The Rev. Diana L. Wilcox
Church of the Annunciation Oradell
February 28, 2021
Second Sunday of Lent
1st Reading - Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
2nd Reading - Romans 4:13-25
Gospel - Mark 8:31-38
May God’s words alone be spoken, may God’s words alone be heard. Amen.
This week we have part two of a multi-part part lectionary offering in Lent about God’s covenants with us. Last week it was God promising to all of creation never to do harm again following the great flood. Even creating a little reminder for God – a string around the divine finger – the rainbow. This week, the covenant is with Abram and Sarai – later Abraham and Sarah – and all of their descendants. Now, rather than creating a sign for God, there is a sign for good ole Abraham and Sarah and everyone else for generations and generations...and yet we don’t hear about the sign. It is hidden in the verses that are missing in today’s lectionary assignment...perhaps with good reason. The sign – the reminder of the covenant...well, it isn’t a pretty rainbow. It is – circumcision - God really truly cuts a deal this time around. Ouch! One can appreciate the lectionary editors viewpoint, right? I remember a story I heard once.
It seems a priest, a pastor and a rabbi walk into a bar to share a drink and talk shop. Someone makes the comment that preaching to people isn’t really all that hard. After a few rounds, one thing leads to another and they decide to do an experiment. They will all go out into the woods, find a bear, preach to it, and attempt to convert it. Easy enough for me, living in Sussex County, but thankfully, I was not a part of this merry band of clergy.
Anyway, the next day back in the bar, they share their stories. Father John is bandaged head to toe and on crutches. He reports, “When I found my bear, I read to him from the Catechism. Well, that bear just started slapping me around. So I quickly grabbed my holy water, sprinkled him, and Blessed Holy Mother, he became as gentle a lamb. The bishop is going out next week to give him first communion and confirmation.”
Reverend Billy spoke next from his wheelchair, an arm and both legs in casts. In his best fire-and-brimstone oratory he claimed, “Well brothers, you know we don’t sprinkle anything. But I found me a barr and read to him from God’s Holy Word! But that barr wanted nothing to do with me. So I took hold of him and we began to wrassle. We wrassled up one hill and down another until we came to a crick. So I quick dunked him and baptized his hairy soul! And just like you said, he became as gentle as a lamb. We spent the rest of the day praising Jesus and I signed him up for New Members class.”
They both looked down at Rabbi Goldstein who was in pretty bad shape — an IV drip, full body cast and lying in a hospital bed. The rabbi sighed in pain and reflected, “Looking back on it, circumcision may not have been the best way to start.”
Hmmm...might be right about that Rabbi. And, I am not really sure it was the best way to enter into covenant for a whole lot of reasons, but nevertheless, here we are. I suppose this is one time when the sexism in the bible isn’t necessarily a bad thing – you can leave women out of this one, thank you very much. And it really isn’t the sign of the covenant that is important. It is the promise – the covenant – that God chooses to enter into with humanity that is central to the story, so it would seem the lectionary editors were right.
So, we have the first covenant – God with all creation after the flood. The second covenant – God with the descendants of Abraham, Sarah, and later Hagar. And next week, we will hear about God entering into a covenant with the people of Israel on Mount Sinai. Why would we start Lent with these stories, and what have they to do with what we hear Jesus telling us in the Gospel lesson today about what it means to be his disciple?
Well, for one - covenants change things. For Abram and Sarai it begins a journey that changes who they are, right down to their names. Covenants change the parties involved. Relationships, covenants, are life changers – well, they are…if we really abide by them.
If there is one thing we humans are good at it is finding the loophole in the contract, the escape clause, or the vague wording that lets us shrug our shoulders and say “well, I don’t think I agreed to that.” If you have any doubt, just listen to those fast legal disclaimers at the end of commercials these days. So, we aren’t always good at keeping our word, so why are we reading about them to start off our Lenten journey?
They remind us that we are supposed to be covenant people. That throughout our history, God has chosen to enter into relationship, a covenant, with us. These are reminders that we need to stop and take a good hard look at our identity, at the way our relationship with God is lived out in our lives. This is what we do in Lent.
The author of this passage of Genesis certainly wanted to drive home the idea of covenant – God says it four times in this one little passage. And we need to pay attention, because being in covenant is all about being in relationship, and being in relationship is not a selfish act. It can’t be.
Lenten disciplines make claims about our identity – of who we are – people of the covenant – people in relationship with God. It isn’t about giving up chocolate or red wine, but about giving up our denial of who we are, giving up our focus on our own priorities and giving ourselves over to who we really were born to be. That is the denial – that is the cross we pick up – the cross of identity. And that is what Jesus was calling us to in the gospel.
Jesus tells his disciples "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” And perhaps the most important word in that sentence is “deny.” The Greek word used here is ἀπαρνέομαι - meaning to deny, disown, or disregard, and it is found in only one other context in the New Testament. It is when Jesus tells Peter that he will deny him three times.
The denial Jesus is talking about isn’t abandoning our current occupations, or leaving our homes, or our families to go off into some convent or monastery – not that there is anything wrong with a monastic life, it just isn’t everyone’s call. The denial is to go far deeper than that, because Jesus is calling us to stop denying him – to remember our covenant – our relationship with the incarnate God.
See – that’s it...it isn’t about denying, but stopping the denial that is already a part of in our lives. Remember, the denial of Peter was not an act of abandoning his home, but it was a denial of the incarnate God. Peter denied his relationship with Jesus, and in that act, he denied his relationship with God. Jesus is asking us to stop denying who we are - people of the covenant. To stop our denial of our relationship with God.
Lent is a covenant thing.
It is about returning to relationship with God – the one who willingly calls us into covenant. And this covenant with God is not just with our individual selves, but with everyone. It is a communal thing, in as much as God’s relationship is not with us alone, but with all of humanity. Not just the ones that look, or think, or act, or vote, or speak, or love like us – but everyone, everywhere!
Lent is a communal thing too.
That’s the denial Jesus calls us to do – deny our belief that we can walk this earthly journey alone, without one another, and without God. When we do that, it is a downright denial of who we are, and who God created us to be, and if we can’t get that right, the life journey isn’t going to be easy.
In this season of Lent, we, as covenant people, need to stop and take a good hard look at our identity, at the way our relationship with God is lived out in our lives. And when we do, we will realize that we need each other. We can’t huddle around our own little fire, claiming to be Christian, but staying on our own – our faith is a communal experience. Jesus knew that – which is why he called followers to walk with him.
That is why coming together in places of worship, even when it is only online, is so important. Now I know, it isn’t the same. We have lost so much here in this time of pandemic, and sometimes it is hard to get on yet another Zoom meeting, or participate in something else on Facebook Live. Yet I can tell you that when I see all of you here. Being in community with all of you, and seeing the way you are in community with one another, it feeds my very soul. I experience God’s covenant, God’s blessing, here in this community with all of you, and I expect that many of you feel similarly.
So, as we move through this Lent, let us hear the call of Jesus to deny the life of the individual, and to pick up the cross of community – the cross of the covenant. This might as simple as making it to church services, even when it would much easier to just sit on the couch reading the Sunday paper. It could be calling someone who is isolated in this time of pandemic. Or it might be spending time dwelling in the word in an online group bible study. This doesn’t change the need for personal devotion in prayer and scripture, but just shifts the focus from the individual to the community. In whatever way you engage in this covenant relationship this Lent, you begin to pick up the cross and follow Jesus to Jerusalem.
The cross Jesus calls us to bear is to commit to being in relationship with humanity and with our God.
So, this Lent - deny yourself.
Pick up the cross.
And enter into relationship with God through relationship with humanity.
It certainly beats giving up chocolate, and is far more rewarding for you, and for everyone around you.