I don’t know how many times in my life I’ve had to rethink things, revise the plan or idea, or reinterpret what I thought was the way to look at matters. Rethink, revise, reinterpret. I’ve needed to do it over and over. I’m hardly ever able to use Plan A, or even Plan B. Most of the time, honestly, I’m in Plan C or D.
Every parent has experienced this. When you start the journey of parenting, you have a vision of what this is going to be like. Hopes and dreams come to the surface. But children have a way of being themselves. As they grow, we must rethink, revise and reinterpret things all along the way. Circumstances change. School sometimes doesn’t work out. Health comes into play. Friendships can be a problem. Relationships and future planning get complicated. Parenting is a constant process of revising, rethinking, and reinterpreting along life’s way.
It is that way in our work life too. Compared to most people, I’ve had a very stable work life. I’ve been a pastor associated with the same synod for forty years. But there have been several times when circumstances changed and I’ve needed to rethink things. Personally, when I came to St. Johns fourteen years ago, I was making a move from a ministry focused on Christian Education to one focused on urban congregations. Even a shift like that in one’s career involves a lot or rethinking.
And most people go through much more transition in their work lives. Some of us are doing work that did not even exist three years ago. Others are moving from one job to another every other year. Others are moving in and out of employment. And we often find ourselves doing work that we did not plan on doing. And through it all we need to rethink, revise, and reinterpret.
What is true for parenting and work is true for most aspects of life. Think about all the reinterpretation that a child does when she goes to a new school, often needing to learn new ways of doing things while making a completely new set of friends. Or think of an older person making the transition to life in a nursing home. Or think of someone who needs to move or simply change their address. Or think of someone who has lost a spouse.
Rethinking, revising, and reinterpreting. It is not only a part of the larger events of life but also describes what happens in the everyday details of existence. We revise our days according to the weather, how we feel, the schedules of those around us, and the little things that come up. We are rethinking things constantly as we gather fresh or new insight or information. I’ve even had to revise this sermon several times. You are hearing the fourth revision.
Actually sermons are precisely about reinterpreting, rethinking and revising an earlier vision of God embedded in a passage from the Bible. Each week we share three ancient readings that are then reinterpreted or rethought in light of the situation in which we find ourselves. Interpreting scripture is always about rethinking the past so that it informs our current situation.
And that brings us to these particular readings which lift up this rethinking process. For the second reading is actually a sermon based precisely on the first reading. That hardly ever happens in the lectionary or system of readings we use. But this morning, Paul in Romans is reinterpreting the Abraham tradition found in Genesis.
Paul’s point is that Abraham’s faith in God, the relationship with God is what brings him and us into God’s presence; obedience to a set of moral laws. He is making this point because the Roman congregation includes not both Jews and Gentiles. Some would follow Jewish cultural regulations. Others would find them strange. What Paul suggests in his sermon on Abraham is that Abraham was a person of faith. And it is our common faith in Jesus that binds us together. Faith in God is the most important thing.
He is reinterpreting Abraham to be the father of faith rather than the ancestor of an ethnic group. It was Abraham’s relationship to God, Abraham’s faith that brings about the covenant, not his adherence to laws, regulations and customs.
This is a rethinking of Abraham done by Paul to fit the circumstances of the early church. But to be honest, the passage about Abraham from Genesis we have this morning originally meant something else.
The original intent of this morning’s account of Abraham in this chapter of Genesis is not clear in this highly edited version given to us by the lectionary committee. Look at those verse numbers. We are missing verses 8-14. And then we are also missing verses 17-27, the last verses of the chapter. What has been edited out is the ancient, more primitive material, which I think contains the intent of the story teller. Verses 8-14 are about circumcision. This is the story about why Jewish people practice circumcision. It is a sign of tribal identity done because that is what our ancestor Abraham did according to the will of God. It’s a story about how one identifies with one’s people and with one’s God through ritual behavior. There are various sociological, anthropological and public health theories regarding ancient circumcision; but it’s clear from the whole passage that this is the topic, not Abraham’s faith.
And then the verses cut from the end of the story raise other deep, primitive matters of family life: (1) the origins of conflict between the half brothers Isaac and Ishmael, a conflict that has echoed for centuries, and (2) the ambivalence parents sometimes have for their children. And in verse 17 Abraham is more doubtful than faithful. What we have lost in our highly edited version is the physical reality of circumcision, the complicated nature of family life, the doubt of Abraham, and the seeds of conflict. That’s a lot to lose. Not every revision, reinterpretation, or rethinking works out well. And sometimes the costs are high. Let us remember that.
But they still are necessary. And that brings us to the gospel reading today. Here we have the prediction of Jesus that he must suffer and die. Then comes a simple statement that he will rise.
Let me posture this within the early church of Mark responsible for this document. This urban congregation is deeply engaged in healing ministry. Healing is the most important thing in Mark. Here more than anywhere else in the New Testament, Jesus is the healer. Ancient Christian communities like Mark’s were known for not abandoning the sick but caring for them. Often that care meant that people got better. They were healed. And so in many passages in Mark these people recalled especially how much their champion Jesus was the great healer.
But as all who work in the healing professions know, despite our best efforts at healing, people often do not get better. People may die: no matter how well they are cared for. And this healing congregation faced death upon death as they cared for the many. Some recovered because being cared for makes a difference. But others did not. And in this hospital-congregation the healers faced death over and over. Like all of us as we face the death of those around us and our own death, they began to see in death something different: that there was a time when death was to be embraced rather than rejected. That death was the passage into a different kind of healing. That even though our hospital-congregation is dedicated to healing, sometimes people die. And when they do, they are healed by God in a new way, passing into a new life. That death can be a noble thing that changes the life of others.
Here in this memory of Jesus, we sense how these early healers were revising and rethinking what it meant to die and the importance of letting go in the healing process. The death of Jesus becomes the window into deeper healing, not only for an individual but also for society. Indeed the death of Jesus is seen as bringing all sort of restoration. In death we participate in this healing. And sometimes no matter how much we want things to go on (like Peter in the story) we need to let go and lean into that mysterious future. That is the nature of Abraham’s and Paul’s faith. And by faith we revise, rethink, and reinterpret ourselves along life’s way, even in the face of death.