Eugene Peterson, who we know best from his bible translation called The Message, wrote a book called A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. What a curious title. And yet the title describes what I have come to think Lent is about, a long obedience in the same direction. You see, Lent is this opportunity we are given to practice what it is we really do for our whole lives. It is a long obedience in the same direction, and that direction is God.
We focus particularly during Lent on the discipline of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. The discipline of prayer; putting ourselves in the posture of listening. The discipline of fasting; giving up that which keeps our attention away from love, giving up that which keeps us hostage to fear, giving up that which seduces us into a sense of superiority. And the discipline of almsgiving. The discipline of Almsgiving is sharing our wealth, all of it, not just the money. Sharing our wealth of compassion, sharing our wealth of joy, and sharing our wealth of food and shelter.
So in his book Eugene Peterson writes something I find rather odd, he says, "people submerged in a culture swarming with lies and malice feel as if they are drowning in it: they can trust nothing they hear, depend on no one they meet. Such dissatisfaction with the world as it is is preparation for traveling in the way of Christian discipleship. The dissatisfaction, coupled with a longing for peace and truth, can set us on a pilgrim path of wholeness in God. "
In our conversations around the baptismal promise, we will persevere in resisting evil, what is becoming evident is that we have a deep distrust, and that leads to fear. And as long as we are afraid of what might be, or around the next corner, we are held hostage to immediate fixes and shortsighted solutions, and so we do nothing.
We are afraid of not being the best, so we come up with short-term solutions to long-term issues. We are so sure of our status, we become afraid of our differences, we come up with ways to exclude people from benefits the rest of us take for granted, or we make laws that disregard the dignity of every human being. But fear and distrust is not the way God would have us live our lives. God would have us live our lives in Love and Hope, which is what is in our gospel today. Lay it down, Mark says, lay down all of that fear and anxiety and distrust, and take up the cross of God's love. Lay down all of that fear and anxiety and inner angst, so that there is room for mercy and compassion.
We have a cross in our pocket to help remind us of the long obedience, the long view. Lent gives us some practice in that long view. We can't just beam up to Easter and resurrection. We need to be on this journey, we need to carve out some time and space where we can let love in, let truth in, where we can set our minds on divine things. The truth we hear today is a very hard truth. Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for God's sake and the sake of the Good News, will save it.
We get so convinced that our way is the right way, we tend to walk in front of Jesus, we think we can show Jesus the way. Jesus even is reported to say to Peter, "get behind me Satan." It's as if we say to Jesus, "our way, the way of the world, the way of greed, of power, the way of status and honor, these are the way Jesus. You'll never get ahead in the world if you don't take advantage of every situation, if you don't step on and over the ones who are too slow or too weak. You'll never get ahead if don't exert yourself as the best, the fastest, the most important. Following is for losers, being out in front where winners find themselves."
But that's not the way this story goes. We are to follow Jesus on a journey that just takes time, a whole lifetime, and even more than that. That's what Abraham and Sarah's story is about. God is calling Abraham and Sarah to God's future, not their wealth or our wealth, success, or even failure. Abraham and Sarah's story surely is a story that has a long view of things. No baby according to their plans and their timeline, but according to God, they are the parents of a nation.
So what is this journey about? Why do these stories that seem so odd, that seem so counter cultural, that seem so topsy turvy, hold any meaning for us at all? This journey is to freedom, which is what God offers. Over and over the old testament stories show God's people that they are free, and for a while they live in freedom. But they always seem to fall back, miss the mark, making bricks for Pharaoh is a sure thing. Wandering in the wilderness, looking for food and a place to make camp, pitch their tents, is so much more uncertain. God's freedom is a lot more uncertain than the certainty of riches.
So you see, creating the quiet space, making camp, pitching your tent, is to listen to God's call to love and freedom. Those who lose their life for God's sake will save it. As we make this pilgrimage, and practice this long view of things, as we become followers of Jesus, rather than try to tell Jesus what to do, we begin to be transformed and formed in God's image. We become the people who include rather than exclude. We become the people who love no matter what. We become the people who fall on our knees in repentance when we miss the mark, and rise up in praise to give God glory. We become the people who carry the light for someone walking in great darkness and we will walk beside someone who can carry the light for us. We will stand shoulder to shoulder at the table with a whole bunch of imperfect, but perfectly loved, people of all ages—and we will leave renewed, strengthened and forgiven.
We are these people. We are these people who risk uncertainty, who risk imperfection, who risk being openhearted, for Jesus' sake. We are the people who encounter Jesus in the mess and the muck, we are the people who encounter Jesus in children among us, we are the people who sing mostly together and mostly on the right notes, whether we know the song or not. And we are the people who resist the easy fix or the easy way out. We are the followers of Jesus who stand up for what’s right; we are the followers of Jesus who figure out how to protect the most vulnerable. Because the kingdom is not about perfection or certainty or judgment, the kingdom is about love and freedom, the kingdom is about encountering Jesus in the here and now, the kingdom is not about us and our institutions and our judgments and our morality, the kingdom is about God.
Following Jesus on this journey is to follow the way of love, and freedom, it is to accompany one another on the way, no one is excluded. It is to fall down, and to take the hand of the one who reaches out to us in love; it is to reach out in love to the one who has fallen down. And then we can take out the real cross, made not of pretty stones but of our own arms spread out to welcome and to embrace. Now that's a cross we can carry.