Today we start with three very different selections from Christian scripture. In our first reading, we hear from the Book of Genesis how God established a covenant Abraham and Sarah and with their disciples – the people of Israel. Their covenant – or agreement of how to live together – was well summarized by today’s Psalm (Psalm 22:23-31) and by the words of the Prophet Amos: “[w]hat does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)
As time progressed, for some their relationship with God changed to center more on a set of rules known as “the Law” than a relationship with God. Rules are made to address a specific problem in a specific time and place. Over time, rules sometimes take on a life of their own, obscuring or overpowering the real point of having the rules in the first place – in this case: acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with our God.
Our reading from St. Paul’s letter to the church in Rome reflects the kind of problems which arise when laws or rules are followed as an end rather than a means. Paul faces the difficult problem of evangelizing Gentiles. In first century Israel, gentiles who wanted to follow Jesus the Christ were not so keen about following Jewish law and tradition – especially when it meant men being circumcised without anesthesia and in non-sterile surroundings. Circumcision of gentile males was a painful and perhaps life-threatening step.
Paul resolves this problem by decreeing that “where there is no law, neither is there violation,” suggesting ritual law cannot apply to Gentiles because it was given to the Jews and not the Gentiles. Instead of focusing on adherence to Jewish law, Paul reminds us of the importance of our faith, of believing.
In the reading from the Gospel attributed to Mark, Jesus tells his disciples what is bound to happen in Holy Week, on Good Friday, on Easter Sunday. Peter pulls Jesus aside and chastises him, demanding that Jesus shy away from such bold and fearful talk. Jesus seems angered, saying he will not be tempted to take the easy way out. Mark’s Gospel continues: “He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’”
Which leaves us to wonder what this means: we are to take up our cross and follow Jesus. This isn’t a call to martyrdom on a wooden cross. It isn’t a call to an impractical life withdrawn from the world. Rather, it is a call for each us to find our own cross and carry it out into our lives.
Our cross need not be a back-breaking burden. Instead, it can be a practical Christianity, one which helps us live a Christian Life here in 21st century San Francisco.
Back in 2002, Dean Jane Shaw published a series of meditations for Lent titled A Practical Christianity. On Sundays in Lent, we are considering her ideas on how we can develop our own authentic practical understanding of how to be a Christian. Much of what I am preaching from this point forward is drawn from her ideas and arguments in the second chapter of her book.
As the first step in that process, we considered the importance of being honest with ourselves about what is working in our lives and what is not working; about what we have done that we have naught ought to have done; and that which we have not done which we have ought to have done.
Being imperfect, making mistakes, that’s part of being a human being. In fact, messing up is as common as dust. In this context, we talked about how dust metaphorically reflects the old concept of sin or failure or mistakes which we make.
This week we consider how to shake off some of that dust, forgive those who have trespassed against us, give some of our hearts to God, and take our cross.
Jesus talks a lot about dust. Dust was an ever-present part of his life and world. It was ubiquitous, everywhere, as welcome as sand at a picnic, and as unavoidable as sand at the shore.
All three of the synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – tell the same story of how Jesus sent 70 people about to preach and heal in his name. If any place refuses to hear you, Jesus told his first evangelists, go on and shake the dust of their town off your feet as you leave “as a testimony against them.” This is some of the best advice Jesus gave them – or us.
As Dean Shaw notes, commentators have debated what this advice means. Was it a form of a curse? A prophetic sign by which the evangelist absolved themselves of what happened to that town? A shifting of responsibility for that community into God’s hands?
Remember: Jesus was well acquainted with rejection and hostility. He knows some of his evangelists will face a similar reception. So he told them: if they reject you, shake their dust off your feet and move on. Rather than hold on to the hurt they have caused you, shake that off too and leave it with them. Or better yet, let go and give it to God to handle.
Letting go or leaving something for God to handle sounds ineffective at first. But that is just what I do on every drive home from a hospital visit. I usually only see as hospital patient once or twice. There’s no way I can do anything more than what happens during our time together. After each visit, I say a little prayer thanking God for the chance to meet those I have visited and then I give them back to God. And that makes me feel a little better. And you know, this also works with forgiveness.
Maybe you have someone who you haven’t forgiven. Maybe they are unwilling to reconcile or live too far away or have died. Problem is, the longer we don’t’ forgiver someone, the longer they continue to exert power over our life. But we do have a way out: we can forgive them, knocking the metaphorical dust off our feet, and give them to God to sort out. I’ve tried this, and it has given me a sense of relief and freedom.
Best thing is, this works for forgiving ourselves too. Each of us has done what we weren’t supposed to or not done what we were supposed to do. That comes with being human. Rather than carry this paid through our life, we call called to confess our mistakes, commit to doing better in the future, and leave those we have hurt in the loving hands of God.
This process doesn’t absolve us from working at restorative justice in our life. It is not a “get out of jail” card that allows us to continue on without change. No, this is simply a way to resolve the pain of our past mistakes when a more direct approach is not possible.
As Dewa Shaw writes: “New life in Christ means waking up each new day having shaken off the dust and debris of our own sins and the harm that others have done to us – and knowing new life is always possible.” And that is what Lent is at its best: a way forward into new life in Jesus the Christ. It is, as Jesus says, making a decision to take up our cross and bear it into our time and place. And that is also how we avoid carring the wrong cross thoughout our life.
Let us pray.
God of Sarah and Abraham, long ago you embraced your people in covenant and promised them your blessing. Strengthen us in faith, that, with your disciples of every age, we may proclaim your deliverance in Jesus Christ to generations yet unborn.
May the people of God say, Amen.