- Genesis 17: 1-7
This is the third of five times God repeats the promise to Abraham and Sarah that, despite Abraham’s age and Sarah’s barrenness, they will have a son and a legacy that “will make you exceedingly numerous.” God initiates the relationship/covenant: “you shall be father [and mother] to a multitude of nations…” I shall “turn you into nations and kings shall come forth among you.” This will be “an everlasting covenant.” On this occasion, God also changes their names from Abram and Sara, underscoring that this covenant, into which they have entered with God, requires a break with past identities. Their new reality is to stay in relationship with God, even through more tests are to come. The homecoming of this long journey of faith will be the miraculous birth of a child, who will carry the covenant to all generations. (The outlandishness of God’s initiative and promise to Abraham and Sarah is captured in the next verse, not included in today’s lectionary assignment, when we are told that Abraham “flung himself on his face and he laughed, saying to himself, ‘To a hundred-year-old man will a child be born/will ninety-year old Sarah give birth?’ ”
- Psalm 22: 22-30
The God who was first known through Abraham and Sarah is the same God of all nations, the psalmist declares, as well as every mortal, i.e. anyone “who goes down to the dust.”
- Romans 4: 13-25
Paul provides an interpretation of God’s promises to Abraham and Sarah, citing excerpts from the same passage we just read from the Torah. Although Paul starts by responding to a contemporary issue– the relationship of new followers of Jesus to the Law– he rapidly moves to a much broader insight. He notes that Abraham and Sarah began and developed their life-giving, life-changing relationship with God before God had given the Law to Moses many generations later. Their story of faith is based on faith/relationship/trust. They “grew strong in their faith as they gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what God had promised.”
- Mark 8: 31-38
Jesus makes the first of three predictions, which are crucial in Mark’s narrative. The enmity between him and the religious establishment, Jesus says, will only become sharper and more determined. Eventually he will be killed, but then rise from the dead after three days. Peter is shocked/embarrassed/confused and takes Jesus aside, refusing to accept what Jesus has just predicted. Jesus’ reaction to Peter is harsh. Loud enough for the other disciples to hear him, Jesus “rebukes” Peter, even calling him “Satan.” He then turns his attention to the other disciples and the rest of the crowd to warn them that if they continue to follow him, they will also be required “to take up their own cross.” Jesus explains: those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and the sake of the gospel, will find it.”
Today’s readings and gospel are about taking a risk. But they are also about taking a risk for something far more rewarding. Abraham and Sarah take the risk of leaving behind all that was routine, familiar and comfortable in their lives to trust an outlandish promise by God. Paul honors their example for all the rest of humanity this way: they “grew strong in their faith as they gave glory to God, being convinced that God was able to so what God had promised.” Jesus predicts his own fate and then invites those who had started to follow him to take the next step in faith, which was far riskier: you could lose you life; but, the other side of that same coin: you could also find a life fuller than you ever imagined.
In the second section of Being and Time, Martin Heidegger dissects how we live our lives in, using his own syllogism, “averageness.” We participate in “idle” talk that easily conforms to our families and peers. We “tranquilize” our anxieties, especially our anxiety about our own mortality.
“In the publicness with which we are with one another in our everyday manner, death is ‘known’ as a mishap which is constantly occurring…. Some one or another ‘dies’, be he neighbor or stranger. People who are no acquaintances of ours are ‘dying’ daily and hourly.” (pp 296-297)
Heidegger then seeks to alert us to an alternative perspective. He writes that if one allows one’s self to confront the fact that at some point– you never know when– you will no longer exist. You will no longer know and participate in your life as you have known it since you were born. You will no longer be involved in other peoples’ lives in the same direct ways. You will no longer make a difference. If you acknowledge this unavoidable fact, then, and only then, he argues, a person begins to grasp life more fully and firmly. Then, and only then, he says, we are led to an impassioned “freedom towards death.” (p. 131) (Which his translators put in bold and italics.) This “freedom” allows us to imagine and to do deeds we would never have dreamed of before. We discover choices, opportunities, relationships and, most importantly, we do things that we would have never been possible in our safe “Averageness.”
In his gloss on Heidegger’s magnum opus, William Blattner discovers:
“…we are jolted out of this complacency and forced to face the full range of our freedom. We can hide from these opportunities, once disclosed, disown ourselves, and fall back into a lostness in the Anyone, or we can seize upon our freedom, see for the first time that we are called upon to answer to [our specific and unique] situation and not just the Anyone. Such a steady and steadfast self, true not to who we ‘really’ are, but to how we are, is a self we construct resolutely facing the challenges to our leveled-off complacency.” (Heidegger’s Being and Nothingness, p. 167)
By the time God makes the promise of a child, who will carry God’s covenant to “all generations,” Abraham and Sarah are 100 years old and 90 years old, respectively. They have abandoned family, friends, status, security and every aspect of living, (for which we work so hard to build up and give ourselves a feeling of comfort and security, or “averageness,” to use Heidegger’s word). Instead, the elderly couple set out on a journey of faith. They wander seemingly aimlessly to Haran, Canaan, Egypt and back to Canaan. Every connection to all that gave them some sense of security had been lost. All they have is themselves and these promises from God that this lonesome journey will come to a new place of joy, plenty, progeny and blessings, which they cannot even imagine! And, that despite their ridiculous old age, they will be the progenitors of new nations! Paul admiringly honors Abraham and Sarah, writing, they “grew strong in their faith… being fully convinced that God was able to do what God had promised.”
In today’s gospel, Jesus predicts his own death and forces his followers to confront their own mortality not as some macabre joke, but as the necessary step for imagining and living a larger life. Jesus asks the haunting question: For what profit is there if you get everything you assumed was desirable but, in the process, forfeit your own life? He invites them on a journey. Leave behind the familiar and make the choice to risk living a larger life which is not measured only in years but in meaning and fulfillment.
Poet Richard Blanco describes the impact of another poet in his coming-of-age memoir, The Prince of los Cocuyos. One day in high school, a substitute teacher, whose name he does not remember, gave the assignment to read and write an essay on anything they wanted for the class period. By chance, he opened his Honors English text and read at random T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The line “Do I dare… disturb the universe” haunted him. As his memoir continues he shows how he must leave behind all the comfortable and conflicting identities of his past to create his own.