United Church of Christ

Sermon Seeds March 8, 2020

Second Sunday in Lent Year A

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Worship resources for the Second Sunday in Lent Year A are at Worship Ways

Lectionary citations:
Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17 or Matthew 17:1-9


Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
John 3:1-17
Additional sermon reflection on John 3:1-17 (KMM)
Special Environmental Justice Reflection on Psalm 121 by Craig Schaub
Additional reflection on Genesis 12:1-4a by Lizette Merchán-Pinilla

Focus Theme:
Blessed to Be a Blessing

Reflection:
by Kathryn Matthews

Anyone who has watched a football game on television has most likely seen a reference to one of the verses in this passage, perhaps the most-quoted verse in the New Testament, John 3:16. Unfortunately, for many, the words, "For God so loved the world…," rather than reassuring us of the depth of God's love for the world, impose instead what seems to be a requirement of intellectual assent ("belief") in order to "have eternal life," or, as we might say, to "be saved," which is also generally understood as "going to heaven after we die."

That requirement, in effect, draws a line between the "saved" and the "unsaved," as if "salvation" could be so simple. We sense that Nicodemus knows that things aren't so simple.

He himself may appear to be coming from a place of strength: after all, he's one of "the power elite" among his own people, at least, an educated man in an age when most folks can't even read. A respected leader, he probably lives a relatively comfortable life in material terms.

Another kind of need

We're used to Jesus being approached by people in urgent need of healing, or food, or forgiveness, and their need makes them vulnerable and open. Nicodemus, for all of his power and prestige, comes to Jesus in another kind of need: a need for answers, and for help in understanding the answers he gets.

It isn't until the end of his conversation that his vulnerability shows, just a bit, perhaps, in his bewildered question, "How can these things be?" We can feel the change in his tone from his first, self-confident words about what "we know."

Nicodemus may not know physical hunger, but his spiritual hunger drives him to Jesus in the dark of night, when many of us wrestle with questions and doubts, and face our deepest needs. Of course, it also helps that his other respected colleagues won't see him if he talks to Jesus under cover of night; they might wonder if his "faith" needs a little fine-tuning, and they might judge him for it.

In search of answers, or an argument?

None of us knows exactly how to read this text, and which tone of voice to use. Is Nicodemus argumentative or sincerely questioning? Is he in awe of Jesus and drawn to him, or just flattering him in order to find a weakness, somewhere, anywhere, in his teachings? Do the answers from Jesus anger him, or perplex him, or lead him to new life?

If we check in with Nicodemus later in the Gospel of John, we find him identified by this encounter ("Nicodemus, who had first come to Jesus at night" 19:39), and, more importantly, changed by it: he steps in to temper the judgment of his colleagues in chapter seven, and later, after the crucifixion, he helps Joseph of Arimathea with putting Jesus' body in the tomb.

Is Nicodemus converted?

Is it possible that the later words and actions of Nicodemus indicate a kind of conversion experience, one that leads him to greater humility and compassion, and a more open heart and mind?

Or was he there, in the first place, that night, because he struggled with his own limitations and the limits of what we humans, no matter how learned or holy, can understand or accomplish? Do you sense that grace was at work in bringing him to Jesus?

The meaning of conversion

In her new book, Call It Grace, Serene Jones describes our need to "open our eyes, ears, hands, minds, and hearts to receive the truth of God's real, persistent presence, God's grace." This is the true meaning of conversion, this change in our lives, this change in us: "You see everything around you as suffused with God's love. You see God's grace everywhere, saturating all existence. This process of awakening to what is already true, but you haven't previously seen it, is called conversion - a word that literally means 'to see anew.'"

Her description of conversion comes to mind when reading the story of Nicodemus, because we understandably expect him, a learned man, to grasp the truth that Jesus offers, that Jesus represents, more quickly and readily than the "ordinary" person. And yet he struggles, mightily.

What do we need to do?

Speaking of being brought to Jesus: this text, again, has been interpreted at times as meaning that we ourselves must "come to Jesus," to simply accept him as our Lord and Savior, in order to be saved. So the question of what it means to be "saved" is an important one.

Marcus Borg is especially helpful as we try to hear this text (that has, admittedly, troubled some folks over the years) in a new way, especially the term, "born again." In his beautiful book, The Heart of Christianity, Borg writes extensively about the "notion" of being "born again," which "is utterly central in early Christianity and the New Testament as a whole."

Borg expands on this core belief: "'Dying and rising' and 'to be born again' are the same 'root image' for the process of personal transformation at the center of Christian life: to be born again involves death and resurrection. It means dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being…a way of being and an identity centered in the sacred, in Spirit, in Christ, in God." It makes sense, then, that "born again" can also be translated "born from above."

What does it mean to believe?

Borg also writes in The God We Never Knew about what it means to "believe." Rather than simple and strict intellectual assent to propositions and claims, he speaks of belief as trust, as faithfulness, and, "in a very general sense…the belief that there's something to all of this."

Borg goes on to say that faith that "believes God" is not something we can simply will, on our own: "we are led into it. It grows….It is not a requirement that we are to meet but a quality that grows as our relationship with God deepens." But we do have to "take the first step," he says, "and then another (though sometimes we are virtually pushed into this by desperation or lured into it by example or experience)."

So there it is, the mystery of grace and our response, however limited, however sincere.

Bringing the text home

This way of expressing what John's Gospel is saying brings the text home, to our hearts and our experience, more effectively and more meaningfully, perhaps, than some of the more rigid interpretations we've heard. Borg titles his chapter, "Born Again: A New Heart" (in The Heart of Christianity), and who among us doesn't long at times for a new heart within us?

Who among us doesn't question God in the darkest night of fear and doubt, and hope for answers and reassurance? Most of all, who among us hasn't yearned to know that "all of this"--our lives, our world, with both our struggles and our hopes--springs from love?

The same verse that has been used by some to judge us is actually reassuring us about where "all of this" comes from: a God who loves the world (not the church, as one person has reminded us, but the world) so much that only God's own Beloved Son was a good enough gift for us.

A new kind of life

Borg helps us to reclaim the text by reframing the idea of being "born again" in an understanding of spiritual growth that emphasizes relationship and experience rather than doctrine and dogma (The Heart of Christianity). As always, he speaks of a new life marked by "freedom, joy, peace, and love," just as Paul does.

This sounds a lot more like grace than judgment and requirements do. We can't save ourselves, in fact, Fred Craddock reminds us that this new life, this free gift is one we cannot earn, even with our most earnest Lenten sacrifices (Preaching through the Christian Year A).

Failing to grasp the ways of God

This text is so exceedingly rich that we can hardly begin to do justice to the work of scholars to illuminate it: Charles Cousar observes that Nicodemus' "canons of knowledge, religious though they are, cannot grasp the strange ways of God, who persists in making all things new" (Texts for Preaching Year A).

Richard Eslinger reminds us that Jesus is not impressed or pleased with Nicodemus' opening line: "That many were believing because of the signs he was doing was not regarded by Jesus as a glorious movement of faith." Like many other commentators, Eslinger notes that Nicodemus is into literal interpretation of religious truth (mystery), and he also points out that the private conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus transitions into a sermon to John's later community and ours as well today (New Proclamation Year A 2008).

Deciding to be born again?

Meanwhile, Scott Black Johnston offers an interesting perspective on how we can be required to make the decision to be born again: "It is ironic that many Christians treat the question, 'Are you born again?' as if it involves making a decision for God. Yet babies do not decide to be born….Instead, God is the primary player in this passage."

And, Johnston writes, "The impetus behind God's desire to see us born of the Spirit is love" (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). This text, so "bottom-line" for many, has love as the true bottom line.

Reason to believe

Nicodemus puts stock in what he has seen and heard about--the miracles of Jesus--as reason to believe. What do you rely on in order to believe? In our technological world, have you ever felt that you knew too much, in a way that kept you from hearing truth with your heart instead of your brain?

In her essay, the Rev. Dr. Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi, who served as director of the United Church of Christ's Center for Analytics, Research and Data, describes where a young child's "why?" questions go, as "younger individuals yearn to understand cause and effect; as we age, that desire dissipates. Oftentimes, we assume that we already understand the cause and effect of a situation, and therefore brush past this 'simple' question in order to pursue higher-order inquiries involving 'how' and 'which'" (Stillspeaking Weekly: Questioning the Questions).

An interesting lens through which to read this story about Nicodemus, who was stuck on "how," while Jesus seemed to focus on the "why": God's love. Simpler? Perhaps, but more to the heart of the matter. Have you ever felt that you were "born again"? Was this a graceful experience, or a difficult struggle – or both?

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The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in 2016 after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.

A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.

For further reflection:

Margaret Ebner, 14th century mystic
"On Friday after St. James' Day I went into choir and began my Pater Noster. Then the greatest grace overcame me and I knew not how it would end, except that I perceived the grace was so great that I could not finish the Pater Noster. My heart was surrounded by such sweet grace and felt so light that I was no longer able to pray. I held the Name Jesus Christus within me with sweet loving power and from it I perceived wonderful, sweet fragrances rising up within me" (See The Feminine Mystic from our own Pilgrim Press for more readings from ancient Christian tradition).

Leighton Ford, 20th century
"I am advocating that we see the gospel as story, and that we understand evangelism as living and telling the Story of the One who has entered and changed our story and will do so with theirs who also encounter his story."

Paul Gauguin, 19th century
"I shut my eyes in order to see."

C.S. Lewis, 20th century
"The salvation of a single soul is more important than the production or preservation of all the epics and tragedies in the world."

Plato, 4th century b.c.e.
"Courage is a kind of salvation."

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 20th century
"Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted."

Additional sermon reflection on John 3:1-21:
by Kathryn Matthews

The email came into our UCC website, unsigned but with a return address. It was forwarded to me so I could answer the one-line message, a simple question: What do I have to do to be saved?

"What do I have to do to be saved?" I didn't hesitate for a moment, and jumped at the chance to respond.

After all, I am a religious leader, right? I should have all the answers. Right here, in my head. That's why we religious leaders go to seminary and study and write papers and pass tests: so we'll have all the answers right up here, in our heads.

Nicodemus was a religious leader, too, a Pharisee, learned and respected in his community, definitely an insider. It's probably safe to assume that he could go anywhere he wanted any time he wanted (as long as he didn't make the Romans mad, of course). Today, we might call him "privileged" or "elite" or even "platinum elite." If he went to the airport (if they had airports then), they would have automatically upgraded him to first class just because he was so important. He had "status."

So, my first question is, how come Nicodemus had to come to see Jesus under dark cover of night? Well, I suspect that, being a religious official there in Jerusalem, he had heard about what Jesus did back in Chapter Two, when he drove the moneychangers (the loan sharks of their day) out of the Temple.

Maybe he sensed trouble brewing, and was afraid to take his questions to Jesus out in the open, or even to be seen talking to him. His peers might have judged him, and the Romans might have associated him with this trouble-maker.

It was a brief exchange there, deep in the night. Imagine Nicodemus in his religious leader outfit, maybe a black robe, impressive looking, and his voice kind of, well, full of himself (but nervous, too): "Rabbi, WE (after all, I represent the religious establishment that knows things)--we know that you are a teacher who has come from God because you are working some really awesome miracles"...but Jesus pretty much cuts him off with a perplexing comment about what it takes to see beyond the miracles and wonders: you have to be born from above to see the kingdom of God (which, as we know, is what Jesus was all about).

This leads to my second question. I wonder why Nicodemus let the "seeing the kingdom of God" idea go right past him and instead zeroed in on the idea of being born from above and the technical difficulties he imagined in trying to return to the womb for a second birth. He missed the big picture because he got lost in the details.

Jesus answered him with one of those speeches in the Gospel of John that's very colorful if you have a Bible that prints Jesus' words in red ink. He talked about the big picture, or, as one version (The Message, by Eugene Peterson) puts it, "this original creation-- the 'wind hovering over the water' creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life....being a person formed by something you can't see and touch--the Spirit--and becoming a living spirit."

But Nicodemus the scholar just couldn't get his mind wrapped around the unpleasant idea that he had to go back to being born again: "How can these things be?" "How can this work?"

He took the words and images of Jesus, soaring with beauty and yet earthy and human as they describe the spiritual mystery of the new and transformed life God offers us....Nicodemus took the many layers of meaning and the play on words, and tried to make them concrete, defined, measurable and reasonable. He took the words of Jesus literally, and that's how he got stuck.

"What?" Jesus said, "You're a teacher of Israel, and you don't understand these things?"

I'd like to say a word in defense of Nicodemus. Throughout the Gospels, we read about people who came to Jesus in great need. Sometimes they needed to be healed, sometimes they needed to be fed (remember those loaves and fishes on the hillside?), and sometimes they needed to be forgiven, or even just accepted. Their defenses were down, and most but not all of them were outsiders, powerless and uneducated, with nothing to lose if they admit how hungry they were for God.

I believe that Nicodemus was hungry, too. His hunger may not show so easily; he may have been afraid to admit that he was spiritually hungry, but his questions reveal the deep longing he had for the truth that is life, his hunger for new life.

I was recently part of a conversation with some church folks in which one person brought the conversation to hushed quiet when she said, thoughtfully, "Do you think we're afraid to say that we're spiritually hungry?"

Nicodemus, like us, relatively comfortable in his world, allowed his spiritual hunger to drive him to do something odd--to go in the middle of the night, when most of us wrestle with questions and doubts, and face our deepest needs, to go to this backwoods, uneducated, traveling preacher and admit that he can't understand something so profound as God's new life in the reign of God, something so powerful that it can only be described with images, and word play, and layers of meaning.

No wonder that Jesus kept using all sorts of images for the reign of God--a mustard seed, yeast, treasure hidden in a field, the pearl of great value, a net cast into the sea.

We're still very early in the Gospel of John, only beginning the third of twenty-one chapters. Jesus had just gathered some followers, turned water into wine at Cana, and then headed here to Jerusalem, where, as I mentioned, he caused an uproar by throwing out those loan sharks, followed by one verse (2:23) that mentions the "signs that he was doing," and the many who were "believing" in him because of them.

If we really want to understand better what John is doing here in his Gospel, it helps to read what comes before and after this passage. It's hard to read today's story about the "spiritual blindness" of Nicodemus without recalling the words from the first chapter of John, about Jesus being the light that shines in the darkness.

Then there's the contrast between this insider who approached Jesus in the middle of the night but couldn't grasp what he was offering, and the next person Jesus met, the Samaritan woman at the well, the outsider at bright mid-day who immediately recognized the meaning of Jesus' words about living water.

John uses darkness and light as metaphors, not just literally. Layers of meaning, a play on words. Nicodemus, bless his heart, was "in the dark," at least for the moment. The good news comes later when he's heard saying a word on Jesus' behalf to the other Pharisees, and finally, when he helps to bury Jesus after the crucifixion, an act of faith full of risk. Perhaps Nicodemus had his own, delayed conversion experience.

Throughout his Gospel, this is how John will tell the story of Jesus' followers, one by one, as they come to believe in him. In Chapter Six, when some people leave Jesus after hearing him say that he is "the living bread," Jesus asks his disciples if they wish to leave, too, and Peter says, movingly, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life." Peter isn't ashamed to acknowledge his spiritual hunger, and he knows where it can be fed.

But speaking of eternal life: how do you respond to an email from a nameless, faceless person who asks, "What do I need to do to be saved?" Most of us have heard the most quoted verse in the New Testament, from today's reading, John 3:16, "For God so loved the world that God gave God's only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."

Unfortunately, for many, the words, "For God so loved the world…", rather than reassuring us of the depth of God's love for the world (notice that it doesn't say that "God so loved the church" but "God so loved the world")--rather than reassuring us, they've been interpreted as imposing a requirement that we use our heads and accept certain intellectual propositions ("belief") in order to "have eternal life," or, as we might say, to "be saved."

That requirement, in effect, draws a line between the "saved" and the "unsaved," as if "salvation" could be so simple, as if God were in the business of drawing lines between people. (Isn't it just a little bit ironic that a text in which Jesus tries to get a religiously righteous person not to take things literally is often interpreted so rigidly?)

Much of today's reading, after the short conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, is a sermon that expresses the passionate conviction of John's early Christian community, responding to those who are struggling with their own questions and doubts a generation or more after Jesus has ascended to heaven. But we all know where the heart of the message is: it's that line about what is underneath everything, what is under "all of this," what is, in the beginning and the end, the meaning of life.

And John says that that is love. God's love, for all the world, not just for us church folks, not just for those who get all the doctrines and dogmas right--all of the world. The why of what God is doing, the gift of Jesus, the gift of new life, it all comes from love.

But love only works in relationship. Which, interestingly, brings us back to belief. Marcus Borg says that we've lost the original meaning of belief--remember "credo"--"I believe"? According to Borg, "credo" doesn't mean, "I agree with these intellectual statements," because its root words really mean, "I give my heart to."

And the word belief, before our modern, scientific age, wasn't about statements or propositions--it was directed toward a person: to hold dear, to prize, to commit oneself to that person, to be in a relationship with that person whom we trust. Borg says, "Most simply, to believe meant to love. Indeed the English words believe and belove are related. What we believe is what we belove. Faith is about beloving God" (The God We Never Knew).

What do I need to do to be saved? Perhaps an anonymous email is a safe way to admit to someone, even a stranger, that we're spiritually hungry, a safe way to ask the questions that keep us awake in the dark of night.

Wouldn't it be nice if the answers were simple and all up here, in our heads? We could write an email full of words and give those nice, clear answers with instructions to follow, as if it were all up to us and what we can do, not what God is doing in this world, not what God is doing for this world that God loves so much.

If belief, if faith is really a matter of the heart, the answers aren't up here, in our heads. And what really matters, more than our words or claims or creeds or arguments or even our theology books and seminary degrees, is a love that can't be measured or restricted, contained or boxed in, a love that can't be held back or kept away by us from any of God's children--God's own love for the world that was so great that only God's beloved, beloved child was a good enough gift for such a beloved world.

The answer was right there, that night, right there in front of Nicodemus. In every loving, grace-filled moment of our lives, in the life of this church striving to be the Body of Christ in a world that is hungry both physically and spiritually, the answer is right there, in front of us. May we have eyes to see and hearts to love, and to understand. Amen.

For further reflection:

N.T. Wright, 21st century
"The work of salvation, in its full sense, is (1) about whole human beings, not merely souls; (2) about the present, not simply the future; and (3) about what God does through us, not merely what God does in and for us."

William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying, 20th century
"People to whom sin is just a matter of words, to them salvation is just words too."

William Nicholson, Shadowlands: A Play
"Self-sufficiency is the enemy of salvation. If you are self-sufficient, you have no need of God. If you have no need of God, you do not seek [God]. If you do not seek [God], you will not find [God]."

Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel, 21st century
"One of the the loveliest lines I have ever read comes from Brother Roger, the Prior of the Protestant monks of Taize, France: 'Assured of your salvation by the unique grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.' It is still difficult for me to read these words without tears filling my eyes. It is wonderful."

Don DeLillo, 20th century
"What we are reluctant to touch often seems the very fabric of our salvation."

Anna White, Mended: Thoughts on Life, Love, and Leaps of Faith, 21st century
"I grew up believing Christians didn't just believe in Jesus. To be saved, people had to look and speak a certain way. They followed a long list of nots to ensure their holiness. They fit the mold. They followed the rules."

Christine de Pizan, Ditié de Jehanne d'Arc
"[A] person whose head is bowed and whose eyes are heavy cannot look at the light."

Special Environmental Justice Reflection on Psalm 121: Journey Toward Hope
by Craig Schaub

We step further into the seasonal theme "Journey toward Hope" this week. Psalm 121 offers a wealth of spiritual resources to engage the theme. The psalm begins with anxiety about the pitfalls of journeying and concludes with a blessing for the journey.

Physical pilgrimage to sacred sites can be soul-inspiring. Yet, sometimes more travel can be an escape from the discomfort, grief, and tender possibilities of our own time and place, our own inward journey. For many, it may mean a journey deeper into the awareness of our own capacity in the midst of a feeling of powerlessness.

It could mean a journey into our ecological place or own human place. For others, this is a blessing on a journey demanded by changes in water levels, violence, food scarcity, landslides, or drought.

The sojourner in verses 1-2 looks for assurance of protection, remembering help from the one who "made heaven and earth." The God of Israel is more dependable than all others.

The psalm shifts voice in verse 3 from the traveler to the one offering blessing. God is the keeper. The verb keep is threaded through the benediction. Adonai is the protector and shield, "the hedge" around the pilgrim.

We know from evolutionary science our genetic journey to greater complexity has meant we as a species shed armor in order to grow sensitive, vulnerable protuberances like fingertips, lips, eyeballs and tongues. We are meant for a journey of deeper connection to the web of life, not the reverse.

Our impulse is often to be our own keepers. We often create a hedge around ourselves as nations, regions, cultures, and families. We foreclose on the abundance of community and creation, on the diversity of possibilities. Though the way we travel into the future is fraught with danger, it spills over with untapped resources too.

Charles Eisenstein, known as an advocate for gift economies, wrote recently, "I disagree with those environmentalists who say we are going to have to make do with less. In fact, we are going to make do with more: more beauty, more community, more fulfillment, more art, more music, and material objects that are fewer in number but superior in utility and aesthetics" (Center for Action and Contemplation daily devotion, November 25, 2019).

Indeed, caring for God's creation is not always about what we have to give up. It is often about what we have to gain. The recent UCC environmental justice report on toxic air pollution makes it clear that cleaner air means better health, especially for children whose small, developing bodies are particularly vulnerable. Ultimately, clean air makes for a better, more hopeful journey through life.

May we "be kept" by the gifts of creation like air, water, and soil. May we "be kept" by the abundance of shared resources like parks and playgrounds and galleries and libraries and public transit and arts center. May we "be kept" by ritual and festival and circle which truly feed our souls. That's our journey to a Zion which is interreligious, multi-cultural, and restorative. That's our journey to re-birth as a people who know "eternal life" in a new, earthy and more communal way.

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The Reverend Craig Schaub is the pastor of Parkway United Church of Christ in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Additional reflection on Genesis 12:1-4a:
by Lizette Merchán-Pinilla

Bold Blessing--go figure. This Sunday's focus scripture reading brings about the 40-day pilgrimage ahead of us which is shared by all, through a common thread: God with us, God with others, and God's wisdom with us, as partners of faith, by challenging our journey with the task of leaving behind what is known and comfortable.

It calls us to challenge ourselves and the status quo and to plow our way out of passiveness by commissioning ourselves into God's life-giving realm.

Blessing and command

As stated in Genesis 12:1-3, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed."

These are the initial words spoken to Abram when God called him into action, calling him into the context of becoming, along with his family, a blessing in the world.

A whole new beginning

Little did Abram know that this was to be his call in life--a call that would start a whole new beginning from the previous beginnings with Adam and Eve, and Noah. It must be noted that Abram was at the mature age of 75 years old when he actually set out, for better or worse, to find the Promised Land.

Terence E. Fretheim states that "verses 1-3 link chapters 1-11 with Israel's ancestral story. This is most evident in the relationship Abram is to have to 'all the families of the earth.' This family does not come onto the world scene out of the blue; it has deep familial connections to all the nations of the world" (The Book of Genesis, The New Interpreter's Bible).

Genesis as journey

Genesis 12:1-4a presents us with a journey in itself for Genesis--where the story begins to present the ways in which God was going to start crafting a master plan in such a way that would reflect the ways of the world, at that time and in times to come. All of this crafting of a master plan sparks new hope and life in order to address the despair, messiness, distress, and violence of human selfishness.

The basic premise of God's master plan in working with human messiness unfolds in verse 2 (número 2): "I will make you become a great nation. I will bless you and make your name great and you will be a blessing." So here God is working with the people through this one identified family to bring forth blessing to the entire human race/human family, "and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (12:3).

The family of Abraham

James L. Mays says it plainly: "Genesis 12 begins the narrative of humanity blessed, in the family of Abraham" (HarperCollins Bible Commentary). Now that's a strong statement--no pressure, right? As Michael E. Williams questions, "What sort of judgment had God shown in choosing Abram? What could God have been thinking when Abram's number came up?" (The Storyteller's Companion to the Bible).

Abraham is not only called into action per se, he is called into action as a "forever pilgrim on the journey," as a stranger in the midst of humanity's journey, in a foreign land, no matter where he went. In reviewing the first eleven chapters of Genesis, we see that all of humanity was not found but rather was lost.

From bad to worse. Check it out briefly. As my Hebrew Bible professor Dr. Richard Lowery observes, "it is also worth noting that Abraham, with God's guidance, is migrating away from the center of economic, political, and military power in the ancient world to settle in the hinterland. Ironically, the blessing of the whole earth will begin not from the center of power and influence, but at the distant margins" (2011 Disciples of Christ Lenten Bible Studies).

Off to a rocky start

As the story goes, Adam and Eve got a rocky start. They met in a heavenly forest, not wearing much of anything. This does not last for too long as they both fall from grace and are "voted off the island." After these events, their children have trouble getting along with each other, and one ends up killing the other.

To make matters worse, all of their contemporaries back in the day seem to follow the same pattern--from wrong to bad, as a human race. After such mayhem, God is not a happy camper. God decides that it is time for spring cleaning, and floods the earth so that a brand new beginning could serve as the renewal of Earth's people through Noah.

There they go again

And there they go again: Noah's people are less than what they could be--good: here they go, building the Tower of Babel, which is only a sample of their defiance of...guess who...you guessed it right, God again.

God then realizes that there are better plans in the making, tears down the building, and disperses the people all over the globe to complicate their existence. As we are approaching Genesis 12, we encounter dear Abram in Genesis 11. Bless his heart...the poor guy learns his wife Sara is barren.

Consider our track record

In a nut shell, the way God saw humanity's track record, all of it had to come to a standstill. All of humanity was in an amazing race, seemingly with no return. The silly humans had just gotten themselves locked into ways that were not necessarily life-giving and only brought out the worst in humanity.

So how then does God help humanity find its way back? God saw Abram and his family and called them into action.

Struggle and unfamiliarity

All of this struggling, failing through error, making mistakes, straddling the mud puddles of life, and still missing the mark are where faith--and more specifically faith journey(s)--means danger of the unknown, threatening to most. Many times the choice is awarded to what is known rather than to what is too new, too risky, or too foreign.

As God's people, the journey ahead of us is one of too many unfamiliar paths, too many challenges to go through, and too many steps to climb...scary steps that are way out of our league.

Remaining in the struggle

Those of us who choose to remain "en la lucha," in the struggle, as Mujerista Theologian Ada María Isasí Díaz says in her book, In the Struggle, Elaborating a Mujerista Theology, try to see the light at the end of the tunnel, with the faith and hope to fight for what is just and life-giving to most.

E. A. Speiser says it best: "Abraham's journey to the Promised Land was thus no routine expedition of several hundred miles. Instead, it was the start of an epic voyage in search of spiritual truths, a quest that was to constitute the central theme of all biblical history" (Genesis, The Anchor Bible).

From alienation to action

What does this journey tell us about the human struggle? This journey tells us of redemption, resurrection, for those labeled as barren one(s), from alienation to action, to witness. The way to reach God comes from within, and from those who did not believe in their own potential for any response or reaction.

Walter Brueggemann points out, "What did not exist and now does exist is Israel, a people formed by God's word to bear his promise and do his purposes. In the time of Abraham, in the time of Paul, and in our own time, the world fears that word. In its fear, the world settles for silence, ideology, or propaganda. In its doubt, the world listens for less powerful words. But, says our text, God's word breaks all these resistances" (Genesis: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching).

Journey by faith

As one tries to find the common thread to relate to Abram's story, one recognizes Abram's requirement to leave home, to move on in order to become who he is being called to be--the founder of a nation. He obviously has to leave Haran. He journeys to a new land, perhaps because he needs to change in order to become his fullest self, for the benefit of himself and others.

This transformation is to secure his commitment to the generations to come. If he stays in Haran, there won't be any requirements to start fresh and anew. Life as Abraham knows it would remain the same, and others would miss the journey that needs to be started. Journeys where faith is the driving force are the way one can move to foresee the future that God has envisioned with our help ahead.

We have so much in common

All of us of flesh and bone are the same as any others, in any period of history. Our tendency is to fear change, to reject it, and to not move forward with it. To remain in Haran, life as Abram knows it would continue to be the same, with set routines, even if it means going nowhere. How many of us have made a pilgrimage without knowing all of the details and the outcome of the journey?

If you told me that I would someday be a minister at an English-speaking church in the United States--traveling all the way from Colombia, South America--I would have said, "No way, José." I knew what "safe" was; I knew how to thrive in one language, in one place, surrounded in comfort. Leaving home to build a new home meant learning a new me from within--to be appreciative of what I knew, what I took for granted, for the lessons I had to learn, one step at a time.

Leaving the familiar behind

Today's Lenten journey/pilgrimage ahead of us calls for the commitment we all share with one another as people of faith. We are inspired to leave what is known and what is comfortable, to act on this--our world which is in such need of the life-giving power which God has given us from the beginning. Remember this: you don't have to accomplish this on your own. Do your homework and ask for help if needed.

As Terence E. Fretheim reminds us, "the God who commands and promises will also change forever as well. Having made promises, and being faithful to those promises, means that God is now committed to a future with the one who has faithfully responded. The text describes not only human faithfulness, but also divine faithfulness to promises made to a specific family. God will never be the same again. By his word, God has created a new family, indeed a new world for both Abraham and God, which gives to each a revised job description, though the goal of a reclaimed creation remains the same" (The Book of Genesis, New Interpreter's Bible).

Seeing what is possible

We are committed to labor in the mission field where, as witnesses, we see what is possible in the midst of our broken humanity; as my local church states it, "to create an environment for transforming charity into justice; and to invest in hope that is grounded in what is righteous, rather than in how well something is likely to turn out" ("Who we are," Community of Hope UCC). This journey describes concretely what is happening in our lives, and implies continuation and movement forward.

Not feeling like one is stuck in one place; rather, it is as if one thinks of life as a constantly moving journey or companion. People of the journey: this phrase is a verb, not a noun. Journey is action, and each one of us is a witness of that. It takes a whole village to raise one child, to raise oneself, to raise a family, to raise a nation.

Do not let the inspiration go, for God's spirit has been and will continue to be so. Here is the church, here is the steeple. Open the door and see all the people--Amen! Es Posible - It's Possible!

Lizette.jpg

The Reverend Lizette Merchán-Pinilla, M.Div., is a Colombian minister in the Kansas-Oklahoma Conference of the United Church of Christ (UCC).


Lectionary texts

Genesis 12:1-4a

Now the Lord said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.

Psalm 121

I lift up my eyes
   to the hills
from where will my help come?

My help comes from God,
   who made heaven and earth.

God will not let your foot
   be moved;
God who keeps you
   will not slumber.

God who keeps Israel
   will neither slumber nor sleep.

God is your keeper;
   God is your shade
at your side.

The sun shall not strike you
   by day,
nor the moon by night.

God will keep you
   from all evil;
God will keep your life.

God will keep your going out
   and your coming in
from this time on
   and forevermore.

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.

For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, "I have made you the father of many nations") — in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

John 3:1-17

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.' The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? "Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."

or

Matthew 17:1-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him! When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Get up and do not be afraid." And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, "Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead."


Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:blains@ucc.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ

(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: "Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place" in Calendar: Christ's Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)  

The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about "traditional" colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.

The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.

Before the Reformation's iconoclasm, and Trent's code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of "best," "second best," and "everyday" — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the "best" vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got "second best" or "everyday."