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Thursday, March 01, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-26, Psalm 22:23-31, Romans 4:13-25, Mark 8:31-38 OR Mark 9:1-9

Alternative titles might have been “What Makes It All Worthwhile?” or “What Makes Life Worth Living?”

The reading from Genesis is the story of God’s covenant with Abraham.  (Genesis 17:2 & 7)  Note that this version ends with a focus on Abraham’s wife, Sarai (henceforth to be known as Sarah).  (vs. 15)  The verses following show Abraham falling down laughing.  (vs. 17)   In fact, the promised son is named Isaac, which means “laughter.”  It must have been a shock to Abraham (100 years old) and Sarah (90 years old)—even unbelievable, laughingly unbelievable.  But, somehow or other Abraham ends up believing.

There’s another version of the story in Genesis, chapter 15.  In that version Abraham begins with a complaint.  “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” . . . You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” (Genesis 15:2-3)   So, “Why shouldn’t the slaves of this world have a good inheritance?,” we might ask.  But that’s a topic for discussion at another time. 

The story is central to the identity of the Israelites.  They look back upon it as a promise that assures their nationhood into the future.  If going that way, we need to note that God says to Abraham, “I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations.”  (vss. 5-6)   Abraham literally is the father of Arabic peoples (and nations?) as well as of Israel, but I suspect this reading shows God’s reach as even bigger than that. 

Paul picks up the story in this week’s epistle reading and gives it a twist dear to many Christians (Protestants especially).   He focuses on Genesis 15:6 where we are told that Abraham “believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”  Paul uses it as a text to support his position in the discussion about faith and “the law.”  (Romans 4:13-14)   I grew up in a home where, because of the different denominational traditions of each of my parents, life was defined by the argument between “grace” and “works.”  I’m not going to take us down that road this week although there’s a lot of interesting stuff along that route.

I believe that Paul is primarily pressing the inclusiveness of the promise.  It is not just for “the adherents of the law but also to those who share in the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us . . .)”  (vss. 14 &16)   It is not just for the Hebrew people, but for us as well.  “ . . . it will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead . . .”  (vss. 23-24)

I don’t want to belabor the point, because I believe there is yet a third perspective on the story—that of Abraham in the moment it is happening.  It is a perspective that takes us back to the title (and its options) for this blog.  Key to a life worth living for the Hebrews of the era was the passing of life to the generations ahead of them.  Children were a blessing, an assurance that their lives mattered, that they would not be forgotten.

The Genesis 15 version of the story makes it clear that Abraham was hurting because he had no children.  Central to the story from his perspective is the laughable prospect of becoming the father to one child, much less many generations and nations.

I’m presently doing extensive work on my family tree.  Abraham’s story might set us to thinking about our children and what is passed on from generation to generation.  In what ways are they a blessing?  What blessings will they pass on?  What hopes do we invest in them?  What part do they play in making life worthwhile?

For those who don’t have biological children, think about children whose lives you have influenced in one way or another and apply the questions to those relationships.

The Psalm takes a similar long view of life, declaring, “Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he had done it.”  (Psalm 22:30-31)

Part of what makes life worthwhile is knowing that things of value will be carried on by future generations.  We can live our lives in a way that contribute things that last as we interact with those around us.

Now it doesn’t just happen automatically.  I don’t want to get into parsing the detail of Paul’s logic in Romans.  Note that “grace” is mentioned only once in the reading.  Its focus is much more on “faith” and “believing.”  Faith here means loyalty, persistence, acting on the promise, living as if it were going to come true—in effect, helping to make it come true.  Central is trust, and Paul says of Abraham, “No distrust made him waver concerning the promised of God, but he grew strong in this faith as he gave glory to God.”  (Romans 4:20)

In those household debates of my childhood (mentioned earlier), I came down on the side of grace.  Over the years, though, I’ve come to see that it isn’t that simple.  The promise grows out of God’s grace, but it can’t come to full fruition without our contribution, without our living it into reality.

Part of what makes life worth living is what we might call “living the promise.”  When we do that we are contributing to life something which will last.  There’s an intriguing verse in Revelation, chapter 14.  Verse 13 reads, “Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord. ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.’” Without worrying our way through all the imagery of the book of Revelation, one can draw from this an implication that the good things we do in this life will last, perhaps eternally.  They will follow us even into the hereafter.

That leaves us with the Gospel lesson.  (Actually there is an optional Gospel reading, but it is a repeat of the Transfiguration story we considered a couple of weeks ago.)  The reading from Mark, chapter 8, is all about what is worthwhile.  It begins with the disciples not being able to face Jesus’ path to suffering—to the point that Peter “began to rebuke him.”  Jesus scolds Peter, saying, “Get behind me, Satan!  For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”  (vss. 31-33)

It is “divine things” that are worthwhile and last.  Jesus goes on to define them in terms of taking up a cross, saying , “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”  (vss. 34-36)   It is a call to examine our lives and find purposes worth living for, purposes which last.  They are to be found in the Gospel and in Jesus’ example, we are told.  The meaning of life is in self-giving not in greedy self-aggrandizement.

As one example, we might remember that Jesus lifted up the importance of ministering to the poor and needy.  The reading from Psalm 22 speaks of the poor eating and being satisfied.  (vs. 26)    Even in terms of the promise given to Abraham, the focus is not on the establishing of a prosperous self-satisfied nation.  It is a call to be a blessing to others.  In Genesis 12:3, Abraham is told, “ . . . in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  Genesis 18:18 reads, “ . . . seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him.”

Some speak of it as being blessed in order to be a blessing.  If you want to do something that lasts, do something that is a blessing to someone else.  I suspect it is true of individuals as well as nations.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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