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2nd Sunday in Lent
March 12, 2006
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Discussion of the Texts:
Where last week’s First Testament lesson told of the covenant God made with Noah and all living creatures, this week’s reading carries the story forward a step by telling of the new covenant God makes with Abram. God had made a threefold promise to Abram from the beginning of Abram’s call, that God would give Abram land, descendants, and blessing. Now that promise is ratified and formalized in the language of covenant. This covenant issues forth in a new form of life, symbolized in the change of Abram’s name. Ab-ram, “Great Father,” a name that many West Semitic deities could have felt at home with, becomes Ab-raham, “Father of a multitude,” a more human name betokening a more human and co-creative relationship with God. This new covenanted co-creative relationship includes Sarai as well, whose name change to Sarah also indicates her new status before God. Together Abraham and Sarah are to be the ancestors of nations and kings. The promise of posterity is echoed in the Psalm, when the Psalmist proclaims that “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him... Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord.”
The hint of universalism implicit in the Genesis lesson is taken up by Paul and made explicit in the reading from Romans. In the midst of a discussion of law and faith, Paul notes that the promises to Abraham were not made through the law, inasmuch as the Torah was not given to Abraham but to Moses centuries later, but instead the promises were made in faith. The blessing promised to Abraham, Paul asserts, is “guaranteed to all his descendants,” to all the nations of whom Abraham is father, not only to Jews, “the adherents of the law,” but also to persons of every nation, race, tribe, or ethnicity “who share the faith of Abraham.” Abraham’s faith that God would be able to make good on the promises, despite Abraham and Sarah’s own seeming incapacity to receive the promises, is the model of trust in God on which all righteousness depends. All those, Jew or Gentile, who put their trust in the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead, Paul proclaims, will also share in the blessing first promised to Abraham.
The Gospel passage for the day is a pericope often captioned “The First Prediction of the Passion.” Just after Jesus asks the disciples “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter is the first among them to be able to say out loud “You are the Messiah,” Jesus challenges their very idea of what the Messiah will be. Instead of coming to Jerusalem as a liberating king, Jesus says, he will be rejected by the religious and civic authorities and will be tortured and killed. When Peter rebukes this strange kind of Messiahship, Jesus turns to the rest of the disciples and to the entire crowd that accompanies them, and invites them all to share the Messiahship that he himself models: “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.” The paradox of losing and saving life parallels Abraham’s “hoping against hope” that God will give him descendants and blessing even though his own body “was already as good as dead”: both are examples of trusting that God can bring life out of even the deadliest of situations.
Process Theology and the Texts:
Hoping against hope and trusting that God will bring life from the cross are both ways of looking to God to creatively transform human weakness and loss and suffering into new possibilities for right relationships of mutual well-being. Process theology affirms that God can take what is “mere wreckage” in the temporal world of our ordinary experience, and can weave such “wreckage” into new insight and wisdom and compassion and courage, so that we may rise to resist injustice and work to create more genuine community. When we join with God in co-creative efforts to transform ourselves and our communities, then we live into the covenant promises given to us, as long ago given to Abraham, that we will be fruitful in blessing.
Preaching the Texts:
These lessons speak of hoping in God’s life-giving grace even in times of loss and destruction. We face loss and destruction in many ways in our world: tsunamis, hurricanes, mudslides, bombings. A sermon could begin with Abraham “hoping against hope” and apply Abraham’s example to our own personal and communal needs to trust that God can bring well-being even out of situations that are “as good as dead.”
Another sermon might focus on Abram and Sarai and their name-changes to Abraham and Sarah. How does God’s reaching out to us in covenantal love change our status before God, our sense of identity, our place and action in the world? What name does God call us, and how do we live from and for that name?
The theme of universality in Romans might inspire a sermon on interreligious dialogue and the need for respect and cooperation between faiths. Trusting in divine aims for goodwill, peace, and justice is more important than any specific doctrines or formularies or practices. The preacher might identify some specific opportunity for interfaith action in her or his community and address it from the point of view of the Romans passage.
Lent is traditionally a time for fasting, self-denial, and “taking up one’s cross.” But this can mean much more than just “giving something up” or exercising greater self-control. It is an invitation into the deeper mystery that we can only know true life in Christ if we are willing to give up attachments to things that are not in themselves life-giving. What acts of prayer, meditation, mercy, and service might parishioners engage in during Lent, which could help them detach from life-as-we-know-it and discover life-as-God-calls-us-to-be?
Paul S. Nancarrow is the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Staunton, Virginia, where he makes use of process ideas in preaching, worship, pastoral care, and leadership. He is a co-author of the book, The Call of the Spirit: Process Spirituality in the Contemporary World and writes a regular column on liturgy for Creative Transformation.