The Second Sunday in Lent: Rite 13 Sunday
Speaker: The Rev. Deborah Meister
Lent 2C; 21 February, 2016 Rev. Deborah Meister
Gen 15:1-12, 17-18; Ps 27
Phil 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35
Good morning, St. Alban’s! And this is a good morning, because today we are celebrating the lives of four young people. Bella, Valerie, Foster, and Nathalie, you are moving out of childhood and onto the pathway to maturity. The Rite 13 ceremony is not a sacrament, but a rite of passage, a chance for you and for us to pause and to recognize what is happening in your lives: that you are changing, growing in independence, making more of your own decisions, facing bigger choices than you have had before. You are becoming teenagers, and if you believe your own hype, that means you are about to be irreverent, disrespectful, self-involved, glued to cellphones, pimply, smelly, funny, creative, snarky, temperamental, and difficult. And if that frightens you, even a bit, I can guarantee you it frightens your parents even more!
Do not listen to the hype. Listen, instead, to the voice of your God, who spoke through the prophet Jeremiah: “I have loved you with an everlasting love.” (Jer 31:3) When your friends treat you badly, when your classmates are mean, when people are pressuring you to do things which you believe are wrong, when you can’t figure out who you are or what you want to do with your life, hold onto this truth: God loves you, and always will. It doesn’t matter if you’re perfect. (You won’t be.) It doesn’t matter if you’re good-looking. (God sees your heart.) It doesn’t matter if your friends think you are cool. God loves you, even when you don’t love yourself. God sees what is good in you even when you cannot. God sees the promise in you, even when you cannot feel it. God gives his grace to you, not because you don’t need it, but because we all do.
Abraham began his encounter with God in a place of anxiety. God comes to him and says, “Don’t be afraid, Abraham,” and the only reason to say that is if Abraham was, in fact, afraid. But God says, I am your shield, I will defend you, I will bring you where you need to be and make you the person you need to be to face whatever comes. But Abraham says, God, what is my life to me? I don’t even have a child. Let’s pause there for a moment. God promises Abraham heaven and earth, wealth and safety and peace, but all Abraham wants in his heart is son or a daughter. All Abraham wants, Bella, Foster, Valerie, Nathalie, is someone like you. Hold onto that, for the next few years. Hold onto it for the rest of your life. Abraham is the beloved of God: the one person out of all humanity God chose to call into relationship with God and become the father of the three great monotheistic religions. And the one desire of his heart was to have a child.
What does that tell you about what you are worth? What does it tell you about how you are loved? It’s easy, in adolescence, to focus on your imperfections: your hair, your skin, whether you’re good enough as an athlete or a student. But beneath all that, you are a person who is greatly loved. Even when you’re being snarky, even when your parents snap back at you, they wouldn’t trade you for the world. Remember that. (Remember that, parents!) God speaks to us through the prophet Jeremiah and says, “ I have loved you with an everlasting love.” (Jew 31:3)
And so God promises Abraham a child, and Abraham takes a whole bunch of livestock and cuts it in half, and he walks between the half of the heifer and the other half of the heifer, and between the half of the goat and the other half of the goat, and the half of the ram and the other half of the ram, and then he throws in some birds for good measure, and then falls asleep and when he wakes, he knows that God is real. And if you’re thinking, You gotta be kidding me, you ain’t alone! You couldn’t make this stuff up, because if you did, you’d do a better job!
This is one weird story. But it does ask an interesting question: how do you find God?
I’ll be honest with you: I don’t know what to do with all that livestock. My teachers taught me it was just what they did back then in ancient Mesopotamia. But in one way, it does make a kind of sense: livestock were valuable, and growth is costly. You don’t get to move from being a child to being a grown-up (a real one) by staying where it’s safe, laying nothing on the line, and keeping your nose clean. You grow by taking risks. Not stupid risks — not driving drunk, not taking drugs — but real ones: you grow by risking your heart.
What is the path, what is the price, that will let us see God’s face? St. Paul reminds us: our life is like a race: we’ll never get to the end we want unless we set our eyes on the finish line. When I was in high school, I spent a year on the cross-country team. One of our last meets that year was to take place at Episcopal High School, in Alexandria. It was a big race and we’d worked up to it with great energy, but on the morning of the race, I woke up sick as a dog. And so I missed the worst race in the history of our school. The problem wasn’t the runners. It was the course. (Kind of.) The race went through the woods, and so Episcopal High had stationed its students at key turns in the course, to ensure that the visiting teams did not get lost. The students, however, realized that they could ensure a victory for their own team if the visiting teams did get lost. And so they gently, confidently misdirected the runners on the other teams at almost every turn, creating a race in which my teammates crisscrossed the woods dozens of time, arriving at the finish line after dark, a full hour and half after the Episcopal High runners. (Of course, the discrepancy was so large that the coaches figured out what had happened.)
The thing is, that race is a lot more like our lives than a normal track meet. At a track meet, we line up at the start, look straight ahead to the finish, and run like mad with no interruptions. But in life, we are constantly coming across other paths, and we need to make choices. On a good day, we can see which ones lead to Jesus; on other days, we can’t. And sometimes there are tempters standing at those corners, whispering to us, “Try this way. Don’t be stupid. This is what’s really important. Be cool. Eat fancy food. Sell out your friend to get the grade. This is how you’ll really succeed. This will get you what you want. That girl doesn’t really mean ‘no.’” And sometimes we manage to make a good choice, and other times we find ourselves wandering in a dark forest, wondering how we made such a mess of our lives.
It happens even to the best of us. But here’s the thing: for us who love Jesus, “the worst is not the last.” We can always begin again. We can always turn ourselves around, look for the right way, and walk in it. “This one thing I do,” writes Paul: “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 3:13-14) Press on, but make sure the goal you’ve chosen is really worth living for.
Mixed in with all our weird images this morning, we got to hear one of the great promises of Christ: “He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be made like the body of his glory.” (Phil 3:21) Now, today, we may taste humiliation. Often, our bodies refuse to do what we want them to do. Sometimes, our actions bring us shame. But by the grace of God, all of this is learning: our very disappointments teach us what will fail us and what we can trust, and point us in the direction of God.
For many of us, that place is often a person or a group of people: the friends of your right hand, the ones you can turn to with anything — anything at all — and know that they will love you and support you and challenge you to be your best self. And when you fall down, they will pick you up and dust you off and set you on your way again (but they may tease you about it later!). Valerie, Foster, Bella, Nathalie — as you enter the years of your youth, be that place for one another. When everything is dark, when your friends feel lost, help one another to find new life again.
So as you enter your teenage years, remember three things. 1) You are loved with an everlasting love. That love gives you family and friends, this community and one another. It is lifting you up, and pointing you forward, and turning you around, and asking you to take risks and learn new things and enjoy this great gift of life we have been given. 2) If you mess up, turn yourself around and begin again. God is on our side. Every day. The worst is not the last. 3) And love one another. Through everything. Because at the beginning of our relationship with God, Abraham asked God for a child, which was the greatest blessing he could think of. You are a blessing. You are God’s blessing to us. Amen.
 John Claypool.