Lent 2
February 25, 2018

Lent 2

Passage: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

Throughout this Lenten season the Old Testament readings are tracing the story of God’s covenants with humanity. God sees our brokenness – our sinfulness – and the ways this has fractured our relationship with God and one another. So God implements a series of covenants seeking to remedy this divisive world in which we live.

Lent began last week with the story of God’s covenant with Noah and all creation, where God promised never to destroy the earth by flood again. Because I had all sorts of things I wanted to say to kick off this season, I only made a passing reference to that first covenant. And I’m sorely tempted to go back to it and explore what it could possibly mean for God to behold the wickedness of humanity and decide to wipe everything out – to destroy all living things, except for a tiny remnant – and then, when it’s all said and done, to say, “Hmm. I don’t think I’m ever going to do that again. And as a reminder to myself, I’m going to put my bow – my weapon – in the sky (that is, the rainbow, says God) to remind me every time it rains, that I’ve made a commitment never again to wipe creation out in this way.” What does it mean that God tried out violence and retribution and found it wanting?

But that was last week. That was the first covenant.

Today we’ve got to keep marching on. God’s second covenant was with Abraham. Father Abraham.

Abraham and his wife Sarah were elderly and barren. And it was this unlikely couple through whom God began the redemptive work – through whom God began building up a family…that would become the nation of Israel…with whom subsequent covenants would be established. And it’s interesting to me that what God chooses is a family. God doesn’t start with a politician. God doesn’t choose to reform an existing nation or a king – but rather, God chooses a particular father, and mother, and child.

And here’s the interesting thing about Abraham and Sarah: Yes, they were faithful. Paul makes that point very clear in his letter to the Romans. And I don’t mean to undermine or under-represent their faith, but they weren’t perfect and they certainly didn’t have perfect understanding. Abraham and Sarah trusted God’s promises, but made their fair share of mistakes while waiting for the promise to be fulfilled. Years and years went by – with no sign of a son being born – before, finally, they decided to take matters in their own hands. They chose for Abraham to get one of Sarah’s slaves pregnant and to bear a son through her. Now, in their culture this was a perfectly legitimate and legal way of providing an heir. But it wasn’t God’s plan for them, and in doing so they created a whole, other mess.

And yet, despite it all, it remained this family, this faithful yet imperfect family, through whom God’s redemption was birthed. There’s a deep wisdom that we’re dealing with here, because this story taps into the universal human story which we all share.

Now admittedly, no two families are the same, and some are better than others. Some families are healthier. Some children get a fairer shot at being launched into this world. But for heaven’s sake, there are no perfect families. God takes a couple: usually young and immature, always a mixture of good traits and bad, always carrying their own hopes and dreams alongside their brokenness – and God gives them a baby and tasks them with raising her, forming her, teaching her – not simply by their instructions, but by their personhood. And before the world even gets close to influencing this child, the parents have already set her on the path that will define her journey for the duration of her life. And then she, too, full of hopes and full of sin, will begin to raise a child of her own.

This is the pattern, for better or worse, of all human existence.

And with this as the fundamental pattern of our human narrative, God says, “It will be here, with the faith and foibles of one family, Abraham and Sarah, that I will begin my work of redemption.” Centuries later that redemptive work continued through the mystery of the incarnation: God in Christ became an infant, to be formed and raised within the faith and foibles of one family, Joseph and Mary: good parents, to be sure, but also not perfect.

And so with each of us: in God’s sovereignty we were  given to one family – parents who taught us our first and most influential lessons about who we are and what this world is about and what it means for us to belong in this world. We were formed in this complex blend of falsehood and truth, of good choices and bad, of sacrificial love and pettiness. That’s simply the way it is.

And just as God began redeeming the whole human family through the one family, so God’s redemption for each of us must also begin with our families. We have no identity that is separate from our family of origin. Whether that means we are in loving union with them – talking daily with each other, giving Mother’s Day cards that say, “To the greatest mom in the world” (and totally meaning it!), or living life in deliberate alienation from them because the relationship is so damaged and unsafe – either way who we know ourselves to be is always informed by and reacting to the family in which we began.

And so it must be that the spiritual life must do its healing, restorative, truth-speaking work within this place of our origins and first identity: affirming all that is true, correcting all that is false, and drawing us into mystical partnership with God where forgiveness reigns and peace is our end.

On the night my birth mother died, I went walking in the dark of night. And as I walked I found that the howling desert wind that was blowing was becoming my prayer, “God, blow away all that was untrue of her – every false and broken aspect of her life. Blow it away and receive your daughter unto yourself, beloved and whole.” And as I continued that walk, the prayer evolved, “and blow away every falsehood she taught me as well. I’m tired of bearing them and want to be free.”

The further we journey into the way of Jesus, the more we shall participate in his heart. Theology and “right belief” will be our companion and evolving guide, but the destination is so much more than ideas about the truth, it is truth itself: the union of God with all God’s creation.

And the way we will get there, the actual journey, will be how we have experienced the Kingdom of God within the particularities of our life and story. It will not be a concept of mercy, but God’s mercy proven in our brokenness and the mercy we learn to extend to those who have hurt us and the mercy they may choose to offer us.

Will this be difficult work? God, yes. But what else can we do? Avoidance is a temporary strategy at best. The day must come, when we’re safe enough, secure enough, resourced enough to set our hearts on the path of God and to join God in the restorative work of seeing the Kingdom of God made true in our families.

In our Lenten prayer booklets that we’ve shared with the parish, each week has a theme of a broadening scope of our identities. Last week explored our individual particularity. This week it’s our families. Who do we know ourselves to be in the context of our families? We start you out easy: on Monday we focus on the family member we’re closest to, whose company we enjoy the most. On Tuesday it’s a pleasant relationship. Wednesday? Someone who’s neutral. Thursday it gets a bit harder: someone who makes us a little uncomfortable, who we deliberately choose not to sit next to at Thanksgiving. Then on Friday: the difficult relationship in our family. And Saturday: someone from whom we’re completely estranged.

Our families have a distinctive claim on our life and personhood. And so it must be that if the Reign of God is to have any power and authority, it must speak into these most significant relationships. And so we’ll ask again this week, in prayer, to imagine five conversations with each of these people. Can we find it within ourselves to say,

  • I love you.
  • I’m sorry. Please forgive me.
  • I forgive you.
  • Thank you.
  • Good-bye.

If we can say these things – or at least begin the conversations – then we will truly find ourselves treading the path of Christ.

But the temptation will always be otherwise. The temptation will be to claim power, not mercy. It will be to use whatever resources or skills we’ve devised over a lifetime to protect ourselves, to defend ourselves, to keep the threatening things far away from us. But as much as this makes sense, it is simply not the path that of Jesus. For…

Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again…. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “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 life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

And if we are followers of Jesus, eventually we must face this frightening reality, that the only “right” we have is to set our rights aside – our privileges and securities – to set them aside and to take up our cross in obedience to God and in sacrificial love of our neighbor.

So whether “taking up your cross” means finally offering forgiveness, or standing in the murky waters of reconciliation between feuding family members, or letting go of a destructive tendency that’s been fostered in your family as a virtue, this is the way of Christ.

I preach this more as aspiration than “faith accomplished,” for I can hardly claim to have learned how to do this myself. And yet, it remains good news. It remains the journey of hope – that we may yet discover what it means to follow Christ with integrity and purpose, for the sake of reconciliation in our lives, and in our families, and with our God.