Lent 2 Genesis 17: 1-19; Mark 8: 34-37
A 27 year old minister had been assigned to his first post only a short time when he noticed that one of his parishioners, an old lady, had missed several Sundays in a row. He decided to see her and find out the reason. “Young man.” She answered him firmly,” you aren’t old enough to have sinned enough to have repented enough to be able to preach about it.” (p. 55 An Encyclopedia of Humor)
Do we really know more about repentance and change as we grow older? Or just more about sin? Sure! Yet I admit, I get comfortable with the status quo. Take technology- I usually figure that if the old technology is doing the job = why change? Besides I know more or less how to run this- not so sure about the next thing. But what I have noticed is that if I hang on too long to an old technology, I become hampered because there are no longer the supports or equipment for using it- like the old 8 track tapes or even cassette tapes today. I have an old typewriter in my closet but wonder where on earth I would get a change of ribbon for it. The truth is that as we live, we accumulate more and more baggage, or we learn how to let it go. We find the wisdom to change or we get stuck. We need the traditions of the elders, like the OT not to be stuck there but to learn how to live faithfully.
Take the story of Abram. Abram’s story begins a saga of covenant with God. This small family, with a barren wife is chosen by God the Creator of all things to be in close relationship. God stirred in Abram’s heart and invited him to leave his home and travel to a new land, to believe in the One God, to trust that this God would make him the ancestor of many many people that they would have a land that would sustain them and they would bless all the families of the earth. So the roots of our faith begin with a man and his family who are willing to embrace change, to set out on the promises of God.
Abram’s journey was not always an easy one, he faced many challenges- one of the toughest was that his wife Sarai was barren. He had no children. Later on he has another encounter with this Covenant God. This time he questions God, he says to him- I have no children! And God reassures him by taking him outside to see all the stars in the heavens and initiates a covenant ritual. Later, Abram manages to have a child by a servant of his wife, Hagar but Sarai his wife remains barren. Then one day, Abram wakes up and he’s 99 years old! And God again has a conversation with him about the covenant relationship they have. This is the passage we read this morning.
What does this relationship between Abram and God have to do with us? What can we learn from this ancient elder of our faith? As I look at how I want to live my life of faith, as I seek to follow Jesus and his words from Mark about giving up my life and taking up the cross to follow I find some guidance and reassurance in Abram’s story.
1. Abram’s response to God’s word to him was humility. The text says” he fell on his face” He didn’t presume anything about this relationship with God, although they had talked before. He humbled himself before God. I don’t find humility particularly easy ( Ok no surprises there) because I grew up in a culture which taught me to assert myself and my needs. Yet, I notice that for Abram humility isn’t about not seeking to meet our needs= later on he has no qualms about asking God – couldn’t “Ishmael (his son by Hagar) live in your sight!” NO humility is more about acknowledging and listening to God. Falling on his face meant he was ready to listen and not distracted by other things.
Abram had decided long ago to let God define his life and direction, yet in Chpt 16 we have just heard the story of how Abram and Sarai tried to take their problem of fertility and lack of children into their own hands by using way their culture provided- a servant as the surrogate mother.
So here in the passage we read in Chpt 17 God has come to talk with Abram again and Abram falls on his face. He is reminded that his life is not his own ;it belongs to God. Humility allows him to reconnect with God and God’s purposes for him.
So too in our lives. The other day we in our family were wrestling with new cell phones. As I said transitions to new technologies are not easy for us. We were all getting frustrated to varying degrees. I looked at my prayer book on the table and realized that I had not done my morning devotions. Sometimes I can get my family to join me. So I invited them to put aside their technological frustrations and troubles and join me for prayers. We did it. We dropped our phones for a few moments and remembered God and God’s flowing river of life and love in our lives. We stopped to humbly listen.
Did it solve all our troubles with the phones- well no- but what it did for me was remind me that my life is more than phones, that I am a small part of what God does in the world. To stop and humble myself before God’s presence put other things in perspective.
The second thing I notice about this story is that this time God gives Abraham something to do in response to the covenant. And it is not an easy thing. God tells him to circumcise all the males in the household- regardless of status- sons as well as servants. So circumcision became a sign of the covenant relationship with God. Yet, what I notice is that it also involves suffering and vulnerability. The men of the family were laid up for awhile, and certainly experienced pain. They were put in a vulnerable position if some other group wanted to attack them. The trust in God had become very real and difficult.
So for Christians, circumcision became not a literal practice that we had to do to be part of God’s family but a symbol – the circumcision of the heart- a willingness to suffer and be vulnerable for Christ’s sake. This is the toughest part of our faith journey- the cross. I know I honestly want loving God and others to be all roses and butterflies, but I know it is not.
Jesus says take up the cross. Go into the real world where people will misunderstand and mistreat you, where you will step on toes even when you don’t intend to, where people don’t know very well how to love one another. It’s not hard to encounter suffering- all we have to do it open our eyes and hearts to the pain of others. All we have to do is stand up for difficult changes in our world. Jesus knew that suffering would be easy to find- he knew it was right around the corner for he and his friends. So he reminds us- suffering for my sake leads to life. Abraham trusted God that although his men folk were laid up, his family would be OK because God had a purpose for them all!
I think for me the hardest part of this lesson is that there are times when taking up the cross will mean change I don’t really want very much, giving up something I really enjoy or find fulfilling. I hate that! At the Signs of Life Workshop the other day Preacher Duane Anders had an example that I could identify with. He said in one of his churches they decided to give up Vacation Bible School. I love VBS. They realized that format and approach didn’t meet the needs of their community. When they gave it up they freed up time and energy to look at new alternatives.
Finally, I notice that Abraham was surprised by God. You see through much of this passage God is speaking to Abraham about the covenant. And it could very well be that Abraham is assuming that God is speaking to him because now he has his son Ishmael. All is good with the world ( ok expect the circumcision thing). But God isn’t finished. God goes on to say that Sarai is involved in this too. God will give her a son.
Now this is surprising to Abraham- he actually falls down laughing! Sarai, that old lady, bearing a child! Impossible. Certainly Ishmael as my son fits the bill just fine! But God’s surprise is that it is the barren wife who will participate in the covenant with God!
When we humble our lives before God, when we accept his call to let go, to take up the cross, then we discover the surprise of God’s possibilities that we had not seen or known or imagined before I was surprised the other day. I had been in a thrift store for Life Link Recovery. I noticed a man in the back that I recognized from our meals but I assumed he didn’t see me. When I got back to my car, he came running up. He remembered me from the meals and told me that he was in the recovery program now, helping at the store. The happiness of his new life shone on his face. I was so pleased to hear and touched that he wanted to share his story with me- with us.
This lent, I invite us to be open to God’s surprises. Those moments when grace is shared, when new life is seen, when the waters of life flow. Abraham’s story and Jesus words remind us that those moments are the gifts of God that we can receive when we are humble and willing to let go, to change for the sake of God’s realm.
I sometimes think I don’t have the courage to follow Jesus this way. How about you? Let’s remember Abraham and Sarah, let’s remember our own father and mother in faith, let’s remember Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King Jr., let’s remember the saints who started this congregation in a storefront almost 150 years ago and the folks who had a Lenten soup supper that turned into a meals ministry. Let’s remember that we are not alone on this journey of faith and letting go for God’s sake.