Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Second Sunday of Lent – March 1, 2015
Creator God be with us, Jesus hold our lives in loving kindness, Holy Spirit speak wisdom deep within our souls. Amen.
The frugal Baptist pastor came home and saw his wife in a brand new red dress. He took one look at her and barked, “Didn’t I say that you weren’t supposed to get any more clothes?” Embarrassed, she replied ” yes, but Satan tempted me and told me it looked really good on me!” A little startled by what just came out of his wife’s mouth, he snapped, “Didn’t I tell you to say “Get behind me, Satan?” She replied, “Yes, and I did exactly that but he told me it looks good from back here too!!”
“Get behind me, Satan!”
Imagine the disciples together late in the year 33 A.D. They are talking about the good old days, reminiscing the way friends often do. Andrew looks at Peter and says, “Hey Satan, tell us about the day you rebuked Jesus!” Thomas chimes in “Yeah, Peter, how’d that work out for you?” Matthew adds, “What were you thinking?”
Peter tries to defend himself, “You know I just didn’t like the whole suffering and death thing. That’s not what I signed up for. That’s not who I thought the Messiah would be.” They all become very quiet. They remember that day like it was yesterday. They realize that Peter didn’t say anything they weren’t thinking. Maybe Peter didn’t say anything we haven’t thought either.
All three readings today challenge us to what I’d call “radical faith.” In Abram’s ninety-ninth year, God gives Abram a new name—Abraham—“father of multitudes” and chooses him to be the ancestor of a huge number of nations. His wife Sarai—whose name will now be Sarah—is going to bear him a son. They are to pick up their lives and move far away. “You want my wife and me to do this unimaginable thing?” answers Abraham. “OK. We will.” Do you not find that pretty outrageous? That a man and woman of their age would pull up stakes and move half way across the world and give up a life of comfort, familiarity, and culture to live in some third world environment—all because God told them to go?
And do you not find it utterly unbelievable—that a ninety-nine year-old man and his wife would be able to have a child and become ancestors to a multitude of descendants—given the fact that Abraham lived in a time when life expectancy was probably about 30?
Paul then talks about radical faith using Abraham as an example and how he never questioned God through all the mind-boggling stuff God asked him to take on. The Gospel shows us the consequences of living out radical faith, no more clearly seen than in the life of Jesus that led to his crucifixion.
Radical faith? I don’t know if I’m anywhere near there yet. Jesus has a very different understanding of discipleship than what most of us probably want. When another’s reality and vision begin to contradict our own we rebuke. We take them aside to show them their mistake and attempt to change their minds. That’s all Peter did. Maybe Peter didn’t say anything we haven’t thought or wanted to say.
When we in our darker moments, in our wilderness times, haven’t we wondered that if Jesus can cast out demons and silence the crazy guy in the synagogue why he doesn’t silence the voices that drive us crazy? If he can cleanse the leper and restore him to a full life in community, why does our life sometimes leave us feeling so alone and isolated? If he can make the paralytic walk why are we often crippled by fear, anxiety, and addiction? If he can calm the sea surely he could calm the storms of our anguished lives. Yet they rage on. I have been asked these kinds of questions. I’ve asked them myself. These are our rebukes of Jesus. Maybe we’re not so different from Peter.
All of us have stories that make us question what God is up to. When I was a young priest serving the Russian Orthodox Church, I got a call from the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury. The warden explained that a young inmate wanted to become an Orthodox Christian and would I be willing to give him religious instruction. “Oh, and by the way, Father, “he’s in for murder.”
I arrived at the prison and went through the tight security, gates slamming behind me all the way, and escorted to a room where I would have complete privacy for an hour twice a week. “I’m going to be alone in this room with someone who killed another person,” I thought as I walked the sterile halls. The guard opened the door and there sat the most beautiful and gentle young man you could imagine. His name was Jimmy Hendrix—yes, like the singer—and his soft voice carried the lilt of his Texas upbringing. He was 21 years old. His story was tragic. He’d been abused by an alcoholic father. To escape that life he joined the navy and spent a few years a sea, mostly to ports in what was then the U.S.S.R. There he developed an interest in the religion and culture of Russia and fell in love with a young woman from the Ukraine. His life would change dramatically. Eventually, his stunning good looks made him a target of the ship’s first mate who molested him several times. One night, when Jimmy had been drinking, the guy made another attempt. Jimmy stabbed him to death. He was 18 years old at the time.
I met with Jimmy for a few months, listened to his story, taught him about the faith he wanted to embrace, baptized him and offered him the Bread of Life and Cup of Salvation in his very first taste of the Eucharist. For some, it may be a shocking story—a prisoner, a young man incarcerated for murder receiving the gifts of God. For me it was very bittersweet—such tragedy and such amazing grace. Even writing about it again yesterday brought me to tears.
On Friday, The Rev. Malcolm Boyd, the Episcopal priest who in the 1960’s took prayer out of church onto the city streets in a slangy vernacular not found in our Prayer Book, died in Los Angeles. He was 91. Boyd delivered riffs on life’s grittier problems — the white racists afraid of integration, or teenage girls who get pregnant — with a candor that was rarely heard from a priest.
He wrote more than two dozen books but none of his prayers were as raw and urgent as those in the 1965 collection “Are You Running With Me, Jesus?” a classic of spiritual writing for its generation. It tells about the underbelly of society, which Malcolm knew something about. His was a faith lived out in bars and on the streets.
His prayers came out of the realization that God is not only in church. God is in the painful situations of your life. When religious institutions were criticized as self-serving or irrelevant, he delivered his “prayer poems” from nightclub stages and at the Newport Jazz Festival. Boyd’s “genius,” Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, was to illustrate the presence of God “even for those who say they do not believe in God.”
One prayer begins with a walk through a Detroit slum. “Look up at that window Lord, where the old guy is sitting,” Boyd wrote. “He just moved a short bit away from the window. Maybe he moved because he felt my eyes on him from the sidewalk down here. I didn’t mean to embarrass him, Lord; I just wanted to let him know somebody understands he’s alive and he’s your brother, so he’s not alone or lost. Does he know it, Jesus?”
I wonder if really radical faith isn’t about stepping out of the mainstream of religion as Malcolm Boyd did. I think we need people like Abraham and Sarah to remind us of the power of radical faith and I think we need people like Peter and Malcolm to remind us of the power of radical questions—even of Jesus.
If life is anything it is a test of faith—the opening and expanding of our mind to the abundance of possibilities—even those that seem outrageous; a faith in the shocking truth of God’s abundance and promise that will unfold around us even when our sanity and common sense tell us that we must be crazy for believing. Our faith is best realized when we recognize the depth and strength of God’s extravagant love for us.
Still it’s hard to believe in a promise with no power of our own to make it come true. Everything will happen but in the meantime what is there to live on now?” For me, it is the hope expressed in a traditional Indian saying from the movie the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: “In the end, all will be well. If all is not well, then it is not the end.”