Gospel: Mark 8:31-38
1st Reading: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
2nd Reading: Romans 4:13-25
When I was 18 or 19 I had a job interview to be a substitute teacher's aid in the preschool of my home congregation. One of the questions they asked me was who was my hero and why. I wracked my brain. The only person I could think of was our previous pastor, but I thought they would think I was telling them what they wanted to hear. I couldn't think of anyone else. I didn't get that job, although I am sure a single question didn't sink me. But I decided at that moment that I needed to get a hero in case I was ever asked that question again. And I did. I read about three books on Eleanor Roosevelt and she fit the bill. Unfortunately, I have never faced that interview question again, but the effort I put into finding a heroine wasn't wasted. I learned about someone who overcame adversity, stayed true to who she was despite tremendous pressure, and loved very deeply. She's been an inspiration to me ever since.
It is hard to have a hero, because we know too much about people. The paparazzi are taking pictures and the tabloids are waiting to use photoshop to make them look either enormous or anorexic. So and so are getting a divorce and so and so cheated and on and on. We find out about their failings, even if they did wonderful things in their lives. I remember how shocked I was when I found out about the indiscretions of Martin Luther King, Jr. and JFK. I was sad to see Governor Kitzhaber leaving office last month under a cloud of scandal because I think he has been doing a lot of good for our state. However, it ought to be obvious to politicians that when they do things that are unethical, even if they feel they are doing it for the right reasons, they are likely going to get caught.
With our culture being so hungry for the “Gotcha” story, catching a new celebrity or politician in the latest scandal, we would think the Bible would be more widely read. It is full of fallen heroes, people who lacked faith, bumbling fools, and powerful people who lose everything.
Abraham is no different. To talk about him being faithful is pretty laughable. He tells a lot of lies. He doesn't really seem to trust God, but takes matters into his own hands. He lies about his wife and says she is his sister, putting her in a lot of danger. Even though God seems pretty clear that he will have a child through Sarah, he takes Hagar for his wife and has a child by her. For Paul to imply that Abraham is a hero in the reading from Romans, almost makes it sound sarcastic. “He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body....” He didn't? He didn't seem hopeful or patient, to me. He just kept trying to do this his own way instead of waiting for God. Maybe I should give Abraham more credit. The Ten Commandments hadn't been written yet. How did he know what it meant to walk before the Lord and be blameless? “Where there is no law, neither is there condemnation.” He had these conversations and a relationship with God, and he seemed to disregard or forget what God told him to do.
Even Jesus has a life full of scandal. He is a bastard son, born out of wedlock. He eats with tax collectors and sinners. He heals on the sabbath. He is arrested. He receives the death penalty and is mocked, tortured, and killed in public view. Jesus broke human laws in order to be true to himself and to be loving to people who were normally rejected.
Both Abraham and Jesus were both figures whose lives were full of scandal. But Abraham received the promise of God and Jesus was the fulfillment of God's promise.
Abraham, like Peter, had his mind set on human things. They both had expectations about timing and events and their own part in the story of how God would bless them. Abraham may well have gone by the motto, “God helps those who help themselves.” We also believe that human action is necessary to help make this world better and that God will work through out hands and feet to change the world. Abraham, too, took action to make sure that he would be the Father of many nations, like God promised. However, he was putting his mind on human things. He was thinking of himself.
Peter was putting his mind on human things. He wanted Jesus to stay with them and fulfill the hopes for the Messiah in the way he expected. He was thinking of himself. He may have been thinking of Jesus, too. He must have wondered, how could Jesus change the world if he was dead?
Abraham and Peter couldn't have been more wrong. But the fact that they were wrong didn't prevent God from blessing them. The blessing just came in an unexpected way, or maybe many unexpected blessings in many unexpected ways.
Jesus invites us to take up our cross and follow him. My human mind says that just isn't going to happen. I'm not going to put myself at risk of death. However, the same word for cross is also stake. I remember staying with my mom the first time I went to the Bishop's Convocation pastor's conference at the coast. She went to work before I left the house and as I walked out the front door, I heard the dog barking, anxiously. I looked in the side yard and he had tangled himself in the rope he was tied up with. He had wrapped himself completely around his pole and had his leg stuck in the rope. It looked pretty uncomfortable. He was quite happy that I came to free him.
In the same way, Jesus comes upon us and we've tangled ourselves in our human ropes and chains. We've run around in circles trying to do everything we think we need to do. We get our leg stuck in our chain. We struggle to get free and just tire ourselves out and make it worse in the process. Well here comes Jesus. Perfect timing! And he notices that we are tangled. He has compassion and mercy on us. He untangles us. Not only that, but he trusts us enough to take off the rope altogether. Now we are free. Some of us will want to stick close to the pole, to the stake. But Jesus says, pick up your stake and follow him. Follow him from the safety of the yard into the unknown. It may be the unknown of helping a neighbor, learning something that is difficult, trying something new, changing priorities, taking a risk. That is what it means to put our minds on divine things. This is what God does for us. God could have stayed safe and warm and comfortable, but God created us unpredictable creatures to be in relationship with. God gave us free will. God gave us this world to take care of and live in. All these things mean risk to both us and God. They mean there are a lot of unknowns. Then God jumped in with both feet in Jesus and went through every scary and demeaning and joyful experience that we ever face to walk before us and be in relationship with us. This is a Godly thing to do, not because it is risky, but because it is loving. Loving is necessarily risky, especially because he was loving people no one loved, or only a mother could love and people who couldn't necessarily give him something in return. God loves us without any guarantee that we will love God or God's people or even know that we are loved. Now it is our turn to respond to that love and take a risk by loving God's children. This is what it means to take up your cross and to concentrate on Divine things. But I think loving is never a losing proposition, because even if we are not loved in return and even if we spend our love on people that don't appreciate it, that love is good for us, it makes us more fully alive and it makes this world better. That's what God experiences, putting so much love into this world and loving us and everyone. Many times we turn our backs and don't notice or acknowledge that love. But it isn't wasted, because love means that we are never alone, that we can always try again, that we are free to be ourselves and we are empowered to love those around us.
Abraham receives the Covenant this morning and Jesus comes to fulfill it. The amazing thing about covenant is that it is for all us fallen people. Some of us may be a hero to grandchildren and no where else. Maybe not even that. We are have all fallen short. We have all lied. We have all set our minds on human things. We have all been selfish. None of us is blameless. But that doesn't mean the promise isn't for us. It is exactly for people like us. The covenant sticks this many thousands of years later for the heirs of Abraham and those adopted into the family through faith and by our brother Jesus, because the Covenant isn't fulfilled by us, but by God. Abraham is not the blameless one. Peter is not the faithful one. We are not the faithful ones, but God is the faithful one walking with us, giving us everyday a new chance to walk before God, to converse with God, to put our trust and faith in God, to have patience, to let God work through us, to take risks, to put others before ourselves, to pull up our stake and get out of the yard to follow Jesus through death and into newness of life.