Monday, March 5, 2012

Sermon for 2nd Sunday in Lent

Lent 2
The Rev. Kate Ekrem

“The promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.”

This is important, this is a major theological moment. Where does our salvation, our life purpose, lie? Is it following the law, following the rules, doing the right thing, making correct moral choices, or is it simply having faith? A question that wars have been fought over, that people have burned at the stake for. Faith, or works?

This may seem like a dusty old question that’s not so important to us as it was to, say Martin Luther and other people who lived 500 years ago, but I don’t think so. Just this week I was on the phone with a friend
in another state who’s recently taken a new job and been working very hard.  She said, I haven’t gotten a decent night’s sleep or had time to exercise in weeks, my husband’s upset with me and I haven’t seen the kids in a few days, but I know if I just work a little harder, I’ll be able to get on top of things, I’ll be able to fix everything. Then she stopped herself and asked, does that sound a little crazy? Yes, but it’s a craziness we’re all prone to, right?

Paul seems to think it’s a trap we all fall into. He this letter to the Romans, before our passage today, by saying, everybody knows the law, everybody knows right and wrong, both people who are part of our faith community, and people who aren’t. And guess what, nobody follows it, nobody keeps the law, neither people out the faith community nor those inside it. The law, he says, only shows us how far from God we are, how far we fall short. If we think this is all about following a set of rules, following the 10 commandments, doing the right thing in every single circumstance, If we think we can perfect ourselves through our own efforts, make ourselves worthy of God’s love, we’ve got it wrong.

Look at Abraham, he says. Abraham lived before the 10 Commandments, before the tradition of obeying and following the religious rules, before the Jewish religion, before the commandment to love God and neighbor, but just out of faith, and the grace of God, God entered into a covenantal relationship with him, and reckoned him as righteous.

Following the law, doing your duty, doesn’t save us. Yet how often we go through life thinking, I just want to do the right thing. Somebody just give me the checklist of what I’m supposed to do here. I often feel this as a parent. How many cub scout den meetings do I have to host to have done my duty. How much homework help am I supposed to provide to be a good parent – you know, not a helicopter parent who’s doing too much, but also not a negligent parent who is doing too little. Some rules or guidelines would really help. How much help are we supposed to provide to an elderly parent or a friend who’s out of work, to have done our duty, to have done the right thing. I don’t know, I can’t figure it out.

Which is exactly Paul’s point. We can never follow the law perfectly enough. The pressure, the stress of following the law exactly right, doing exactly what you are supposed to do all the time, to be what others think you should be, to live up to expectations, it’s enough to drive you nuts. Paul says, give up. You can’t do it. No one was ever justified by law, not even Abraham. The promise rests on faith, and grace. That’s not to say don’t help your elderly parents or a friend in need, but give up thinking you’ll ever figure out what’s exactly the right thing to do, or finish checking things off your list. The truth is in the struggle, right? The grace is in the struggle.

Jesus said, 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. If we give up the law, what exactly are we giving up? Our need to have done the right thing, or completed our duty? Our sense of ourself as a good dutiful child or parent? What do we gain if we let that die? Maybe our life, our real life. Maybe less homework more sledding on a snowy day. Maybe less a senses of duty and more a sense of relationship and love to a person we are caring for. Perhaps it’s less about law and duty and more about commitment, covenant. Maybe it’s Ok to make mistakes, to fall short of the law, if we have commitment to the relationship.

That’s kind of what Abraham did. Paul says, “He did not weaken in faith, No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God.” Well, that is simply not true, and Paul knew it. Abraham wavered a lot. He laughed out loud when God said his 100 year old wife Sarah would get pregnant. And then he had a child by his slave girl Hagar because he assumed God’s promise, that he would have many descendents, wouldn’t come true. Paul knew this, he read the scriptures. I don’t think Paul is trying to whitewash the story. I think Paul believes that, despite doubts and failures, Abraham still had trust and commitment to take risks in following God’s call, Abraham still leaves his homeland and even though his path is messy and circuitous, he still walks the walk of his spiritual journey with God.

Our history, our falling short of the law, our baggage, does not define us. We can step out, like Abraham, even at 99 years old, to follow God in faith. Our primary relationship with God is not following the law, our primary relationship with God is trusting the promise, and the promise is resurrection, new life, our real life. Faith before works, faithfulness instead of law, means we are to be a people who take risks and trust, not to life a life constrained by just trying not to make mistakes. That the life we need to give up and let die, so we can live into God’s new life. 

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