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St. Paul’s Congregational Church

February 28, 2021 – Lent 2B

Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16, Mark 8: 31 – 38

Almost every year in confirmation classes, I showed the movie, Jesus Christ, Superstar, during Holy Week. I’ll never forget the year back in Middlebury when a hush came over the room as we watched Jesus carry his cross to the execution site. The movie showed the placing of the crown of thorns, Jesus falling, struggling to get up, the flogging, the nailing of his hands and feet to the cross. I looked around and saw two of the girls watching, tears flowing down their cheeks.

Then at the end – there’s really no resurrection in this movie – it was very quiet. One of the girls whispered, “Jesus did that for us! He didn’t walk away from that and he could have. He did that for us.” Everyone in the class was moved by that comment and her emotion – we debriefed as well as we could and the class was over.

The words “Jesus died for us” roll off our lips maybe too easily – it’s hard to begin to wrap our hearts and minds about what Jesus did for each of us – that Jesus died on that cross that we might live. That day in that class I realized that underneath my intellectual engagement was a hard to describe new emotional engagement with this story – and I’m grateful for that.

That 8th grade girl understood that Jesus made a choice – in fact, Jesus shares with his disciples the many choices he is making as they move together toward Jerusalem and the waiting cross. Jesus tries to clarify with his disciples his mission in life on this earth and Jesus invites us to bring into focus God’s plan for us in this life and how we can be about bringing God’s realm into this world. We are invited, along with the disciples, to remember we all have choices to make and that choosing will likely involve some cost to us. Jesus invites each us of to pick up our own cross – not the cross that Jesus had to bear – but our own cross – Jesus invites us to pick up our own mission in life.

Jesus calls us to make intentional choices about who we will serve and what we will do with this life we have. And yes, Jesus knows there will be both cost and joy in being his disciple. These weeks of Lent as we face the cross give us time to ask important questions of ourselves - what does it mean to deny myself and follow Christ - and to consider our choices – why am I here, God? What is my mission in life? What is my cross in the world? Lent invites us to consider the choices we make on our own journeys of faith, to expand our world view outside of ourselves, to be open to a transformation that only God can bring.

But this Lenten journey is not about only transformation as individuals. This journey is not only about me, or you – it’s about us, all of us who try to follow the path Jesus walked. This Lenten journey is about establishing the beloved community where all people matter, where all people are welcome, where all people share their many gifts.

This Lenten journey is about the church, our church, as we make choices about how we too will live out our call to follow the path Jesus walked, how we will live out the covenant established so long ago with Abraham and Sarah, the father and mother of nations, the new covenant established on the cross when the resurrection was God’s faithful response to Jesus’ act of faithfulness. Because of Jesus, we have all received new life and new hope and when we, who are faithful to Jesus, must make hard choices, we remember the assurance that not even death can separate us from the life and love of God. Making faithful choices consistent with the hope that comes from a covenant relationship with God.

One of the biggest challenges I’m having these days as part of my journey is learning to navigate the world of medical insurance claims, especially since the UCC Insurance changed as of January 1 this year from a traditional Medicare/supplemental insurance plan - all of my tests, doctor visits, before December 31 came under this plan – now after January 1, everything comes under a new Medicare Advantage Plan. What could possibly go wrong?

I’m beginning to get bills and benefit forms now and the process of understanding the changes isn’t easy: so I’ve spent quite a lot of time on the phone with the new insurance company and the billing departments of providers. This week I spoke with a woman, Tanya, about one of these bills – and she was terrific – even did a 3-way phone call with the insurance company to help sort it all out. While we were waiting on hold with the insurance company I asked her where she was located: she was in Texas. We got our business done on the call and when the insurance company representative had disconnected, I thanked her for her kindness and help and asked her if she and her family were ok there in Texas. She told of being without power for 5 days, broken pipes in her apartment, no water – but her sister and family were worse off – their ceiling had collapsed and they couldn’t stay at home. So, Tanya took them all in to her cold apartment and they made it through together. I told her that I was a pastor in a small, struggling church in New Jersey and we’ve been praying for the people of Texas during this awful time. Her voice cracked a little as she spoke of what that meant to her and her family – that people in New Jersey were praying for them! She asked for the name of the church and she said, “I’m going to check you all out! Thank you so much. We are all connected, aren’t we.”

Friends – I hung up from that phone call energized and more than ever committed to the notion of beloved community and covenant. St. Paul’s made a difference to this family – that’s our mission, isn’t it.

We have choices to make, as individuals and as church – and our choices matter.

Then on Friday my Uber driver picked me up at Clara Maass and we chatted about how nice it was to see the sun out and the roads wider as the snow banks melted. She had come to New York with her parents from Florida some years ago – said she is a member of the Seminole nation and really doesn’t like the snow – I told her I was from New England and probably more used to the snow but this winter has been a real adventure. She asked what brought me to New Jersey – I told her I had accepted a call from a church here in 2003, proof that God has a sense of humor that I’m now here instead of New England. She said, “Well, when God calls, you know it’s right and you have to go with it.”

We had a wonderful conversation the rest of the way home – she talked about her involvement at Riverside Church in New York, her current church in Englewood – honestly I’m always glad to get home after my treatments but on Friday I wished the trip had been longer! I hope I see Seniqua again.

Friends, beloved community is possible. Do we see it? Do we pay attention? What do we do, what can we do, to make it happen? We have to make choices, don’t we.

In a million years I wouldn’t have chosen this journey I’ve been on since last Fall – the death of my brother in October and getting my diagnosis in early December certainly did rock my world – but as we move through Sunday by Sunday in Lent in our readings, I, like you, am confronted by the reality that is at the heart of the Christian story – Jesus’ experience of going through death to life and rebirth.

Our church school curriculum introduction offers us some great insight into our journey through Lent: We go with Jesus into the desert and the experience of temptation, into the temple and the experience of taking a stand against the religious authorities, into the streets of cheering crowds and the experience of the fickle adoration of hero worship. Over and over again, we hear Jesus trying to warn his disciples about his oncoming death – to prepare them and help them to understand it. At no time are we allowed to escape the reality of the costly choices that Jesus makes – and calls us to make – if we are going to follow him.

We are reminded that the good news is not that we will be able to escape suffering or death. The good news of the gospel is that God is with us and that we will be able to go through such experiences, overcoming fear and being transformed, just as Jesus did. This did not seem like good news to the disciples at the time, and if we are honest, it doesn’t always seem like very good news to us either. And yet it rings true. We must come face to face with the paradoxical truth that healing and wholeness often come through a kind of dismembering – a falling apart of previous constructs. Lent provides Christians with a framework and a story that enable us to confront our lives as they are, and to pass through to new beginnings.

Friends, we are called to do our part to establish the beloved community – it is possible! And I’m here to tell you, God is with us through the good times and the hard times – I’ve never, ever been more sure of this and honestly, it’s empowered me in unexpected ways – to reach out, to allow others to reach out to me, to feel God’s love wrapping around me and making new efforts to pass God’s love on!

So, let us be brave enough to confront our life together, as individuals and as church, and pass through to a new beginning of serving God with our whole lives. And always remember, God will never leave us. So may it be.

Let us pray:

Ever calling God, in Jesus Christ you understand our humanity and our great hopes to be faithful disciples. You realize our temptations, you understand our doubts, you know our frustrations, you have empathy with our disappointments in ourselves and others. Help us to be disciples who know that our way is not a shortcut to fame or popularity or prosperity. Yours is the way of the cross, and you are the one who calls people to follow paths otherwise unchosen. May we be your ambassadors as the church goes to troubled places, ministers among those in need, and strives to bring the compassion and justice of your realm into the world you so love. Surprise us with your grace, keep us faithful, and remind us always that nothing we do in your name is ever in vain. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen.


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