02/28/21 – All Who Wander

ALL WHO WANDER

February 28, 2021
2nd Sunday in Lent
Gen. 17:1-7, 15-16; Rom. 4: 13-25; Mk. 8:31-38
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

 

A former parishioner of mine parked a Jeep, which had seen a lot of hard miles, in the church parking lot every Sunday. The Jeep displayed a bumper sticker with the words: “All who wander are not lost.” His faith traveled with him, even if it took him on paths that weren’t on the map for those who followed a more traditional route.

All who wander are not lost.

Those words could describe Abraham, particularly as venerated by Paul in our passage from Romans. For Paul, Abraham was an idealized model of faith. God called Abraham to follow where God led him, without knowing any more than the destination was a new home in a new land. Paul had a point to make to a congregation of new Christians, who struggled to remain faithful to Christ amidst persecution, inner- church conflict, false preachers, and anxiety over the delay of Christ’s expected return. So, we could forgive Paul if he had a photogenic memory of the Abraham saga in Genesis. You wouldn’t know it from the passage assigned for our reading today, but there is a lot of back story to Abraham’s becoming a model of faith.

In Genesis, the Abraham saga portrayed a man who struggled with remaining faithful to God’s call; yet, God kept urging him on. God had a plan for Abraham and would not let him give up. At the start of his faith journey, God called Abram, as he was originally named, to leave his father’s home in Ur, with the promise that he would bless him and make him the father of a great nation. His wife, Sarai, and nephew, Lot, accompanied him on the journey. That was his first “leap of faith” – no less so for Sarai and Lot. There were times on the journey that Abram had his doubts about God’s promise to protect him. For example, In Egypt, he passed Sarai off as his sister and let her be taken into the Pharaoh’s harem out of fear he would be killed if it were known Sarai was his wife. Evidently, brothers were not a threat as a defender of his sister’s honor. There were other times when Abram took matters into his own hands, not totally convinced God would deliver as promised.

At the point at which our scripture passage begins today, in chapter 17, Abram had twice attempted to obtain an heir when God’s promise of a son had not been fulfilled. In chapter 15, being of a great age, he decided to make one of his male slaves his heir. God said ‘No, be patient.’ In chapter 16, Sarai decided to take matters into her own hands and told Abram to impregnate her Egyptian slave, Hagar, to produce an heir. Ishmael was born, but all were not “happy families” as they say. Hagar begins to “look with contempt” on her old and barren owner. Sarai, humiliated and resentful, demands that Hagar be cast out into the desert, along with her child, to die. Abram looks upon the conflict and does nothing to stop the sure death of Ishmael and Ishmael’s mother. Not wanting to be bothered with arguing with Sarai for the sake of justice and mercy, Abram acquiesces, saying callously, “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.” This hardly seems the behavior befitting God’s choice of one who is to “bless the nations” (Gen. 12:3)! But, sadly, it is an all too human response to violence and injustice. We have a terrible tolerance for wrongs that happen to someone else, particularly if we deem ourselves more deserving of protection and well-being.

God demonstrated the compassion and justice Abram failed to show. God saved Hagar and Ismael in the desert and extended the Abrahamic covenant to Ishmael, promising he too will become a great nation with many descendants. People of the Islamic faith look to Abraham as their “Father of Faith” through Ismael. God reassured Abram: ‘be patient, you and Sarai will have the son I promised. As a sign that God had plans for the elderly, childless couple, God gave them new names. Abram, meaning “exalted father,” became Abraham, meaning “father of multitudes. Sarai, meaning “princess” in Hebrew, became Sarah, meaning “my princess,” possibly to indicate her future role as the matriarch of Israel. Our lectionary passage ends at verse 16, in which God declares: “I will bless her and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”

What we miss is Abraham’s response in the very next verse: “Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” At this point, Abraham is still not convinced God will keep God’s promise, and he’s a bit tired of having the dubious promise held out to him. Abraham cannot comprehend God’s power or God’s means of fulfilling this extravagant vision. Abraham has yet to learn that “all things are possible with God.” Abraham’s faith does grow stronger, but only after the promise of an heir, Isaac, is born. God’s vision can be accomplished even when our faith waivers.

Jesus had the same problem with his disciples. In our gospel reading from Mark, Jesus had a plan for his disciples, and he continued to prepare them for it, even though their human fears and worldly expectations hindered their understanding. Like us, the disciples struggled in their attempt to follow Jesus, faithfully, to the cross. In Mark, Peter is the prime example of a disciple who doesn’t get it. Just two weeks ago we read that Peter wanted to build tents on the mountaintop to house the transfigured, illuminated figures of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. Peter was the head cheerleader for what Martin Luther called “the Theology of Glory.” Peter loved basking in the reflected glory of the divine but refused to accept Jesus’ declaration that he would be crucified on a cross, a most humiliating death. Oh, we know Peter very well. Who wouldn’t choose glory over death on a cross? Shouldn’t Jesus have been more understanding? I mean, “Get behind me, Satan!” are harsh words. I see in my mind an astonished Peter, reeling from Jesus’ tongue-lashing with a “what did I do” look.

This is the first of three times that Jesus will explain that he must suffer and die according to God’s plan for salvation for the whole world. Jesus addressed all the disciples and the crowd that had gathered, stating: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

The cross was Jesus’ destination, though not his final one. The necessity of this was that God had planned and ordained this circumstance to happen for the greater good of humanity. The Bible doesn’t give us any more explanation than that, though through the ages several “doctrines” Peter and the other disciples could not fully grasp God’s vision of heaven on earth. Even after the Resurrection, we still see only dimly what the kingdom of God on earth looks like, because the “stumbling blocks,” as Paul called them, limit our vision. Following Jesus’ path, bearing his cross is just too darn hard. Like God leading Abraham, Jesus leads us to a destination we do not know but can only trust in the promise that it will be good and lasting. Just as God set the destination for Abraham and Sarah to bless all the nations, God sacrificed his Son Jesus to bring salvation to the world. I don’t know about you, but I tremble at the thought of Jesus asking me: “What have you denied yourself for me, lately?”

In our market-driven, consuming-obsessed society, self-denial is not acceptable and to be avoided whenever and however possible. Our elected officials avoid it by “kicking the can down the road” — an expression used for failing to address problems now, saddling their successors with facing them, or taking money for the next generation of taxpayers to pay back. The politicians do it because they don’t want to deny themselves another term in office and all the power and privilege that brings. We, the voters, allow our elected leaders to do so to avoid any self-denial on our part, leaving the sacrifice for someone else.

We can look at most of the critical problems facing our society today and can trace the origins to lack of self-denial and refusal to sacrifice for the sake of others. This is particularly true for those who have had a greater share of wealth, power, and privilege and can most easily endure a bit of sacrifice. Our country faces many problems that will force greater sacrifices for future generations: climate change due to global warming, depletion of water and other natural resources, crumbling infrastructures, and over-priced health care that many people cannot afford. We have a new Gilded Age of income disparity; disparity of educational opportunities; a justice system that has been influenced by political ideologies, power grabs, and economic incentives. We may congratulate ourselves for empty platitudes. ‘Of course, all should have equal opportunities to get a good education, to receive health care, to live in a safe, unpolluted environment, to purchase nutritious food, and to live in adequate housing in low-crime neighborhoods. But, when we must deny ourselves some of the perks and privileges, we have long enjoyed so that others can share in the available resources, our hearts become hardened to the suffering and vulnerability of others, like Abraham and Sarah casting Ishmael and Hagar out into the desert.  Jesus’ response to Peter’s rebuke was:

“For those who want to save their life will lose it,
and those who lose their life for my sake, and for
the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will
it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”

Jesus was talking about the loss of worldly gain by witnessing for God’s kingdom. A disciple is a faithful witness. Jesus tells us a faithful disciple’s deeds must reflect God’s values not world values. Taking up the cross is symbolic of the work of discipleship.

The cross is not a status symbol to use for self-glorification; and, it is not a weapon to use to beat down our perceived enemies. The cross was never meant to be a wedge of division or a wall to exclude. The cross was never meant to be a microphone to amplify our voices to drown out the voices of those we want to be silenced. We are to humbly kneel at the foot of the cross, lift it up and carry it to the people and places that are broken by the world. To willingly carry the cross is symbolic of not being afraid of the loss of worldly status, privilege, or reward for the sake of following Christ.

When Jesus said to be a disciple one must deny oneself and take up the cross, he wasn’t saying one must lose their individuality or personhood. He didn’t mean that one must forsake all pleasure or profit; but he did mean a disciple should be willing to deny personal gain for the sake of being faithful to his vision of the kingdom of God, in which all nations are blessed with abundant life.

Taking up the cross is the mark of a Christian. It is a symbol of death to be sure – death to our own egos and self-absorption. But the cross is also a sign of unconditional love. As with Abraham and Sarah, whose new names signified their faith in God’s promises and obedience to God’s call, taking up the cross is the new identity we take on when we are obedient to Christ over anyone or anything in the world that we might give authority over our lives. Jesus referred to the cross as his glory and his crucifixion as his glorification. The cross is the place where self-denial becomes the ultimate fulfillment and abundant life. Christ showed us that from the divine perspective, to live abundantly means to live justly, compassionately, and generously, and to dare to love as God loves.

Amen. May it be so!

 

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2021, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church | 1420 W. Moss Ave. | Peoria, Illinois 61606
WestminsterPeoria.org  | 309.673.8501