“Aim for the gap”
Clare L. Hickman
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ferndale
February 25, 2018—Lent 2B
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Mark 8:31-38
Abram fell on his face, and can you blame him? For here was God, the Creator of all things, speaking to him: “I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations” (Gen 17:6-7a).
And then Abraham fell on his face again, and laughed (Gen 17:17). Sarah did too, and can you blame them? Because this is big stuff, crazy stuff for two very old people who had wandered all their lives, amassing some wealth but still having no child of their own. So the promise sounds improbable and also a little scary, and both of those things make us humans laugh. Essentially, they hear the words of God and their response is: You’re crazy and we don’t believe you. Except for the part of us that does believe you, and that makes us hopeful when we thought we’d lost all chance of hope, and that scares the bejeezus out of us!”
Hope scares the bejeezus out of us. And so we start focusing on other things, to distract us from the hope. “I am too old,” Abraham says. “Sarah is too old,” they both say. This hope cannot be real; God’s promise cannot be true.
It’s what we do. So often, we can’t help but focus on the trees.
There is an adage in driving safety advice that reminds us, when we are slightly out of control and desperate to avoid crashing into something, that we should aim for the gap. Because if we are focused on the trees, if we are looking at the trees because we are terrified we will hit one of the trees, we will most likely hit a tree. Because we subconsciously, almost irresistibly, aim for what we focus on. This is one of the things that makes fear so deadly.
Just so with Abraham and Sarah. They have been so afraid that they are getting older, that they are way past child-bearing age, and that they still don’t have a child together. And so, when God makes this promise, they can’t help but focus on the trees: we are both way too old. And God, gently, repeatedly, points them toward the gap: Sarah will bear a child. You will be the father of multitudes.
In the end, it came down to trust. Abraham and Sarah trusted the source of the promise more than they trusted their own fears. It almost always comes down to trust. As my wise friend Susan Bock says, when confronted with the crazy request of today’s gospel:
“The only reason to give our life over is that we love and trust the one who is asking. The only reason to surrender our version of life for his, is because in that exchange we get him, and having him, we trust, will be so much more than all we’ve ever had or wanted before. You can’t be sure of that kind of thing…you can’t know it, prove it, guarantee or insure it. All you can do, when you’re ready, is leap into the arms of his love and trust he’ll catch you, having come to the point where life without him isn’t worth living anyway. So it’s him, or nothing, his life or no life worth having. And that requires a leap. Because common sense, risk analysis, ego strategies, and your old bag of tricks won’t get you there” (sermon for Lent 2B, March 4, 2012).
That’s the only way to take hold of the promise. The only way to stop focusing on the trees and leap for the gap.
Of course, we can’t gloss over the fact that when it comes to the cross, it is (literally and metaphorically) both the tree and the gap.
Peter could see the tree. Boy howdy, could he see the tree. And he was so focused on it that he was begging Jesus to hang a U-ey and head in the other direction. And can you really blame him? He just wanted to avoid all the suffering and death. But Jesus had a larger vision. He knew that the only way to confront the suffering and death that the powers hand out is to aim straight for it. To walk on, deliberately, with eyes open, proclaiming the truth: I see you, and I see what you are, but I will not allow myself to be destroyed by the fear of you. I will not respond in kind. I will simply walk towards you with courage, compassion and forgiveness.
This is a massive leap of faith, requiring us to reconfigure our understanding of gaps and trees. Because the promise here is that the gap doesn’t lie in the avoidance of danger. Instead, it lies in the integrity, in being true to your deepest values. It lies in the life that comes from continuing to speak and act the truth of the gospel. Which (in the grand tradition of the prophets throughout biblical history) is the cry to take care of the poor, the sick and the vulnerable. The truth of the gospel, which warns against the corruption of religious and political systems that have abandoned this calling, and become obsessed with their own power and importance. The truth of the gospel, which is the promise that God’s kingdom, God’s power will break in to that reality to set things right.
Jesus leads the way, inviting us to keep our focus steady. To trust him and take that leap through the gap that will ultimately lead us (and the whole world) into life.
The cross is the gap. But here, in this very difficult gospel passage, he acknowledges that yes … it will also appear to be the tree. It will look like the thing that will kill you, the thing you should avoid. Because the path to the cross might well bring you into conflict with forces and powers in this world who perceive you as a threat. And there is no telling what those forces (whether they lie out there, or in your own heart and soul) might do to try to stop you.
But the truth of the gospel is that there’s more than one kind of death, and the one to be feared is the one that happens when you’re alive. The one in which you are enslaved to the powers of this world, the powers of sin and fear and destruction. The one in which self-preservation prevents you from protecting those who cannot protect themselves. The one, in other words, that leads you away from Jesus.
Which leaves us on the road to Jerusalem, wondering how on earth we can gather up enough “Do not be afraid” to keep going. Sneaking looks at the trees ahead of us, and trying not to think about how very big and solid they look! But we look to Jesus, and though we know he faces down the same fear and doubts we do, he is filled with such calm courage now. And our longing to be with him, to keep traveling with him, struggles against our urge to turn tail and flee. If we could just take his hand, then we could leap for the gospel, leap for the gap that means life for the world.
If we could trust. If we could love. If we could have that faith. Well, could you blame us? May it be so. Amen.