February 25, 2024

The Second Sunday in Lent  - February 25, 2024

The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:22-30; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38

     From the Book of Genesis, “The Lord appeared to Abram, and said … ‘walk before me, and be blameless.’” I speak to you in the Name of God our Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, Amen.

     Whenever the phrase “be blameless” appears in our scripture readings, two thoughts always come to mind. The first is the reality that no matter how hard I try, no matter how committed I am to following everything Jesus said and taught, I simply cannot claim to be blameless at all times. The second recalls a poignant episode from The Simpsons. Yes. I admit. I love that TV show. And in the episode that comes to mind Marge and Homer Simpson have arrived at the local elementary school for Parent-Teacher night. Remember those nights? Well, across the front of the school hung a huge banner that read: “Parent – Teacher Night” (and underneath it) “Let’s share the blame!

     In our Old Testament reading this morning, God tells Abram to walk before him and be blameless. You know, I find that in society today, when things don’t go the way we want, we tend to look for someone – anyone - to blame rather than look inward to our own selves. We might blame society’s ills on our government: “If Congress would stop helping other countries, then no one would ever be hungry or homeless here.” Or we might blame people of different ethnic origins or race; and the current rage is to blame everything that is wrong with society today on the undocumented workers, or what books are available in our classrooms and public libraries, or, gay marriage, or disagreements over human rights. Whatever our circumstances, our concerns, we want the source, the cause, of the problem to lie with someone else.

    Now, when we do realize that many or most of our problems are our own doing some plead, “I didn’t know” thinking that, somehow, claiming ignorance shifts the responsibility onto someone else when, in reality, we did know, but, forgot. But saying, “I forgot” would mean taking responsibility and some folks just do not want to do that nor acknowledge such before others. When things go wrong, it is just easier to blame someone else, even blame God.

     The story of Abram and Sarai entering into a covenant relationship with God is a powerful story. Genesis is clear that God’s promise to “be God” to Abram and his descendants is eternal and can never be revoked and, as Christians, we claim God’s promise to Abram as ours, too.  And yet, that command to “be blameless” gives me pause. After all, St. Paul, himself, says in Romans 3:23 that regardless of our efforts to shift the responsibility for wrong choices onto someone else, “All (of us) have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” So, how on earth is it possible to walk before God and be blameless? Well, scripture tells us that it is impossible and that is God’s point, as well as the wonder and healing nature of God’s grace!

     St. Paul, in today’s reading from his letter to the Romans, says that being righteous, being blameless, before God is not about being perfect, or keeping laws, although we have a responsibility to follow the laws of our communities in order to uphold the best interests of our neighbors. Paul uses the story of Abram to demonstrate we can never be righteous before God on our own. Abram was invited into a covenant relationship with God not because he was perfect or blameless, but because of his undeterred faith that God keeps God’s promises. Paul says, it was Abram’s faith that enabled him to be “reckoned (or considered as) righteous” or blameless before God. See, it is not the absence of sin that saves us: it is our faith in God and God’s faithfulness in Christ that saves. Paul says that, by God’s grace to us in Jesus Christ, we have the same faith and faithfulness demonstrated by Abram and Sarai. And that means that while we do make mistakes: while we do make wrong choices, our faith in God’s mercy to forgive enables us to continue to seek and walk with God.

     Yet, faith and faithfulness – each of them gifts of God’s grace – do not promise an easy, blameless life. Many well-meaning people of faith today espouse that when things go wrong in our lives, we must have done something to earn God’s judgment, God’s  wrath. Certainly, wrong choices have consequences. But, sometimes, bad things just happen in spite of how much faith and how faithful we are. And therein lies one of the great tragedies of Christian teaching today.

See, one of the heresies now celebrated in many churches is the “Prosperity Gospel”: a teaching that says a true Christian life is free from worry; that God wants you to be rich – regardless of the poverty or needs around you – and if you are not rich then you are not praying hard enough, and if something does go wrong it is because you have some unconfessed sin hidden deep within you. That alleged “gospel” is repugnant to the very Bible they and we claim to believe. All one need do is look at the life of St. Paul and the prosperity gospel with its promise of constant joy, and wealth, and an easy life fails miserably. Paul sought to walk before God and be blameless. He was faithful to God and God’s ways and values, and had complete faith, complete trust, in the grace, mercy, and love of God shown to the whole world in the person of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, in Paul’s own words, (2 Cor. 11:30; 12:5, 9) he “experienced more hardship, suffering, weakness, persecution, conflict, beatings, imprisonments, hunger, lashings, and shipwrecks than anyone else.” No, having faith, being righteous, being blameless before God is not a path to any easy life.

     That is what Jesus affirms in our reading from the Gospel according to Mark – you know, the real gospel. Jesus clearly and openly tells the disciples things are not going to go well in Jerusalem. He will be tried, killed and will rise again and that upset Peter who rebuked Jesus because he could not fathom anything but a victorious, earthly Messiah. Jesus responded by rebuking Peter and then went on to speak about the cost of discipleship saying, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me … those who want to save their life will lose it.” That sure doesn’t sound like an easy, stress-free life! And here is something all Christians need to grasp: Jesus’ call to his disciples then, is the same call to Christians today: “Take up the cross.” Jesus says that faith has a cost; it involves sacrifice and hardship; it is not without loss.

     See, to take up one’s cross isn’t about putting up with some inconvenience like when we say, “Oh, we all have our cross to bear”. No. To take up one’s cross is to set aside, to sacrifice, what we want for the sake, the good, of all. We need to remember that in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus wanted that cup – that looming walk to Calvary – to just go away. Taking up the cross means to follow in whatever footsteps God may lay before us, and do so faithfully. See, the Bible is filled with stories of the miraculous and powerful presence of God, but God’s ultimate self-revelation was through suffering on a cross. God’s love has never been more clearly demonstrated than through times of self-denial, suffering, testing, trials, and human weakness. Jesus says, “take up the cross … those who want to save their life will lose it.” Our faith is not a promise of an easy life, but rather, a promise that for every Good Friday we create for ourselves through our wrong choices or actions, or simply those Good Fridays we experience by chance, they always lead to an Easter. God always redeems and saves those who will put their trust – their faith – in God.

    Returning to our reading from Genesis, God saw Abram’s faith and promised to be “his God” forever. To mark the occasion God renamed them Abraham and Sarah and this renaming is especially significant to Jews and Christians alike. In the Hebrew tradition of reverence for the Holy Name of God, a Name never said aloud still today, is the name of God we pronounce as Yahweh: Y-H-W-H. In this story, God takes the letter “H” from God’s own holy name and makes it a part of their names. They will carry God’s name with them as Abraham and Sarah and thereby, be marked and known as God’s own people forever.  Friends, in baptism, we, too, were renamed and marked as Christ’s own and, like Abraham and Sarah, God’s own name has been grafted into our hearts and forever identifies us as God’s children forever. Talk about amazing mercy and grace!

     God said to Abram, “walk before me, and be blameless.” The good news of the gospel is that we can walk blamelessly before God not because we, somehow, can achieve perfection or never make any wrong choices, but because of our faith in Jesus Christ who has promised to forgive us our sins and has marked us with God’s Holy Name forever. That is our faith and by this gift of God’s grace, we can endure the storms of life: we can recognize our sins of omission and commission, and our attempts to shift the blame onto others, and yet still walk before God with integrity, because, as the Psalmist says, “we (are) the Lord’s forever.”

     Friends, the marvelous gift of Lent is its urging us to remember who we already are as people of faith. We sin, we fail, we make wrong choices, and yet, as Lent affirms, we can, with confidence, pray, “Be merciful to me, O God, a sinner” and like Abraham and Sarah rest in the assurance that God will continue to be “God to us” and continue to hold and embrace us as God’s own children now and forever. And it is because of that assurance we can with confidence lift our voices and proclaim from the very depths of our souls, “Thanks be to God.”  Amen.