Monday, September 05, 2005


TEXT: GENESIS 17:1-7, 15-16; ROMANS 4:13-25; MARK 8:31-38

If you look ahead, how far do you look? If you're hungry, I mean, really hungry, you look to the next few minutes, to when you want the hunger to end. If you're looking to what might happen, to how your life might go, you look ahead a few years, or even several. If you are God, apparently you simply look ahead; to the future; to what might be coming.

The covenant of Noah, the first covenant, is everlasting. The rainbow is the sign and reminder of the promise. The covenant with Abraham is everlasting, too. So many will be his descendants as the stars in the sky. But not, you should note, a promis he'll ever live to see. No matter; Abraham believes anyway. He believes the future God envisions for him; because Abraham believes that God is good.

This is not a simple thing, this belief. Abraham has gone out on a long limb, out on a promise of land and children and being a blessing to all nations through his descendants. And so far he has gotten neither land nor descendants, and life certainly hasn't been any easier for him. And here is God, making the promise yet again. Abraham has had to wait, in anticipation, in expectation, in open readiness for the promised actions of God. And now he is going to have to wait again; because this is only another promise of God, another statement of the covenant.

Everything begins with Abraham; and that includes vulnerability, the completely painful openness to the presence of God; a presence that seems more often felt in absence; an openness to the promises of God, that seem more often expressed in waiting, openly, anxiously, for their fulfillment. The open vulnerability, the anxiousness and painfulness, of a broken heart, begins with Abraham.

"A broken heart, O God, thou wilt not despise." But a broken heart is certainly not a thing to wish for, not a thing to ask for or chase after. If we are asked to give up everything, to go out in to the desert in quest of the unknown, in pursuit of what we are told we will be shown, then a broken heart is surely not what we want to carry with us; we surely want something more than that for our troubles. But a broken heart, says the psalmist, is something we should give as an offering, as a sacrifice, to God. A broken heart we carry around with us always, a heart open and waiting for the actions of God.

Consider Abraham; now 99 years old, and still waiting for the fulfillment of the promise of a child, any child. He has a son by Hagar, his wife's slave, but no child that he and his wife Sarah can call their own. "Hoping against hope," says Paul, "he believed that he would become 'the father of many nations,' according to what was said...He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead, or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith 'was reckoned to him as righteousness.'" But what a faith! It is almost too terrible an example, to show us faith like this, faith that never wavers, faith that is fully convinced that God is able to do as God has promised. But how long, O Lord, how long? A broken heart, O God, thou wilt not despise; but how slow God is to heal it; how slow God is to set right what has been made wrong, to fulfill what has been promised, to bring this waiting to an end. A broken and contrite heart, 0 God, should not have to remain broken forever.

But if it isn't broken, how are we to hear God's word? If it isn't broken, how are the springs of living water, the faith of the promise that is life, to come out, and water the barren garden of our lives? If the heart isn't first broken, how are we to proceed? "[Jesus]," Mark says, "called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?" What can you give God, in return for your life? What, except a broken heart?

What except your vulnerability, a complete and painful openness to God that allows God to completely change your life? If you are hungry, you are vulnerable. Your life begins to move toward the edge, you begin to find out what you are made of, and you can be excused for thinking you are all stomach. You are tied as tightly to this material world as the stones of this
building, as the pews you are sitting in. You might imagine you are spirit, that you are soul and eternal and in this world but not of this world; but when you are hungry you know, you need the material this world offers, and you need it now.

When Jesus had been in the wilderness 40 days, he was very hungry. And the first temptation was to get him to eat: to use his power on this material world in order to meet his material needs. It must have been an even deeper and stronger and more acute hunger than Abraham's hunger for a child of his own, and one that could be more quickly resolved, to boot. Just show us a sign; just turn these stones to bread; then you can eat, and we can feed on the miracle, on the power of God we would see there. Just let the hunger win, for just this round.

When you are hungry, you look no further ahead than the bit of food that is before you, that will stop the gnawing and the emptiness and the pain. You feed the beast because the beast is in control and it's the only way to tame it. Your life narrows down to a simple imperative, and that imperative is food. But Jesus says it is also the word of God. Jesus says it is also trust in the promises made by God; trust that God is able to do what God has promised to do. And God has promised to sustain your life, and to preserve it. To use the power of God, is to stop trusting God.

The power of God is to know the future; and to change stones into bread. We do not have either power. We have only a glimmer of God's power, an intimation of what God is like. We have our imaginations: we imagine the future; we imagine stones can be turned into bread, if only it were possible, if only this first were done. We imagine we can shape, we can effect, the future, but that is just the temptation to act like God. "A broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise," but we despise it. We do not offer a broken heart to God, because we do not want to carry one around with us, always open, always vulnerable, all that pain to suffer. We do not want to take up a cross, because the only future we can imagine under one is death, the end of the final journey when the burden we have carried becomes the means of our execution. That is more brokenness than we care to be open to. We imagine we can know the future, and the future we can imagine under the burden of our cross, is not the one we want for ourselves. We want to eat now; and we want it so badly, we will do it for ourselves.

But there is hunger you know how to feed, and hunger you don't even know you have. There is the cross you take up and carry, and the cross you carry even though you don't realize it. We imagine we have the knowledge of good and evil, but our knowledge and our imagination is imperfect in every case. We imagine what is was like to be Abraham, but we cannot imagine it. We imagine what is was like to be Sarah, but we cannot put ourselves in her shoes. We imagine we know what we need to eat, and that we can get it for ourselves; but our hunger is just another way of being broken, and we should sacrifice it to God, who will give us back our true lives.

The Psalm for today, Psalm 22, begins with some of the most famous words in the Bible, a cry of pain and anguish tom from the roots of the human soul, the very voice of a broken heart: "My God, my God," the verses start out, "why have you forsaken me?" But the verses end with those we heard this morning, with rejoicing and faith in the goodness of God; with the promise that even when we cry in pain, God hears:

You who fear the LORD, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him;
stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
For he did not despise or abhor
the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
but heard when I cried to him.

From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the LORD. May your hearts live forever!

What is church for? For hearing the word of God spoken from the heart of pain; for hearing the praise of God spoken from the cry of anguish; for paying your vows and giving your praise in the midst of the great congregation. For hearing, for knowing, for being told, that we all carry around our broken hearts, and that is how love, and God, and the richness of life, get in.


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