Sunday, February 21, 2016

God Is Always Persistent

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
February 21, 2016

The Second Sunday in Lent
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
Psalm 27
Philippians 3:17-4:1
Luke 13:31-35

God Is Always Persistent
            Well, now we’re about a week and a half into Lent so I have a question: how are we doing with our Lenten disciplines?
            Have we gone astray or have we persisted?
            Have we persisted in what we hoped to give up?
            Have we persisted in resisting chocolate or skipping snacks between meals?
            Have we persisted in not smoking or spending less time in front of our computers or on our phones?
            Have we persisted in what we hoped to take on?
            Have we persisted in spending a little more time in prayer or being more generous to those in need?
            Have we persisted in resisting the temptation of indifference? Have we resisted the temptation to not care, to not love, to not welcome the stranger?
            Only we can answer those questions, of course, so I won’t ask for a show of hands.
            But, I’ll say that I’ve had mixed success. My hope was to spend more quiet time in prayer and reflection, but, well, you know how it goes…
            I’ve had mixed success but give me a break because persistence is hard, right?
            Persistence is hard because we get discouraged and distracted, worn down by the burdens and pressures and obligations of life.
            Persistence is hard because sometimes we get lazy or we don’t pay attention and the next thing we know we’re biting into a delicious Three Musketeers bar, when we had hoped to give up chocolate during Lent.
            The next thing we know we’re not being as caring, loving, welcoming, or prayerful as we had hoped we’d be during this holy season.
            The next thing we know we haven’t prayed in weeks.
            Persistence is hard - but it’s so important.
            I was reminded of the importance of persistence on Monday night when, as my Facebook friends know, I went to a book signing by William Shatner, who played my childhood hero, Captain Kirk, on Star Trek.
            Shatner has written a new book about his longtime friend and co-star Leonard Nimoy, who as you’ll probably remember played Spock and who died last year.
            I got there early because I really wanted to get him to sign my copy – which he did - and so I had plenty of time to sit and start reading the book.
            In the early chapters he tells the story of the two of them starting out as young actors back in the 1950s. Persistence was required. They had to go to audition after audition. They got turned down. They took any acting job they could even when it was not such a great project. They had to take other jobs like driving a cab to pay the bills until the big break came along.
            I see so much of that kind of persistence among us here at St. Paul’s.
            So many of us have had  no choice but to persist – to keep working hard, often doing jobs that we don’t particularly like – persist to keep a roof over our own heads and food in our stomach – persist to raise our children and grandchildren, giving them a shot at a better life.
            So many of us have to persist – so many days getting up early and getting home late – sometimes working two jobs and yet still just a paycheck or two away from disaster.
            With so much necessary persistence in our day to day lives, it’s not so surprising that our spiritual persistence might be a little shaky – it’s not so surprising that days or even weeks may go by without prayer – that we don’t get to church as often as we should or want  – that we’re not as caring, loving, or welcoming to those who are the hardest to care for, to love, to welcome.
            Well, the good news is that while we may sometimes go astray, God is always persistent.
            In fact, God already knows we’ll astray, but God is always persistent anyway.
            In today’s Old Testament lesson we heard the story of the covenant – the agreement – the contract – between God and Abraham, or Abram, as he was then called.
            God promises the childless Abram that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky.
            And, then there’s a weird little ritual.
            God requires Abram to gather animals, which he then butchers, cutting them in two and placing the parts side by side.
            We’re told Abram fell asleep only to wake up to see a “smoking fire pot and flaming torch” passing between these animal pieces.
            Strange, right? But it turns out that this is an ancient practice for making contracts, though normally both parties would pass between the shredded animals, symbolizing that they themselves would be cut in two should they go astray and break the contract.
            In this case, God (represented by the fire pot and torch) literally cuts a deal with Abram and his descendants - but since God knows that they – we – will not always be persistent – that we won’t always be able or willing to keep our end of the bargain, we won’t always be faithful, since God knows we’ll sometimes go astray, God, our persistent God, goes it alone.
            God is always persistent. No matter what.
            And, we Christians see God’s persistence most clearly in Jesus.
            We’re just a week and a half into Lent, but already the Church is beginning to turn its attention to Jesus completing the sacrifice of his life on the cross.
            In today’s Gospel lesson, the Pharisees warn Jesus that Herod wants to kill him.
            It’s kind of odd that the Pharisees, who are usually depicted as Jesus’ enemies, would warn him of danger.
            It’s possible, maybe even likely, that the Pharisees were hoping that Jesus would chicken out, would go astray, would give up.
            The Pharisees were hoping that Jesus would give up his mission – give into the temptation of indifference, to just care for himself and those closest to him – to give up and just head back to Galilee, back to the carpentry shop, back to a quiet, ordinary, anonymous life.
            But, no, Jesus is persistent.
            As we heard in today’s gospel lesson, persistent Jesus knows he has his work to do and he must be on his way – on his way to Jerusalem, to the cross, and beyond.
            God is always persistent. No matter what.
            So, we’re about a week and a half into Lent.
            We’re persistent in lots of ways but by now, we may have gone astray in our Lenten disciplines and eaten that chocolate or not been as caring, loving, or welcoming as we hoped.
            The good news is that during Lent and always, God is persistent.
            God persistently keeps God’s end of the deal.
            God never gives up on us, persistently reaching out to us, loving us, forgiving us, challenging us, and giving us the grace we need to persist.
            God is always persistent. No matter what.