“Covenant and Correction” Genesis 17:1-16, Mark 8:31-38

I know this may come as a surprise to some of you, but I am in need of correction from time to time.

          I know this need for correction by the look that my spouse gives me when I have crossed that line with a comment made in jest in a public setting.  

          The dagger eyes of disappointment, the subdued expression of “did you really just say that out loud?” both tell me that I have broken covenant with some unspoken or unanticipated norm or rule.

          I experience this need for correction by the sound of disappointment in the voice of a colleague or parishioner who had other expectations of me than what I am currently producing.

          Certainly, I experience the need for correction when the flashing lights appear in my rear view mirror as I am driving down the highway.   

Long before the police officer walks up my window to ask me how fast I was going, I have already gone through the check list of how to act and how to respond, and I have glanced at my speed and made note of my driving behavior to try to determine where I have been found lacking.

So, I understand both the Genesis story today and the story of Peter from Mark’s Gospel.

Covenant requires an occasional correction. 

Covenant by its very nature is about relationship and relationships are about boundaries that have been established, territory markers that have been set up, and expectations to which we must hold one another accountable.

So, in the Genesis story of Abram and Sarai getting their new names, this moment comes after a particularly large “oopsie” in the relationship with the covenant God made. 

God had promised that Abram and Sarai would have descendants “as the stars of the heavens” but they are both old and decide to take matters into their own hands.  

In an unfortunate attempt to protect the promise, they decide that surrogate birth is “close enough.”

 Abram and Sarai introduce Hagar to their relationship. The young Egyptian servant girl is to be the recipient of Abram’s affection.   She’s young enough to have children.   Abram and Sarai decide to use her to secure the promise of offspring for themselves.  They decide on using the practices of this world to “help God out.”

In doing so, in taking matters into their own hands, they are cutting God and God’s power and promise out of the picture in deference to practicality.

They break covenant.  

The birth of Ishmael to Hagar is what prompts God’s comment here, “Walk before me and be blameless….”   God says.

Clearly, Abram has not been blameless!  

That however does not stop God from coming to issue a reminder of the original covenant and to act in a faithful manner to the covenant already made.

Abram will soon be known by a new name.  “Abraham” which translates “Father of multitudes.”  

God has every intention of keeping God’s original promise, but correction is required!   A reminder to trust and to walk this road with God is given.

“Walk before me and be blameless” is as much about God’s own decision to stick with Abram as it is about God expecting Abraham to act any differently in the future!

It is not God saying “no more mistakes!” to Abraham now that you have a new name.

It is God saying to Abraham “Walk with me in this no matter what.”

Which is the bridge to this Gospel lesson for today, and Jesus’ rebuke of Peter.  

We often read this as a kind of failure by Peter, as if Peter had misunderstood Jesus, or not understood the trajectory of Jesus.

Surely Peter should have known the difference between divine things and human things by this time?   He has been with Jesus for three years!   Hasn’t he heard what Jesus has been saying?

But that is precisely the point.  

Peter has heard Jesus talk about this Kingdom God that is promised!   It is so close they can almost taste it!

Look at what Jesus has been doing these past three years!  

The demons are fleeing!

The lame walk, the blind see, and those who are hungry are being filled with good things!

From every outward indication as Jesus has made his way from town to town in the Galilee, it looks like just over the next horizon the tide will turn and the world will be set right. 

Surely when Jesus gets to Jerusalem, the world will become that better place!

Peter is speaking from his own sense of momentum about how things are going, nothing can stand in Jesus’ way now!  

Not Herod!

Not Rome!

Not the religious leaders!

Not Satan himself!

It is a precarious place in which to be!  

When you are so self-assured that you think you know how things are going to play themselves out, how they should go, — That is when you are ripe for breaking covenant, taking it into your own hands and leaving God out of the picture.

Jesus is the realist in this story.

Peter’s mind is set on human things.

Peter’s mind is set on how to get THIS world to work, in an advantageous way for those who have so long been disadvantaged.

No matter how pure one’s intentions may be, trading one oppressive ruler for another is just tinkering with the workings of this world. 

Peter would make Jesus into yet another tyrant, imposing his will on an unruly population. 

Don’t believe me?  

Look at the history of Christianity.  

See how time and again in the name of “Christ” things were undertaken by those grasping for power and authority, to make the world “better” that Jesus would never for a moment have sanctioned!

Worldly things.

Conquest and conversion at the blade of a sword.

Genocide and manifest destiny.  

Crusades, wars and inquisitions.

It is a short step from what God has promised to us —  to what we would do ourselves to get that promise, and it is a line that is stepped over far too frequently.

It is the line that Peter is precariously close to by rebuking Jesus, saying “self-sacrifice is not for you, Lord!   You are on a roll!”

That is what prompts Jesus’ rebuke.  

This part of the teaching is what you have to understand, Peter, or it is not the Kingdom of God that comes in but just another tinkering with the way the world already works!  

Those who hold the power, and who now enjoy the privilege, — the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes — they will not simply let the Kingdom come, it will be opposed tooth and nail. 

Covenant requires an occasional correction, and this is Peter’s turn, as Jesus reminds Peter that the Kingdom of God is not so much about tweaking the structures of this world as it is bringing in a new reality!

 If you don’t think that this world isn’t going to put up a fuss when it is required to change, you are being naïve, and a correction is needed.

Then (Jesus) began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly.

The “He said all this quite openly” is similar to the “Walk before me and be blameless” comment back in Genesis.   

The promise will be kept, yes Peter!

The Kingdom will come, without a doubt!  God will see to that!   “and after three days rise again.” Jesus promises.

But this world will not go quietly or without a struggle, and so there are rough events to come as this world fights back against the reign of God.

You must understand that.  

You must see that, so that when it happens you won’t think God has given up on the covenant or on you, but rather see it as God walking with you through it all, even the rough and unbelievable spots toward that promise.

Covenant requires an occasional correction. 

It requires a reminder that God is the keeper of promises, and that God has a way of reminding us not to take on too much ownership of this ourselves.

When we think that we are the ones who have to act, to work, to protect God’s Kingdom, God’s church, or God’s promise, or it won’t happen…. Well that is when we are precariously close to cutting God and God’s power out of the equation in deference to our own practicality.

We (from our human perspective) don’t really know how it is that God will move and act to keep God’s promise!

Abraham and Sarah had no idea and could not imagine that God can and would make the old, barren woman bear a child to be named laughter to become a multitude.

Peter couldn’t really imagine how God would take the death of Jesus and transform it with resurrection power into a movement to bring about the promise of the Kingdom.

And we, well, we can’t really imagine how God will take the shambles of pandemic and exile from our buildings and use it to bring about God’s promised Kingdom either.

But the Kingdom is what has been promised, and the coming of it is in God’s hands.

That is the covenant made, that on this Rock God would build God’s church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.

Covenant requires an occasional correction. 

I need it.

You need it.

“If any want to become my followers, (Jesus said) let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 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. 

Bringing in the Kingdom never happens the way you or I would do it, but this is the way the God who calls disciples says it will happen.

We need an occasional correction to remind us that we live and the Kingdom lives in the promises God has made. God does not live in our actions alone.

“Pronouncements” Genesis 9:8-17; Mark 1:9-14

The more you read the scriptures, the more you pay attention to the pronouncements made by God. 

          God has something to say to this world.  That is the overarching message of the scriptures.  

When God speaks, (in whatever form that may be) God is also in the habit of making the pronouncement in a clear, public, and accessible manner, often tying that announcement to a specific action or sign that remains after the pronouncement as a reminder of the spoken promise and God’s intent.

          This is the language of “covenant.” 

A covenant is a promise that is made between God and humanity that is marked by that physical sign, something to be pointed to as kind of a “see there!   I told you, I promised!  And as long as that sign is there you will know that the promise stands!”

          “I have set my bow in the clouds.  It shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.”  God says in the Hebrew Scripture reading for this day right after Noah and the great flood. 

This is God putting away the War bow, promising never again to try to cleanse the earth through genocide and disaster of flood, never again seeking to cleanse through utter destruction and re-creation.  

          God will make war on humankind no more!  That’s what God is saying in this story by hanging up God’s bow on the clouds. 

See the bow remains in the clouds even after the most horrific of storms to this day as a reminder that God has not and will not take up that kind of total devastation or destruction ever again!

          Covenant depends upon the trustworthiness of the speaker of course.   When God makes such a pronouncement and sets the sign, God is holding God’s own self accountable to the promise.

          Covenant depends and is dependent upon this trust and accountability, of which the sign becomes the reminder to all the parties involved.

          It reminds God, “Hey, I promised not to do that again!”

          It reminds humanity, “Hey, God promised!  As bad as this storm is, it is not the end of the world!”

          We’re going to spend a little time in this season of Lent talking about and lifting up covenant for a couple reasons.

          One reason is that it is always timely to be reminded that words are supposed to stand for something, and that when words no longer operate in an environment of trust, the world becomes an unsteady and untenable place.

          You know this to be true.

          If someone tells you that they will meet you at such and such a place at 1 p.m., you take them at their word.  

You arrive at 1 p.m., and when 1 p.m. becomes 1:05 p.m., you check your watch to see if it is operating properly. 

Maybe that is the problem, my timing is off, because.. well.. they promised to meet me here at 1 p.m.!

Then as 1:05 becomes 1:15 you begin to search your memory and you check yourself.   “Did they really say 1 p.m., or was it 1:30?”  Did I get the time wrong?   Is this the right place or did we talk about somewhere else and I forgot?

You begin to question your own words and your own memories.

As 1:15 becomes 1:20, you begin to search your notes or consult your calendar, or maybe you reach for your phone to make a call in a reminder to that person or check up on them, and when it rings without answer you become more annoyed and worried.  

Your world is slowly unraveling as you now cannot be sure of either time or place or if they are even around.

By the time 1:30 p.m. rolls around you are imagining your friend is in some dire circumstance.  Maybe an automobile accident, or a robbery, or a sudden illness.

“They said they would be here….what could have happened?”   

When that person finally walks in unapologetically at 1:35, telling you that they just lost track of time, your concern turns to aggravation and annoyance and maybe there is a little hint of anger and there might be a little edge to your voice as you say.

“It’s all right.” 

It is NOT all right at all, of course.

In your mind the covenant is now broken and whatever productive might have taken place in this meeting is now pretty much done.   With covenant broken, you do not know if you can take this person at their word!  How can you move forward with any kind of trust?

Covenants matter, and covenant language is important because it forms the basis for a reliable and trustworthy world.

Why do I belabor this point?  

Because it is into an unsteady and unreliable world that Jesus first appears.

He comes to a people who are no longer sure of God’s promises.

The people of Israel knew the covenants made by God.   Covenants made to Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Rebekah, to Jacob, Rachel and Leah, and to Moses and Miriam, to Joshua and to David.

They knew that they were promised to become a great nation, to have a land of their own, to have descendants as the stars of the heavens and in particular God had promised that there would always be a descendent of David upon the throne of the Kingdom.

They knew that God had promised those things!  It was God’s covenant!

And right now, as Jesus walks the land, so many of those promises, these covenants made by God seem to be in shambles.

Roman armies occupy the land and call the shots.

Herod is no descendent of David.

And worst of all, God seems to be silent– absent, like the guy who promised to show up at 1 p.m. and is much delayed and unapologetic about it!

This is the situation when John begins to baptize in the wilderness, calling for repentance.

John is an anomaly, a curiosity out there precisely because for Israel, the time of prophecy had been considered closed.    

At the time of Ezra, with the return from Babylon, Israel understood that God had said everything that God was going to say to them and it was now found in the written scriptures.

God was not going to be talking to people directly anymore, you can read about what God promised.

Which is what makes John such a curiosity.   He sure sounds like a prophet, out there by the river Jordan.  Is God talking to us again?

And John makes no prophetic claim, but does point to Jesus, and this is where the covenant language and action becomes important again, because God speaks!

“You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.”    God says to Jesus and to all within earshot.    God rends the heavens at the start of Mark’s Gospel and is silent no more!  

This tearing open is the sign of a new covenant.   Something has been opened up that even God cannot shut back up or mended over ever again if God wanted to.  

          In Jesus, the veil between the heavens and the earth is torn open, and the Spirit that resides with God is now poured out and into Jesus.  

That Spirit drives Jesus from this point forward in the story.

The Spirit drives him out into the wilderness to be tested.

The Spirit accompanies Jesus through the Galilee region as he goes about his ministry casting out demons, healing, and forgiving and teaching.

It is all done with the power of the Spirit, a spirit that he shares with his disciples.

That Spirit empowers Jesus to feed the hungry and to engage the powers of this world.

It is that Spirit that Jesus will breathe into his followers, sending them as promises to the ends of the earth.   

God is making pronouncements again, in the words of Jesus, in the parables, in the teachings and the sayings, and in the examples and that living.

God is making a pronouncement in you and in me as we are baptized and receive this same Spirit that drives, empowers, teachs and transforms.

It begins with God’s pronouncement of Jesus as son, as beloved, and the sign is that the heavens have been torn open. 

That which once separated God from God’s people has been rent asunder.

The boundaries between God’s Kingdom in Heaven and the kingdom of God come to earth are now gone.  

This rending of the heavens in the beginning of the gospel of Mark will be mirrored and lifted up again in the events at the crucifixion, when Mark tells us that all creation was in mourning and that the curtain in the temple – the one that separated the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant used to reside — where God sat — and the outer courts where the people assembled was torn in two.  

That which separated the Holy of Holies in the Tempe from the outer courts where the people are is ripped to shreds.   

Symbolically and in actuality, God is now loose in the world.   

The Spirit that resided with and in Jesus is now released and is able to move freely in all of God’s people.

This is the promise, the new covenant.

God is silent no longer, but God’s spirit inhabits this world and that Spirit does so through now your words and actions.

Which is of course, what makes your words and actions so much more important!

They are covenantal!

If your words and actions as covenantal people are not reliable and honorable, if your words and actions do not instill trust —

If your words and actions do not speak of the promises of God kept,

If your words and actions are not in keeping with the words and actions of Jesus, whom you share the Spirit with –

Then the world becomes an untenable place!

See what God has done here! 

God has something to say to this world, and the sign set is that God has torn open the heavens and poured God’s spirit out into you to say it!

It is an awesome responsibility.

It is an awful burden at times as well, to have to presume to speak for God!

But it is one that we have been trained for by Jesus as we mirror his actions and repeat his words with grace, humility and love.

So be careful the words you speak and choose well the moment to speak them. 

God has something to say to this world, and God has self-limited God’s own self, by this sign.

What God chooses to say to this world, God chooses to say through God’s spirit as it has been poured into you.  

“And She Began to Serve.” Mark 1:29-39

I think we understand this gospel better in the midst of a pandemic, but not in the way you might be thinking.

          I must confess that every other time I’ve read this story from the synoptic gospels, it has both bothered me and intrigued me.

          We have details here that are intriguing, missing in other stories about Simon Peter.    He  was married!  He had a “mother-in-law” and a house!

          That is a detail that intrigues me because I would love to know more about Simon’s family.

I would love to know what his mother-in-law thought of him going off to follow Jesus.

I would to have some details about his wife, his family, and what happened to them.   What they thought of his devotion to Jesus and all the changes in his life’s journey that following Jesus would mean for them all.

          Alas, there is no further detail to be found here.  We just have this and an oblique reference in 1st Corinthians to the right of the apostles to be accompanied by their wives, as Simon Peter (Cephas) and the brothers of Jesus were.   

So, that part will remain an unanswered curiosity.

          The other point of the story that always kind of bothered me has always been that after Simon’s mother-in-law was healed her first response was to begin serving them.   She dives into the hospitality that would have been expected of her, being the oldest matriarch in the household.  She sets about cooking and feeding them.

          Every other year that has sort of struck me as insensitive.    “You mean Jesus made her well just that you could have some home cooking?”

          But as I read this gospel this year I was doing so watching the long lines of cars and people lined up for vaccine or for testing.

          I read this gospel listening to the reports of businesses, restaurants and bar owners struggling to figure out how to host events and keep people safe at the same time, and make a living!

          I read this gospel lesson with the backdrop of the preparations for the Super Bowl highlighted, and the actions of the new administration to accelerate vaccine production and distribution.

I could not help but see the crowds outside of Simon Peter’s door that evening as having something in common with the crowds in search of vaccine, or waiting for a hospital room, or seeking out a test.

          Suddenly I understood the mother-in-law’s action and her response to being healed.

          She just wanted to get back to normal.

          She wanted to be able to fulfill both her obligations, but also to simply engage in what she was meant and expected to do, and had been unable to do!

          I respect that.

I understand that.

          Oh, to be able to open up the doors here again and have you all come back in person!   To look out at faces and bodies instead of empty seats and a camera lens! 

Oh, to hear you all sitting out there, singing with your varying abilities until the room is filled with sound!    A joyful noise being made together!

To be able to put the coffee pot on, lay the donuts out, and gather around tables to talk about things, catch up and argue over trivial differences!

To feel the bread in my hands again, to break it and to distribute, to look you in the eye as I say, “this is the Body of Christ given for you!”

I understand why as soon as she is made well, she gets up and begins to serve them.  

In the midst of sickness, what we are deprived of most is the ability to do the simple things, the expected things.

We are deprived of living up and into the expectations held of us, the mundane tasks that we would otherwise go about doing without a second thought.

When you are sick, you know this to be true.

The ability to stand without feeling woozie…

The ability to make a sandwich, straighten up a corner, just go about your normal routine is something for which you begin to hunger.

  “And she began to serve them…” becomes a sign of the Kingdom of God come near, because the Kingdom is not always about the whiz bang or the difficult.

The Kingdom is about you being able to do what you were meant to do, destined to do, and what you desire to do for the sake of the neighbor, for the sake of the other, for the sake of the one you love, and who loves you.

Is this not what we long for in these days of pandemic?  

We sometimes voice it as being able to “go back to the way things used to be…”  Which is fine if things were good for you before the pandemic.

But what we are really looking forward to is not going back, but rather being able to do at last!

What we are really looking forward to is doing what we can see needs to be done, to go forward to a place where we don’t take our abilities for granted and maybe even make them better, make life better than it was before.

The crowds who come to the doorway of Simon’s house that night are looking for healing, and release from the demons that afflict, yes.  

But, I think that they were not so much looking for things to go back to the way things were.

No, they too are looking for something more.

A time when the demons of old will no longer return or afflict them.

They were looking forward and seeing in the actions of Jesus a time when such demons could be silenced and sent away.  Health restored so life could be lived.

Maybe that is what is on Jesus’ mind in that early morning after, as he prays and reflects. 

“Everyone is looking for you.”  Simon says to Jesus, and Simon has in mind the whole town, those who were just assembled on his doorstep the night before.

 But Jesus has more in mind.

Neighboring towns.

The rest of the region of the Galilee.

This too, is part of what a pandemic helps you see, or helps you realize.   Health and wholeness in your corner of the world does not make you safe into the future. 

It will not be sufficient to just get everyone in our own county, our own state, our own country vaccinated, for we do not live in isolation here anymore than the people of Capernaum did.

This message, this vision of the Kingdom of God coming near must go beyond the doors of Simon’s house.

There is a whole world out there full of people waiting to live as they were intended to live, waiting to rise and serve and care for their neighbor, their guest, the stranger in their midst.  

For Simon’s mother-in-law to serve, and to offer her hospitality to those who have come now to her house she must receive the things needed for that from the hands of others.

Flour for her bread.

Fish for her table.

Salt, spices and honey to make it savory and sweet.

Trade must happen.

Commerce must take place.

Others outside of her household must prosper and be well for all the things needed for her household to come her way.

Her rising and serving is dependent upon the community being lifted up, all those outside her doorway yes, and beyond that.

And, so it is, that Jesus sets his sights beyond the doors of Simon’s house. 

He sets them beyond townspeople of the night before and reminds his disciples that so long as the world is full of demons to be expelled and sickness exists anywhere, he cannot rest.

They cannot remain where they are.

“Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also, for that is what I came out to do.”  Jesus says.

It is not sufficient to take care of ourselves or our own first.  

That is the message Jesus proclaims, and the one that Simon’s mother-in-law understands in her action of rising to serve.

She understands that now that she has the ability, how can she do anything other than rise and serve?

This is a vision of the Kingdom that is sometimes hardest for us to remember.  

There is always a temptation to withdraw, to want to take care of our own, to contract into a limited view of the world.

But to do so is to miss the way we depend upon one another.

To do so, is miss where Jesus fixes his eye, for he came not to be served but to serve, and not to condemn the world but to save it.

To excel, to truly live, we must become who God intends for us to be and we cannot become what we are meant to be if we fail to rise and serve those who come to us.

We cannot become who we are truly meant to be if we do not join with Jesus in keeping our eye on caring for one another.

We cannot live up to the promise spoken to Abraham generations ago, that all the world would find a blessing through him and his descendants, if we fail to remember that we are the descendants, those who have been given a goodly heritage to be an instrument of blessing to those who come our way.

We understand this better now in the midst of pandemic.

In a world that tends to focus so much on “me” and getting “mine,” this story pushes us to remember that the Kingdom Jesus comes to proclaim always includes those far beyond our own doorstep.

That his where his eyes are focused.

That is where he directs the gaze of those who follow him. 

May Jesus do the same for us this day, raise us to new life and new awareness, direct our gaze outside of our own circles and remind us of how the world waits for us as well to rise and serve.