Genesis 15:1-12,17-18 / Psalm 27 /Philippians 3:17-4:1
To be honest with you, when I read the readings proscribed in the Lectionary for today, my first thought was “Can I preach about something else?!” My second thought was to wonder why on earth these strange, and frankly perplexing, little readings had been put together. What was the theme that was running through the minds of the people who put the Lectionary together? At first glance the theme seems to be “Little Snippets of Scripture that don’t fit anywhere else”
But as I read them, and researched around them, I started to see that there is a thread that holds them together – I think! I want to base my sermon on the Gospel reading most of all, but I hope we will see how these readings are connected.
I wonder if you know someone to whom the term “pig headed” can be applied? Someone who, once set upon a course of action, refuses to be diverted from that course, however foolish or detrimental the results may be. I grit my teeth here and refuse to mention Brexit! Well, for me, at first glance, I think that this reading shows that Jesus could be referred to as “pig headed” Here he is, heading towards Jerusalem, when some well-meaning Pharisees come to him and suggest that, as Herod wants to kill him, Jesus would probably be safer away from the area. And instead of thanking them, and scurrying away to a place of safety, Jesus basically tells them to go back to Herod and tell him that he, Jesus, is not changing course for anyone.
Some commentators put forward the idea that the Pharisees weren’t being quite as charitable as they may, at first sight, seem, and in fact were trying to get Jesus to go away because he was causing trouble for them. Jesus realised this, and, in telling them (possibly sarcastically) to “go back to that fox” he was letting them know that he understood what they were doing. Whether this is the case or not, Jesus certainly seems to be showing classic signs of pig headed stubbornness…
But you know, there is another side to this picture, and that is the courage that Jesus showed. He knew that this was going to end badly for him – but he knew that there was no other way of showing God’s all-encompassing love for humanity than by going ahead. By opening himself up, by becoming completely and utterly vulnerable, even unto death, Jesus demonstrated the lengths God would go to for us. This is the way of the Gospel of Christ: the way of love and sacrifice over the way of power and dominion. It is always a way of courage.
A way of courage because it takes real courage to make oneself open and vulnerable to others. But this is what Paul is reminding us to do in the reading from Philippians. “stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved” he writes “Imitate me as I follow Jesus’ example”. He describes how those of the world have their mind set on worldly things, and how we are called to be different.
We are being called to be in a community: a community that shows love and concern for the world. A community that is willing to open itself up, to be vulnerable, to follow Jesus’ example wherever that may take us. But you know, those words are so easy to say, and so difficult to do…
How often have you glanced at a beggar in the street, and decided not to give them money because, well, let’s face it you’re down to your last few euros, and they’ll probably only spend it on drugs anyway? Or not stopped to ask someone if they needed help because you didn’t want to look silly? Or you haven’t volunteered for a task because you’re worried you can’t do it, and you’ll end up with egg on your face? So, maybe that homeless person wasn’t able to buy a hot meal that day…or the person who needed help didn’t get it…or the task went undone…
We don’t want to look silly – we don’t want to be vulnerable. We don’t want to give our last few euros – we don’t want to be vulnerable. But it is this way of vulnerability and openness that God calls us to follow. But it requires strength and it requires courage
The word “courage” comes from the Latin “cor”, which means “heart” and perhaps this can remind us that living courageously means living from the heart, being authentic, being vulnerable. And while we’re looking at etymology, the word “vulnerable” comes from the Latin, meaning to “wound or to hurt”. Christian courage is whole hearted living, accepting ourselves, and every other person, as loved by God, and thus deserving love, empathy and respect from us. It is realising that there is no community of love and belonging where there is not regard and respect for everyone. But Christian courage also means opening oneself up to being wounded and hurt by those of the world who do not understand. It means being willing to be rejected or made to feel stupid.
Doesn’t this go against everything that we’ve been taught by the world? Don’t trust other people – they’re out to rip you off… don’t open yourself up, people will take advantage…look after yourself, and let the others go hang…Fight for your rights…But that reading from Philippians reminds us that we should not be following the example that the world sets us. These are values to be rejected. Instead we should remember the commitment we made to God, the covenant we made with him: however impossible it seems, we will follow him.
And the reading from Genesis, and the words of the Psalm that we read together, both tell us how we can do this: through trusting in God. God made Abram a promise that, at first sight, seemed ridiculous – you, an old man with no children, your ancestors will be as numerous as the stars in the sky. And despite his initial scepticism, Abram made a covenant with God, sealing it with the traditional sacrifices; a covenant that said “I am yours, and you are mine. Let your will be done”, a covenant that rings with trust in the Eternal God. And the Psalmist echoes words of trust in God “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?” he sings. “The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid?”
This then is how it is done. This is how we open ourselves to the vulnerability that God demands of us: we trust him. We trust him that in giving our last euros to a person in need we will be doing God’s work; that by offering to help someone in distress, we won’t look silly, but that we will be offering God’s love; that by volunteering for something we are afraid we can’t do, we are saying “I believe God wants me to do this; I will trust in his strength”. We make ourselves vulnerable – but through our vulnerability, God is strong.
Some of us here are following 40 Acts through Lent – a daily challenge, giving us the opportunity to be generous, to think about others and to make ourselves vulnerable and open. We have been asked to carry out such acts as giving away something precious to us, or really taking time to listen to someone who needs to talk, or giving away chocolate bars: each one challenging us in a different way to let go of our egos and open ourselves up so that God can work through us to bring his love into the world – even in a gesture as simple as offering a Mars bar to somebody and saying “This is for you.”
And so, my brothers and sisters, I urge you in this period of reflection before Easter, when we remember the ultimate sign of God’s courage, love and vulnerability, be willing to make yourself open to hurt in the service and love of others. Jesus’ death on the cross was not a sacrifice to a vengeful God, but rather a gesture, an outpouring of God’s love, so great that he conquered death and opened the way for us to step into eternal life.
We owe it to him to show that love to the world.