Sermons That Work

There Was an Ad, Lent 2 (C) – 2004

March 07, 2004

There was an ad on TV the other night, another get-rich-quick scheme—something about how to make millions through real estate deals without having to work very hard. Doing things the easy way is almost always more attractive to us than we’d like to admit, more attractive than working hard at something, more appealing than delayed gratification. Working hard has it’s own rewards, as we usually learn, but it’s no guarantee of success. So, a promise of an easier way and supposedly sure results catches our attention.

Paul is talking to the church at Philippi about a similar thing: he cautions them not to be seduced by promises of an easier way to live the Christian life. Paul is always very protective of his own understanding of how to live as a Christian—he often warns his followers about those who are false prophets, those who would lead them astray. In the Epistle, he warns them again about taking the easy way out, and he uses as his example those he calls “enemies of the cross of Christ,” who allow their minds to be “on earthly things.” He encourages the church at Philippi to “stand firm in the Lord,” and reminds them that “our citizenship is in heaven.”

In the Old Testament reading, Abram is challenged to trust that God’s promise is true, that the covenant God offers is true. So far, Abram has to wonder. He’s traveled a long way from home at God’s direction, yet the promise has yet to be fulfilled—he has no child, no heir. Yet, once again he’s asked to trust, to believe. This time God repeats the promise and formally establishes the covenant with him.

In the Gospel, Jesus speaks of the “narrow way,” the need for discipline and faithfulness. Those who question him are looking for answers, and some are legitimate seekers. Others, however, are looking for easy answers. This is one of the times that Jesus is impatient with the crowd, and frustrated by their inability to understand. But later his impatience and frustration give way to compassion, as he weeps over Jerusalem and the people.

All these readings have to do with covenant and faithfulness and trust. They acknowledge the difficulty and challenge of holding true, of staying faithful. We all want the security of connection, of relationship, of covenant. But such connections require something of us, as well. Relationships are not one-sided, not even with God—relationship implies that both parties are involved. But sometimes we get distracted and overwhelmed, or have what we think are higher priorities. Sometimes we’re just tired, or we think that the other party doesn’t care about us—or a dozen other things that draw our attention away from where it needs to be. And sometimes it is easier to just let ourselves be distracted than to do the things that keep us in relationship, even though ultimately they nurture us.

Making an effort, being disciplined, trusting, being faithful and attentive and intentional—those things take time. They are taking the narrow way. They are difficult, especially in a culture that does its best to keep us distracted and off-balance and wanting. And yet in such a culture, there is nothing we need more than the depth and richness of our relationships with each other—with families, friends, loved ones, communities—and with God.

When we cheat ourselves out of these essential, life-giving relationships, those who love us suffer, of course. But, we are the ones who suffer most of all. We are the ones who lose the most. We cheat ourselves when we take the easy way, when we avoid the narrow way of truth and integrity and love. Those are the only things that matter, and when we try to live without them, it is no life at all, really. And then it is us that Paul calls to task, it is us that Jesus weeps over.

The narrow way is about loving unconditionally, giving unconditionally. It is about opening our hearts completely, and stepping to the very edge of the precipice of love and trust. We are afraid to do these things, and rightfully so—the world does not encourage such behavior. After all, our hearts get stepped on and may even get broken when we make ourselves so vulnerable.

If we’re lucky, we experienced unconditional love as children, but many of our parents were unable to provide such love. Many of us don’t know what unconditional love looks like—we have never experienced it. And our children, who may be the only ones we can even come close to loving unconditionally—even they can break our hearts.

Even though we know, at some level, that God’s love is unconditional, we still all too often believe that being loved really depends on our worthiness. So, we want some proof, because, of course, we usually believe we are not worthy. So, we try to bargain for love, even with God, because we can’t understand any other way. It’s how we are taught. And after all, even Abram asks what he will get out of the deal.

It is us that Jesus weeps over because we do not live into the fullness of the promise. We do not live into the covenant. We are afraid. We believe in scarcity rather than in God’s abundance, and we’re afraid that there won’t be enough for us. We’d rather have a get-rich-quick scheme because it demands less of us. But we are called to abandon our fear and mistrust; we are called to walk wide-eyed into God’s love. That’s what Abram, in some terror certainly, finally does, even though it seems like he is tested over and over. It’s what Paul is talking about when he reminds us that “our citizenship is in heaven.” It is what Jesus weeps for, tears meant to soften our hardened hearts, to wash away our fear, making room for love to grow.

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Christopher Sikkema


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