Jesus calls us to do – deny our belief that we can walk this earthly journey alone, without one another, and without God. It isn’t possible. In fact, it is a downright denial of who we are, and who God created us to be, and if we can’t get that right, the journey isn’t going to be easy.
In this season of Lent, we also, as covenant people, need to stop and take a good hard look at our identity, at the way our relationship with God is lived out in our lives. And when we do, we will realize that we need each other. We can huddle around our own little fire, claiming to be Christian, but staying on our own. That is why coming together in places of worship are so important. Now I know, it’s cold on Sunday mornings. When I look out my bedroom window this winter on Sunday mornings, and it is all dark and cold, I really want to throw that comforter back over my head and go back to sleep. And I can’t blame anyone who feels that way. But as I pull in the parking lot I thank God for being here – well, and also for caffeine. Being in community with all of you, and seeing the way you are in community with one another, feeds my very soul. I experience God’s covenant, God’s blessing, here in this community with all of you. And I am grateful for God helping me to deny the call of the comforter to follow the call of the redeemer.
This Lent, hear the call of Jesus to deny the life of the individual, and to pick up the cross of community – the cross of the covenant. This might as simple as making it to church, even when it would be warmer to stay in bed and attend the church of the holy comforter. Or, as I have seen so often done here – offering someone a ride to or from church, picking up some groceries for a neighbor, or calling on someone you haven’t seen in awhile. Because, Jesus reminds us that following him means loving like him. To pick up the cross isn’t to engage in self-abuse, but to remember that as people of the covenant, we are by definition a people of community.
“To ‘deny yourself and take up your cross’ invites us into what the cross can also mean — not just death and suffering, but God choosing human relationships. The cross represents God’s commitment to humanity.” The cross Jesus calls us to bear is to commit to humanity and to God.
So, this Lent – deny yourself.
Pick up the cross.
And enter into relationship with God through relationship with humanity.
It certainly beats giving up chocolate, and is far more rewarding for you, and for everyone around you.
Rev. Diana L. Wilcox
Christ Church in Bloomfield & Glen Ridge
March 1, 2015
Second Sunday of Lent
1st Reading – Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
2nd Reading – Romans 4:13-25
Gospel – Mark 8:31-38