This is a set of lessons that invite us to look at the concept of God’s provision. So I invite you to think about where God has provided for you. Where have things come together, where has someone loved you, where have things turned out, and perhaps even now you can look back and think, God provides. I may even not have been very happy about it at the time, but when I look back, I can see that God was definitely involved.
God comes and visits Abram in the desert. The tradition has it that “God” is “seen” as three men, three messengers that represent God, because everyone knows that you cannot look on the face of God and live. There is a very famous icon of this, my very favorite icon, and it shows the three angels that come visiting Abram in his tent in the wilderness. We can still see Bedouins in their goat tents in the wilderness, serving coffee strong enough to curl your hair in tiny cups, and equally strong tea. The tents are split into two parts, there is a public part and a private part. Visitors are entertained in the public part, and the women watch from behind the fabric wall through small holes.
God invites Abram to walk with him, and asks him to be trustworthy. That’s an interesting request, don’t you think? Then God tells Abram that God has decided to make covenant with Abram, and then gives the promise of many generations – to a man who is old, whose wife is old, a man who has no children. This sounds like God is teasing in a very nasty way.
But Abram believes, and God responds to this belief by giving Abram the new name of Abraham, and he also renames Abram’s wife Sarai to Sara, which means Princess. The changing of names indicates a new relationship. We have some understanding of this, so when someone goes into a monastery or convent, traditionally they were given a new name. When people get married, traditionally the wife would take the husband’s name. Sometimes both would take each other’s names, so my sister’s last name is Pope-Sears. Now that gay people are getting married, some of them are taking each other’s names. It is all part of a fundamental understanding that there is a new relationship. Abraham is the example of righteousness, his willingness to believe is understood as the correct posture, the correct attitude the correct kind of openness that we should have with God. It is being in right relationship with God, and that is a very good thing. God honors that with the giving of new names.
Paul has a great discussion about Abraham and this righteousness, this right relationship with God. He points out that Abraham comes before Moses, that is, before the giving of the Law. Why is this such a big deal? Because up until Jesus and Paul, Jews understood that following the Law was the way to be in right relationship with God. Jesus called this into question in a serious way. Now Paul, who up until the spirit of Jesus knocked him off balance, was the ultimate follower of the Law. Therefore Paul had to figure out how it could be possible to be in right relationship with God without being tied to the Law. The way he did that was to go back further into their own history and look at Abraham. Abraham was right with God before the Law was given. Therefore it was possible to be in right relationship with God without the Law. We have to remember that Paul was a lawyer. He had to make sense out of things in a very logical (for a lawyer) kind of way. At this point, much of his explanation seems to us to be totally unnecessary. But at the time, it was important. And some of it still is.
This concept of looking at what it takes to be in right relationship with God is still important. Because we did not grow up in an Orthodox Jewish environment, we do not start from the place of “knowing” that the Law is the way to be in right relationship with God. That problem of knowing is not our problem. We have other problems of knowing, just not that one, so Paul’s explanation about how it works is basically irrelevant to us. We really don’t know “the Law” like an Orthodox Jew does, and for us, it does not represent the way to get to God!
However, the underlying questions of how one gets into right relationship with God, how do you know when you are, or are not, why it is important, these questions are still out there to be considered. We too can go back to Abraham, not in reference to how to deal with the Law, but rather to look from a different angle. So let’s just consider the story: Abraham is childless, he has no heir. God promises that he will be the father of nations. Abraham is an old man, and worse, his wife is an old woman. His wife, hearing the promise of a child, because of course she is behind the curtain listening to the visitors, giggles. Because it is just a fabric curtain, the angels hear her giggle, and they say, we will be back in a year, and there will be a child. And there was!
When we go to the Gospel reading, Jesus says: take up your cross, and follow me. What if, check this out, what if trusting in God’s provision is our cross? Isn’t that an interesting idea? Here’s how I understand this: As a child, I heard people talking about this or that terrible thing was their cross to bear. I’m sure you have heard the same kind of things. But let’s look at this. What I heard was that God had given them this cross to bear. That is not scriptural. Jesus suggests that we accept the yoke, but a yoke is a very different thing than a cross.
If you have two large buckets of water you have to carry for a long time, the easiest way to carry them is to put on a yoke. We think about a yoke for animals, but when people have to carry heavy things, it is much safer to use a yoke than to try to carry them in the arms. A yoke is a piece of wood that is shaped to go over the shoulders and around the neck, and a well-shaped yoke does not hurt you. To the contrary, it allows you to carry large and heavy things without hurting yourself. When Jesus talks about taking on his yoke, he is clear that his yoke is well-shaped and furthermore, his burden is light. This is very different than the terrible piece of wood that shaped the top of the cross.
We have to first understand that our image of the cross that Jesus was crucified on was not like this one. Rather, it was like a T. The upright was already dug into the ground so it was stable, and then the prisoner had to drag the crossbar up the hill.
So Jesus gets into a very important argument with Peter. Jesus is signing his death warrant with the Romans by speaking openly, and then he says, this is what is going to happen next. He’s going to be tortured, everyone is going to turn against him, and he’s going to be killed. Peter can’t stand it, and tells Jesus to stop talking like that. Jesus turns back on Peter and says, you don’t understand anything! If you are going to follow me and my way, you have to totally trust God. You have to pick up that crossbar and trust that God is providing, even in that moment. If you try to figure it out, if you take care of yourself, instead of trusting God, you will not be following me.
Are we willing to trust God with everything and in everything? Lately I have read several stories about parents sitting the the hospital with a dying child, and they got to that point where they simply gave up, and told God that whatever happened, they would trust God that this was the best thing. Now clearly, they wanted the child to recover. That was not even a question. But over and over, there was this point of surrender, when the parent said OK God, I will trust you, even if it means my child dies now, and they let go. Time after time, that was the point when suddenly the parent felt peace – not happiness, but peace, and often, but not always, the child started to get better. And here’s the thing. Sometimes the child did not get better. But the parent was able to trust that this was the right thing.
My good friend’s husband died suddenly in his early 60s. It has taken a year for her to say that now she understands that if he had not died, that he would have been very, very sick, an invalid suddenly. He would have hated that with a passion. Now she can say that his dying did not make her happy at all, she is still very unhappy about that! However, at the same time, she can say that it was the right thing. It is that kind of being willing to trust God that Jesus is calling us to.
This feels like too much to deal with, doesn’t it? So what I would like to suggest is that we affirm that we want to trust God with everything and in everything, and that we start small, right where we are.
There is a wonderful author who talks about the heart of Jesus, and how we are called to let go of anything that hurts us, and give it to Jesus. She walks us through a visualization that has us pick up this terrible thing, it hurts us to do that, because it is terrible, and then we hand it to Jesus. He takes this thing and pulls it into his heart. When he does that, what used to be a huge thing becomes quite small. In fact, once it is in his heart, we cannot see it at all!
This week, I invite you to consider giving something up – that is, giving up something that hurts you to Jesus. Take a few minutes, look at this thing that has been hurting you, pick it up, and hand it over – which of course means you have to let it go! And trust, that God will take care of you, and yours.