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Sunday, February 4, 2018

Lent 2B February 25, 2018

A road leading to Ceasarea of Philippi

God of all goodness, you did not spare your only-begotten son but gave him up for the sake of us sinners.  Strengthen within us the gift of obedient faith, that, in all things, we may follow faithfully in Christ's footsteps, and, with him, be transfigured in the light of your glory.

From Prayers for Sunday and Seasons, Year B, Peter J. Scagnelli, LTP, 1992.

Some Thoughts on Mark 8:27-38

"For those, like Peter, who are hoping for a knight on a white horse to sweep in at the last moment and save the day, the messianic expectation is bound to end in disappointment."

"Not a Super Hero, but an Authentic Human," Caspar Green, Scarlet Letter Bible, 2012.

"These verses are crucial for understanding the Gospel according to Mark as a whole and for fathoming what it means to be Christian."

Commentary, Mark 8:27-38, Matt Skinner, Preaching This Week,, 2012.

"All we have to do is trade what we've been led to believe is life for the real thing."

"Preaching the Anti-King," David Lose, Working Preacher, 2012.

"I’m curious as to what role the “having turned and having seen his disciples” plays in this conversation..."

"Jesus Rejects the Title, 'The Christ','" D Mark Davis, raw translation and exegesis/questions, Left Behind and Loving It, 2012.

There are several things going on in this passage: Jesus is recognized as Messiah and then prophesies his death and resurrection; and his instructions to the disciples about what is gained and lost in their decision to follow him.

Here on the road to Philippi his followers take stabs at who he might be. These are certainly echoes of 6:14-15, a kind of popular notion of his ministry.  While they all contain within them some element of truth they are not the Truth.  Even if we were not theologically following this discourse we would see that a claim that they are lacking is evident in Jesus' follow up question: But who do you say that I am?

Some exegetes, trying to make sense of this, have disputed Peter's confession. (Joel Marcus, Mark, vol 2, 612)  In fact his statement could be a Markan insertion of an ancient baptismal formula.  And, certainly the revelation of the exact nature of his messianic kingship is yet to be revealed. (Ibid, 613)  Nevertheless, what happens here is more than foreshadowing a future reality as you and I read the living word. It provides for us insight into the nature of the God we believe in, and the nature of the Son we seek to follow.

In these words of Jesus we receive several revelations. The first is that while these events that are to unfold are unexpected (perhaps in Paul's words "foolish") they are exactly God's will and desire.  God in Jesus has come to enfold humanity.  The cross, the great inevitability, will not stop either the proclamation of Good News nor will it keep salvation history from breaking into the cosmos.

The second revelation is that the scriptures of Israel, the Old Testament, reveal this march towards incarnation, crucifixion, and redemption.

Peter's reaction to this is normal, and in point of fact echoes our modern response to this notion. It doesn't make sense.  Typically, in the face of criticism the Christian either shuts down or retreats to a different understanding of God and Jesus.

Jesus then gathers the people towards him and tells them that there is a cost to following.The images here and the words used by our author are similar to a commander rallying his troops. They are summoned following the rebuke, gathered so they can be refocused on the work at hand.  The self sacrifice, the work, the difficult hardships to be endured as a follower of Jesus are manifest; some are as physical as martyrdom, some social, still others will be psychological.  Jesus encourages them to have the will, fortitude, and endurance to run this race.

This Sunday is an opportunity to preach the uniqueness of God in Christ Jesus, the cross, and salvation.  While I think many will like the disciples offer some turned phrase that will lesson the meaning of who Jesus is to one of the disciple's responses.  We are encouraged to pick up our cross and be apologists for our theology.

I recently read an article that appeared in The Christian Century, April 19, 1995, pp. 423-428, Robert Bellah, (emeritus professor of sociology and comparative studies at the University of California, Berkeley) described the tension between Christianity and pluralism. He wrote these words regarding our current challenge of proclaiming a gospel in our Western culture:

…[W]e are getting our wires crossed if we think we can jettison defining beliefs, loyalties and commitments because they are problematic in another context. Reform and re-appropriation are always on the agenda, but to believe that there is some neutral ground from which we can rearrange the defining symbols and commitments of a living community is simply a mistake-a common mistake of modern liberalism. Thus I do not see how Christians can fail to confess, with all the qualifications I have stated, but sincerely and wholeheartedly, that there is salvation in no other name but Jesus.
Bella, then offers a challenge to those who would teach Christianity today.  It is a challenge well worth our effort!

…Thus it would seem that a nonsuperficial Christianity must be based on something more than an individual decision for Christ, must be based on induction into the Christian cultural-linguistic system. Without such induction the individual decision may be not for the biblical Christ but for a henotheistic guardian spirit. And that is true not only for so-called new Christians, but for many of us in our own allegedly Christian society who do not understand what Paul would have required us as Christians to understand.
Therefore it seems to me of the utmost importance on this Sunday, with the witness of Peter given to us as the gospel, to make our cultural-linguistic case for the Gospel we Episcopalians believe.

We believe in the Episcopal Church that Jesus is the only perfect image of the Father, and that he reveals to us and illustrates for us the very true nature of God.

Jesus reveals to us what I have said, and moreover that God is love and that God’s creation is meant to glorify God.

We believe Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, that by God's own act, his divine Son received our human nature from the Virgin Mary, his mother.

We believe, what is foolish to man, that God became in Jesus human that we might be adopted as children of God, and be made heirs in the family of Abraham and inherit God's kingdom.

We believe we did what humans do to prophets and we killed Jesus. God knew this and yet freely walked to the cross in the person of Jesus, that through his death, resurrection and ascension we would be given freedom from the power of sin and be reconciled to God.

While the ability to glorify God and live in a covenant community with God was given to us so too was the gift of eternal life.

We believe God in the form of the Son descended among the dead and that they receive the benefit of the faithful which is redemption and eternal life.

We say and claim that Jesus took our human nature into heaven where he now reigns with the Father and intercedes for us and that we share in this new relationship by means of baptism into this covenant community – wherein we become living members in Christ.

In our covenant community we have a language of faith which directs our conversations and gives meaning to our words; through which we understand we are invited to believe, trust, and keep God’s desire to be in relationship by keeping his commandments.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

We are to love one another as Christ loved us.

As preachers I encourage you to preach the Gospel that is in us.  Teach your people what the Episcopal Church believes of this foolish messiah, claim the cross as the symbol of our faith and Jesus as Messiah.

This is the good news of salvation we know in Jesus name.  So, take up your cross and preach.

Some Thoughts on Romans 4:13-25

"The law has always been a means of pointing the way toward God, an instrument that helps us to know and do the divine will. As such it is meant to liberate. But when the means is mistaken for an end in itself, the consequence can be a state of spiritual confusion in which all hope is obscured."
Commentary, Romans 4:13-25, Daniel G. Deffenbaugh, Preaching This Week,, 2012.

"To this day, any time we are tempted to limit God to the size of our purposes or to doubt the breadth of God's generosity or the surprising power of God's activity we can return to Romans 4 as an astonishing elaboration of the familiar but life-changing claim: God is great; God is good."

Commentary, Romans 4:13-25 (Pentecost 4), David Bartlett, Preaching This Week,, 2008.

"Similar struggles emerge today when people ponder whether there can be such faith in God without the culturally specific reference to Christianity."

"First Thoughts on Passages on Year B Epistle Passages in the Lectionary: Lent 2," William Loader, Murdoch University, Uniting Church in Australia.

Abraham is for Paul an archetype of faithfulness. However, Paul does not believe that Abraham was blessed because of what he did - kept the law (even though it had not been given to Moses yet), was the father of Israel, and did all that God asked (left home, was willing to sacrifice his son). At the time that Paul wrote this Abraham was seen as an example of a person who kept all the laws. He was considered God's greatest law keeper. Paul is crafty in turning this argument.

Paul believes that faith is something larger than keeping the law. Faith is attached to God's gift, God's promise. 

Paul understands full well the human condition to be unable to achieve perfection. If faith and God's promise are dependent upon some kind of contract - covenant - then we are all in big trouble. God loves us because God has created us worthy of God's love. God gives us grace because we are made worthy of forgiveness through the work of Jesus Christ. Grace is given free to everyone everywhere and it is not dependent upon keeping the Mosaic law. 

So, Abraham becomes the father of the Christian faith - not because he kept a law - but because he believed in God's promise, he hoped in God's promise. It is here that Paul reorients faith not in keeping law or doing good and right things but in believing in God's promise. So it is with us. We will never be perfect. We will never keep the law. We may respond to God's love and grace by choosing how to live life differently - this is true. But we receive God's promise, God's love, God's mercy freely. And, our faith is our response to that promise.

What a gift in Lent to hear and receive these words. We are working hard to keep our Lenten laws that we have set down for ourselves. It will be interesting to preach and help people come to understand that faith is about believing in the promise and not achieving some kind of un-achievable standard of perfection.

Some Thoughts on Genesis 17:1-16

"Laughter may seem a little uncouth during Lent; after all, this is a season of spiritual practices, of discipline, forty somber days in which we pack up our Alleluias and put them in storage. Even so, we do well to remember every year that the promises of the Gospel are foolishness in the eyes of the world. "

Commentary, Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, Cameron B.R. Howard, Preaching This Week,, 2015.

"In our own day, although marriage and family may never have been more vexed as political issues, there is a steady movement towards the privatization and deinstitutionalization of sexual relations and marriage. Marriage is being shorn of a telos that exceeds the private ends of the parties within it, increasingly rendering the actual form of the union as a bespoke one and the conformity of society's behaviour to its moral norms an entirely optional matter."

"The Politics of Abraham's Foreskin," Alastair Roberts, Political Theology Today, 2015.

"It is frankly inconceivable that anyone reading Genesis 17, a text right at the heart of the long struggle for Abram and Sarai to find fulfillment with the promise of YHWH for them to have a child, could possibly leave out the quite hilarious, and yet tragic, irony to be found between Genesis 17:3 and Genesis 17:17. These two verses are nothing less than the lynchpin of the entire chapter, and the lectionary collectors have apparently missed the crucial connection."

"YHWH the Amazing," John C. Holbert, Patheos, 2012.

"A longstanding Jewish tradition sees the career of Abraham as a sequence of trials, commencing with his call to leave his homeland for an unidentified destination, and culminating in the command to sacrifice his son. Perhaps we are justified in seeing the present episode as a trial of a different sort: Had Abraham and Sarah not reacted to God's promise with irrepressible laughter, then they would have failed the test! They would have been declared unworthy bearers of God's covenant."

Scholars root Mary's song to her faith ancestors directly to this passage. Not only is all of the nation of Israel to come from the covenant with Abram and Sarai but so too will the Messiah. That Jesus is part of this lineage is made clear as he is circumcised and presented in the Temple according to the instructions to Abram. John and Paul (Galatians) will both rest in the assurance that they are members of the Abrahamic tradition and that Jesus sees this as an aspect of the universal invitation of people to be part of God's tribe.

Without this story we cannot help to understand what we are being invited into exactly. Christianity is in fact much more than a social movement against injustice. We are to be a very particular kind of people. We are, as we have said many times before, to be a people who are peaceful and a blessing to all. We are to be a people who go and a people who find God out in the world. We are a people who have a covenant with God and so see God's hand at work in the world and show it to others. We are discomforted to walk out into the world so that others might find comfort. This is the work and has been the work.

Truly the journey of Abraham and Sarah is important in this story because of the legacy, the connection to the people of Jesus' own day, Jesus' part in the arc of the story of salvation and blessing.

There is a part here though that in this particular passage hearkens back to Genesis. The first negative word spoken in the story of creation is that Adam is "lonely". This is often twisted to some idea that woman is a mere companion - a kind of "behind every good man" theology. But that is not the way scripture speaks of it. Woman and man together are the partners God creates. People need one another. There are no lone patriarchs in the kingdom of God. We are all people along the road together. This is a message Jesus repeatedly exemplifies in his calling of people and his sending out of people.

You see, the story of Joseph, Mary, Jesus and the disciples is deeply woven into the story of Abraham and Sarah.

There is some sense that perhaps Abraham thinks this is a solo act. Just as some over emphasize personal salvation...this story is not about a personal covenant with Abraham as it is with a whole family and a whole people. Abraham may think this covenant business is all about him. But it turns out it is truly about he and Sarah and a nation. For the Christian it expands even further.

Rabbi Litman tells us that in a very old tradition of biblical study Abraham has missed the point. She writes,
Abraham perceives these words as directed uniquely to him. He realizes that he must have an heir in order to become a covenantal nation, but he does not think that the identity of the mother is of consequence. Abarbanel, a medieval biblical exegete, explains that God responds to Abraham, "Abraham, you thought that all the good that I testified to do for you was for your sake [only], and therefore once you had your son Ishmael, you thought the birth of Isaac was unnecessary. Know that this is not so, but rather Sarah is deserving to bear you a [covenantal] son.and behold Ishmael is not her son, so from the perspective of Sarah, the birth of Isaac is absolutely necessary." (Read more at
The Rabbi Abarbanel, is clear we are to be partners just as Abraham and Sarah are partners. Joseph and Mary are to be partners, Jesus and humanity are to be partners, humanity is to undertake its mission with partners.

Again, Rabbi Litman writes:
Abraham's journey in Genesis is a struggle to better understand God and to discern his place in God's plan. Along the way, Abraham learns that no one person has a monopoly on God's covenant, and that great endeavors require great partners. (Ibid.)
The truth is, we cannot be a blessing of peace, a community of Shalom, without other people. There are no Christians outside of Christian community. There are truly no "Lone Ranger" Christians. We are always and everywhere at our best when we are communal in our work, bound with partners, modeling reconciliation, peace, and love.

An excerpt from my book entitled Vocātiō: Imaging A Visible Church:

Let’s begin with Abraham and Sarah, originally called Abram and Sarai, and renamed for their faithfulness. In many ways this story of calling begins the narrative of God's people. Abraham and Sarah were frequently cited by the early Church as examples of God's expansive promise to all people.

God calls Abraham and says, "Go." Theologian Walter Brueggemann writes, "with this address Abraham's life is radically displaced."[i] Sarah and Abraham's lives were disrupted by God's invitation and commitment to them. All of their worldly plans are set aside as they leave their homeland for God's wilderness. Brueggemann writes, "He is caught up in a world of discourse and possibility about which he knew nothing until addressed, a world of discourse and possibility totally saturated with God's good promises for him and for the world through him. (Genesis 12:1) God’s call propels Abraham into a reality that refigures his life and removes him from any purpose or agenda he may have entertained for himself before that moment."[ii] Abraham and Sarah offer themselves faithfully to this journey and they will be a blessing to the world.

[i] I am following Brueggemann's outline of calling and sending from the essay, adding in my own reflections and understandings. Brueggemann, 122.
[ii] Brueggemann, 122.

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