Living into the covenant
Readings: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 and Mark 8:31-38
Sunday, Feb. 28
By Rev. Marguerite Sheehan
Have you ever heard the phrase, “the devil is in the details”? That phrase came to me this week when I was praying on the two texts that were given this morning; the ongoing conversation among Abraham and Sarah and God about what covenant God was entering into with them, and the ongoing conversations between Jesus and Peter about Jesus’s mission in the world.
“The devil is in the details” is a phrase that “refers to the catch or mysterious element hidden in the details, meaning that something might seem simple to do at a first look, but will take more time and effort to complete than expected.”
From the book of Genesis, it seems as if this covenant with God is pretty simple. We heard about it last week, too. God agreed to not send a huge flood to the planet again. To remember that covenant, God tossed a rainbow into the sky reminding God (and us) about it. Sounds pretty simple, but as the story unravels, it gets more risky. This covenant turns out to be not one sided. God calls something forth from human beings and that something is not easy at all.
God starts by promising not to not wipe out life. God also promises to produce nations —not from a rainbow in the sky, but from an old man and an old woman who will be blessed and give rise to generations of nations! Talk about the overwhelming responsibility that comes with the gift of parenting. Being on the receiving end of God’s promise turns out to be costly.
The story reminds me of the tender sign we have outside our church. It reads, “Kindness is a road we can all walk on.” It sounds pretty simple. . . until you encounter your own unhappiness with people and the last thing you want to do is be kind. We can all walk on the kindness road, but we have to decide to do the hard work of kindness. That is the detail hidden in the message.
In come Peter and the disciples, who were pretty happy to tag-team with Jesus. No problem tossing away the fishing nets. Pretty fun, really, traipsing over the countryside with the up-and-coming Messiah. Pretty cool watching him cure the blind and talk back to the Pharisees. It all sounds a lot like rainbows and kind roads.
But today Jesus gives the details of what is going to happen to him and to us. Claiming our identity as followers — if each one of us, one by one, wants to be his follower — it is going to cost us everything. The new covenant that Jesus is always talking about is not simple or one sided: Love the world as I love you; love your enemies; give your life to receive life.
Peter stopped listening after the words, “suffered and be killed.” So afraid of facing the pain, he missed the rest of the story, including the “rising again.” This happens to me, too. I hear something distressing and my mind goes wonky and I am not able to hear the rest of what that person is trying to tell me about his or her story.
“Get behind me, Satan,” might mean also mean, “The devil is in the details.” Jesus rebuked Peter by saying, in effect, “Are you are ashamed of me? Maybe you are not ready to face what I am facing. Maybe you should fall behind me and watch and listen and learn what the details are.”
Lent is 40 days long for a reason. Abraham and Sarah needed to hear God tell them over and over again about what this life-changing covenant would mean for them. Sometimes they stepped up. Sometimes they messed up. The disciples gave their lives watching Jesus talk the talk and walk the walk. We have to pay attention to these stories — not as though they are just old-time religion, but as teachings directed to each of us.
During Lent we ask each other pesky questions like, “What do you need to give over when you say ‘yes’ to God? What do I need to give over to be faithful?” We have a huge suitcase set up under the cross [in our sanctuary] to hold our burdens. It can also hold our rebukes and our “no thanks.”
Lent is a time of reflection and discernment. Are we willing to sign onto this covenant of belonging to God, not knowing the details until we bump against them? Can we accept that our lives, when disconnected from God and our neighbors, is not worth a hill of beans?
Abram got his named changed to Abraham. Sarai became Sarah. Simon became Peter. They lost what used to define them when they agreed to accept God’s claim on them.
Abram and Sarai and Simon Peter and all the generations to come, right down to us today, are scared to death when faced with the choice to let God claim us as God’s own, but really, as Jesus so starkly says today, “What will it profit. . .to gain the whole world and forfeit [your] soul?”
How tender it is to know that God is intent on offering life to every single being. The cost is outrageous, as Jesus confessed. But what a difference it makes when we put our hands in the hand of the One who is walking ahead of us, the One who turns to look back to us and says, “Drop your burdens. Pick up your life. Give it all to me.”