Sunday, March 17, 2019
Second Sunday in Lent, Year C
Prayer of the Day
God of the covenant, in the mystery of the cross you promise everlasting life to the world. Gather all peoples into your arms, and shelter us with your mercy, that we may rejoice in the life we share in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Readings and Psalm
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 The covenant with Abram and his descendants
Philippians 3:17–4:1 Our citizenship is in heaven from where we expect a Savior
Luke 13:31-35 I have desired to gather Jerusalem as a hen gathers her brood
Title: Hope and Peace in the Cross
This morning I am faced with the danger of promising a sermon series, the foolishness of giving myself a topic weeks before this ever-changing chaotic world offers a context in which to discern and discover what God is saying to us in the living word of scripture.
A couple of weeks ago, given the presence of Abram, poor, childless, growing older by the day, Abram in our first reading, it seemed like a good idea to confront hopelessness. Something that at some time, in some way, to some degree, everyone experiences. Just look at the poor old man. A quick review to appreciate where we find him this morning: This strange God (strange as in unknown) has called him to live into a special relationship. This is not one of the gods from his culture’s pantheon of many gods. The God who is calling him is not one of the gods that he was taught about in Sunday school. Not one that he grew up worshipping with the rest of the city. This divine voice is not any of the gods of his ancestors. In fact, the God who has called Abram and Sarai out of the city and into the wilderness is a God who is insisting that as deities go, this God is the only god worth anything, worthy of worship and devotion. All the other ones are not worth the clay that they are made of.
In an incredible act of trust or stupidity, Abram and Sarai follow this new deity. There are some classic episodes of faltering trust, which we won’t get into. But this morning, we pick up old man Abram shaking his fist at heaven, saying “I’ve done it all. I’ve followed your leading and you have brought me to this seemingly hopeless dead end.” In a world and culture where heirs are everything. In which your kids are your legacy and, in a sense, your life after death, Abram has none. Sarai continues to be childless. And they are both getting on in years. But God offers Abram a hope-filled vision of countless stars in the sky and tells him that’s a picture of your family tree. You gotta wonder if aging Abram shook his head and said to himself “gods just don’t understand the limitations of life on earth.” But the old man didn’t walk away. He didn’t go back to the city chalking it up to having obeyed the wrong heavenly voice. He stayed. There in the wilderness. He stayed. With God. He stayed. While we know him as the father of faith in God, perhaps there is the birth of hope in God.
Like a lover trying to cheer up the beloved one, God says to Abram “hey, look at the land I gave you.” To which struggling Abram says “how do I know that it is mine?” There were no titles, no deeds, no papers of any kind. In that wild and ancient world, land was only yours if you could hold on to it. God offers Abram a sign that the promise is sure. A sacrifice is requested and made. And all that seems to happen is a bunch of birds are attracted and Abram is left fighting them off.
So, who can blame him, Abram descends into his deepest depth of hopelessness and despair as the sun goes down and we read that there was a deep and terrifying darkness that descended upon Abram. But God makes a promise, makes a covenant, makes a sacred commitment. It is not an agreement, Abram says nothing, this is God’s to make and God’s to keep. Perhaps Abram wakes in the morning with a new sense that he made the right decision, listened to the right voice. Perhaps there is a new hope in old man Abram. Yet, if there was, it was not perfect or long lasting. For in the next chapter of the story, by Sarai’s encouragement, Abram has a child with their slave, Haggar, just to make sure he has a son. Human hope does not spring eternal.
The voice of the psalmist this morning is a little more hope-filled than Abram’s dark night of the hope-searching soul. But then again, the psalmist doesn’t have quite as much at risk as Abram who has left it all behind. The psalmist just wants someone to listen. Wants someone or something that is more trustworthy then the forsaking humans – be they family or foe.
My favorite living theologian who I have quoted on numerous occasions and in sermons and in eletters – Frederick Buechner is his name, has a book that he titled Wishful Thinking – a theological ABC. In it, he takes a number of churchy words and offers fresh definitions and explorations of the ideas and doctrines behind them. If you look up HOPE, there is nothing there except a note to see two other entries. One entry he suggests turning to is back in the C’s – it is CROSS. And Saint Paul could not agree with Buechner more. In fact, the cross is so at the heart of hope for Paul that he calls out people who he sees as enemies of the cross. He is not referring to folks who didn’t believe in Jesus. Instead he is referring to fellow followers of Jesus who were still teaching that Jewish law must be obeyed in order to be considered a disciple and to win salvation. Paul’s hope is so anchored in the cross, that he not only attacks this hopeless teaching of law the nullifies the power and the good news of the cross, but he says that those who teach it contribute nothing more than what their digestive system produces. That is what our works amount to, Paul reminds us. There is no hope to be found there. All our hope is found in Christ and him crucified and resurrected. And in that hope, we find peace. Peace with God, peace with one another, peace with ourselves.
But perhaps we are more like struggling Abram than confident Paul. We hear of the hope. We know of the hope. We see the hope. Yet, it just doesn’t stop the “Yeah, but’s” from continuing. We strive to hope and find peace, but then we watch as our country continues to divide and struggle. We want to give aid and assistance to those who struggle to find safety and security. But we feel powerless as we see little that we can do to as walls are built. And then of course, tragic events in New Zealand, ironically in a city named Christchurch, are causing me to descend into a dark despair as I can’t help but think that the hate-based turmoil and gun chaos plaguing our country are being exported to other countries. Heck of a week to encourage us out of hopelessness and into cross focused peace.
But then there are stars that shine in the dark despair of night. Examples of hope being lived out in the midst of suffering. Two that shined for me this past week were to see that parents of Sandy Hook students continuing to fight in the courts to bring justice and change in the wake a tragedy that could have understandably left them hopelessly traumatized and lifeless. And then there are the women of Saudi Arabia who, though imprisoned and tortured, continue to fight for rights and freedom in their country. One was quoted as saying: Without hope there cannot be change.
Perhaps hope was born when, though childless and aging, Abram and Sarai stayed with the God who called them into the wilderness. But hope was perfected when, on the cross, God declared God would stay with us. Keep us close. Gather us is as a mother hen, who will risk everything for her chicks. From that cross Jesus proclaimed fathomless forgiveness. From that cross Jesus offered undeserved salvation to the thief at his side. From that cross even Jesus struggled with hopelessness. But now, in the cross, God declares that what we think is the end is never the end. In the cross God promises us that no price is too great for the sake of saving us chicks. In the cross, God assures us that hope does indeed spring eternal. The power of the cross is leading us forward in hope. We may not see it change the world to be the way we want it, but that cross-perfected hope will change us. But we must stay. And when we do, we find peace – a peace that passes all understanding.
The Rev. Mark Erson,