A sermon for the second Sunday in Lent, February 25, 2018
Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey
I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you…
Today’s lesson from the Old Testament is the call of Abraham. At least parts of it. And the Epistle is St. Paul’s interpretation and application of that story in his letter to the church at Rome. Abraham lived at least as far before the time of St. Paul as our own time is after Paul’s. In fact there are no marker events, rulers or cultures that locate Abraham in history. If scholars estimate when he might have lived, it is usually some time around 2500 years before the birth of Jesus.
What was read today is only a small bit of the story of Abraham. In all it’s a very complex story that has within it the roots and indeed, most of the content of the identity and values of Israel: the Israel that came out of Egypt with Moses, the Israel of David the King, the Israel that went into exile in Babylon and returned.
The story of the covenant with Abraham is the story of God’s people. It’s more complex than our readings this morning. It would take a very long class indeed to explore the story and its implications fully. The reading from Romans makes it clear that Abraham’s story is our story as well. This is a story in which Abram and Sarai receive new names, Abraham and Sarah, and a new identity—they are God’s people destined to become a nation of God’s people. St. Paul interprets it this way:
[Abraham] grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also.
Abraham recognized in God’s promise who he was and what he would become. And we can recognize in Jesus who we are, and what we can become.
A couple of weeks ago, when I preached on the Transfiguration, I mentioned today’s gospel lesson. Mark’s Gospel is so concise and all its parts fit closely together. It is not just Mark’s Gospel where everything is connected, it’s our Christian faith. What we believe is not just a bunch of random stories telling us to be nice—Christian faith is a way of life which makes our world coherent, in which the values of compassion, sacrifice, generosity, welcome and justice grow out of what God has done in Jesus Christ. What we believe and what we do are one. Mystical prayer and caring for the least of God’s children are the same action. So in today’s gospel lesson, Jesus says to us:
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their lives will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and the sake of the gospel, will save it.
At this point in the gospel, Jesus is about to embark on his journey to Jerusalem. The reference to the cross is clear: Jesus will give up his life for his followers, for us. Jesus is challenging us to live for the good of others and to be willing to incur real loss and face those things we fear in doing so.
It’s common for people to try to dodge the impact of what Jesus is saying either by over-dramatizing what it means—so that it only refers to heroic situations of being literally killed for a very narrow set of reasons—or by minimizing his demand and reducing it to an inner disposition or belief with no consequences in the real world. “Take up your cross” is an invitation to life. Abraham was invited by God to leave home and become something more than himself. He had to give up one name and take on a new identity—and not for himself but for a people created and guided by God. There were many consequences of that covenant with God, and developing into the people of God involved danger and discomfort and doing things that did not directly benefit Abraham. That faith that was reckoned to him as righteousness was life for others, life for God—the foundation of good and life that is beyond human calculation or self-interest.
As Christians, our identity is as Jesus’ followers, as the people of God who travel along with him. We live in his love, the caring and tender love of God. But Jesus makes clear that the only way that that can be done is by living truthfully—a life for others. To have our life—a life of vitality and abundance, a life where the present and the future are filled with value, and to build a loving community, a life of confident faithfulness that will hold us eternally in the presence of God—to have that life means being prepared to lose all those things we mistake for life and try to hold on to. First of all fear: fear of losing things, fear of being found out, fear of not being loved, or fear of other people who might be difficult for us to love. But also the image of ourselves that we hang onto, the image of the things it takes to make people respect or love us, the things we hold onto because we confuse them with life. Jesus tells us not to be afraid, not to fear losing that life, because abundant life is from generosity and faithfulness, from living for others, not clinging to things we might lose.
Jesus continued to Jerusalem, living abundantly, healing and freeing people along the way. The consequence in this world was his death on that cross—the fears and selfishness of this world could not abide it. But the consequence also was that God raised him from the dead—the powers of fear, or sin, or selfishness, or death had no power over him. God is faithful, faithful to Abraham, to Jesus, to Paul and to each of us. Our journey with Jesus is a journey into life—life of welcome, of generous community, of living in the Resurrection.
Traditionally, Lent is a time to give up things. But what we give up is not what our hearts’ desire. What we give up is death. Living generously with the good of other people in this world as our aim brings the life that is our heart’s desire, our identity in God.
Praise the Lord, you that fear him; stand in awe of him, O offspring of Israel;
All you of Jacob’s line give glory.
For he does not despise the poor in their poverty;
Neither does he hide his face from them; but when they cry to him he hears them.
My praise is of him in the great assembly;
I will perform my vows in the presence of those who worship him.
The poor shall eat and be satisfied and those who seek the Lord shall praise him:
“May your heart live for ever!”
All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord,
And all the families of the nations shall bow before him.