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Take Up Your Cross And Follow Me

Genesis 17:1-7; Psalms 22:23-31; Romans 4:13-17; Mark 8:31-38 February 28, 2021 -2nd Sunday in Lent

What is faith? It is an elusive thing to describe, and an elusive quality to keep with us. But it was something that Abram-become-Abraham was able to gain and sustain, and…we read today… it was something that sustained him.

As we enter the narrative this morning, it has been 24 years since God first spoke to him…since the first time he heard God speaking to him. Back then, the Lord told him to leave his home…his country and his family and his relatives…and go to a place I will show you.

If he did so, God promised to give him land…and…possessions and descendants. Armed only with this promise, Abram obeys…takes his wife and his possessions…and moves.

They prosper but Sarai continues to be without child. The Lord assures him along the way, but Abram has his doubts. Still…he remains faithful to the promise God had made to him…even though he has nothing to show for it… yet.

Today the Lord appears to reassure him once again. It is at least eleven years since the first promise and God has seen something rare for a human being in Abram.

He is patient. He is willing to wait on God…for a long time…for one-fourth of his already very long life…for the rest of his life.

Abram has completely changed that life…the land …his family…his way of getting on in the world…with the one, mostly spent, life God has given him.

He has faith…an ability to take the long view even when the short view appears easier, more lucrative…makes more sense. God promises now, in view of the stellar heart in this old man, to give him not just descendants, but more descendants than can be counted.

And God changes his name…his identity…who he is…and who he will be forever after…from Abram, meaning “exalted father”, to Abraham, or “father of multitudes.”

Sarai’s name is also changed to Sarah, from “princess” to “my princess”, something that has a more royal connotation. Remember, too, it is God who changes the name. There is at least the suggestion that she is now God’s princess as well as Abraham’s.

The scope and scale of their lives have changed by an order of magnitude. They have become the most important couple in the history of the world. From them, all truth…and all trouble…will come.

This changing of names is something that is not unique to this story in the Bible or this moment in time. It was common among Native American tribes.

In James Welch’s great novel about the Blackfeet in the late 1800s, the main character’s name is changed from White Man’s Dog, suggesting unimportance of the person, to Fools Crow, proclaiming his shrewdness in dealing with another tribe.

I was supposed to be named Susan before I was born. When I failed to cooperate with their plans, I was named John, then when I had flaming red hair, my middle name, Kelly, became the name by which my community would know me.

When I became a lawyer, an “Esquire” was added to my name. When I was elected to the legislature, I became the Honorable Kelly Addy. When I was appointed to lead a church, I became “Reverend”, a title I have never been comfortable with, or “Pastor” with which I am only a little more comfortable.

At your baptism, you or your parents or your sponsors were asked by what name you would be known, and that is your Christian name, which may…or may not…be the same name you were given at birth.

The point is that as people’s lives change, how the world views them changes, and Abraham and Sarah are to be seen no longer as a wealthy couple following their herds across new country, but as people whose faith… persistent and rare as it is…inevitably irresistibly…changes the world.

They will change the world…with nothing but faith…more than David would…or Solomon…or Alexander… or Caesar…or Jefferson…or Lincoln.

You have changed the world with your faith, too…constructing a church building…holding worship services in it…opening it up to the community… givingthem a place to gather…near a cross.

You have paid for the building, but you have not kept the monthly amount of your mortgage in your personal bank accounts. You have continued to give to reach out loving hands to a community blessed to have loving hands in it…to a camp on the far shore of the lake …to those all around the world who hunger for the kind of hope your faith grows.

So how do we ‘get’ faith? Where does it come from? How can we keep it? It is a lot like humility: If you think you have it, you don’t. If you don’t think you have it but hope for it anyway, that is a good start…on either humility…or faith.

We see faith in the stories we read in the Bible. We grow faith with the lives that we lead…here and now…in small and large ways…in everything we do.

And notice in every faith story we hear: The offer of partnership with Jesus Christ and relationship with God comes first from God…not humanity. The voice comes to Abraham and Noah and Mary and John the Baptist.

This is what John Wesley saw and spoke about in the 1700s. He called it prevenient grace…the grace that is in the air around us…waiting for us…if only we will see it and step into it, take arms with it, serve it, work with it.

Once again, those United Methodist open minds and open hearts are a key. We just need to say yes.

It is never too late to accept the covenant that God is always yearning to make with us. Abraham is 75 when he becomes quiet and attentive enough to hear the voice of God calling to him.

Moses is a fugitive living in the wilderness. Paul is persecuting the church when he is struck blind by the generous offer that has been waiting to be seen by him.

As that same Paul writes to us and the Romans today, the grace of God wasn’t given to him because he earned it. It was a gift waiting for him to see it, hoping he would hear it, hoping he would step into it.

When he does, he crosses from heyokeshimself to God and wants only to walk with Jesus in all that he does. The same thing can happen to you.

You awaken to the possibilities of doing good that await you…waiting for someone…to see the way to help God’s will be done, here on earth as it is in heaven.

And once you see it, you cannot un-see it…you can never forget…and will always have in your heart…what you saw. Again, look at the saints.

Once you start opening yourself up to this way of thinking, the opportunities begin to come to you. Scout troops, senior programs, free clothing for young people, Tai Chi, all come knocking at your door.

Once we begin to get back to some semblance of the old normal, and groups can meet in person again, I suspect that the big new job for us is going to be avoiding scheduling conflicts and overseeing activities in our building.

Volunteers are always a precious commodity, but I think that is one thing that will solve itself…as it has in the past. If you lift the vision and make room for God to work in your life and the life of your church, the wrinkles seem to fall out of the fabric of faith.

If you can show it to them, they will come.

Jesus calls us and the disciples this day to step out in faith and see what happens when we just open our minds and hearts to the needs and possibilities around us…when we seek only to become the kind of servant leaders Jesus showed the disciples he was… that they could become, too.

Peter thought Jesus was doing more than a Messiah is supposed to do when he washed the disciples’ feet, and he rebukes Christ this morning to saying he must die in order to bring the kingdom to earth. Christ corrects him.

One thing I have learned from hiking with our friends Don and Sandy Julian is that the hardest hikes are the ones you remember the longest and most vividly. Yes, they are a lot of work, but they are worth it. What you get when you spend a day in the woods is something that cannot be taken from you…and will you smile again and again as you recall it.

And each hike makes you stronger for the next one just as each ministry shows you a bit more of what to do and how to do it better. You build your soul up with good works, helping you to do better next time…and see more clearly what you can do. Your reward grows.

Walking through the woods with my brother so many years ago now, he kept asking me how I saw so many critters and flowers and rock formations. I told him each one you see helps you see more.

I had the advantage of a former park ranger and petroleum geologist to go into the Beartooths with me, and each thing he showed me built up my ability to see one for myself. I have had the privilege of passing that on to my big brother.

This is what John Wesley called sanctifying grace…the grace that builds itself up in you as you open your mind and your heart to all the good you can to all the people you can in all the ways you can in all the places you can at all the times you can so long as ever you can.

Life is always a challenge. We see the ways covid has increased the challenges we have had to overcome to work around the obstacles.

But I wonder if maybe…because we walked through it with faith…when the crisis has subsided, and we resume the lives we lived before the pandemic…will we see ways that the discipline imposed by our concern for our health and the health of our neighbors…actually made life better…more contemplative…richer because we know more clearly how precious we are to each other…how dear each word we speak is to our friends…how gracious each breath we take is?

We have taken up our cross because we had to. Now we have the grace of God calling us to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, not because it is the most important thing…but because it is the only thing.

O Lord, what is it that you want to accomplish in the world through us… through me…this day? Amen.