Second Sunday in Lent (March 12, 2017)

March 9, 2017 | by David Grant Smith

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Genesis 12:1-4a Psalm 121 Romans 4:1-5 &13-17 John 3:1-17

Genesis 12:1-4a

In the final verses of Genesis 11, we learn that Terah, Abram’s father, was moving his family from Ur of the Chaldeans to settle in the land of Canaan. However, while they were on the way, for some unknown reason they settled in the land of Haran. While they were settled there, Terah eventually dies at a ripe old age. It is after this that Abram’s story begins with God telling him to pick up and leave the land where he has settled, and to go “from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Without knowing where he is being taken, Abram packs up and leaves, and his wife and his nephew go with him.

This instruction to leave what has become familiar and to go to an unknown destination is the central them of Abram’s life — that, and the promise that God will give him enough descendants to be considered a nation. A big part of Abram’s legacy for us who read of him so many centuries later is that he is often described as being obedient (see this week’s reading from Romans). Another characteristic of Abram’s life, though, is that he certainly was open to the Divine sense of adventure!

Though few of us seem to receive instruction from God to leave our country for an unspecified destination, we still need to draw from whatever adventurous resources we may have at our disposal in order to be willing to follow God’s leading into new contexts for our lives, and for the transformation of the world. In short, many of us can attest to the ways that God certainly led us into new and uncharted territory in life — leaving a “sure thing” job in order to launch a new vocation or career, establishing a relationship with someone we had never met before in order to insure that a certain ministry or project of the church can succeed, being kind and empathic toward perfect strangers, taking a chance that someone won’t reject our ideas and creativity, and so on. All of these things attest to the need for a certain level of adventure in life, a quality that many of us who are process theologians ascribe to the primordial nature of God.

It may be that Lent could be a time for us as process-relational preachers to encourage our congregations to develop their sense of adventure, in order to more readily engage the ways in which God may be challenging and inspiring them to branch out into new territory in their lives. Traditionally, Lent is a time for us to work on, develop, initiate, or renew various spiritual disciplines which help us to become more in tune with God and God’s purposes — prayer, fasting, self-examination, repentance, etc. But it could be equally effective in helping us attend to the Divine lure towards creative transformation by building up our sense of adventure. Challenging congregants to try new things, consider new perspectives, meet new people — all under the guise of spiritual discipline — could certainly help them to consider this way of being in relationship with God.

Another aspect of the legacy of Abram’s life is the fact that he was promised some wonderful things by God. We often refer to these promises as being covenants which God made with Abram and others in the earliest foundation stories of our faith tradition. These covenants are usually framed as being something which is only for the benefit of the person (Abram, for example) and his or her descendants. But another way of framing the covenants found in these foundational stories is to consider that they often refer to these people and their descendants as being blessings to “all the families of the earth.” The Hebrew used in the final phrase of the promise to Abram in this week’s reading can be translated accurately in two different ways — “and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” or “and in you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.” Both of them have possibilities for interpretation in a way that leaves the future open-ended, yet very alluring. Like so many Bible stories, this one isn’t only about God and Abram — it’s about all of us. We, too, when we leave ourselves open to the possibility of being adventurous for God’s sake, have the capacity to be an enormous blessing to others; and to also cause people to consider themselves blessed because they have encountered us. In either case, it’s a blessing which works both ways!

Psalm 121

Traditionally understood to be a psalm for pilgrims on their way to Mount Zion, the location of the temple in Jerusalem, Psalm 121 also serves as a fitting response to this week’s first reading, the story of Abram’s call to travel to an undisclosed location. Whereas the beginning of Genesis 12 invites Abram (and us, by extension) into God’s sense of holy adventure, Psalm 121 provides a sense of comfort and assurance that God is with us in all our endeavors — including those things which feel adventurous, new, unfamiliar, and potentially dangerous. The NRSV translation of the psalm is especially resonant with the idea that God is active in relating to humanity; the consistent use of the word “keep” and “keeper” (other translations use “watch,” “preserve,” etc.) provide readers and hearers with the idea that God is actively doing something to perpetually maintain humanity within the bounds God’s ongoing care. That sentiment of eternal care is underscored in the psalm’s final assertion that God’s care is “from this time on and forevermore.”

Another way in which Psalm 121 provides a fitting response to this week’s Genesis reading is in the way that it frames Israel’s God in the context of the ancient Near East’s multiple faith traditions. Many of the surrounding cultures of ancient Israel practiced their spiritual piety in “high places” such as on mountains and hills where they built temples and sculpted likenesses of what they believed their gods to look like. On one level, the psalm seems to be saying that the God of Israel is the one true God and that the gods of those other cultures which revered (and built shrines on) such high places are somehow inferior to the God of Israel. But another way of framing the reference to the hills or “high places” is to see it as a way of honoring the other cultures who find comfort from their hills. In a process-relational approach to interfaith contexts, it is preferable to affirm and honor the fact that other cultures and faith traditions than our own find comfort from different things than we do. Our spiritual neighbors may find comfort from looking at the hills, or reading the Qur’an, or wearing certain clothing, or whatever may be the case; but we needn’t dismiss those spiritual paths as being less valid than our own. We can claim that our “help comes from the LORD” without being rude or dismissive of those whose spiritual practices differ from our own.

Finally, Psalm 121 works well in tandem with Abram’s call to an adventurous journey and unknown future destination because Psalm 121 serves as a great hymn celebrating God’s omnipresence. Process theology asserts the belief that God is always present, in all places, in all circumstances, and at all times. This idea is certainly resonant with the theology expressed in Genesis 12, in which God spoke to Abram in one place and stated that Abram was to go to a “land that I will show you” [Genesis 12:1]. But that idea need not be limited to the experience of biblical personalities for bygone centuries; it is a much needed message for us in our own contexts. Psalm 121 is often shared at the bedside of people who are sick or hospitalized for whatever reason; it is also often used in the context of funerals and memorial services. God’s presence is no less with us in such difficult circumstances than when we are in the midst of some kind of religious or spiritual experience in which God’s presence seems to be evidently palpable to us. Psalm 121 can also provide for us a comforting companion during the Season of Lent in which we may be trying to find our way through new experiences of previously untried spiritual practices and disciplines.

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

One of the principal points that Paul was trying to make in his Letter to the Romans (and in his other writings as well) was the idea that it is our trust in God (our faith) which saves us, and not anything that we do in and of ourselves (our works). One of the ways that he does this is to argue that various historical figures — chiefly Abraham, whose name was still Abram in the first reading for this week — have given us an example of living by faith, rather than by doing certain works which deemed them worthy of being known as righteous. Part of his argument is his assertion that there was faith found in these heroes who lived before the Torah (law) was written; keeping the law was what Paul considered to be a kind of work, rather than an act of faith.

Looking at the works-vs.-faith argument through a process-relational lens, it might be helpful to consider how that might fit into a Whiteheadian model of the human relationship with God. Process theologians have often spoken of God’s primordial nature providing a Divine lure of humanity (and all life, for that matter) towards beauty, truth, adventure, zest, peace, love, and justice. The goal which God has in such a lure is to effect creative transformation out of each moment towards an open future in which all best possible outcomes can be achieved. However we respond to that lure in each moment will bring about a concrescence of how God’s lure and our response to it come together. Sometimes our response is a positive alignment with God’s hopes for us; sometimes our response is contrary to God’s hopes for us; and sometimes our lack of attentiveness and mindfulness of God’s luring presence in our lives will simply yield a missed opportunity for us. But God’s loving care for us, and the Divine lure towards creative transformation, will always be with us, no matter our given response.

When we actively seek and desire to heed God’s lure, we can identify with Paul’s emphasis on faith being what drives our salvation, righteousness, or justification (all are terms used by Paul in a somewhat interchangeable manner). It takes a level of active human will to be looking for and attentive to God’s lure towards God’s hope for best possible outcomes in all situations. But having the will to seek out and respond to God’s lure (i.e., faith) is different than actually doing something to respond to it (i.e., works). Paul’s emphasis on faith was not done so to be dismissive of the importance of actually doing things that are a response to God and God’s purposes in the world; rather, he was simply identifying the driving force behind doing those things. The two things go handin-hand, actually; we do good things (works) because we trust God’s guidance (faith). The idea that faith leads to works is laid out in James 2:14-26 in no uncertain terms, with the assertion that one cannot exist without the other; they are interdependent, just as God and all life are interdependent.

John 3:1-17

This week’s Gospel reading pairs quite well with the reading from Romans, especially when looking at both scriptures through the lens of process theology. Paul’s assertion that our “salvation” is driven by faith is echoed here by Jesus’ words to Nicodemus about being given over to the process of being “born from above” as being part and parcel of being part of the “kingdom of God” [v. 3].

It’s important to note that for any congregants who have been familiar with this passage for longer periods of time, they will remember (and perhaps automatically hear) the NRSV translation of the phrase “born from above” as either “born anew” or “born again,” as is the case in many other translations. The original Greek verb used there can be accurately translated in any of those ways. One could easily argue that the author of John used this ambiguous terminology intentionally, in order to bring to bear on the listeners’ hearts and minds the simultaneous notions of being born from heaven, being born anew, and being born again. But the use of the phrase by Jesus in this passage also carries the notion that it isn’t a onetime proposition; rather, it is an ongoing process of life lived intentionally being mindful of God and God’s purposes, which facilitates the ongoing process of being born from above again, and again, and again…

A popular misconception of this text is that the mention of “eternal life” [v. 15, 16] has something to do with heaven, or with life after death. However, the use of this phrase is actually a metaphor used throughout the Gospel of John to indicate the quality of life which is lived in the here and now by living in an intentional mindfulness of God’s eternal presence. Putting the emphasis on the afterlife detracts from the benefits of life lived intentionally and mindfully in the present moment, and detracts from the idea of our need for an ongoing process of being born again and again in the rising and falling concrescences of being faithful to God’s holy lure. As Christians, we affirm that the supreme example of this kind of living is found in Jesus. And our ongoing work of giving ourselves over to this kind of ongoing transformation is what this passage is all about. And Lent is certainly a time in which we can turn our focus toward instilling spiritual practices into our life which will nurture us in the ongoing adventure of looking for, and participating in, God’s holy adventure of transforming the world in which we live, moment by moment.

The Rev. David Grant Smith is a priest in the Episcopal Church, and he lives in the village of Penn Yan, in the Finger Lakes region of New York. He has served in both parish ministry (Episcopal Diocese of Rochester) and as a hospital chaplain (Christiana Hospital in Newark, DE; and the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, MD). Prior to ordination, David worked for many years as a lay professional as pastoral associate, choir director, organist, and minister of music. In addition to his interests in weaving Process Theology in and through preaching, liturgy, teaching, and pastoral care, David enjoys travel, writing, and spending time with family & friends.