|Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
By Bruce G. Epperly
Lent is traditionally observed as a season of simplicity and penitence. It is more importantly a season of abundant life. Today’s lectionary readings remind us that God’s abundance is present within our perceived scarcity or ignorance of God’s vision. The point of a simple life is to focus on what’s truly important and discover that in opening to our deepest desires—grounded in the interplay of our agency and God’s vision for us—we will experience what it means to be fully alive. This interdependence of divine call and human response calms the restless heart and awakens us to authentic joy.
Abraham and Sarah are tempted to live by scarcity. Childless, their lives are heading toward a dead end. There are many kinds of immortality and one of the most important ones involves biological immortality, living beyond our deaths in the generations that follow us. That was the only type of immortality that really mattered during Abraham and Sarah’s time. With no descendants in sight, God presents Abraham and Sarah with a wondrous possibility—from their family will emerge a nation whose people will be as numerous as the stars in the sky. God will make a covenant to secure their wellbeing and the wellbeing of the generations that follow.
Obviously written in a time of conflict, the Psalmist proclaims, “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” There is plenty to be afraid of then and now, but there is also the deeper reality of God’s presence. There are no guarantees that we will escape trouble, despite our faith: we may experience congregational numerical losses and budget deficits, our compensation may not pay the bills, we may find ourselves searching for a new congregational call with no success, and we may face diseases of mind, body, and spirit.
The Psalmist trusts in God, despite contradictions and conflicts. He hopefully looks toward the future: “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.” What might the “goodness of God” mean? Is the Psalmist clinging to God’s covenant with Abraham and hoping that God will come through in a time of trouble? Both the Psalmist and Abraham trust in God and from their trust, amazing possibilities for growth and unexpected survival will emerge. This is not divine coercion or control but a divine movement to assist us in realizing our highest good.
The Apostle Paul reminds the Philippians that their citizenship is in heaven. Now, Paul is not advising them to be “so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good;” he is affirming that by looking heavenward, they can embody God’s values in everyday life and the life of their emerging congregation. The earthly minded set their focus on pleasure, wealth, and power; but these will not last. Paul believes that only a Godward life can bring healing and wholeness to us.
In Philippians 4, Paul speaks of the Godward life in terms of “thinking about these things”—the noble, the beautiful, the worthy. As a person thinks, he or she becomes: this is not “creating our own reality,” but shaping how we see the world and our priorities.
The temptation at Philippi and in our time is to see earth-oriented life as preferable to the way of Jesus. Certainly, power, wealth, success, and notoriety are often seen as non-negotiable goals in life. People desire “fifteen minutes of fame” or financial security regardless of the consequences for themselves and their loved ones. There is, however, another path, the way of Christ whose simplicity enables us to live justly with our largesse and use our resources in ways that promote spiritual, relational, and emotional wellbeing in our households and in the culture-society at large. Abundance is found in creative interdependence and not isolated self-aggrandizement.
Jesus mourns over Jerusalem because they have chosen human scarcity over divine abundance. They have turned away from God’s realm to follow the devices and desires of their own hearts. In fact, they aggressively seek to silence the prophetic voice of an alternative social reality. They seem satisfied with the status quo, even if this means acquiescence to Roman domination, to keeping the peace. Any novelty is forbidden; it might put the hard one prerogatives of benefiting from Roman oppression that they have enjoyed for generations. Divine novelty might bring the freedom of radical hospitality, but would also risk Roman intervention. They have chosen mediocrity and normalcy over excellence and adventure. Things may be livable on the surface, but this normalcy is bought at the price of soul starvation.
Jesus recognizes that his message may end up causing him physical suffering. Like prophets before him, he may be ostracized and even killed. But, he must continue to share his message out of love for the city and the people. Perhaps, like Nineveh of old, Jerusalem will repent and set in motion an array of divine energies that will transform the peoples’ lives.
Simplicity is a matter of attentiveness and discernment of what is truly important at this moment and over the course of our lives. True simplicity leads, as the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts,” to dancing and turning round right.
‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.
Do a simple dance? Rejoice in the simplicity of a child’s game, of a sunset, of holding hands, and good healthy food? Find a unity of vision amid the multiplicity of activities, and seek God’s realm in the many affairs of each day. Then, you will experience “the valley of love and delight” even in an urban setting or hospital room.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty three books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age, and Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He recently served as Visiting Professor of Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University. Contact him by email for lectures, workshops, and retreats. His latest book is Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel (Energion).