Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, Connecticut
The Second Sunday of Lent – March 8, 2009
God be with us, Christ Jesus hold our lives in loving kindness, Holy Spirit speak the wisdom deep within our souls. Amen.
A burglar was ransacking a house in the dark of night in pursuit of any valuables or cash when all of a sudden he heard a voice in the room: “Jesus is watching you.” Stunned, he moved to another room to see what he could steal. Again, the voice: “Jesus is watching you.” He thought he must be hallucinating but he moved on to the living room to see if he might find some expensive electronic equipment. Once again he heard the voice: “Jesus is watching you!” This time it totally freaked him out and he threw caution to the wind and put on the lights to see who was there. It was a parrot. “What’s your name,” the burglar asked. “Moses,” responded the parrot. “Moses,” the thief said, “what kind of an idiot would name a parrot ‘Moses’” The Parrot said, “The same idiot who named the Pitt Bull ‘Jesus’.”
What’s in a name? Well, we learn something about that in today’s Old Testament lesson. God visits Abram and gives him a new name. Now Abram’s ninety-ninth birthday wasn’t the first time these two met. Remember that it was twenty-five years before when God came to Abram and told him to pick up stakes and move to a foreign land—a place lacking the civility, culture, and comforts of his homeland. And Abram did it! He and his wife Sarai had always hoped to have children but it did not seem to be in the cards for them. God, however, kept interrupting their lives with this promise that to their offspring God would give all the land northward and southward and eastward and westward. But there remained one big fly in the ointment: Abram and his wife still had no children and they weren’t getting any younger.
This dance with God went on for years until this day, Abram’s ninety-ninth year, when God does something really significant. God gives Abram a new name—Abraham—“father of multitudes” and thus designates him to be the ancestor of a huge number of nations. Furthermore, God announces that his wife Sarai—whose name will now be Sarah—is going to bear him a son.
Do you find all this as outrageous as I do? First, that a man and woman would pull up stakes and move half way across the world to a place where they don’t know a soul, give up a life of comfort, familiarity, and cultural enjoyment, and live in some third world kind of environment — all because God told them to go? And do you not find it even more outrageous—utterly unbelievable—that a ninety-nine year-old man and his almost-as-old, barren wife would be able to have a child and become ancestors to a multitude of descendents? And add to that mix the fact that Abraham lived in a time when life expectancy was probably about 30.
Here we have a very unusual and striking faith story. And whether or not we can accept the information literally such as the ages that the Genesis passage attributes to these people, the fact is that God asks Abraham and Sarah to do and to believe what no rational, intelligent, sane person would do or believe. Abraham just resigns himself to the fact that he cannot grasp any of this. It is completely beyond his human ability to comprehend God and God’s reasoning but his response is “why not?”—why not go on this wild adventure, why not entertain the possibility that he could still have a son and be ancestor to a multitude. It is so utterly ridiculous yet Abraham steps out of the box of reason and into the theater of the absurd.
What we see in this response is the essence of faith—faith as the opening and expanding of the mind to the abundance of possibilities—even those that are outrageous—rather than the hot pursuit of all the answers to all our questions about life. Faith draws us to the shocking truth of God’s abundance and how God promises that it will unfold for us even when our sanity and common sense tell us that we must be crazy for doing so.
Peter, on the other hand, was not able to do that. He could not accept the outrageous declaration that a Messiah—one who he thought would liberate his people by strength and force—would allow himself to be humiliated, to suffer, to be executed like a criminal on a cross. And Jesus is not just forecasting his own death, but is setting the criteria for those who want to follow him: you must deny yourself and take up your cross. He is calling his disciples to radical faith.
You and I like to think that we are followers of Jesus, at least that is what the whole business of baptism is about. So what are we to make of this instruction? What is the cross for us and why do we need to carry it? First, I want to clear up an age old misunderstanding of what the cross is. The cross that Jesus is talking about is not the sorry lot we may have been dealt in life—the bad genes, the failure in a career, the turbulent marriage, and a list of so many other sources of our discontent. The cross is a reminder of who we are and why we are here.
We must carry the cross to remind us that we are not the center of the universe. The country in general, and this county is particular, has been for some time moving toward an ethos of self-absorption. You see it all around you—the person running the red light while talking on the phone or parking in a space designated for the handicapped. Much of the mess of the economy can be attributed to a culture of narcissism that has spawned as its offspring extreme greed and the exaggerated sense of entitlement. We need to carry the cross to remind us that it isn’t always about me.
We must carry the cross to recognize the sufferings of other people and to provoke us to fight for justice in the lives of others who are oppressed by society in any way or who have been left out in the cold without the basics like shelter, food, and health care. We must carry the cross to remind us that others have it far worse than we do and to keep that reality in the forefront of our hearts so that we will do our part to reduce their suffering even in small ways. We must carry the cross to understand our connection with the cross that Jesus carried.
When Rembrandt painted his famous work of the crucifixion called “The Three Crosses” which now hangs in the Louvre in Paris he did something most unusual. Among the faces in the crowd beneath the cross, he painted himself. That was his way of saying that he could not envision the crucifixion without admitting that he had a participation in it.
We must carry the cross to remember that humanity is still responsible for the suffering of those who are nailed to the cross today: the poor, the homeless, the victims of violence and abuse, the marginalized, and many others who are metaphorically murdered by the attitudes, intolerance, and injustice that saturates our world.
Jesus tells us today that if we carry the cross in this spirit we will save our lives and, what’s more, we’ll join with him in saving the lives of others because of the transformation of our hearts and wills. From the perspective of the standards and expectations of the world that probably seems absurd, outrageous, just like the promises God made to Abraham and Sarah.
Mother Barbara Brown Taylor preached this about Abraham’s story: “It is hard to believe in a promise—to live by it, day after day, to see it in the night sky and hear it in your name. It’s hard to believe in a promise with no power to make it come true. Everything is in the future tense—the land, the son, the blessing. Everything will happen, by and by, but in the meantime what is there to live on now?”
That sure rings true for us here in March 2009. How do we muster up the ability to trust, to see that there is a new road on which God is leading us? What if this crisis in the country could usher in the outrageous possibility that we can become the bearers of a new creation promised by God? What if there is promise here of the opportunity for an entirely new future that seems impossible at the beginning?
Promises imply a relationship. God made a covenant with Abraham and through with all his ancestors and God in Jesus made a covenant with his followers. Anyone who has been in a relationship knows that promises get made and promises get broken. So we may become hesitant to believe in the promises made to us.
Is it a test of faith—the opening and expanding of our mind to the abundance of possibilities—even those that are outrageous—rather than the hot pursuit of all the answers to all our questions about life; a faith in the shocking truth of God’s abundance and God’s promise that it will unfold around us even when our sanity and common sense tell us that we must be crazy for believing.
To believe like that is to discover that the promise is not future but now. To believe like that is to live in the promise, where the wait itself is as rich as its end.