Monday, March 05, 2012

The Vision of the Cross

The Vision of the Cross
Second Sunday in Lent, Year B
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38
St. Paul’s Free Methodist Church
March 4, 2012

            In most any Business Management textbook that you might pick up these days, you will encounter quite a bit of ink spilled early on in the first few chapters on developing a strategy for your corporation or institution.  And, at the heart of that discussion will be the importance of eliciting vision and mission statements that will serve to focus the various constituents on the “task at hand.”  All of this, of course, is a fairly recent invention housed in the emergence of Strategic Management as a business discipline in the middle of the 20th century.  Before that, people had to rely on tradition and intuition to figure these things out.  So, this morning I want to suggest that this is exactly what we can see at work in the long arc of the Gospel message contained within today’s scripture texts—the launching of a divine vision that challenges all of the assumptions we might bring about what it means to be “successful” in life.
            That vision begins with the calling of the patriarch, Abram.  Had Abram wanted to become successful, he probably would have remained at home in Ur of the Chaldees where he could have consolidated his property, invested in the Sumerian stock market, and lived rather handsomely.  But, at what even we would consider to be an advanced age, God calls him to leave behind his wealth and security in order to hit the road for a destination of which he was not even aware.  Had the old man been hung up on the traditional criteria for success, he might well have balked at the idea and would never have found his way into the pages of holy writ.  But Abraham had never read Peter Drucker and I doubt he even had a “life verse” by which to evaluate such critical decisions.  He simply gathered up his loins, his wife, his nephew, and possessions and, at the age of 75, he chose to follow Jehovah God.
            So, by the time we get to today’s text, some five chapters later, a lot of water has flowed under the bridge and Abram is expecting something of a pay-off.  Now he is 99—a decrepit age for even the ancients.  Remember that this is a pre-Viagra era, something which the apostle Paul makes all too clear in his commentary in Romans 4:19 when he describes the patriarch’s body as “already as good as dead.”  John Calvin makes of the old man a poster child for Cialis when he concludes in his commentary that, “when Abraham, who before had been like a dry, withered tree, was revived by the heavenly blessing, he not only had the power to beget Isaac, but having been restored to the age of virility, was afterward able to produce other offspring.”
            This newly-established virility, though, is but the concrete outcome of what is made most clear by the change of name.  No longer is he to be known simply as Abram, but God is to breathe his heavenly breath into him (“Abraham”), just like the guttural breath required to say RUACH, the Hebrew word for God’s spirit.  And with the addition of this breath, his name will now mean literally, “father of multitudes”.  And, in like manner, Sarai, too, will have God’s breath enter her (“Sarah”) and she will take on a new destiny, as well, as mother of kings.  Now, in the ancient world, what we have here is clearly being communicated in covenantal language.  That is, this is a promise being made by a superior to one who is showing him allegiance.  Such covenants were quite common and usually involved some kind of ritual in which the participants might cut themselves, say on the wrist or forearm, mix their blood together and swear eternal allegiance.  In fact, the Hebrew verb for “making covenant” literally means “to cut,” and so it is that the newly-named Abraham is instructed to “cut a covenant” by engaging in the ancient rite of circumcision.
            Now, I know that Pastor Bob was quite creative last week and brought all kinds of visual aids into the pulpit to assist him in communicating the message but you’ll have to forgive me if I choose not to do so this week.  Suffice it to say that I didn’t really think I could pull it off without broaching what most would consider to be entirely inappropriate territory.  The key elements are what are of most interest to us: the faith necessary to receive and believe that, at the vigorous age of 99, one should begin building a baby crib—just as soon as the task of circumcising all of the males in the entire household had been taken care of.
            It is this kind of audacious risk-taking that stands behind Jesus’ own statement about what is required to sign on to the New Covenant.  Again, context is all-important to today’s text.  For, immediately preceding our scripture lesson we find the powerful words of confession pronounced by Peter, himself, of Jesus—“You are the Messiah.”  Here, at last, is a man of vision, a man of fortitude, who can be counted on to take risks.  Like Jake in the infamous “Blues Brothers” movie, Peter has a vision that Jesus is getting the band back together and he is going to work a miracle.  After all, he had just healed a man of blindness (even if it had taken him two tries to get it right!).  So, when Jesus dared to speak of anything less than a Joel Osteen bright sunshiny existence, Peter knew in his heart-of-hearts that his Galilean overseer and aspiring Messiah had not taken the appropriate time to master his personal vision statement and he did what every management consultant is trained to do: he began to rebuke the CEO for misunderstanding his mission.
            If you look carefully at the parallels to this particular story in the other gospels, you can’t help but be struck by the harsh dynamic featured only here in Mark’s gospel.  In fact, it is only this Evangelist who portrays both the disciple and Jesus “rebuking” one another.  As Bill Lane writes in his commentary, “Peter’s reaction shows that it was impossible to miss what Jesus intended to say, even though the divine necessity for his suffering appeared inconceivable…The rebuke indicates that Jesus’ declaration was radically new and that the disciples were totally unprepared to receive it: a rejected Messiah was incompatible with Jewish convictions and hopes,” (The Gospel of Mark, 303-304).  As my mentor, Frank Thompson, would probably have said, “The disciples, and Peter in particular, were completely poleaxed by Jesus’ statement that the will of God led directly to the way of the cross.”
            In Mark’s gospel, the cross always looms large.  Jesus’ way is portrayed as painful and his disciples as ignorant, incredulous, and sometimes just plain stupid.  For Mark, suffering and sacrifice lie at the heart of the gospel.  Some may choose to ignore it; others to misunderstand it; and others to say it simply isn’t so.  But reading Mark forces the Christian community to come to terms with the horrors that we oftentimes attempt to erase from the Passion story.
            No one in recent history has captured this Lenten message quite so powerfully as did Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book, The Cost of Discipleship.  I will never forget the shock of opening the book for the first time and reading, “Jesus bids us come and die.”  It is such a counter-cultural message that not only is it shocking to our system, but many of us simply wilt before the challenge.  We have been raised to believe that if we will only say the Sinner’s Prayer and ask Jesus to come into our hearts that all of life, both now and for eternity, will come up roses.  But, as Russell D. Moore wrote recently in Christianity Today, “For too long, we’ve called unbelievers to ‘invite Jesus into your life.’  (But) Jesus doesn’t want to be in your life.  Your life’s a wreck.  Jesus calls you into his life,” (“A Purpose-Driven Cosmos”).  As Bonhoeffer reiterates, “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of the church.”  What the gospel demands is costly grace.
Parker Palmer reminded several of us of this just a few weeks ago in St. Louis.  Towards the end of his remarks, he recounted the experience of going on pilgrimage to retrace the steps of the Civil Rights demonstrators on their long walk towards Selma, Alabama.  Congressman John Lewis, now a respected elected official from Georgia, was a young man on that march and provided commentary for the pilgrims as they made their way across country on a bus.  One of the stories he told was of being badly beaten in a bus station and left to die by three southern assailants all carrying baseball bats. 
            The most surprising part of the story was when he recounted that one of those same men, now in his later years came to visit him in his office in Washington, D. C.  There, still bearing the scars on his forehead of that ugly night beating in Alabama, the honorable John J. Lewis heard the man’s confession of the wrong he had done so long ago and listened to his request for forgiveness for what he had done.  And, alongside of him the former assilant had brought his son as a witness with the hopes that his generation could begin to rectify some of the harm done so long ago.  Lewis, reflecting on that experience with Palmer and his fellow travelers said simply, “People can change.”
            For Peter, change would require not only this brusque confrontation with the Master but the harsh reality of that week of Passion that culminated with his denial of Jesus on three separate occasions.  But, like Abram before him (now become Abraham), Cephas would emerge from the experience with a new name, Peter, and a new calling and vocation--proving as Congressman Lewis suggests that all of us have the power to change and to rise above ourselves and our own petty sins.
            The challenge of the Lenten season is for us to begin to see the world differently.  Like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” Jesus’ invitation to follow him in the downward way beckons us to no longer see the world in the familiar bleak black and white dust-ridden landscape with which we are familiar, but to open our eyes to a new and different Kingdom which is painted in brilliant colors.  The problem is not with the challenge of the Gospel, but with our own human limitation framed by the presuppositions of the world in which we live.  Like the patriarch, we simply cannot imagine being restored to virility at an advanced age and like Simon Peter, we have no worldview which can account for a crucified Messiah.
So, this morning we are invited to allow Jesus to reset our limited Vision statement.  The very nature of the Gospel challenges many of our presuppositions and we are, by nature, prone to revise the starkness of the cross in light of our own constricted experience.  To what, though, is God calling you this morning?  Have you set aside possibilities because you think that you are too old, too young, too uneducated, too tied down to join in the pilgrimage made by those who count themselves in as a part of the Community of the Cross?  Is there a relationship which is so ruptured that you can no longer imagine reconciliation?  If John Lewis’ attacker can change, is there hope for us during this season of Lent? 
Hear these words of the Psalmist once again: “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.  For dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations.  To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him,” (22:28-29).  May God grant to us the vision, the will, and the fortitude to make these words our own.  Amen.