How Absurd

A sermon for Lent 2

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

Decades ago, God promised Abram an heir. God was taking time, a long time, to keep it, so Sari gave Hagar to Abram to as a wife to him. It worked, Ishmael was born. Things did not go well, it takes a divine intervention to impose a peace. Now, more than a decade later Abram is 100 years old, Sarai is 90 and here’s God making the same promise. Abram falls on his face perhaps in obedience, except he is laughing thinking to himself: “What again!” How Absurd. (Howard, 2015)

It’s all a bit similar, to last week’s covenant story when God through Noah promises all life “Never again.” This too is an absurd story. It all begins when God asks Noah to build an Ark, big enough to hold two of everything and his family. Water is nowhere in sight. How absurd it is to build a boat, even as a hedge against a flood, so far from water.

On their way from Bethsaida to Caesarea-Philippi, Jesus asks who they think he is, Peter answers “The Messiah.” He’s right! Then, as we hear this morning, Jesus begin teaching about his suffering, rejection, death and resurrection. This is not Peter’s image of the messiah. What he and all Israel really want is freedom from the Roman occupiers. No one can free their people by dying! Suffering, rejection and death, is exactly the opposite of the messianic hope. How absurd! So, never one to stop and think, Peter pulls Jesus aside, and sets him straight.

Several millennia later we know there is nothing absurd about any of these bible stories. These stories are central to our faith, through them the divine covenants

  • with Noah that never again will a flood cut off a life,
  • with Abraham and Sarah who are to give rise to nations and Kings, and are our spiritual forebearers
  • and through Jesus salvation is offered to all.

There is nothing at all absurd in these stories. Except, the absurdity with in the texts themselves.

The gleaning I share this morning is absurd. Literally ‘absurd.’ “How absurd” just may be the most common first response to a divine encounter. I’m coming to see receiving a divine word as absurd is perhaps a warning to pay particular attention. If you receive a calling to go do something absurd, like building a floating zoo miles from any water, intentional deliberate prayerful discernment as to how to go about getting it done is a faithful path. When you receive a divine promise you will be a part of, or are central to, or will attain the impossibly absurd, prayerful, discernment preparation, is a faithful path. Upon receiving a particularly insightful understanding of God in the world, prayerfully discerning what you know that is about to really change is a faithful path.

At our vestry meeting, immediately following worship, we will choose which of this year’s goals to take on first. All of you are absurdly busy. Nonetheless discerning which ministry you are called to be a part of, whether it’s on this list or not, is part of today’s agenda, its art of living into our baptism, perhaps part of a Lenten discipline.

You have heard that at convention a few weeks back Bishop Benfield challenged us to go beyond open doors. For the next couple Sunday school classes we will do the exercises Bishop Benfield led us through during convention. First, we draw our parish boundaries. We’ll begin with a very short history lesson about parishes and boundaries. Then we’ll project a map of the surrounding area, and literally draw the boundaries. Secondly, we will take a closer look at what’s around us, just a few blocks in each direction. Both are an exercise in hearing God’s call to go beyond our front doors, into our parish boundaries, friendly or not, with all our regrets and grievances, into mutually responsible, interdependent relationships with all our neighbors and Christ. My take from today’s scripture lessons is that the most important thing we need to do is to listen for the absurd.


References

Brueggemann, W. (n.d.). Interpretation (Vol. Genesis). (P. D. Miller Jr, & P. J. Achtemeie, Eds.) Louisville.

Epperly, B. (2015, 3 1). The Adventurous Lectionary. Retrieved from Pathos: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/2015/02/theadventurouslectionarythesecondsundayinlentmarch12015/

Fretheim, T. E. (1991). Interpretation A BIBLE COMMENTARY FOR TEACHING AND PREACHING (Vol. Exodus). (P. D. Miller, Jr., & P. J. Achtemeier, Eds.) Louisville: John Knox Press.

Hoezee, S. (0205, 3 1). The Lectionary Gospel. Retrieved from Center for Excellence in Preaching: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/lent-2b-2/?type=the_lectionary_gospel

Hoezee, S. (2015, 3 1). Sermon Starters – Genesis. Retrieved from Center for Excellence in Preaching: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermonstarters/

Howard, C. B. (2015, 3 1). Commentary on Genesis 17:17,. Retrieved from Working Preacher: http://www.workingpreacher.org

PERKINS, P. (1991). THE GOSPEL OF MARK, INTRODUCTION, COMMENTARY, AND REFLECTIONS (Vol. 8 ). (J. P. Miller, & P. J. Achtemeier, Eds.) Louisville: John Know Press.

Rev. Whitney, R. (2015, 3 1). 2nd Sunday in Lent (B) – 2015. Retrieved from Sermons that Work: http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/2015/02/06/2lentb2015/

Rogness, M. (2015, 3 1). Commentary on Mark 8:31-38. Retrieved from Working Preacher: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2316

Williams, L. J. (1983). Interpretation: A BIBLE COMMENTARY FOR TEACHING AND PREACHING: Mark. (J. L. Mays, P. D. Miller, & P. J. Achtemeier, Eds.) Nashville: John Knox Press.

Tacking buoys

A sermon for Lent 2

Genesis 12:1-4a, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17, Psalm 121

 A colleague of mine blogged this week about dogma, doctrine, and discipline, all that church law stuff, acting like channel buoys, guiding us on our journey. He goes on say a faith journey is akin to a journey in a sail boat, the wind blows where it will, and sailors have to keep alert to tack correctly and stay between the buoys. [i]

 He story remained me of the time, just after I had met Angie, and we went camping with a group of friends. Someone brought a sunfish sail boat. I invited her to go sailing with me. As we set out I told her about tacking with the wind, and to be careful of the boom. There was constant 5 mile/hour wind, enough to be fun, but not to have to work too hard. When the wind began to get a bit gusty; it was time to turn around and head back to shore. The turn went fine. The next tack came with a sudden gust, the boom moved quite quickly, hit me on the shoulder and knocked me off the boat.  When she saw I was okay, Angie almost rolled off the boat in laughter. I couldn’t decide whether to swim after the boat, now drifting away, or swim off into the middle of lake and obscurity. 34 or so years later, I’m glad I swam after the boat.

Both Abram and Nicodemus are off on journeys; Abram travels far, Nicodemus never leaves home; both traverse the nearness and distance of God; both experience a transformation of faith. We think we know a lot about both. Let’s see.

 We know God calls Abram to 

Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.

We have probably forgotten that his father started a similar journey to a faraway a land that stalled.[ii] [iii] Abram’s journey begins, or continues if you will, with five divine promises, including in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. This final blessing is a commissioning that forever places Israel within the lives of others. [iv] Its theme echoed in Isaiah 42:6: [v]

  I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness … I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations …

Even with all those blessings and all the promise of greatness, it’s a perilous journey, physically, but also spiritually, for in the day to leave your home-land is to risk being lost in the afterlife. Abram risks eternal life for a future he will never see. [vi] Juliana Classens writes:

Abraham is introduced as the embodiment of a new form of society which deliberately severs its bonds with a static past in order to experiment in time. [vii]

 

Nicodemus’ journey is far shorter in distance, and takes only a few years, at least to start. He is firmly rooted in the hierarchy of wealth and power, a Pharisee, and member of the Roman authorized Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling body. He comes to visit Jesus because he is intrigued. He comes at night because he is not willing to risk very much. Although it is poignant to note that darkness and night are associated with God’s absence.  [viii]

What we know best of Nicodemus’ visit is the immediate confusion from Jesus quip: no one can see the kingdom of God without being born anōthen [ix] It’s no wonder Nicodemus is confused, we’ve been raging about it for years; “born again” or “born form above?” Well it’s both anōthen means “from above” and “again.” But he would know that, so his confusion is taking mystical language about birth as literal language.

You may wonder if Nicodemus’ Impossible sounds as much like a snicker as disbelief. It would not be the first time an astounding divine statement is met with laughter. Sarah guffaws [x] when she overhears the three strangers tell Abram your wife Sarah will have a son. [xi]  Be it laughter, or blatant disbelief, Nicodemus error is the same he cannot conceive a way in which he could be born again, or from above.

We can’t figure it out either.  Scott Hozee has an intriguing insight:

Babies don’t decide to get born, they just GET born. Nor can babies decide that all things being equal, they’d prefer to stay in the womb. [xii]

We had nothing to do with being born. We have nothing to do with being born again, or born from above. Either way, again or from above, it’s God’s gift of Jesus among us that gives us eternal life. And here again we must read carefully because for John eternal life is not just forever  it is forever in the presence of God. Moreover, it’s not something far off, its right here, right now. [xiii] [xiv] N. T. Wright notes Jesus says the same thing in the Lord’s Prayer:  your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Abram’s and Nicodemus’ journeys don’t seem to have much in common. Abram’s goes on for years, and we have many stories of its many ups and downs. All we know of Nicodemus’ is the night visit, a modest effort to defend Jesus at trial and his assistance to Joseph at Jesus’ burial. Both stories have a central feature. Both Abram and Nicodemus are invited

… to follow God with closed eyes; to depart on a journey without a map. The journey may be [short or] long, [maybe] much longer than one may have thought. It is a journey with many ups and downs, many joys and sorrows. But it is journey filled with many, many promises – the most important being the promise of God’s presence to show … the way. [xv]

 

Their journeys are precursors to our Lenten journey. We, like they, are called to sever bonds with much that is meaningful, comfortable and valuable, to head off somewhere not even defined, with confusing promises, and laughable rational, for a destination we may never see, and to be a blessing to people we may not know, may not even like, right here right now. This journey is one the church, writ large, all denominations hierarchical, like us, Methodist and the Romans or Congregationalist, like Baptist, even non-denominational churches, and the church writ small, every local congregation, faces every day. All the church carefully considers how to take the first step. And there is wisdom in those considerations because Sam is right:

It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to. [xvi]

He’s right, there’s no way of knowing. The winds:  of chance encounter, of the Spirit blow in unexpected ways of their own accord. All we can do is tack as best we can with one eye on the buoys and the other on the boom.

It is our custom to view Lent as a time to re-orient our lives with God. So let’s set our sail, and tack with the wind. We may get blow off course, we may get knocked off the boat, but we will never be alone, God never abandoned Abraham, or his descendants. God sent us Jesus, so we can complete the journey Abram continued, and Nicodemus took a few tepid steps along. And on our way, may we share the blessing of living in the eternal presence of God every day.

 


[i] Steve Pankey, the buoys of orthodoxy, http://draughtingtheology.wordpress.com/2014/03/12/the-buoys-of-orthodoxy/
[ii]  David L Petersen, Beverly R Gaventa, New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary, 2010 Abingdon Press
[iii]  TERENCE E. FRETHEIM, New Interpreters’ Bible, THE BOOK OF GENESIS, INTRODUCTION, COMMENTARY, AND REFLECTIONS, 
[iv] Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation, GENESIS, A BIBLE COMMENTARY FOR TEACHING AND PREACHING
[v]  Juliana Claassens Working Preacher  3/13/2014 Genesis 12:1- http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1977 1/3RCL|Narrative|Evangelio|Index,
[vi]  Scott Hoezee  This Week at the Center for Excellence in Preaching, Next sunday is March 16, 2014 (Ordinary Time) This Week‘s Article: Old Testament Lectionary Text is: Genesis 12:1-4a
[vii] Claassens, ibid
[viii] Walter Harrelson,  New Interpreters’ Study Bible, Abingdon Press, 2003
[ix] Strong’s Talking Greek & Hebrew Dictionary.
[x]  Robert Hoch Working Preacher,  3/13/2014 John 3:1-17 http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1979 1/4RCL|Narrative|Evangelio|Index, Commentary on John 3:1-17
[xi] Genesis 18:10
[xii] Scott Hoezee, This Week at the Center for Excellence in PreachingNext sunday is March 16, 2014 (Ordinary Time)This Week‘s Article: Gospel Testament Lectionary Text is: John 3:1-17
[xiii] Harrelson, NISB
[xiv] GAIL R. O’DAY, New Interpreters’ Bible,  THE GOSPEL OF JOHN, INTRODUCTION, COMMENTARY, AND REFLECTIONS 
[xv] Claassens, ibid.
[xvi] http://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/3462456-the-lord-of-the-rings, ― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

Continue the Journey

It was blog by a colleague [i] who pointed me to water and sailing and a story I should never forget. I had just met AFM who would become my wife. We went camping with a group of friends. Someone brought a sunfish sail boat. I invited her to go sailing with me. As we set out I told her about tacking with the wind, and to be careful of the boom. We were having a good time. When the wind began picking up it was time to turn around and head back to shore.

Image

The turn went fine. On the next tack, the boom moved quite quickly, hit me on the shoulder and knocked me off the boat.  When she saw I was okay, AFM almost rolled off the boat in laughter. I couldn’t decide to swim after the boat, now drifting away, or swim off into the middle of lake and obscurity. 34 or so years later, I’m glad I swam after the boat.

The wind, the Spirit, does choose where it blows, and when we choose to follow God’s call … to the land that I will show you. [ii] it is very much like sailing. And occasionally you will find yourself if not off course, perhaps off the boat. And in such cases there is always the choice, to swim away into obscurity, or get back onto the boat, back on course. Abram’s and Nicodemus’ stories both show us folks who choose to get back on course; perhaps not as fully as one could imagine, and perhaps to face another decision the leads on off course, but never to final obscurity. We are always welcome to continue the journey.