The Name of Faith + Second Sunday in Lent by The Rev. Esme J. R. Culver


Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

Psalm 22:22-30

Romans 4:13-25

Mark 8:31-38

The Ella Brown Room is filled with crosses. And there are crosses in the glass case in the hall outside the chapel. Each is treasured enough to be shared and each carries a story that partly defines the one who lives with it… and defines a particular perception of what it means to walk with Christ……what it means to be a Christian. We brought our crosses for all to see and in the doing so, we had to ponder if we should… we gently took them off our own walls or shelves and carefully brought them to another sacred place for about 40 days. During the period of those 40 days, they represent to the world our faithfulness and our obedience to God and our trust in God’s promise to love us unconditionally, a covenant made to us through our forefather Abraham and brought to fulfillment in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They bring us to a poiint of our walk through Lent in a way that is difficult to explain to the uninitiated….. ……the mainstream secular culture of our times. They bring us a reminder of our own burdens to be carried…..our personal crosses made far too heavy to hang on a wall, almost too heavy to bear. At this time of Lent we come to the moment where our work becomes harder and more profound as we are called to lift our own cross and carry it just as did Jesus. It is the time for our own heavy lifting….of our self-denial and our self-disclosure. And in the carrying, we come to a time when we decide what part of us must die and what part of ourselves will will rise from the ashes left behind.

After all is said and done, when the time comes for us to look back at the 40 days of Lent and how we spent them, it would be good to know that we have done the best we could with this important work. We can begin by asking ourselves “What does it mean to me to be a Christian?” Did my vow to give up chocolate, or wine, or some other desired fruit that tempts, inform an answer? Did my decision to take on a particularly challenging task inform an answer? If so, then indeed we enjoy some measure of success. However, it might be helpful to take time to be sure we have the right task and thus, the right answer.   There, God. I gave up chocolate for Lent and didn’t enjoy one single nibble. There, God. Am I not the better person for it? Am I not a good Christian?

As we ask the question, we ask it in relation to the times in which we live. We are surrounded by deep sin…war and cruelty….neglect ….abuse to the highest degree…here in Portland and all over the world. When we compare ourselves to these extremes, we come off looking pretty good. At least to us. We don’t murder or create mayhem, so how could God possibly think of us as sinful? The price of giving up chocolate seems appropriate to the degree of our perceived sins. Yet, the reverse also often seems true….. we are prone to cast ourselves into a pit of guilt over the slightest perception of personal sin. The way we raised our voice, the way we felt slighted, the way we judged, silently and aloud…..we add them up and feel hopelessly lost in our sins and feel defeated by them…..feel a sense of failure.

Yet……as Paul reminds us…… through the grace of God, our sins are already forgiven. And Cornel West reminded us, too, in his speech we heard on Wednesday evening….we are to “fail better!” We only fail when we try…..and the harder we try, the more opportunity we have to fail, and we are to be unafraid of our own failure……we are to fail better in our work toward true discipleship. God is far less interested in totaling up our failures and more interested in our desire to be more than we thought we could be……. Faithful and trusting in God’s love and forgiveness. Like Abraham, we stumble on our doubts, like rocks stumbled over in the desert, but… Christians…… we are to stumble on in faith, obedient to God’s call to us. It is with faith and with trust in God’s faithfulness to us that we will come to sacred understanding of who we are and where we are called to go.

And as we make our way, we other questions occur to us…… “What does it mean to be faithful?” “What does it mean to be a faithful disciple of Jesus?” How do I define myself as a Christian? How am I defined by others? How am I defined by God?

If God were to rename you today, how would you be named….how would you be defined? In what newly defined direction would that name lead?

Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness asking himself similar questions. The answers came clearer for him through his faithful obedience to God and he began to understand the direction he was to take and where it would take him… great suffering and rejection and ultimately to death and to resurrection. So clear was he in his direction that he wanted to let his disciples know so that they could set their own. However, the direction he was describing did not ring true for those listening. Peter tried to set him right, rebuking him for how Jesus was describing his destiny. The others there were probably equally perplexed by Jesus’ words.   If Jesus was the Messiah, then surely his direction would gather power, money, privilege and prestige…..would oust the Romans, would give presence to the underdogs and triumph to the working poor, Isn’t that what Messiah’s do? What’s all this about a cross? Death….resurrection. Did we really hear that?

Peter is listening to Jesus from his own pre-conception of what a Messiah should be and what a Messiah should be out to accomplish. Jesus’ words were so outrageous, that he simply didn’t acknowledge them. And in his haste to bring things back into perspective on human terms rather than those of the divine……Peter missed the most important part of the story…..the story of the cross.   It was the cross which was at the heart of everything. It was the cross that would turn the world upside down, and not the sword. It would be the humility and obedience offered on the cross that would ultimately triumph…… not judgment and punishment of others. It would be ultimate faithfulness to God, above all else that would define Jesus’ life.

Just as Jesus called his disciples then to understand his direction, and thus define their own……as modern day disciples, we too, are called to examine our preconceptions about how our lives should be defined.

God asked the same of Abram and Sarai and they were given new names by God…….. Abraham and Sarah. It doesn’t seem like much, we think. Just because their names have changed, how does that change them? But, they have been redefined by God and they are blessed by God for a particular destiny, even as…. in their older years….. they have been asked to do what seems impossible. In faith, they take on the new definition of themselves and do what God has asked them to do with trust and with faith.

In return, God makes a covenant with them….a covenant of hope for the future and future generations. It is a covenant that is connected to the continuation of creation, and it is through this covenant that all God’s people have been given the gift of hope and all God’s people are to define themselves through the lens of this covenant. The Covenant between Abraham and God echoes down through the ages to David to Jesus and to the disciples of Jesus….the faithful people of God. In our Magnificat we sing of “The great promise God has made to our forefathers, Abraham and his children forever.” [1] That’s us.

And, just as Abraham and Sarah set out across the great unknown, now it’s our turn to show the measure of our faith as Christians. Our turn to be redefined by God. Like Abraham and Sarah, we know it is hard and that we don’t always measure up in the way God would like.   Yet, the promise of hope in God’s covenant with us doesn’t depend on the degree of our faithfulness toward God. God will continue to be faithful to us regardless of our disregard.

Lent affords us time to contemplate our circumstances, time to sort through some important aspects of who we are…….our wounds and the wounds we have inflicted on others. We reflect on our shortcomings and seek to redefine them so that they become our strengths. Our thoughtlessness to become thoughtfulness, our neglect to become awareness, our inaction: action, our unkindness: kindness, our selfishness: unselfishness, our judgment to become loving acceptance.

It is how we have been defining ourselves and what we need to redefine…..who we really are and who it is that God wants so desperately for us to understand about ourselves and who we could become.

It’s far harder work than giving up chocolate……it’s the hard work of Lent…..repentance. It is the measure of our faith in the way of the cross.

There is no freeway through the wilderness we are to traverse during Lent, only a long, sometimes very lonely path.   Taking time for self-reflection, realigning our priorities, redefining our identities,…….., we walk with measured steps, lest we slip on a stray rock on the way.

If we fall, we get up and continue on, because that is the only way we will begin to understand how we are defined by God. As God’s people we each need to ask ourselves what God’s covenant means to us and how does it inform our faithfulness to God and our trust in God? What is it we need to do……..or not to do in order to become even more intimately involved with God and God’s promise to us.

In this Second Week of Lent, we continue to make our way to the cross, carrying our own toward the glory of Easter Day. The meaning of the cross will be meaningless for us if we don’t work to define ourselves as a reflection of God’s love and faithfulness toward us and if we don’t carry our own.

We are following in the way of Abraham and heirs of a covenant that has no end and which has been fulfilled in a real and human way through Jesus Christ. And this is the faithful strength that defines us as Christians as we make our way in joyful obedience to Jesus Christ.

As Christians, we are well informed about our relationship to God and to Jesus Christ. At our baptism we were redefined as “reborn…..and we are received into the household of God to share in Christ’s eternal priesthood.” [2]

We have “graciously been accepted as living members of God’s Son, our Savior Jesus Christ.” [3] And so, as faithful Christian disciples, we do the work in preparation for our opportunity to experience the death of one definition of ourselves so that we can rise into a new definition of all that seems impossible to accomplish and yet is possible.

As darkness falls over the dry desert wilderness, the nature of the cross we are to carry will be revealed to us, and we know full well, it will be much heavier than the crosses we brought to hang on a wall. It may become almost too heavy to bear, but we carry it joyfully, all the way to the place where we can lay ourselves down at the foot of the cross and leave the burden of all our sins to die there. Then and, only then, ….. with the love which knows no bounds……the love that forgives all sins…….He will raise us up……..and we will…. ……. with God’s help …….. be made new.

Written to the Glory of God
The Rev. Esme J. R. Culver+
March 1, 2015

[1] BCP S247 Magnificat

[2] BCP Holy Baptism. Pp 299 – 314

[3] BCP Post-Communion Prayer P. 365

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