This sermon was preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church in Norge, Virginia. Each week in Lent, one of the churches from the Upper James City County Ministerium hosts a worship service and welcomes a guest preacher from another church. It has been a wonderful experience in the exchange of worship, and has made all our church members feel more connected with the community.
One of my favorite gospel songs is a song called, Jesus Can Work It Out. There are lots of versions of the song, but the basic tenet of the song is that whenever you have a problem that you cannot seem to solve, you can give the problem over to the Lord and the Lord will work the problem out. In the version of the song in my iTunes, the lead singer talks about a variety of problems that she has had over her life that, as soon as she gave them over to the Lord, God worked the problems out. In one example she talks about how she and the choir went on tour and when she came back home, she had a foreclosure notice. Overcome with grief, she says she turned the situation over to the Lord and the Lord worked it out.
Now I love this song – mostly because not only does the song encourage me to trust God, but also because the song has a way of getting your toes tapping. But every time I hear the part about the foreclosure, I cannot help thinking, “I mean, I get trusting the Lord, but I am pretty sure you knew you had not paid the mortgage before you decided to go on tour. I mean there is trust and there is TRUST.”
That is what I think is so interesting about our two readings today. They represent two different extremes when we talk about the role of trust in our relationship with God. The first is the vivid and dramatic story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. King Nebuchadnezzar has captured the three men and insists they worship his gods and his statue or face a fiery death. When the three men refuse, the king has them thrown into the furnace, turned up seven times as high as normal. But much to the king’s surprise, not only do the men survive, they seem to be dancing around in the flames with Yahweh. When the men come out untouched by the flames, not even smelling of smoke, King Nebuchadnezzar concedes and decides to worship their God instead of his gods. This fantastic story is a story of how, even in the face of persecution and death, faithfulness, trust, and loyalty to our God will make you victorious, even in impossible situations.
Meanwhile, in our gospel text, the faithful are equally trusting of God, but in this instance, their trust and confidence is ill-placed. You see, Jesus has gathered people who are following him and begins to talk about who he is in relation to God. When Jesus starts talking about to whom the people belong, and that God is doing a new thing in Jesus Christ, the followers become obstinate. “We are descendants of Abraham…Abraham is our father,” they protest What is funny about this exchange between Jesus and the faithful is that on the surface, the faithful are doing the same thing Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego do. They are staying true to their God, despite the fact that this new teacher and prophet is asking them to see something new in what God is doing. But in their case, we can see that Jesus does not see their faithfulness and trust as a virtue, but instead a hinderance to seeing the work of the Holy Spirit in something new. Unlike Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s story, this story seems to be about how we should hold tightly to what God has taught us, but not so tightly that we lose touch with when God is doing a new thing. We are to be loyal and trusting, but also discerning and open.
I do not know about you, but I find myself lost in these lessons. When am I supposed to be so faithful that I am willing to face death (or foreclosure on my mortgage), and when am I supposed to be so faithful that I am willing to abandon what I know about my God and my identity to follow a new way? When I was figuring out my vocation as a priest, I struggled. The first step was getting over the hurdle of saying yes to a call to ordained ministry at all. You see, my dad was a United Methodist minister, and I had sworn that I would never go into the ministry. But once I finally was able to say yes, then came the hard part. You see, I was called in the context of the Episcopal Church. But not only was my father a United Methodist Minister. His father was a United Methodist Minister. And my grandfather’s brothers were United Methodist Ministers, and my uncle was a United Methodist Chaplain, and my cousins were United Methodist ministers. At Annual Conference every year, there was a whole Andrews section. So what I was dreading was telling my grandmother that I was breaking ranks. My grandmother is pretty intense. As a former librarian and English teacher, I was actually pretty intimidated by her most of my childhood. Eventually I gathered up my nerve and had a talk with her. As soon as I told her the news she gave out a huff. And then she leaned in toward me and said, “I was a Lutheran before I married your grandfather. I never wanted to be a Methodist anyway!”
Here’s the thing about following God – when we follow God, we get confirmation along the way. I do not think that Jesus was asking his followers to abandon Abraham and trust in him alone. Instead, I think Jesus was reminding them that if Abraham was their father, they would actually follow Abraham’s example. Instead of clinging to an old, stable identity, they needed to remember that the main thing Abraham was known for was abandoning his old life and going to a new, scary place, and following God. Jesus is not mad at his followers because they are clinging to the past. Jesus is mad at his followers because they are clinging to a distorted version of the past – they are clinging to security instead of remembering the past is what taught them that sometimes they need to get up, drop everything, and go. Sometimes they need to take a risk and say no to a worldly power who wants them to abandon who they are and what they are called to be. These two stories are not about examples of total trust versus a lack of trust. The two stories remind us that trusting God will lead us to uncomfortable places, will challenge our sense that we know God best, and will sometimes make us dance.
Our collect or prayer appointed for this last Wednesday before we begin Holy Week says, “Almighty God our heavenly Father, renew in us the gifts of your mercy; increase our faith, strengthen our hope, enlighten our understanding, widen our charity, and make us ready to serve you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.” We leave this sacred place tonight, not with a sense that we need to dramatically follow Christ into the flames or be considered faithlessly unwilling to go where God calls us. Instead, these stories remind us that we can always stand to increase our faith, strengthen our hope, enlighten our understanding, widen our charity, and be made ready to serve. We all know we need that work because that is the work we have been doing all Lent – working on our faithful walk with Christ. What these stories remind us of is we have companions along the way – companions who are bold and fearless, companions who have messed up, and companions who may not even go to our own church, but who know our same journey and our same God. Christ renews us in his mercy tonight, so that we can keep saying yes to God. Amen.