The Adventurous Lectionary – The Second Sunday in Lent – February 28, 2021
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Old Testament scholar and theologian Terry Fretheim stated that it is more important to ask, “What kind of God do you believe in than “Do you believe in God?” Our images of God can cure or kill, divide or unify, terrorize or comfort, promote passivity or inspire agency.
Our images of God inspire questions such as: What is the nature of God’s relationship with the world? Is God aloof and unchanging? Is God domineering, acting unilaterally and robbing creation of agency? Or is God’s relationship relational and loving, promoting maximal freedom and creativity in the created world? Does God love everyone or only a select group of chosen ones?
As I reflect on the nature of God, I believe that while God initiates the covenant with humankind, for example, Abraham and Sarah, the covenant involves an ongoing call and response in which God calls, humans respond, and humankind’s response shapes God future calls. Today’s readings speak of a divine-human reciprocity in which although God acts graciously toward humankind, God also changes in relationship to humankind. There is no divine determinism or predestination here but the challenging world of call and response. Grace expands rather than contracts our freedom and creativity.
The relationship between God, Abraham and Sarah gives birth to an everlasting covenant with humankind! God forges a covenant with Abraham and Sarah, and then us. Most contracts have time limits but God’s covenant is everlasting and invites us to share in God’s eternity in an ever-changing world.
For Abraham and Sarah, the covenant is about biological or family immortality. Our lives live on either in our children’s lives or as part of a larger life story in this life or the next. In the reading from Genesis, Abraham is promised biological immortality. Childless Abraham and Sarah are told that they will become the parents of a great nation. They will live on biologically in their children and children’s children. Their faithfulness will also live on in the impact of their decisions on 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, intended to live in harmony and share in God’s dream of Shalom for all people.
Note that the covenant is with Sarah as well as Abraham. It is important that she also receives a covenant and a new name. At its best, God’s covenant with us is egalitarian, not patriarchal; and 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, lived out in the promise that God makes a way where we see no way forward. Covenant is about birth and growth. When we respond positively to God’s covenantal love, new possibilities emerge for us and our congregations.
The words of Psalm 22 continue the theme of divine creativity and deliverance. God’s power is ethical and relational. God hears the cries of the poor and lovingly supports the cause of the forgotten and oppressed. Power, both divine and human, is meaningful only if it supports the well-being of others. God is the source of the moral arc of history that gives us hope in responding to the evils of our day, whether they be gun violence, and political inaction, preference of profit over environmental well-being, violence in the name of religion, or scriptural interpretations that dehumanize and marginalize.
Paul’s words to the church at Rome are confusing for those who don’t know his contrast of law, grace, and faith. Paul is not opposed to the Jewish law, but the use of the Mosaic legal tradition to put undue burdens on Gentile members of the Christian movement. Persons of faith may choose to follow the religious law, but our obedience does not merit 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 Mosaic laws if they promote well-being in our lives and in our community. When we say “yes” to God’s grace, new energies are released that transform persons and communities.
In light of God’s graceful initiative, we can understand Jesus’ comments about losing our lives in a healthy, rather than self-destructive, manner. They make theological and ethical sense only among equal agents and are not a call for the marginalized to sacrifice while the privileged maintain the stature quo. Still, sacrifice is an essential part of life. Jesus sacrifices and so do loving companions, parents, grandparents, and friends. Jesus ethic of self-denial is grounded in the unconditional love of God. We can sacrifice because our apparent loss is the path to greater spiritual gain. The self we lose is the inauthentic, self-interested, narrow, and defensive self, the privileged and separate self.
We need to prune the self-centered self to reveal the truly centered Christ-self within. Pruning 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. Enlarging our scope of self-interest may initially 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 or someone whose well-being depends on us. But the abundant life that emerges is more than we can ask or imagine. The self-interest that gives way to world loyalty ultimately adds to our peace and fulfillment. (For more on divine-human interdependence, see Bruce Epperly, “Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed” and “Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God,”and “Praying with Process Theology: Spiritual Practices for Personal and Planetary Transformation.”)
Covenant ultimately is not about me or my nation, but about what we do today to support the well-being of future generations. Our spirits can become planetary as we join our well-being with the well-being of the good earth.
Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of over sixty books, including WALKING WITH FRANCIS OF ASSISI: FROM PRIVILEGE TO ACTIVISM; MYSTICS IN ACTION: 12 SAINTS FOR TODAY; PROPHETIC HEALING: THE CONTEMPLATIVE VISION OF HOWARD THURMAN; PROCESS THEOLOGY AND POLITICS; and 101 SOUL SEEDS FOR GRANDPARENTS WORKING FOR A BETTER WORLD.