The Adventurous Lectionary – The First Sunday in Lent – March 1, 2015
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
An everlasting covenant! A covenant forged with Abraham and Sarah, and then us. Robert Jay Lifton has suggested that there are several types of immortality: biological, creative, naturalistic, mystical, and religious/chronological. In the reading from Genesis, Abraham is promised biological immortality. Childless Abraham and Sarah will become the parents of a great nation. They live on biologically in their children and children’s children. Their faithfulness also lives on in the impact of their decisions for the future of the race. Abraham and Sarah are the parents of the children of Israel, but we must add the other Abrahamic faith traditions as well to their lineage. Like children in a family, the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) have their own unique perspectives and developmental maturity, but above all they are siblings.
Note that the covenant is also with Sarah. It is important that she also receives a covenant and a new name. At its best, covenant is egalitarian, not patriarchal; it is expansive not parochial. Sarah is the mother of nations; fallible like her husband, but open to God’s promises and creativity moving through her life. There is great fecundity in this scripture and the promise that God makes a way where we see no way forward.
The adventurous preacher can focus on God’s covenant with the Abrahamic peoples. In the firestorm among certain factions of the conservative movement following President Obama’s Prayer Breakfast speech, we need to remember that Islam is a sibling religion, sharing much in common with the Jewish and Christian movements. As in the case of siblings, we have much to share with each other as a result of our kinship. Certainly as Christians we can share the principles of theological and scripture relativism and self-criticism; we can remind our Muslim brothers and sisters that the ultimacy of God/Allah invites us to appreciate diverse interpretations of sacred texts and to sit loose on the need for infallible understandings of scripture. But, we Christians can learn about joyful mysticism from the Sufis and also the importance of integrating prayer into daily life from everyday Muslims.
Covenant is about birth and growth. We might also ponder places where we depend on God’s promises and, in so doing, open to amazing releases of divine power.Psalm 22 continues the theme of divine creativity and deliverance. God’s power is ethical; it supports the cause of the forgotten and oppressed. Power, both divine and human, is meaningful only if it supports the well-being of others.
Paul’s language is confusing for those who don’t know his contrast of law and faith. Paul is not opposed to the Jewish law, but the use of the law to put undue burdens on Gentile members of the Christian movement. Persons of faith may choose to follow the law, but our obedience is not to earn special status – there is no benefit to circumcision or cleanliness laws in terms of our relationship with God. Rather, prior to obedience is faith, our openness to God’s unmerited and surprising love. Out of the abundance of God’s love for us, we follow the laws if they promote well-being in our lives and in our community.
Paul opposes those preachers who contend that Gentiles are second class Christians unless they adhere to the Jewish law. The primacy of grace allows for there to be diverse expressions of faith within the unity we experience in Christ.
In light of God’s grace, we can understand Jesus’ comments about losing our lives in a healthy manner. Jesus ethic of self-denial is grounded in the unconditional love of God. The self we lose is the inauthentic, self-interested, narrow, and defensive self. We need to prune the self-centered self to discover the truly centered Christ-self within. Pruning is painful, and to the plant or us, it is often experienced as painful. Yet, the pruning lets the light in and makes growth possible in plants and persons. Deeper more abundant life emerges when we allow the small self to gain stature by identification with the well-being of the whole. The self is not lost but becomes more expansive and, at the very least, experiences a type of mystical or transcendent immortality. (Lifton) Giving up is the prelude to gaining a much larger, energetic, and powerful experience of divinity. Our compassion may lead to greater pain as we identify with the pain of others and sacrifice what once were “necessities” for the greater good of the whole. But, the abundant life that emerges is more than we can ask or imagine.