Letting Go, Receiving Life

 John 12:20-33     Fifth Sunday in Lent     March 22, 2015

 

Think of when you’ve had to let go – and that was a hard thing to do.

Was it during the funeral for your spouse?  How hard it was to say goodbye, to let him go.  Was it when it just became too hard to care for your spouse at home because of her increasing dementia?  You had to let go of your life together in your home.  Was it when you had to hire someone to do your lawn for you?  You have had to let go of your former image of yourself: a person with unlimited energy and physical ability.  Anyone who retires has to let go of that identity – and that’s hard, if you’ve defined yourself by your job.

Think of when you’ve had to let go – and that was a hard thing to do.  Now.  Here’s a question.  It comes out of this morning’s story in the gospel of John.  When we let go, do we experience the glory of God?  Do we receive life?  My first response is that that is a ridiculous idea!  Letting go means diminishment, doesn’t it?

Let’s look at the story.  Jesus has entered Jerusalem.   It is the last week of his life.  Jesus is a practicing Jew, and he has made the annual pilgrimage to the holy city to celebrate Passover.  According to this story (which is unique to the gospel of John[1]), there are crowds of people who have heard that Jesus is there at the festival, and they are excited about his presence among them, and that is because Jesus has resuscitated Lazarus.  Do some of you remember that part of the story?  Mary, Martha and Lazarus, sisters and brother, are close friends of Jesus.  Their home was a place where Jesus could let down his public persona, where he could relax.  But, not long ago, Lazarus had died!  Jesus arrived at his tomb three days later and shouted, “Lazarus come out!” – and Lazarus walked out of his tomb![2]

What a sensation that has caused!  Here’s what we read, a few verses before this morning’s passage begins: When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.  Then, listen to this: So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus….The Pharisees then said to one another, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!” [3]

The Pharisees aren’t exaggerating!  It’s no longer only some of the Chosen People, those who were born Jews, who are interested in Jesus.  Others are coming from the wider world, as well.  Listen: Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks.   They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”[4]

*  *  *

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks.  These are “Gentiles” who were not born Jews, but who are observing Jewish practice.  They feel most comfortable approaching Philip, because he has a Greek name.  Philip is one of Jesus’ followers who is from an area with a lot of Gentiles: Bethsaida in Galilee.   They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.  Then this happens, and it is very strange.   Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”

Wouldn’t you think that there was already plenty of glory for Jesus at this point – following the sensational resuscitation of Lazarus, with all the acclaim, with all the crowds of people excited about Jesus’ presence in Jerusalem?  Think of the power Jesus has now, the influence!

But here we get to the core of the mystery of what God is doing, in becoming human flesh.  Jesus is not interested in holding on to power or influence.  He is letting all of that go.  The interest of the Greeks is going to motivate the Pharisees to maneuver the Romans into putting Jesus to death – and he is going to let that happen!  The glory of God is going to come through his death.  Jesus begins speaking about his death to Philip and Andrew: Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  Do you see what’s happening?  Jesus is letting go, so all who follow him he can receive life from God.  He says, Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.  Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.”  The glory comes through Jesus’ suffering, through his servanthood to those who are suffering; and, Jesus is saying, wherever you and I are serving others in their need, there is God’s glory.

This is so different from what we think of as glory!  Glory is hitting the winning shot at the buzzer, isn’t it?  Glory is winning the Oscar, isn’t it?  Glory is winning the election and amassing power and influence, isn’t it?  How can this be: that we are called to let go of all of that; that the glory of God is in suffering, and in servanthood to those who are suffering?

*  *  *

Do you notice that Jesus himself does not want to let go?  Do you notice that he is struggling with what the Father is calling him to do?  He says,“Now my soul is troubled.  And what should I say – ‘Father, save me from this hour’?  No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.  Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”  The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder.  Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.”  Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine.  Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.  And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”  He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die – because he will die by being lifted up on the cross.

Jesus is letting go of the glory that would seduce him to be other than who God created him to be – the glory showered upon him by those in the adoring crowds who have heard that he resuscitated Lazarus!  Those who think he is a great teacher!  Those who think he should be king!  (That is what most expected the messiah would be: a king, wielding earthly power.)  Jesus is letting go of all of that, to win eternal life for you and me.  In this is the glory of God – all of it together, the suffering, the death, as well as the resurrection.  Jesus is letting go so we can receive life.

Here’s what I think, about how the Holy Spirit is using this story of the Father and the Son: I think it is to remind us that God is the source of any new life, of any energy, of any joy!  My frequent experience is that it’s only when I let go of whatever it is that I am clutching so tightly that I receive new life in God.  It’s only when I let go of the illusion that I can do it all, and that I am supposed to handle it all, that I can allow others to help me with what I cannot do.  What relief there is in that, what new life, what energy and joy!  Do you find that to be your experience, too?

Energy and joy are signs of the presence and activity of God, aren’t they?  They point to the new life we are given to receive because Jesus was willing to let go.

I think that is the point of these words of Jesus: Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.  Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.”  What joy and life there is in this community that God creates among us, servants of Jesus, who is God in our human flesh.  What energy God creates among us, as we give and receive help among each other as we need that, as we serve others outside the walls of this building, and, especially, as we receive blessings from those who are poor, those we are serving.  In all of this is the glory of God.

In the name of God who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

Pastor Andy Ballentine

 

[1] The gospel of John is so different from Matthew, Mark and Luke!  If you want to explore that further, talk with either pastor!

[2] This story is in chapter 11 of John.

[3] John 12:9-11, 19.

[4] It may interest you to know that there is a small plaque in this pulpit that reads: “We wish to see Jesus.”  Pastor John Byerly put it there when this pulpit was constructed 50 years ago, to remind the preacher that that is your desire when listening to a sermon.

It’s Amazing!

Numbers 21: 4-9,  Ephesians 2:1-10,  John 3:14-21   Fourth Sunday in Lent       March 15, 2015

I sympathize with the Israelites. They have been wondering around the wilderness with Moses, and each other, a long, long time. They missed everything that was familiar. Every day they were in a new place walking alongside the same people, –the person who talked incessantly about how he could have directed them better, the one who always tattled on everyone for each minor misstep, and the one who knew personal details about all of them, and didn’t hesitate to share that information. Though their crankiness is understandable, the Israelites were known for their complaints. I think they pushed too far. Listen again to their grumbling: “’Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.’ Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.”

God got their attention, and they asked Moses to pray for the serpents to be taken away. God did not take away the serpents, or make them stop biting. God told Moses how to heal the people who were bitten. “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live,” God instructed Moses. The people were still bitten, but they lived when they looked at the bronze serpent because when they turned their heads towards the serpent, they were turning away from their sins towards the mercy and power of God. They recognized their inability to help themselves and turned to God’s promise of healing and forgiveness. The people had been dead in their sins. Through God’s grace, the instrument of their death became their deliverance.

The letter to the Ephesians states this in a theological way. “All of us once lived among [those who are disobedient] in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved…” You might recognize these words spoken in our confession at the beginning of our worship. We confess that we are “dead in our sins.” Our destructive behaviors are like being trapped in the wilderness with poisonous snakes biting at our heels.

Both Ephesians and Numbers point out our need to recognize our sinfulness before we can make the journey from a way of life that is marked by death to a new life. Scripture is clear that we receive this new life only through the grace of God. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor who has both been in the wilderness of sin, and been given new life through God’s grace. An addict in recovery, her story brings life to our readings this morning. She writes:

I hadn’t learned about grace from the church. But I did learn about it from sober drunks who managed to stop drinking by giving their will over to the care of God and who then tried like [the dickens] to live a life according to spiritual principles. What the drunks taught me was that there was a power greater than myself who could be a source of restoration, and that higher power, it ends up, is not me.

…Grace is when God is a source of wholeness, which makes up for my failings. My failings hurt me and others and even the planet, and God’s grace to me is that my brokenness is not the final word. My selfishness is not the end-all…instead, it’s that God makes beautiful things even out of my own [garbage]…. It’s God saying, “I love the world too much to let your sin define you and be the final word. I am a God who makes all things new.” [1]

“For God so loved the world,” John writes, “that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” To repeat Nadia’s words, “I love the world too much to let your sin define you and be the final word. I am a God who makes all things new.”

It was Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus that led to what some say is the gospel in a nutshell. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a religious leader, that came during the dark of night asking Jesus how someone could be born again. Nicodemus wanted to know who Jesus was and about redemption and new beginnings, and about the power and blessings of life in God. In his reply, Jesus said, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Jesus’ resurrection is connected with our snake from the account in the wilderness. God turned the instrument of death, the snake, into an instrument of healing. God turned death on the cross into new life.  Through God’s grace, the instrument of death becomes our deliverance.

Nadia Bolz-Weber turned to God because she realized that her so-called life had become unmanageable. The control she thought she had through alcohol and drugs was really an illusion. The instrument of her death became her salvation when she put it up on a pole like the bronze serpent and looked toward God for healing and forgiveness. What are the things that are killing you that you would put on a pole—food, anger, low self-esteem, prejudice, materialism?

As sinners, we separate ourselves from God. To separate ourselves from God is to separate ourselves from life. “God, who is rich in mercy, loved us even when we were dead in sin.” Grace is the amazing love of God that will not let go of us even when we want to die. “For God so loved the world.” Grace. It is amazing.

~Pastor Cheryl Ann Griffin

[1] Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix. New York: Jericho Books, 2013 p. 48, 50. Print.

 

Homily for the Wedding of Nathan Egloff and Katie Horvath

March 14, 2015

Song of Solomon 2:10-13, 8:6-7; Matthew 19:4-6

It has been great fun for me to spend time with the two readings Nathan and Katie chose from the Bible for this wedding service.  They come from entirely different parts of the Bible.  But these readings offer such interesting and important comments on each other!

From the Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible, Nathan and Katie chose these verses: My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.  The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.  The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance.  Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”

What a wonderful description of love in the spring – even though our weather isn’t quite there!  After the winter we’ve had, isn’t it nice to think that warm weather will soon be here, and that we’ll be enjoying flowers and blossoms and fragrance soon, and even perhaps the voice of the turtledove!

Later, the poet writes this: Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave.  Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame.  Here we’re getting more heated, as these lovers talk of love!  Actually, Katie and Nathan chose very tame passages from this book, the Song of Songs, which is a collection of erotic love poetry!  (Did you know that there is a book of erotic poetry in the Bible?)  It is a book of two lovers celebrating physical, sexual love, which is a gift from God, for our pleasure!  Isn’t that an important part of a joyous marriage between two partners who enjoy each other?

This goes far beyond the shallow titillation that passes for sex in our culture.  God intends physical, sexual love to be enjoyed in the protective context of deep and profound emotional bonding between the partners.  It is not just a physical thing, as our hook-up culture would have us believe.

In fact, Jesus speaks to that, in the second reading that Nathan and Katie chose from the Bible.  This reading is from the gospel of Matthew.  In this story, Jesus is in great danger.  Some Pharisees (members of one of the leading parties of religious rulers at the time of Jesus) are trying to trap Jesus into saying something wrong, so they can discredit him or even get rid of him.  They ask him a question about a hotly debated topic, about divorce.  Various leaders among God’s people were teaching different things about what God allowed in divorce, and the different groups of followers fought with each other over those different teachings.  Could a man divorce his wife for no reason or explanation?  (That’s what the culture allowed.)  Did a man have to issue some sort of legal document?  (That’s what Moses had taught God’s people; a higher standard!)

But here’s the thing.  Jesus sees that all of that is beside the point.  In this story, it is as if Jesus is saying, “Stop arguing about peripheral questions!  Here is what is most important: because of how God has made us, ‘a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’  So they are no longer two but one flesh.”

One flesh!  That’s the point.  That’s the reality.  Partners experience emotional damage (even if they try to repress that) when they do not acknowledge this profound emotional depth, when they treat physical sexual activity casually.  Instead, the two shall become one flesh,” says Jesus.  “So they are no longer two but one flesh.”

Some of you know this from your own experience.  Perhaps you know it from the experience of loved ones: when someone has engaged in physical, sexual love, and then has betrayed his or her partner, the pain is as intense as the literal tearing of flesh!  That is because the two become one flesh – whether they try to deny that reality or not!

Marriage is given to us by God, I think, because we need it to be safe.  Marriage provides structure for the two people.  It is a container for their protection.

For one thing, marriage is a public thing.  (Nathan and Katie: we’re all here watching you and listening to you as you make your promises to each other!)  Marriage partners feel an accountability to treat each other well because they are publicly committed to each other.  Marriage partners are able to trust each other more deeply because they are publicly committed to each other.  Marriage partners can allow themselves to live in vulnerability to each other because they are publicly committed to each other.

Accountability, trust, vulnerability: isn’t all of that necessary for the unashamed enjoyment of physical, sexual love that God has given us, for our pleasure?  It is a gift that can be enjoyed most deeply within the safety and structure of marriage.

How wonderful and joyous this day is!  We give thanks for Nathan and Katie’s courage in making life-long promises of commitment and fidelity to each other, in this public way!

You all know what your role is in this, don’t you?  You and I aren’t here just to watch and to listen and to wipe away tears at how beautiful it all is!  You and I are making promises to Katie and Nathan too, as we witness their public commitment to each other.  We are promising them that we will be their community, to surround them with the love, the support, with the accountability that they will need to hold together over the decades of life that we pray God will give them.

What gifts from God we are celebrating today, in this community that God has created among us, in our human flesh!  Nathan and Katie: what gifts from God you two are to us!  Thank you for including us in this great and joyous day.

In the name of God, who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

Pastor Andy Ballentine

 

Invited Into the Freedom of the Counter-Culture,

In This Community of Liberated Slaves

 

Exodus 20:1-17     Third Sunday in Lent     March 8, 2015

 

We get to look into the 10 Commandments today!  This is exciting stuff!

Who else is excited about the 10 Commandments?  Oh.  Do you, instead, think of them as a bunch of “thou shalt nots”; negative and restrictive rules and regulations?  But think of this.  When you look at the context for the Commandments, don’t they become invitations into freedom?

Look at how God introduces the Commandments, in Exodus: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.  Stop there.  We are no longer slaves!  That is because God has delivered us from slavery!  The 10 Commandments are a call to live in freedom.  I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery – therefore: you shall have no other gods before me.

Do you know the story of God’s people, enslaved in Egypt?  It’s in the early chapters of the book of Exodus.  The supreme ruler of Egypt, the Pharaoh, is accumulating more wealth than he will ever need.  He is amassing more and more wheat, which means he needs more and more storage buildings, which means he needs more and more bricks – and he is using slaves to make the bricks.  Those slaves are God’s people, the Israelites.  They cry out, under their burdens.  God hears their cries.[1]   God calls Moses to lead the people out of slavery.[2]  Moses goes to the Pharaoh and asks him to let the people go so they can celebrate a festival to God in the wilderness.[3]   The Pharaoh refuses.  He accuses the people of laziness; that that’s why they want the time off.  Then this happens: the Pharaoh orders them to make as many bricks as before, but that they will no longer be given straw to mix with the mud.  They will need to gather the straw themselves!  (This, of course, is the last straw.)

It’s an amazing story, in the book of Exodus.  There are miraculous plagues, there is the miraculous parting of the waters of the Red Sea, there is the miraculous destruction of the Pharaoh’s military killing machine when the army is drowned in the Red Sea.  This is the formative story of the Jewish people – which means that it is a formative story for us, too.  If there had been no deliverance from Egypt for our ancestors in the faith, there would have been no Jesus, the Jew, and there would be no Christian people rooted in Judaism!  And so, for us to: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

What slavery do you suffer from?  Is it the relentless internal voice in your head that scolds you when you’re not “doing something constructive,” when you’re taking a break?  Are you enslaved by the grind of endless production?  Are you enslaved by the need to continually be buying more stuff?  Or by the need to register the kids and grandkids for more sports?  Or by the need to do more and more extracurricular activities in high school so you can get into a college like William and Mary?  Are you enslaved by the need to be more beautiful?  Are you enslaved by the need to handle your own problems without help, by the need to pretend that everything’s ok, especially when the neighbors are watching?

Wait a minute.  Are any of those actually needs, for life to flourish?  Well, of course not.  But, in asking that question, we begin recognizing the character of the slavery from which we need God’s deliverance.  We are enslaved by the lies that you and I come to believe, as we are formed by our culture.  We are formed by our culture to be private and proud.  To handle it ourselves – even when others’ help would enable us to flourish.  Here’s what’s even more destructive.  We are formed by our culture to think of ourselves, first, which encourage us to value others only according to how they are useful to us (which means how they prop up our own lies about ourselves)!  What slavery all of this is.

What if you and I in the church think of ourselves as a community of liberated slaves?[4]  God brings us out of the house of whatever slavery you and I experience.  The 10 Commandments describe the better way to live that God has in mind for us.  The 10 Commandments describe how God created us to live: valuing people rather than the “to do” list, relationships rather than efficiency.  In this community of liberated slaves, you and I do not have to rely on ourselves when we cannot do it ourselves.  What good news that is!  We have been baptized into a community of liberated slaves who take care of each other, who value each other as children of God, who treat each other well because we are members of the very body of Christ.

Is this counter-cultural or not?

Martin Luther expresses the bottom line for the counter-culture of the church in a famous saying.  This is from his essay, “The Freedom of a Christian.”  Luther writes: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.  A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject of all.”[5]

“A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.”  We are free from slavery.  God delivered us from the Egyptians.  And God has delivered us from sin.  God has won our salvation, through the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.  We are baptized into that!  We are released from the slavery of having to save ourselves!  How do we respond?  As members of the counter-culture of the church, we respond by serving others.  It’s the second part of Luther’s description: “A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject of all.”

Here’s another way to put it.  Since we do not have to put our energy into saving ourselves, we are freed to spend our energy in joyous response!  We respond by taking care of others (and by allowing others to take care of us!); by carrying others when they are weaker than we are, at that moment (and by allowing others to carry us when they are stronger than us at that moment!).

All of this is so counter-cultural.

It is good that the Commandments include the words, “you shall not” – because we do have to say, “no!”   With the help of God the Holy Spirit, we mightily resist the ways the culture would form us.  That is another reason why membership in this community of liberated slaves is so crucial: because we need to help each other and encourage each other and protect each other, so that, together, we can resist falling back into slavery!  We need each other to resist the mal-formation of the culture; to engage, instead, in faith formation.

God invites us into the freedom of the counter-culture, in this community of liberated slaves.  The 10 Commandments describes what that looks like.

Here’s an example.  You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.  What freedom there is in that!  What freedom there is in realizing that you have enough stuff, that you can be happy with what you have, that you don’t have to be enslaved by the messages you and I receive in our culture: that you need more stuff!

Here’s another example.  This is from the current issue of The Atlantic magazine.  The second-most expensive ad in the issue (just inside the front cover) was bought by the Omega watch company.  There’s the gorgeous Nicole Kidman.  She looks incredibly sexy.  Her hair is disheveled.  It looks as if she’s been in bed with some guy.  Her blouse is half-unbuttoned.  But then I think, “Wait.  It’s a watch!  The Omega watch company is using sex to sell a watch?”  And so, what freedom there is in, You shall not commit adultery.  Instead of enslavement to our over-sexualized culture which forms us to look at others as objects for sex, we are baptized into the freedom of the counter-culture, when we value relationships rather than acquiring objects.

Martin Luther expresses the freedom of the counter-culture, in this community of liberated slaves, as he explains the 10 Commandments.  Some of you may remember this, from the Small Catechism.  We are invited to live in the freedom and joy of using the name of God “in every time of need, to call on, pray to, praise, and give thanks to God.”  We are invited to live in the freedom and joy of “help[ing] and support[ing our neighbors] in all of life’s needs.”  We are invited to live in the freedom and joy of “lead[ing] pure and decent lives in word and deed, and lov[ing] and honor[ing our] spouses.”  We are invited to live in the freedom and joy of “help[ing our neighbors] to improve and protect their property and income.”  We are invited to live in the freedom and joy of “com[ing] to [our neighbors’] defense, speak[ing] well of them and interpret[ing] everything they do in the best possible light.”

What joy there is in escaping how our culture would enslave us, forming us to think the most important thing is the accumulate stuff for ourselves, to take advantage of others, to desire others as objects, to desire the stuff that others possess.

All desire, of course, is desire for God.  Until we rest in God, we shall be restless without cease.[6]

And so, perhaps the most profound invitation to freedom is the commandment to practice sabbath.  Why?  Because we must not fall back into the enslavement of never-ending work, which forms us to think it all depends on us.  Because even God the Creator rested, and allowed the world to turn without him!  What freedom there is, in saying “no!” to the arrhythmic slavery of never-ending work, instead receiving the gift of sabbath: the gift of resting in God; as Luther puts it in the Catechism, “keep[ing God’s] word holy and gladly hear[ing] and learn[ing] it.”

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.  What a gift, to be baptized into this community of liberated slaves, practicing the faith in the freedom of God’s counter-culture!

In the name of God, who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

Pastor Andy Ballentine

 

[1] Exodus 2:23-25.

[2] This is in the story of “the burning bush,” in Exodus 3.

[3] The story builds to its climax beginning in Exodus 5.

[4] Walter Brueggemann, “Exodus,” in the New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume I (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), page 841.

[5] Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian,” in Luther’s Works, Volume 31 (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1957), page 344.

[6] To paraphrase St. Augustine’s famous line, from his Confessions.

Signs of Covenant

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 Mark 8:31-38     Second Sunday of Lent     March 1, 2015 

 “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them,” God told Abram. “’So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed the Lord.[1]’“ Two chapters, and many years later, God promises Abram once again to make his descendants a great nation and blessing to the earth. This time, God renames Abram Abraham. This time, God specifically includes Sarai, and renames her Sarah.

Promises, or covenants, are one way that God maintains relationship with human kind. A covenant is when two parties have a set of promises that are agreed upon and there is a sign to testify to it. A rainbow in the sky is the sign of the covenant God made with Noah promising God would never again destroy the earth by a flood. God initiates and upholds covenants, and we humans, well… thank goodness God keeps God’s promises.

The sign for God’s covenant with Abraham is omitted from our reading this morning. God tells Abraham that the sign of the covenant will be circumcision for every male throughout the generations. God says, “So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant.[2]”  God’s covenant will literally be embodied and become part of who Abraham is.

The first time God promised descendants to Abram, Abram was 75 years old. God told him to leave his home and his family. God instructed him to leave behind his life, and all that he knew, – his neighbors, the best place to get his car fixed, an honest accountant, his family doctor- all those people and things that make one feel secure and autonomous. Abram took his wife, Sarai, and his nephew Lot, and he left.

In Egypt, this family experiences famine, the Pharaoh has a thing with Sarai (that’s a more complicated story for another time…), and Lot and Abram part ways. There is the scandal of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Ishmael is born from Hagar. The scars Abraham bore from all this are not visible. Through all of his journeys in this wilderness of sorts, God re-affirms his promises to Abram. Now at age 99, God renews his promises with his covenant. As for Sarah, God says, “I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” Living all those years longing for a child, in a culture that placed a high value on male heirs, must have been difficult for both Abraham and Sarah.

Then Isaac is born, “not of normal human circumstance, but of the power and fidelity of God,” writes Walter Brueggemann. Brueggemann continues:

This birth is an event defying explanation, resisting reason. Abraham and Sarah and all of us are thrown back from reason and understanding to the more elemental responses of wonder, astonishment, amazement, gratitude, praise, and laughter. In that moment of birth and thanksgiving, Israel has broken free from all the bonds of reasonable control and technical prediction….The God who can work this new life can work all new life in every circumstance. The bounds of possibility are broken. This is not confidence in human, technical capacity or ingenuity or wisdom, but amazement about the power of life at work beyond our management[3].

The world in Jesus’ time was not much different than ours is. We witness through Jesus’ healing ministries that people were hurting. Mark’s gospel introduces us to lepers, a paralyzed man, unclean spirits that drove people to mental illness, a woman with 12 years of hemorrhaging, ears that can’t hear and eyes that can’t see. There are hungry people. After encountering so many suffering people, Jesus tells Peter and the others that he will suffer, too. He says that the religious leadership will reject him. Jesus will be mocked, endure physical pain, emotional torment, abandonment and ultimately death.

The method of execution comes on a cross, –public, humiliating, slow and agonizing. The flesh of Jesus’ hands and his feet rip apart when he is nailed to it. The tearing leaves scars, a permanent and visible reminder. When Jesus is raised from the dead, the scars are proof of who he is and what he has endured. You see, our God is not content to simply stand at a distance but comes to us in flesh that will be broken. God’s ultimate affirmation of God’s covenant of love is literally embodied in Jesus’ life and Jesus’ death. Jesus bears the scars of that covenant.

The scars of our surgeries, broken hearts, and wounded ego are all somehow joined to Jesus’ scars. In our baptism, our suffering and death from fear, shame, grief and illness are joined with Jesus’. Just as Jesus does, we still bear scars from our battle experiences. Our scars, visible and invisible never leave us, but God helps us find a way to live with them differently. God brings new life out of death. God turns the cross, this method of torture and death, into unexpected victory. We are so used to hearing this, that I wonder if we can truly grasp the miracle in it. The cross, in Brueggemann’s words, breaks us free from all the bonds of reasonable control and technical prediction. Life is and can be different. Jesus tells us that in our reading today. Listen again to Mark’s gospel.

‘[Jesus] 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.” [4]‘ Maybe Jesus was saying, “Those scars you have do not have to define who you are. Who you are is my beloved. Follow me, and I will turn your scars into your strengths. Follow me, and I will show you how to love yourself and how to love others.” When we are not paralyzed by or drowning in our own pain and disappointments we can focus on others, engage ourselves in community and carry out God’s mission. We can turn our scars into compassion so that we can help others live with theirs. Maybe Jesus was telling his people to take up their shame, their fear, their failures and follow him, follow him from death into life.

We who have been drowned in the waters of baptism gather today around the scarred body and blood of Christ, the bread and wine at the table with the community of saints to hear God’s story of a scarred 99- year old man and a 90 year old woman laughing when they discover the pregnancy strip turned blue. During the silence that follows, I invite you to reflect on your own stories of scars God has turned into victory.

~Pastor Cheryl Ann Griffin

[1] Genesis 15:5

[2] Genesis 17:13

[3] The Threat of Life. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1996. p. 4. Print.

[4] Mark 8:34

(If you would like a copy of an earlier sermon, e-mail Pastor Ballentine or Pastor Griffin and s/he’ll send you a copy!)