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  • Writer's pictureFather Nicholas Lang

The Second Sunday in Lent


Imagine the disciples talking together late in the year 33 A.D. They are discussing the good old days, reminiscing the way friends often do. Andrew looks at Peter and says, “Hey Satan, tell us about the day you rebuked Jesus!” Thomas chimes in “Yeah, Peter, how’d that work out for you?” Matthew adds, “What were you thinking?”


Peter tries to defend himself, “You know I just didn’t like the whole suffering and death thing. That’s not what I signed up for. That’s not who I thought the Messiah would be.” They all become very quiet. They remember that day like it was yesterday. They realize that Peter didn’t say anything they weren’t thinking. Maybe Peter didn’t say anything we haven’t thought either.


The readings today challenge us to what I’d call “radical faith.” In Abram’s ninety-ninth year, God gives Abram a new name—Abraham—“father of multitudes” and chooses him to be the ancestor of a huge number of nations.  His wife Sarai—whose name will now be Sarah—is going to bear him a son. They are to pick up their lives and move far away.  “You want my wife and me to do this unimaginable thing?” answers Abraham. “OK. We will.”

 

Don’t you find that pretty outrageous? That a man and woman of their age would pull up stakes and move halfway across the world and give up a life of comfort, familiarity, and culture to live in some third world environment—all because God told them to go?

 

Radical faith? I know if I’m no where near there yet. Jesus has a very different understanding of discipleship than what most of us do.


When another’s reality and vision begin to contradict our own, we rebuke. We take them aside to show them their mistake and attempt to change their minds. That’s all Peter did. Maybe Peter didn’t say anything we hadn’t thought or wanted to say.


When we in our darker moments, in our wilderness times, haven’t we wondered that if Jesus can cast out demons and silence the crazy guy in the synagogue why he doesn’t silence the voices that drive us crazy? If he can cleanse the leper and restore him to a full life in community, why does our life sometimes leave us feeling so alone and isolated?


If he can make the paralytic walk, why are we often crippled by fear, anxiety, and addiction? If he can calm the sea surely, he could calm the storms of our anguished lives. Yet they rage on. I have been asked these kinds of questions. I’ve asked them myself. These are our rebukes of Jesus. Maybe we’re not so different from Peter.


All of us have stories that make us question what God is up to. When I was a young priest serving the Orthodox Church, I got a call from the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury.  The warden explained that a young inmate wanted to become an Orthodox Christian and would I be willing to give him religious instruction. “Oh, and by the way, Father, “he’s in for murder.”


I arrived at the prison and went through tight security, the gates slamming behind me all the way, and escorted to a room where I would have complete privacy for an hour twice a week. “I’m going to be alone in this room with someone who killed another person,” I thought as I walked the sterile halls. You can imagine the image I conjured of what this inmate would be like.


The guard opened the door and there sat the most beautiful and gentle young man you could imagine. His name was Jimmy Hendrix. His soft voice carried the lilt of his Texas upbringing. He was 21 years old. His story was tragic. He’d been abused by an alcoholic father. To escape that life, he joined the navy and spent a few years at sea, mostly to ports in what was then the U.S.S.R.


There he developed an interest in the religion and culture of Russia and fell in love with a young woman from the Ukraine. His life would change dramatically. Eventually, his stunning good looks made him a target of the ship’s first mate who molested him several times. One night, when Jimmy was drinking, the guy made another attempt. Jimmy stabbed him to death. He was 18 years old at the time.


I met with Jimmy for a few months, listened to his story, taught him about the faith he wanted to embrace, baptized him, and offered him the Bread of Life and Cup of Salvation in his very first taste of the Eucharist. For some, it may be a shocking story—a prisoner, a young man incarcerated for murder receiving the gifts of God. For me it was very bittersweet—such tragedy and such amazing grace. Even writing about it again yesterday brought me to tears.


The Rev. Malcolm Boyd, was an Episcopal priest who in the 1960’s took prayer out of church onto the city streets in a slangy vernacular not found in our Prayer Book. Boyd delivered riffs on life's grittier problems — the white racists afraid of integration, or teenage girls who get pregnant — with a candor that was rarely heard from a priest.


He wrote more than two dozen books but none of his prayers were as raw and urgent as those in the 1965 collection "Are You Running with Me, Jesus?” a classic of spiritual writing for its generation. It tells about the underbelly of society, which Malcolm knew something about. His was a faith lived out in bars and on the streets.


His prayers came out of the realization that God is not only found in church. God is in the painful situations of your life.  When religious institutions were criticized as self-serving or irrelevant, he delivered his "prayer poems" from nightclub stages and at the Newport Jazz Festival. Boyd's "genius," Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, was to illustrate the presence of God "even for those who say they do not believe in God."

I wonder if radical faith isn’t about stepping out of the mainstream of religion as Malcolm Boyd did. I think we need people like Abraham and Sarah to remind us of the power of radical faith and I think we need people like Peter and Malcolm to remind us of the power of radical questions—even of Jesus.


If life is anything it is a test of faith in what even seems outrageous; a faith in the shocking truth of God’s abundance and promise that will unfold around us even when our sanity and common sense tell us that we must be crazy for believing. The great English mystic Julian of Norwich expressed it this way: “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”

 

Yet sometimes I have my doubts. I’m guessing Jesus understands that.

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