Monday, January 30, 2012

Second Sunday in Lent Year B

Second Sunday in Lent B
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22: 22-30; Romans 4: 13-25; Mark 8: 31-38

This is the third of five times in the Torah God repeats the promise to Abraham and Sarah, that despite Abraham's age and Sarah's
barrenness they will have a son and "make you exceedingly numerous." God initiates the relationship/covenant: "you shall be father [and mother] to a multitude of nations...."  I shall "turn you into nations and kings shall come forth from you."  This will be "an everlasting covenant".   On this occasion, also, God changes their names from Abram and Sara, underscoring that this covenant into which they have entered with God requires a complete break with all past identities. Their new reality is staying in relationship with God through more tests to come. The homecoming of this long, lonely journey will a miraculous son who will carry the covenant to all generations.  (The outlandishness of God's initiative and promise is captured wonderfully in the next verse, not included in the lectionary assignment, when we are told  that Abraham "flung himself on his face and he laughed, saying to himself, 'To a hundred-year-old man will a child be born/will ninety-year-old Sarah give birth?")

The God (first known through Abraham and Sarah) is the same God of all human nations, the psalmist
declares, as well as every mortal, anyone "who goes down to the dust."

Paul provides an interpretation of God's promises to Abraham and Sarah citing excerpts from the same passage we just read from the Torah. Although Paul starts by responding to a contemporary controversy-- the
relationship of new followers of Jesus to the Law-- he rapidly moves to a much broader insight. He notes that Abraham and Sarah began and achieved their life-giving, life-expanding relationship with God before God had given the Law! Their story of faith precedes the most venerable aspects of "religion." It goes back to the root, the primeval experience of God out of which grows "religion." They "grew strong in their faith as they gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what God had promised."

Jesus makes the first of three predictions, to which Mark gives significant weight in his narrative. The enmity against him by the religious establishment, Jesus says, will only become
stronger and more determined. Eventually he will be killed but then rise from the dead after three days. Peter is shocked/embarrassed/confused and takes Jesus aside, refusing to accept what Jesus has just said. Jesus' reaction is harsh. Loud enough for the other disciples to hear him, Jesus "rebukes" Peter, even calling him "Satan." He then turns his attention to the other disciples and the rest of the crowd to warn them that if they continue to follow him, they will be also be required "to take up their own cross." He explains: "[T]hose who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and the sake of the gospel, will find it."

In the Second Section of Being and Time, Martin Heidegger dissects how we live in "averageness." We participate in "idle" talk that easily conforms to our family and peers. We "tranquilize" our anxieties, especially our anxiety about dying. We can even become numb. "In the publicness with which we are with one another in our everyday manner, death is 'known' as a mishap which is constantly occurring.... Some one or other 'dies', be he neighbor or stranger. People who are no acquaintances of ours are 'dying' daily and hourly." (pp 296-297)

Heidegger seeks to alert us to an alternate perspective. He writes that if one allows one's self to confront the fact that at some point-- you can never know when-- you will no longer exist as you have known this life since you were born. Then, and only then, he argues, a person begins to grasp life more firmly and fully. Then, and only then, he says we are led to an impassioned "freedon towrds death," (which his translators put in bold!) (p. 311) This "freedom" allows us to imagine and do deeds we would have never dreamed of before. We discover choices, opportunities, relationships and, most importantly, we do things that would have never been possible in our safe "Averageness."

"When we confront our extreme condition of anxiety (depression/death/conscience, however," so concludes William Blattner in his gloss on Heidegger's magnum opus, "we are jolted out of this complacency and forced to face the full range of our freedom. We can hide from these opportunities, once disclosed, disown ourselves, and fall back into a lostness in the Anyone, or we can seize upon our freedom, see for the first time that we are called upon to answer to [our specific] situation, and not just the Anyone. Such a steady and steadfast self, true not to who we 'really' are, but to
how we are, is a self we construct resolutely facing the challenges to our leveled-off complacency." (Heidegger's Being and Time, p. 167)

By the time the third of five promises God makes to Abraham and Sarah, he is ninety-nine years old and they have abandoned family, friends, status, security and every aspect of living for which we work so hard to give ourselves a feeling of comfort and security. Instead, the elderly couple have wandered seemingly aimlessly to Haran, Canaan, Egypt and back to Canaan. Every connection to their past has been lost. All they have is themselves and these promises from God that this lonesome journey will finally come to a new home of joy, plenty, progeny and blessings which they do not now even have the capacity to imagine!  And, that despite the ridiculousness of their old age, they will be the progenitors of new nations and monarchs!

today's gospel, Jesus reiterates this intriguing and also disturbing promise: "For what profit is there for you if you get everything you assumed was desirable but, in the process, forfeit your own life."

Paul describes this God who promises more and more and more if we are willing to travel lightly with God: the God "who gives
life to the dead and calls into existence things that do not [now] exist." Of Abraham and Sarah's exemplary faith he says: "Hoping against hope, they believed...."