“Trust in the Lord, be strong, take heart”
Sermon for Lent 2, March 17, 2019
The lections are: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18, Psalm 27, Philippians 3:17-4:1, Luke 13:31-35
“Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them …. So shall your descendants be.”
Our scriptures today start with Abram—the father of all the People of the Book. In historic order, these are the Jews, the Christians, and the Muslims. We have the same spiritual ancestor. And he is the model of a person of faith.
St. Paul makes a point of saying that Abraham didn’t observe the law, because the Law hadn’t been given yet. Nearly half a millennium passed between Abraham and Moses. But Abraham did pay attention, he heard God speaking to him. Saint Paul quotes verse 6 in Romans. Abraham “believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Abraham hears and obeys. He leaves everything and goes where God tells him to go. Then, when he and Sarah are very old indeed, we come to today’s passage when the promise of God seems almost impossible for humans to accomplish.
So here we are today. God’s word guiding us. Torah, Bible, Koran. We Christians are only one of the three Peoples of the Book, and all of us look to Abraham because he not only heard, not only believed, but trusted God.
While we are here, I want to draw your attention to these carcasses. Three animals and two birds. We’re told that God tells Abram to cut the three animals in half. Then Abram goes into a deep sleep and in the dark of night, “a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces “.
In the culture of the time, when two parties wanted to make a covenant—a formal, lasting pledge to each other—one tradition was this: They cut an animal in half and both the parties to the agreement walk between the halves. This signifies: “If I break my word, let me be myself broken.” It’s a way of saying “I swear on my life to honor this promise.”
What happens here isn’t the usual thing at all. It is not a mutual promise. This covenant that God is making is entirely one-sided. It’s God’s promise. Abraham is not required to reciprocate. His obedience is a sign of his faithfulness, not a condition of God’s faithfulness. God will be faithful.
I think this might be one reason this scripture is read to us during Lent. To help us get out of a certain mind set, where we are working for a spiritual reward. So Lent becomes an exercise in character formation. That can be subtle… but we humans are prone to think we can learn love.
Here’s an Interfaith example: When they were students, my friend Malka’s brother Ari …ethnically and religiously Jewish… and his buddy.. a WASP from TMR… had a rock band. They got a gig in Shawbridge, drove up there with their equipment, and the car broke down about a mile from town. So they are walking along the highway carrying these enormous heavy speakers. “This is a real schlepp,” Ari says. “What? The friend asks? What are you saying?” “Schlepp. Backbreaking effort. We call it schlepping. What do you call it?” “Oh—we call it character building.”
Lent CAN build character, don’t get me wrong. But the improvement comes when what we take on, and what we give up, creates space for us to attend more closely to what God is doing. I appreciated Dean Bertrand’s sermon last week on this point and also his talk on Ash Wednesday; if you missed them, they’re both available on the Cathedral web site.
The point of Lent can be summed up in Psalm 27:8
“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!” Your face, LORD, do I seek.
This whole 27th Psalm, part of this year’s Lent cycle and chosen, I guess, for its resonance with the perils and uncertainties being experienced both by Abram and by Jesus, is so relevant to today’s situation it just about breaks my heart.
“Though an army of people should encamp against me/ yet my heart shall not be afraid
Even though there should rise up a war against me/ yet still do I put my trust in God
One thing have I asked of you O God/ one thing alone do I seek
That I may dwell in your house/ all the days of my life
To behold your fair beauty/ and to seek you in your temple
How can we not think first of the worshippers in Christchurch who went to attend services at their mosque two days ago and were murdered? The most recent in a whole history of massacres in God’s name!
Thoughts and prayers are not going to be enough. We need to address fear and anger wherever we find it. And I think our other two scriptures—and our Lenten book by Rowan Williams—show us one way to start.
Saint Paul writes [in Phil. 2:5] “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
And Rowan Williams comes to the same point when, in the chapter on Prayer in BEING CHRISTIAN he writes about Origen’s commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, written around 300 CE.
“Very near the heart of Christian prayer is getting over the idea that God is somewhere a very, very long way off, so that we have to shout very loudly to be heard. On the contrary: God has decided to be an intimate friend and he has decided to make us part of his family, and we always pray on that basis.
“With that in mind, Origen reminds us that our prayer is always in Jesus rather than to Jesus. Then, as now, plenty of people were in the habit of chatting to Jesus as a friend—which is fine in its way; but the essence of prayer as the New Testament presents it is to let Jesus pray in you and take you into the very heart of God the Father.”
Now, this was new to me. I almost missed it—I only bought the book last Sunday during the postlude, but when I read it on Monday, honestly, this blew my mind. We know we receive Christ in the Eucharist, but how often do we let him live and work in us? It’s an amazing way to pray. A lot of peripheral concerns—the usual collection of what my spiritual director called “the angsty stuff”—just drops away when you and Jesus are up close and personal.
If Jesus is praying in us, if we are really “putting on the mind of Christ,” what does that look like? Let’s look at our New Testament passage, in Luke.
When the Pharisees come and warn Jesus about Herod, is he upset? Does he react at all, or change what he’s planning to do?
No. He has an agenda—as a healer and a prophet—and he’s going to stay the course. If you check out where the strong feeling is, you don’t find it where you might expect. Jesus hears the warning and almost seems to ignore it. His real anguish is for the people of Jerusalem, the ones he wants to gather and protect. And for his work. That it be accomplished. Herod—the most powerful person in the country, and probably the most dangerous—is scarcely worth his attention.
Compare this with the amount of attention we give our own politicians these days!
But Jesus isn’t a hermit, nor is he centred simply on himself. His heart is for his people. In Jerusalem… and possibly elsewhere. The words that come to mind are “and I have other sheep who are not of this fold…”
To really pray IN Jesus—and to let Jesus pray in us—solves many of the temporal problems we often talk to God about. Herod is not going to go away. Neither is ethnic hatred and terrorism. The hope is that we will receive the grace to avoid over reacting, and ALSO avoid being paralysed with fear, and drawn away from our own gifts and our own path. We can hope, with God’s help, to each go forward instead on our own Godly path.
Because God is faithful. In the words of the Taizé hymn, “trust in the Lord, whose day is near. Trust in the Lord, Be strong, Take heart.
Or, as Saint Paul wrote to the Christians at Philippi, “Therefore my brothers and sisters, whom I love… stand firm in the Lord.”