by Scott Cowdell
Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22: 23-31; Romans 4: 13-25; Mark 8: 31-38
I remember reading that after their first disastrous winter in the new world, the starving remnant of Jamestown colonists welcomed the arrival of a Puritan minister from England. One can only imagine their response to his first sermon, however, which was on the evils of vanity and idleness!
In the season of Lent we preachers do well to commend the spiritual journey with Christ towards Easter, and the worthy habit of self-examination, with the traditional Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting and alms deeds. But in Lent 2009, we do so at a time when extraordinary steps are being taken internationally to save our late-modern way of life in the affluent West, with so many working families in America, Australia and elsewhere groaning under impossible debt, facing the loss of jobs and homes, while the elderly suffer significant reduction in retirement income. As with the science and politics of global warming, the economic news is regularly indecipherable and hence undecidable by the majority of us who lack even the basics of a high school economics education, with pundits on both sides of the intervention debate making strong-sounding cases for more or less government bailouts, and accruing more or less national debt. Denial was recently the order of the day at Davos, we hear, and blame shifting. In truth, despite a few prophets promising the swift return of economic sunshine, no-one knows quite how bad things will get. Like 9/11, this moment in history suggests that things are going to change significantly. Perhaps a whole new way of being a capitalist society is going to have to be worked out, with less debt and hence less lavish ways of life in the American mainstream. Who knows what implications for community, smaller-scale living, urban agriculture, co-operatives, bartering, and other alternatives to the cash economy will emerge?
My point here is that, like that Jamestown colony mauled by harsh circumstances, the times are tough and uncertain enough for many of our people without preachers adding to the burden. The Lenten message in times like these will need to be one of spiritual challenge, as ever, but right now I suggest that casting our challenge in the form of the Gospels robust good news is more than usually necessary.
The lections for Lent 2 represent tough love indeed from the God of Jesus Christ. But they are still a message of love, and of hope, both spiritual and practical. Let me turn to them in order, and set out the picture that emerges cumulatively for me in the context of our hard economic times.
First, Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16 sets the scene by presenting again Gods great promise to Abram and Sarai that stands at the heart of our Judaeo-Christian spiritual imagination. Here are new names that reflect the new promise that God is making (e.g. Abram, exalted ancestor, becomes Abraham, ancestor of a multitude). The new names are a reminder that our identity as Christians is most completely to be found in who God is creating us to be, in our relationship with the God who calls our life and our future into being and who views us more vocationally than we tend to view ourselves.
I note that the promise is for both husband and wife, making this a text that should perhaps join the list of readings we deem appropriate for use at marriage services, reminding us that the marriage bond is not just volitional and contractual but fundamental and jointly vocational before God. What is more, it is a calling together that potentially influences the life of our whole world, as we see in the case of Abraham and Sarai and their great impact on the future. All this applies to we Christians of today, as husbands and wives together, at a time when the spiritual pragmatism of Christian marriage is corroded regularly in the acid of therapeutic individualism. Perhaps in hard times the idea of a life bound together by a God of profligate love can act as a counterweight to the dissolution of life and hope that many see around them today, and currently exacerbated due to the financial crisis.
Further, is it not obvious that God also has a message here for elderly Christian couples? God is not finished with us when society is. The reduced circumstances of many old people in these tough times, along with the normal challenges to health and independence that old age bring, do not cancel the general Old Testament faith that old age is a blessing from God, and the quite radical vocation for even the very elderly that Genesis declares this week. What hope for the world might God be wishing to mediate through the Abrahams and Sarahs in your congregation, who if Robert Bellah et al are to be believed have great resources as a generation for rebuilding societys common life (in Habits of the Heart)? The lessons of the great civic generation represented now by the very elderly will surely be needed again as America rebuilds its communities during and after the present crisis, almost certainly involving a return to something these old folks remember and can help us recover. The good news for older Christians cannot be a retirement into irrelevance blessed by a benign God whose attention has moved to a younger demographic. Ask Abraham and Sarah!
Psalm 22: 23-31 and the epistle both celebrate the good news of Gods covenant with Abraham and Sarah for the people of God, especially for the poor and afflicted, while anticipating its development in a more universal, inclusive direction.
The psalmist sings praise to God as a thankful beneficiary of that covenant, and a descendant of Abraham, finding in the good news of Gods election a counterweight to the fact of hardship and affliction among Gods poor in the psalmists time. This is surely good news for the poor and financially uneasy in our Churches today, and especially now that the blame is less-readily being laid at their own feet. As many people face having to reduce their pledges and as newly-unemployed Christians are ashamed to show their faces in the Sunday success-parade of much congregational life, here indeed is a word from the Lord to gladden and strengthen the hearts of Gods people.
The psalmist also anticipates the extension of Gods loving embrace to other nations, even to the dead, thus prefiguring the New Testament hope of Christs resurrection and the great commission that is one of its missional outworkings. This sense of loyalty to the world around us and to past generations is a natural extension of our commitment to those in need closer to hand, anticipating the great commonwealth of loved and cherished children of God, past, present, and future, who will dwell together in the new heavens and the new earth.
Todays psalm, ringing the praises of Abrahams and Sarahs God, and developing the logic of their calling in Genesis 17, helps weave a tapestry of thankfulness and responsibility among Gods graced people, latterly faced by hard economic times.
The epistle from Romans 4:13-25 is a further commentary on the emerging logic of Abrahams call, seen from the perspective of Christ and his resurrection. Paul combats the exclusive logic of law (the charter of every exclusive in-group, best understood sociologically and universally rather than narrowly and historically, as if self-justification through 'the law' is a human stance confined to Israel only). The promise to Abraham is made one with that of Christs resurrection, both ministering grace to the undeserving.
Abraham is as good as dead, as Paul emphasises with relish, reminding us that we too are at the same time without grounds for natural confidence while yet having everything to rejoice in and hope for. Here is the radical Gospel blessing that many of us will have discovered when we have hit rock bottom in life, and are at the point of despair, even of suicide, only to be reminded with a flash of joyful recognition that we remain Gods beloved son or daughter, that our life retains vocational purpose, with our worth strongly grounded in Gods blessing and calling despite every external sign of success having been taken from us (as we sing with Luther, though we must let all go, they will not profit so: to us remains the kingdom).
For Paul the type of Abraham morphs into the type of Jesus Christ, whose resurrection radically revalues the dead Christ and his apparently failed mission. This provides the existential meaning of resurrection for us now, as we learn to live in its spirit beyond the agenda of a culture that reckons our worth and prospects far more meanly.
Finally I come to our Gospel reading, from Mark 8: 31-38. Here is Jesus in no-nonsense mode, making the first of his three passion predictions. The point here is not just one more proof text for a substitutionary account of the atonement, to which many of the emotionally damaged among us like to cling. Rather, it is a complete upending of what Godliness and success mean, and as ever theology of the cross is a necessary corrective to the theology of glory that equates blessedness with financial success, good looks, Hollywood sex and all the other trappings of our impoverished religious imagination in many affluent Western Churches.
The luckless Peter is once again the foil to Jesus proclamation, trying to be reassuring and pastoral but falling well short of what genuinely tough and reassuring Christian comfort demands of us pastors. Things will not end happily, and the boxes of worldly success will not be ticked. Instead, God is going to tear up the survey, and dismiss a whole way of ultimately selfish and egotistical human reckoning. Beyond the last gasp of our own efforts, when history has granted us a fail grade and death has closed its mouth on our bleating, self-justifying egos, behold, a new thing. The resurrection and triumphant ascension of Jesus into the cockpit of loves transforming mission from God, the baptism and Eucharist that grafts us into his adventure, and the personal calling we receive as individuals and Christian married couples to be bearers of worth and hope, are all given to us beyond the silencing of what passes for success and Godliness.
As a result, the present economic crisis, bringing so many to a point of failure and despair in worldly terms, may in fact be the beginning of a liberation they could not have imagined, given the impoverished religious imagination with which we have so often to work in the affluent West. The alternative provided by Jesus is unsparing, howeverif we do not learn to see and abide by his new, Easter vision, then we will pass away with the world of ephemeral success to which we choose to remain wedded.
So on Lent 2 there is a tough assessment of the limited, fragile identity, life project, hope and success that we have been seeking through decades of affluence, now perhaps over. Instead, there is good news for the elderly, the married, the self-justifying who have run out of rope, and for a world that has forgotten Gods counter-cultural calling. This is the new thing for which Lent gives us eyes to see and expectant hearts to claim. As we lift up our voices with whatever variant of this word of hope next Sunday, as we lift up the bread and wine of the Eucharist in the midst of Gods people, and as some of us pour the water of baptism, may heavy hearts and the fear of shattered hope give way to a new resoluteness of spirit, as the challenge of Lent 2 reveals its foretaste of Easter joy.