The Rev. Dr. Austin Leininger
Sermon of the 2nd Sunday of Lent
12 March 2017
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Learning to see the world in a new way can be remarkably difficult, and in a lot of ways, it’s even harder to describe! But it is the core of all three of today’s readings in this second week of our Lenten journey with Christ through the wilderness of our faith, and is one of the most important life lessons we’re challenged with. In many ways it is the repeated metaphor from throughout Jesus’ teachings in all four gospels about what the kingdom of heaven is like. It is also basically like an old depiction of the difference between heaven and hell, where, in both, the people are depicted at a sumptuous feast, but with long spoon-like arms too long to feed themselves. Starving and suffering, the people in hell keep trying in vain to feed themselves, whereas in heaven they feed each other. It’s the same feast… but perspective is everything.
Throughout the generations from Adam and Eve onward, the story of the Hebrew Testament follows those in each generation who remained in relationship with God and who continued to hear God’s voice. This morning we join Abram at the time of his own radical calling to pick up his family, leave the land of his forebears, and embark on a journey that would take him away from everything he knew. And while the part of the story from this morning’s reading is quite short, we know that Abram not only heard God’s call, but that he listened, trusted God, and, acting on his faith, he quite literally walked out of Ur and into the desert with his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, and their whole household entourage in livestock and servants.
Paul referred to this simple and yet tremendously courageous act of believing God as righteousness, and our Psalm echoes some of the transformative experience of trusting in God that characterizes our relationships of faith as those in which we find respite, relief, protection, and assurance: The Lord shall watch over your going out and your coming in, from this time forth and for evermore.
The tension between these two readings, for me, lies at the heart of both Paul’s and Jesus’ discussions about “flesh” in today’s second reading and Gospel—it lies in the risk, vulnerability, and danger of Abram venturing outside the protections of civilization to follow God’s call, paired against the respite, relief, protection, and assurance that comes through faith. “Flesh” in both Paul’s and Jesus’ conversations from today’s readings is not just a reference to the fragility of our physical bodies, but rather it more specifically references that part of us that we talked about last week—that part of our nature that draws us inward, that seeks to put walls up out of fear and shrinks back from the world seeking protection in isolation, and which also, from this same place of isolation, seeks for our own gain without thought for others.
It is a reality of embodied existence that we are born with a self-referential perspective—we quite naturally and presumably think from within our bodies, and yet it is from this very vulnerable condition of being living flesh and blood bodies that we also learn that we cannot thrive without community, without relationship, and without God.
Thankfully, opening of ourselves in vulnerability to the world around us is also a part of our nature, though one we tend to forget as adults. We are born with hands that reach out for warmth, love, nourishment, protection, and security. It is only as we grow, as we are taught either by being hurt or by well-meaning mentors that we learn to draw in and try to find these things only within ourselves. And it is these two states that we each experience in tension with each other that both Paul and Jesus name in today’s readings.
By Paul’s conception of the Law, a whole system of transactional forgiveness had grown up around the traditions of sacrifice and atonement that took God’s gift of forgiveness and infinite love and grace out of the equation. As Paul stresses, and as we discussed last week, Christ places it back at the center.
From this context, in today’s reading Paul reminds us that Abraham only had his faith. There was no tradition around sacrifice, atonement, or even any Ten Commandments yet. As we heard in today’s story from Genesis, there was God, there was God’s call to Abram, there was Abram’s faith and trust in God’s promise and providence, and in that simple courageous act of believing God that combined faith, trust, and action, as Paul tells us, there was righteousness.
Faith, as Paul describes it in contrast with the surface concerns of flesh, represents the inner state of our hearts, the inward and invisible grace as we in the Episcopal tradition might call it, of a relationship that blesses us with all the abundance of God’s love. The acts of faith that result from faith aren’t justification, as Paul reminds us. Rather they are the natural outpouring of God’s love as it overflows though us into the world around us. As we’ll discuss in regard to today’s gospel, here too, perspective is everything—our search for justification in our acts of faith, the same search Paul was seeking to dismiss, comes from a misconceived economy of transactional grace and conditional love, both of which we mistakenly assume of a God whose love and grace are inexhaustible and lavished on creation without condition.
Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in today’s Gospel ties into precisely this difference. Nicodemus’ focus is only on the outward signs that Jesus has produced and which, seen transactionally, offer only justification for evaluating Jesus’ authority amongst the religious leaders of Isareal. Jesus challenges him to go deeper—to seek, through the eyes of faith, not for reasons, as a Pharisee, to justify accepting Jesus’ teaching authority, but for what these signs actually accomplish in the hearts and communities of real lives and relationships that are transformed. God’s love isn’t about credentials. It doesn’t have to be earned. It isn’t withheld. And it can’t be stolen away from us any more than it can be bought, sold, or traded. God’s love simply doesn’t work like that. As we discussed last week, so too this week Paul and Jesus both try to teach us that on God’s end there are no conditions, there is no score being kept, there is simply love, and our own wounded inability to uncurl from our defensive fetal position, risk reopening our hearts to God’s gift of love, and find our lives too transformed. This is what Jesus calls needing to be born of the Spirit in today’s gospel.
As you’ll frequently discover, I make connections through relationship. Remembering vividly one of my own moments of awakening to a transformed experience of relationship, this past week, we celebrated the ninth anniversary of our oldest daughter, Marie’s adoption day. Each year on March 5th I look back on that first day, when we finally knew that Marie was our forever daughter, and remember with wonder what it was like to love her for over a year as her foster father, knowing that at any point along the journey toward adopting her, she could be taken away from us.
I never knew there would be a difference between being her papa before the seemingly simple formality of signing her adoption papers and after, but it was honestly like removing a protective barrier from my heart that I never knew was there. I will never forget that first night I put Marie to bed after signing that simple piece of paper, but the thoughts I wrote down that night have become for me an annual reminder of just how profound the experience really was. That night nine years ago, I wrote:
I put my daughter to bed for the first time tonight.
While Marie has been with us for nearly a year now, and while I have put her to bed countless times over this past year, tonight was different. I didn’t know it would be different—after all she’s been our “daughter” all along, right? But apparently something beyond expectation (and beyond explanation) happened today when the courts legally pronounced Jane and I Marie’s parents and made us a “forever” family.
Tonight, at home, our house seemed more permanent. There was a peace in the air that, I think, all of us could feel. Marie can never again be claimed by someone else and taken away from us—we are her parents and she is our daughter. For better or worse, we are a real, permanent family — forever.
So although Jane and I have said all along that Marie is our daughter, the horrible unspoken reality that she was a ward of the court, placed into our care “temporarily,” has been a truth that has kept me guarded for almost a year. Every time I have comforted her, fed her, changed her, spent time with her, and risked loving her in the hope that someday she would truly be my daughter, a part of me held back. I don’t think I really knew or understood that until tonight.
Tonight, with a simple piece of paper in our possession that says unequivocally that I am Marie’s father and Jane is her mother, I truly felt it in my heart for the first time that Marie is my real and true daughter.
Thus, through new eyes, I put my daughter to bed for the first time tonight. No longer guarded, no longer holding anything back. A real father putting his real daughter to bed—just like every other real family gets to do.
I could get used to this.
Where the God moment is in this, for me, comes in awakening to the other areas and relationships in my life where I am holding back. Only when our eyes become opened and we see the world around us, as if for the first time, do we finally realize the difference between what was and what is. “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things.” Jesus’ words to Nicodemus aren’t so much an indictment as a lament.
Through transformed hearts, we see the world no longer as a place where we keep score, where those around us owe us something in return for our kindness, or where to love without holding back is too great a risk. Rather we come to see this world as a place where all of God’s beloved children share in the same dignity and worth that Christ came to serve, and teaches us to serve in our lives and world of today— as a place where we suddenly awaken to the feast that has been going on around us the whole time, and start feeding each other. It is a transformation that draws us back from the brink of selfish self destruction in a world of competitive over-consumption, and draws us back into communities of care and mutual love and support. As with my blindness to guarding my heart with Marie, the hardest part is that both exist right in front of our eyes, but until we are, in Christ’s words, “reborn” to seeing the world through God’s eyes, the feast will always seem just out of reach.
As we continue this faith journey of Lent and beyond, may it be our ongoing prayer not only to honor the transformations of our lives that have already come, but also to be granted the eyes and heart to recognize the heavenly things in plain sight that we have yet to see.