Throughout Lent I’m meeting with a small group from the congregation each Sunday morning to discuss the lectionary readings for the following week and then allowing sermons to reflect the conversation that happens during that time. If you would like to be a part of one of these groups just let me know. We took a break this morning because next week we’ll have Trevor Bechtel as a guest speaker. He’s a theology professor at Bluffton University, a couple hours up the road on I-75. Last week the group was Carol Lehman, Connie Briggs, Greg Koop, Rod Stucky, and Judy Vander Henst, and so this flows out of that conversation around the Genesis and Mark passages.
I want to start with a comment that came out toward the end of our hour together. It was made after reading over the part in Mark when Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 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.”
The comment that was made was: Why would anyone want to do this?!
This is a really backwards kind of sales pitch that Jesus is giving here for any would-be followers. When’s the last time you encountered this kind of promo message from someone trying to get you to sign on to their brand or their program? Deny yourself. Become like one who carries their own cross beam on the way to their execution. If you try and save your life, your life will account for nothing. If you want to save your life, give it away. This is going to cost you everything.
The comment drew some laughs in the group, but there was agreement that this is heavy stuff. It’s a hard teaching. The word “burdensome” was even mentioned.
Our Lenten theme is “where do I sign?” as if we might be eager and anxious to sign on to what’s being offered us.
One of the observations of the group was that the two main texts, Genesis and Mark, seem to be flipped in their emphasis. We anticipate that the Old Testament reading will be the more complicated, the harder to make sense of, the more difficult portrayal of god – law and judgment and all that. But in this case it is the gospel that is giving the hard words: Jesus rebuking Peter, this path of costly discipleship that includes suffering. The Genesis passage of God’s words to Abraham is full of compassion, full of grace, and good news.
We began in Genesis and before getting to the good news, had to confront a few of those harder to make sense parts of the story. The first comment of our time together dealt with that very first line. “When Abram was ninety-nine years old…” It’s a story about having a child, about biological reproduction, and we are told that the soon-to-be expectant father is a 99 year old. The mother, Sarah, we later learn, is 90. And so there was some wondering about that. Perhaps these numbers are just ways of saying that they were very old for being of child-bearing age, sort of like our expression of something being a million miles away being a way of saying that something is very far away. 99 and 90 years old. Is the point that we are supposed to believe that they are an exact particular age, or are we supposed to see that this aging couple is bordering on the edge of losing the ability to do something that they long for? To have a child together. The window of opportunity has been closing before their eyes, but now, in breaks a word of hope.
Since this was the very first comment, and since it dealt with the very first phrase of the first passage that we looked at, it makes me wonder how much of an obstacle these kinds of situations can be for us in our reading of the Bible. How much of a hang up is a 90 year old expectant mother to our modern consciousness and how does that influence the way we hear the rest of the story? Do we stop taking the story seriously, or is there a way to keep listening while taking a more poetic/mythic approach to what we’re reading, even though the cultural context feels, at times, a million miles away?
Earlier, Noah is given a covenant on behalf of all living creatures. God will not destroy the earth with a flood, and Noah and his wife and their children are to be fruitful and multiply. But now the scope of the story narrows down to one couple for whom being fruitful and multiplying has been a biological impossibility. This is the chosen couple. An impossible promise in an impossible situation leads to new identities; changes Abram into Abraham, the father of many nations. Sarai becomes Sarah. And Isaac is born. And from there, the story of the people of Israel, unfolds. An impossible story all the way through. Where youngest brothers get the inheritance, slaves become free, and the words of prophets are held in higher regard than the decrees of kings.
We recognize this as good news, a beautiful story full of hope, a story we continue to live out, but 4000 years later, we also recognize that chosenness, and the notion of being a chosen people, has a shaky track record. It’s one thing when it is claimed by the marginal – sojourners like Abraham and Sara, Hebrew slaves, and Jewish exiles and early Christians living in the empire, on the fringes. It’s another thing when the notion of choseness gets in the hands of those with power.
I think of that 19th century painting called “The spirit of the Frontier” that pictures so blatantly the notion of Manifest Destiny in our country. In the center of the painting is the goddess-like figure of Columbia, a looming presence, representing the growth of this new nation. She is marching West, holding a book in one hand – literacy, and with the other hand stringing up a telegraph wire – communications technology. At her feet, moving in the same direction, are the white settlers in their caravans and close behind her is a train. Beside her are farmers who have begun chopping down trees, building houses and working the soil. To the east and all around her it is light, and she marches into the darkness of the West. Fleeing into the shadows of the dark are the Native Americans and the bison. The spirit of the frontier. Manifest Destiny.
It is an entire worldview encapsulated in one picture, one with a tremendous influence in our own history, connected with this notion of choseness. And it has been devastating for those not considered a part this chosen narrative.
And so our group wondered about Ishmael. Abraham’s son through Hagar, already a teenages at the time of this impossible promise, who is not a part of this covenantal line. It is worth noting that after Abraham asks that Ishmael would find favor in God’s sight, God says, in Genesis 17:20, “As for Ishmael, I have heeded you. I hereby bless him. I will make him fertile and exceedingly numerous. He shall be the father of twelve chieftains, and I will make of him a great nation.” It is Muslims who trace their ancestry back through Ishmael.
One wonders if all peoples can claim the identity of chosenness in some way, each chosen to fulfill a unique part of this grand story of the human race. Chosen, not to conquer with force, but to be a blessing, those initial words given to Abraham back in Genesis 12 – “I will bless you, so that you will be a blessing.” The purpose of being chosen is to be a blessing.
Given Jesus’ words to the crowd – that if you want to follow him you must surrender your life, one wonders just how eager one might want to be about claiming chosenness.
One of dynamics of having these Bible studies is that things can take an unexpected turn and we can end up focusing on things that I wouldn’t catch if I were just looking at the texts on my own. A subject appears to be primary which wasn’t within view before. That happened with this group. As we got into the Mark passage an observation was made that seemed to strike a chord with the group. The end of this Mark passage includes some quite fearful words. The bearing of the cross and losing your soul are part of this, but the other part is “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man, the Human One, will also be ashamed.” Being ashamed, and being shamed. I didn’t check to confirm this with everyone present, but it was clear that this was the most emotionally charged part of the readings for several in the circle.
There’s something about that idea of being ashamed of Jesus and his words that we can all relate to in some ways. Of not speaking up when we should. Of failing to be a light, or just choosing not to identity Christian in a certain social setting. Part of what the group mentioned was a value of not wanting to offend anyone or be respectful of other traditions. But we still think we might be culpable in being ashamed when we shouldn’t be, and the thought of Jesus in turn being ashamed of us was hard to bear.
So I’m going to out Greg Koop, with his permission, because he told a little personal story to illustrate this, which I think is just perfect. One of things these verses called to mind for him had to do with a green T-shirt that he purchased at a Salvation Army store in Harlingen, Texas. We’re not quite sure why he was in Harlingen, Texas, maybe for a youth retreat, or something like that, but he needed, or wanted, a green T-shirt at the time and found one at this Salvation Army. On the front it said, “The great ‘dillo awakening” which he thought was kind of funny and quirky, and on the back it had three very large crosses, which, when you think about it, is kind of a quirky thing to have on the back of a shirt with that kind of front. And it fit, and it served its purpose at the time, but then he commented that whenever he would be reaching for a T-shirt in his closet and see that one, he would hesitate to put it on.
So, while it’s kind of fun to wear something that implies that you’re a part of some kind of armadillo enlightenment, it’s a little more tricky when you keep in mind the back of the T-shirt and you think Hmmm. Do I really want to be associated with that? Not quite sure of what that means to people who might see it and what they’ll identify you with. So what all is behind this hesitation?
Now, for those of you who didn’t know, Greg’s PhD work includes looking at why people make the kinds of decisions they do, so he can probably answer this question better than most of us. We didn’t get a chance to go real far into this as a group, but I’m going to suggest another dynamic that might be behind this. Something that actually shows up a little earlier in the Mark passage.
Jesus has asked his disciples who the people say that he is. They have answered that some say John the Baptist, other Elijah, and still others, one of the prophets. Jesus asks them who they say he is. And Peter answers, “You are the Messiah.” Bold, unashamed Peter, voices Jesus’ identity, and gets the answer right. And then, quite surprisingly, rather than encouraging Peter to get the word out about him being the Messiah, Jesus’ response is that he “sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.” And then, now that this Messiah, Christ, identity has been named, the very next thing we read is, “Then Jesus began to teach them that the Human One, must undergo great suffering, and be rejected…and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Jesus foregoes the title of Messiah – a title in Mark’s time that would have certain kinds of connotations, cultural baggage we might say, and Jesus renames himself the Human One, and describes just what the faithful Human Being is going to experience. What’s happening here, and what Peter has such trouble accepting, is a redefinition of our understanding of Messiah, of who Christ is, and what it means to be Human.
Had Peter and the disciples just gone around blurting out that Jesus is the Messiah, it most likely would have reinforced people’s preconceived notions of what a Messiah was to be. But they are to be silent, forget about having the right title, and allow the Human One to redefine the path of faithfulness, which includes suffering love, denying oneself, finding one’s life by giving it away.
So, I’m also wondering if one of our reasons for being ashamed, for being silent and not claiming this Christian identity in certain circumstances, is that we are painfully aware of the cultural baggage that such a name carries in society, and we do not want to be associated. We are aware of the track record of chosenness, and how it has not meant a call to be blessing to all peoples. We are aware of the ways that God and country have been conflated together into civil religion. We are aware of how the name of Jesus can get used like a brand name, which involves very little sacrifice or transformation on our parts, and we don’t wish to wear that logo on our T-shirt. We’re weary.
Maybe that’s letting ourselves off too easy in justifying why we feel ashamed at times. But there is a very hard part remaining.
It seems that part of the calling for us who bear the name of Christ – Christians – meaning ‘little Christs’ – is one of redefinition, that very same movement that Jesus is initiating with his disciples. Of claiming the words of the Human One as true, and walking in the disciple way, which is not the path of triumphalism, but the path of self-giving love.
This is not an easy path because it involves redefinition within our very souls of what is valuable, of what is worth living for, of what is worth spending our energy for. If you try and protect your soul, you can lose it. If you give your soul over to the Human One, who teaches us how to be human beings, you will gain a new life.
We’re challenged by these words. It seems a bit counter-intuitive that anyone would want to follow such a strange and difficult path and claim such an identity. Christ calls us to walk the difficult path, companions with the lowly, the suffering, the marginal, those in the shadows. And we are not ashamed. Abram and Sarai accept their call, have their names changed, and give birth to an impossible, grace-filled human story. We accept our new names, little Christs, and pray that we too give birth to an impossible, grace-filled human story.