February 25, Second Sunday in Lent:
Draft text of the homily, it may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.
A story is told that in the mid 1960s—during the years of dramatic escalation of the Vietnam war—that almost every night, in front of the White House, often alone, holding a candle, rain or shine, stood an elderly man named A. J. Muste. Muste was a Dutch Reformed minister who had been an activist for years—he was instrumental in organizing workers during the Lawrence textile strikes in 1919, and for decades had embraced pacifism and non-violent resistance. In his eighties, he took up this candle-light vigil in front of the White House. A reporter is supposed to have asked him once, “Do you really think you’re going to change the policies of this country by standing out here holding a candle?” To which Muste is said to have replied, “Oh I don’t do this to change the country. I do this so the country won’t change me.” Link
How do we respond faithfully to the Gospel?
How do we respond faithfully to all that goes on in the world?
We have two examples of very different responses today—Abraham and Peter.
Abraham is 99 years old, and God says, “walk before me, and be blameless and I will make you exceedingly numerous,” and Abraham does what? The text says he, “falls on his face.” Well, that’s one response. We presume that he does this because he’s in awe, or in worshipful adoration…and not because he tripped or had a stroke. This profoundly worshipful response is the one that we expect from Abraham…He’s the one who is generally silent, faithful, and goes along. But it’s not the only way that he responds to God.
In the verses that are not in our reading…he falls on his face again. This time, it’s because God explains that God will bless his wife Sarah, “and will give you a son by her…so that she shall give rise to nations; rulers of peoples shall issue from her.” And Abraham, the text says, “threw himself on his face and laughed.” So that’s another response. And just a couple of chapters earlier, when God makes a similar promise, Abraham’s response is a question, “How will I know?” A range of faithful responses.
Peter has a whole range of responses as well. Today’s is just one. Jesus begins teaching about what he has to do…what he has to give up…how he has to empty himself for the sake of reconciling all of creation with God, and Peter can’t get his head around it…it’s too far outside of what he expects the Messiah to be like and to do. His response is to take him aside and rebuke him, which leads to Jesus rebuking Peter as well. Is what Peter does a faithful response?
Before you answer that, consider the whole range of Peter’s responses to Jesus: He drops everything and follows Jesus, he jumps out of the boat tries to walk on water, he wants to build structures of Moses and Elijah, in one story he cuts off someone’s ear as they try to arrest Jesus, he also denies knowing him, runs away, sneaks a peek inside the tomb, but then locks himself in the upper room, gives up and decides to go back to fishing…and still with all that he is also given power to heal, to preach, to be a leader in the early Jesus movement. Peter also falls on his face…but it’s usually not because he’s throwing himself down in awed wonder at God, more often it’s because he trips and falls on his face. Are those all faithful responses? I think they are.
Both Abraham and Peter are faithful responders to the Gospel message…to the Good News that God is absolutely committed to being in relationship with us no matter how many times we fall on our faces or why. And what makes them faithful responders, is this—that no matter what the initial response is, they continue to be in relationship with God. They continue to seek after, and long to be changed by, God. If, after he had been rebuked Peter thought, “that’s it! I’m done.” And had walked off and we never heard from him again…that wouldn’t be faithful…If Abraham had laughed and turned around and spent the rest of his life ignoring God…dismissed it all as a complete fantasy? Not faithful. But because they both continue to be open…open to being surprised by God…open to being changed by God…open to the kind of transformation that only God can bring about…that makes all of their responses faithful.
In his letter to the Romans, a bit further on from the part we heard today, Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds—it’s one of my favorite verses—It might have been one of A.J. Muste’s favorites as well—“I’m not doing this to change the country. I’m doing this so the country doesn’t change me.” What are you doing? Or what do you need to do (or maybe not do) so that the country doesn’t change you? What are you doing (or not doing) so that God can be the one in charge of your transformation?
I look out at the world and I know there are so many absolutely vital, and important and pressing issues that we face—gun violence, systemic racism, and systemic sexism, addiction, immigration, consumerism, climate change…it goes on and on and on. And each and every one of them cries out for faithful responses. Each and everyone of them needs faithful people to show up and be part of effecting change…be part of making a difference for the good in all our lives.
I also know there are many, many different ways of responding faithfully to all of those issues. And just because someone doesn’t respond the way you would, (or the way you think they should) doesn’t mean it’s not faithful…What makes it faithful the continually turning back to God. Continuing to be in relationship with God. Continuing openness to being taught, and instructed, and changed by God into the people God needs us to be in this time and place.
If we can do that, then we will be better equipped, and better able to discuss and challenge, and resist, and pray, and march, and hold candles, and fall on our faces…As long as we continue to be in relationship with God, and one another. As long as we continue to be open to change, open to being corrected by one another, and transformed by God, then our responses will be faithful.
Maybe you don’t need to hold a candle in front of the White House…maybe you do…but this Lent, I encourage you to learn from Abraham and Peter, and take to heart, Paul’s admonition:
“Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” (Romans 12:2).
May we all have the courage, and the strength, and the faith to do that.