Rev. Martha Jacobs
How Can We Not Listen?
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, Mark 8:31-38
Sunday, February 25, 2018
It’s not surprising that Peter would try to deflect Jesus from telling them that he must suffer and die. Don’t we all do that? Don’t we all want to deflect what is hard for us to accept or understand? Don’t we want to be shielded from what’s painful, from what we can’t explain?
How hard it was for me to watch the pain and suffering that came across my television screen ten days ago and continues even now, through the voices of our children. How hard it was for me to read about what had happened and the finger-pointing that started, almost immediately, and continues even now. How hard it was to watch an interview with the family that took the shooter into their home after his mother had died. How hard it was to think about what the youth who survived will have to go through as they try to return to a normal life – which will never be the same. They may come to a new normal, but a part of the innocence of their youth is gone. And yet, it seems to have given them the fire in their hearts to demand change that we adults have, up until now, been unable to make happen. We have been unable to keep them safe. We need to listen to them.
Peter could not listen to Jesus. He thinks that Jesus is talking senselessly. How could they even envision what Jesus is describing happening to their Messiah? They don’t want to hear about the pain, the agony, the seeming defeat that Jesus’ death will bring. To be honest, I didn’t want to hear the cries of our youth nor do I think we want to think of Jesus on that cross. God contradicts what we expect of one who is divine.
We expect the divine to be all-powerful – to somehow magically change water into wine or heal our loved one of an incurable disease. Not unlike the disciples, we expect God to come riding in on a steed – sword overhead and ready to slay anyone who gets in Gods’ way.
But, what is really interesting, is that God’s strength is exposed in weaknesses, not in power. God’s wisdom is shown through parable and paradoxes, not in an easy 5-step process and voila, your life will be changed! God is not conformed to our human expectations, but rather God conforms to our weaknesses and is found in our broken places. In those very places that we perceive God is missing, is exactly where God is to be found. And, right now, God is being found; found in the voices and cries of our youth.
In the reading from Genesis, God invites Abram to walk with God. God changes Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai’s name is changed to Sarah. This “h” added to their names is a big deal in Judaism. “H” or “Chai” stands for “life.” For example, when you toast someone with “Le Chaim” you are toasting, “To Life.” Also, Judaism looks at the numerical value of the Hebrew letters. So, without going into the many mystical numerological speculations that are out there, the numerical value of the letters of chai add up to 18, and 18 is a very spiritual number in Judaism. These two things are what makes adding Chai important.
Both Abraham and Sarah, by the very act of God adding a “chai” to their names, elevates them, because names in the Old Testament reflect the character and destiny of the person. In this case, Abraham and Sarah have been blessed by God and their destiny is guaranteed – they will be the ancestors of many nations, including connecting Abraham to King David and through the house of David to Jesus. This is an eternal promise God is making with Abraham and Sarah. God promises “an everlasting covenant to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” The covenant between God and Abraham and Sarah is a reflection of God’s relationship with all of Israel, and through Israel to the church, and through the church to each one of us.
Why are these two readings paired up during Lent? The Rev. Craig Kocher points out that the pastoral gift of Genesis 17 is its reminder that at the center of our being rests blessing and promise, naming and covenant. We are followers of the One who established a never-ending covenant with Abraham and Sarah and brought that covenant to fullness through Jesus Christ. The promise to Abraham and Sarah is also the promise to us – even in darkness and in the shadow of the cross, even in our most broken times and greatest sorrows, the promises that God made to Abraham and Sarah remain. God is our God and we are God’s people. This is a covenant that can’t be broken, even when we don’t want to admit the pain and the agony that Jesus endured for us. Jesus walked towards God’s promise with steady trust.
I wonder how many of our youth would, these days, walk towards God’s promise with a steady trust? They can’t even trust adults to protect them. Our youth are now taking their lives and their futures into their own hands. They are demanding that we adults keep them safe. Abraham and Sarah, by covenanting with God, were, in their own way, expected to keep their offspring and those who followed them, close to their God. “Life,” – “Chai” was added to their names to remind them and us of that covenant. We are called, by connection to that covenant, to keep our children close to God. We need to listen to them. And, we need to be the example for them, to help them, to support them as they now take up the mantle that we adults have not been able to take up.
My friend and colleague, The Rev. Canon Alan Dennis from St. Mary the Virgin, emailed and asked if we could have coffee this past Thursday morning. He was struggling with the same thing I have been struggling with all week. That is, what do we do? How do we respond to what happened in Florida, and Texas, and Kentucky, or any of the other 63 school shootings that have happened since Sandy Hook, 17 of which have occurred in 2018, that have put our children at great risk. Many thought and hoped that after Sandy Hook changes would be made – after all, these were little children, about which Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me.” Here we are 5 years after Sandy Hook, most recently adding 14 more children and 3 more adults to this ever-growing list.
Both Rev. Dennis and I are keenly aware that what we talk about from our pulpits should be prophetic and not political, which can be a very fine line. As I struggled with this sermon and staying on the appropriate side of the fine line, I remembered the story Rev. Dennis told me about his early ministerial years. I made a connection that I want to share with you this morning.
Rev. Dennis grew up in South Africa. He was in seminary in 1976, when children started standing up to being told where they must live, where they must stand in line – definitely not in the “whites only line” – and that they were to be taught in “Afrikaans” – not their native tongue, but one being forced upon them by the powers of Apartheid. The Soweto uprising was a series of demonstrations and protests led by black school children in South Africa that began on the morning of June 16, 1976. The police killed more than 2000 children over the course of the months of this uprising. That began the change in the course of South Africa’s history.
In telling his story, Rev. Dennis mentioned that, 5 years after the initial uprising, when the high school and college students began to fight back, they were the same children that had witnessed the slaughter of their family members and friends, and now they too were taking on the powers of Apartheid. The politicization and activism of young South Africans in Soweto and beyond, galvanized the liberation movement and set in motion a series of transformations that ultimately led to the demise of Apartheid.
Well, here we are, 5 years after Sandy Hook, and some of the youth who were directly impacted are now in high school and college. Perhaps they will be among the voices that are now fighting back – fighting for their lives and for those who are to follow in their footsteps.
I pray that it will not take this country 2000 youth deaths for gun control changes to take place. I for one will support our youth as they stand their ground. If they walk out of classes, I promise to stand there with them. If teachers walk out, I will stand with them. I hope that you will join with me in both of these efforts. I don’t want to take away the voices or power of our youth by organizing things for them, but I will work with them in whatever ways I can to support their showing we adults how we should be challenging the status quo, doing whatever needs to be done in order for our children to be able to go to school and learn in safety.
I can remember doing drills when I was in elementary school. It was in the 1960’s, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I lived in Wilmington, Delaware, which at the time, was considered the chemical capital of the U.S, because both DuPont and Hercules had large chemical plants there. When hearing a certain alarm bell, we were taught to go out into the hallway in an orderly fashion, sit in front of our lockers and put our head between our knees – as if that was really going to protect us from the chemicals that would have exploded if a bomb were to hit the DuPont Chemical Company that was about a half-mile from the school.
Today, in our schools, including here at Play Care Early Learning Center, we have active shooter drills…active shooter drills for 2 year olds, where the children learn to hide in their classrooms. It is a part of the “normal” course of their learning. None of this makes sense.
Yes, we can’t stop all tragedies from happening, but certainly we should be able to keep our children safe, at least when they are in school. God expects nothing less from us – than to do all that we can to protect our children. So now, we must listen to our children and support their passion for wanting to live and grow up and make a difference in our world.
Our Lenten devotional for this week uses a poem by Mary Oliver, entitled, In the Blackwater Woods. It reads:
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
Jesus did these three things – he loved what is mortal – us. Jesus held us against his bones – especially the children, knowing that his life – and ours – depended on it. And, Jesus let go when he forgave those who crucified him and also by forgiving us because we are human and have a hard time understanding his being both human and divine.
In the end, Jesus’s life is not about dying. It is not about suffering. It is about living and life, and caring for others. It is about blessing and promise, naming and covenant. It is about knowing that we need to hold each other close to our hearts, knowing that our lives, and especially our children’s lives, depend on each other. The “chai” – the life in each one of us, calls us into covenant with God and with Jesus and with each other.
It is about hearing what we don’t want to hear. It is about accepting what we don’t want to accept. And it is taking down the shield that will protect us from pain and acknowledging that Jesus will hang from the cross and our children are more vulnerable than they should or need to be. We owe it to our children to support them and protect them as best as we can. We need to stand with them knowing that Jesus is right by our side, and theirs. With that assurance, we can more fully embrace the covenant God made so long ago with Abraham and Sarah and, through Jesus, is being fulfilled. God is life and God is love. We need to rely on that love and through it, ensure that we look after each other, especially our children.
Some ideas taken from: Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Feasting on the Word – Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide.