Sermon preached by The Rev. Tammy Hobbs Miracky
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
“My soul shall live for him; my descendants shall serve him…They shall come and make [him] known to a people yet unborn…”
- Psalm 22:29-30
We are part of something bigger than ourselves. During this season of Lent, our hearts and minds are often drawn inward, to focus on our personal relationship with God. Typically in this season of repentance and preparation we might ask ourselves, “what gets in between me and God? Are there habits or practices that prevent me from being open, from drawing near?” The resounding theme that rings from our lectionary today, though, (at least for me) is less an exploration of personal piety, as important as that is. Instead, it is a sense that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. We are carried along by a living, moving flow that came into being so, so long before our time and extends so far beyond this moment. To be sure, God beckons us into direct personal relationship, and surrounding that relationship – in many ways defining and giving rise to that relationship – is something bigger. And that same sense of flow that we are part of is winding its way through all of today’s readings, as well.
We start with Abraham and Sarah, or Abram and Sarai, as they are known prior to this passage. This reading marks the third time God gives voice to a covenant with Abram. When Abram was 75, then again when he was 85 or 86, and now when he is 99 years old. And, of course, his wife Sarai has been aging right along with him. And God still promises that a nation will descend from these two people who – we are explicitly led to understand – are well beyond child-bearing years. At one point, God illustrates the promise by pointing Abram’s gaze to the sky: “Look toward heaven and count the stars…So shall your descendants be”(Gen 15:5).
So, that’s where we start today, but really, if we think about our lectionary this season as walking us toward, preparing us for our encounter with the risen Christ, we really have to go back to last week and start with Noah. And then we will fast forward to next week, to Moses. You see, in these first Sundays of Lent, we have laid out before us three of the foundational expressions of God’s covenant with God’s people.
Last week we remembered God’s promise to Noah following the flood: God affirms the fundamental goodness of creation, covenants to treasure and protect creation, and marks this covenant with a sign of remembrance – the rainbow.
With Abraham and Sarah, God focuses in, identifying a specific people – the nation of Israel – as God’s own. And through this people God’s presence will be made known to the world. God promises an everlasting covenant to Abraham and Sarah and their children forever. As many as, and lasting as long as, the stars in the sky.
And then, looking toward next week, God further specifies this covenant with Moses. After rescuing the Israelites from bondage in Egypt, God shares the law with Moses, providing guidance for how to be in relationship with God and with each other. Or, to use the New Testament formulation: how to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind,” and how to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37, 39)
Once I realized this pattern, I started asking myself, “Why?” Why, during Lent, do we call to mind each of these central movements of God? These texts are sacred to us, they hold truth, they miraculously continue to inform our lives here and now and to reveal God, even thousands of years after they were first recorded. So what truth, what wisdom are we being invited into by the juxtaposition of these three texts as the grounding of our Lenten lectionary?
To me, I feel drawn into something bigger than myself. I imagine myself in the flow of a history and a power that existed forever before our time and that will continue to exist when we pass from our brief lives here. I feel part of a creation that has received the benediction of God, a people with whom God has formed a covenant, a practice that has been honed over the centuries to open us to relationship with the Divine. I hear this sense of eternal movement voiced in our psalm today: “My descendants shall serve him; they shall be known as the Lord’s forever. They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn the saving deeds that he has done” (Psa 22:29-30). Something bigger than ourselves.
In May of 2020, a young friend of mine had been scheduled to celebrate his bar mitzvah. Instead, I found myself with my husband on a sunny Saturday in September on our back patio, joined by Zoom with a community of family and friends from around the world, connected with our friend and his family who were seated under a tent in their back yard. A bar or bat mitzvah is, to my mind, the most concrete illustration I have found of this thing that I’ve called “something bigger than ourselves.” A way of capturing a moment in this Divine flow. Our friend’s grandmothers, representing his grandfathers and all of his people who had gone before, passed the Torah to this young man, who had been preparing for years to receive it. As his mom described it to me, “the passing of the Torah is very symbolic because it represents the passing from generation to generation of not just the stories, rules, commandments, or words from the Torah, but also of the traditions that have passed on from generation to generation throughout time – hundreds and thousands of years – to get to this young boy who is becoming a man.” And then, in a more normal time, our friend would have physically taken the Torah upon himself and processed around the temple before opening it to that day’s reading. A physical, literal passing of the tradition.
We, too, have our ways of capturing moments in this flow in which we are carried. Children are brought to the font. Parents and godparents and the community commit to “see that the child is brought up in the Christian faith” as they are anointed with holy oil and “marked as Christ’s own forever” (BCP, pp. 302, 308). Young people or adults, having passed through a period of reflection and preparation, stand before the community and confirm their baptismal vows and their place within the flow of our tradition. When the sick are anointed, we accompany them as they pass into that part of the stream that isn’t yet visible to us. We reach for ways to make concrete this thing that is larger than ourselves.
I can read today’s Gospel as a time when Jesus is reckoning with this same eternal flow, coming to terms with his own role. His response to Peter seems – dare I say – disproportionate. Peter takes Jesus aside and quietly challenges the prediction that Jesus will have to die. How could he, after all? He is their Messiah! Jesus’ turns from this private moment with his disciple to what seems to be a shouted response in which he likens Peter to Satan. I see something very human in this moment. Who among us hasn’t needed, from time to time, to try on something new in conversation – to talk ourselves into a new understanding, or into the courage to try something new, almost as if we’re trying it on with our words? I see Jesus as wrapping his head around the enormity of what he faces, and trying to bring his friends along with him into this realization. So, when Peter questions him, Jesus’ response seems almost too strong, as if he may need to convince himself, too.
This isn’t the only moment when we see Jesus wrestling with his role. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus calls out “If it be your will, let this cup pass from me” (Matt 26:39). Hanging on the cross, he cries out in doubt, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Matt 27:46).
In this cry, it turns out, Jesus himself is harkening back to the flow of the tradition from which he arises. With these words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus points us back to the first verse of today’s psalm. We’re looking at vv. 22 – 30, but the psalm begins with this cry of anguish for God’s presence, and then it ends with a confirmation of that promise God made long ago to Abraham and Sarah: their descendants will be known as the Lord’s forever, and they will pass this truth along to people as yet unborn. With these dying words, Jesus points us back to and enfolds himself into this stream that is bigger than ourselves.
Part of preaching is to trust – to trust that this Word of God can continue to light our way and inspire our action even today. As your preacher this week, I have felt sort of like an impressionist landscape painter: Monet, Degas. I imagine the movement of river currents; the chirping of insects in the brush; the golden glow of the sun and its shimmering reflection from the water; the smell of the grass and the mud. It feels like, as with those artists from the past, I’m trying to capture a multi-sensory experience in a much more restricted medium. And as soon as I do, the light shifts, the current moves, and it changes. The image can never fully capture the source from which it is drawn.
My young friend who celebrated his bar mitzvah has a great-Uncle Alan who lives in Australia. The bar mitzvah was happening here on the East Coast at 10:00 am, but Uncle Alan stayed up until 4:00 am the next morning for him in Sydney to do his part to convey to our young friend his place in this sacred mystery. Uncle Alan told of his great grandfather Nate, who had celebrated his own bar mitzvah 102 years earlier, in September 1918, with his grandparents. He was separated from his parents and his siblings because they were stuck behind enemy lines during World War I. It would be months before they were reunited. Uncle Alan passed to our friend a concrete expression of his place in this thing that is bigger than ourselves. Even in times of difficulty and trauma – and this week a grim milestone of lives lost to pandemic – we carry this treasure, and we hand it on to those who follow.
And in these ways we make do with impressions of this flow that surrounds us, upholds us. Words from our holy scripture that overflow with meaning; sacraments that mark life events and can crystallize for us the presence of Christ among us; stories that speak to our experience.
Yes, we are part of something bigger than ourselves. And thanks be to God for that. May people yet unborn know the saving deeds that God has done, and may we do our part to make that so.