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Lenten Faith on the Lunatic Fringe

By Dan Clendenin

For Sunday March 1, 2015
Second Sunday in Lent

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)

Genesis 17:1–7, 15–16

Psalm 22:23–31

Romans 4:13–25

Mark 8:31–38 or 9:2–9

           For Lent this year I joined a group at my church that's reading City of God; Faith in the Streets (2014) by Sara Miles. This was an easy decision. I enjoyed her first two memoirs so much that two years ago I drove up to San Francisco to have lunch with her.

           Miles's newest book describes her transformation from a "respectable church goer" to a "lunatic evangelist" when she joined a group that took the Ash Wednesday imposition of ashes out of the church and into the streets of San Francisco. She says that she wanted to "get beyond the tastefully enclosed museum of religious life."

           So, they donned their black cassocks and hit the streets of this most secular of cities. They knelt in McDonalds, at bus stops, and on the sidewalks to pray and impose ashes: "From dust you came and to dust you will return."

Abraham and Sarah by Marc Chagall, 1956.
Abraham and Sarah by Marc Chagall, 1956.

           Yes, people gawked. And yes, she felt "self-conscious, fraudulent, awkward, [and] exposed." But guess what? People loved it.

           Why were people so eager for ashes and so effusive with gratitude? Ash Wednesday, writes Miles, is "the most honest of days" when the church reminds you of what no one else in society will say — that from dust you came and to dust you will return. We admit that we've made a mess. In other words, "the truth is a blessing."

           Lent challenges our perfunctory faith that merely goes through the motions of church — play-acting, if you will. Lent isn't just a minor tune-up or slight readjustment of life. It doesn't just tinker around the edges or offer a cosmetic makeover. Rather, Lent calls us to resurrection from the dead through repentance, to the lunatic faith of a Jesus Freak (the title of Miles' second book).

           "If there is a God," wrote Simone Weil — a secular Jew who converted to Christianity, "it is not an insignificant fact, but something that requires a radical rethinking of every little thing. Your knowledge of God can't be considered as one fact among many. You have to bring all the other facts into line with the fact of God."

           And so Jesus calls us in this week's gospel: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and the gospel will save it."

           But alas. It's so easy to settle for far less. To lapse into the easy believism of a "respectable church goer." To "have a form of godliness but deny its power" (2 Timothy 3:5).

Abraham Weeps for Sarah, Marc Chagall, 1931.
Abraham Weeps for Sarah, Marc Chagall, 1931

           A friend of mine has a term for such tepid faith in a tame deity. He calls it "functional deism." The eighteenth-century deists like Thomas Jefferson believed in a supreme being who created the world, ordered it with the predictable laws of nature and morality, but then abandoned it like an absentee landlord. Deists rejected the faintest whiff of a miracle and judged everything at the bar of reason alone.

           The deist god is remote, safe and silent. He won't bother you. He won't intervene in human history or answer your prayers. And he sure won't speak to you or do the impossible.

           I'd laugh if someone called me a deist, but I sure can live, think, and act like one. Thank God for the Lenten call to a lunatic faith.

           It would be hard to imagine a God more different from the deist god than the Hebrew God. The psalm for this week says that the God who flung the 100 billion galaxies into space, each one with 100 billion stars, is like an attentive mother or a tender father. "He has not despised or disdained / the suffering of the afflicted one, / he has not hidden his face from him / but has listened to his cry for help."

           Whereas the psalmist worships God intimate, the Genesis story describes God infinite. God rebuked both Abraham and Sarah for their timid faith in a tiny god.

           When God promised Abraham that "about this time next year Sarah your wife will bear a son," he scoffed: "he fell face down, laughed, and said to himself, 'Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?'"

           When Sarah overheard God's stupendous promise, she responded in an identical manner: "So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, 'After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?'" The ecstasy of erotic pleasure? The joy of a newborn baby? Sarah laughed in disbelief. But God rebuked her for her doubt, at which point she lied and denied: "Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, 'I did not laugh.' But he said, 'Yes, you did laugh.'"

           The aged couple doubted and denied, they laughed and they lied, because of the "absurd disproportion between the divine promise and the human possibility."

Abraham and Three Angels Marc Chagall, 1966.
Abraham and Three Angels Marc Chagall, 1966

           From a human perspective, their disbelief was understandable. People don't procreate in old age. But their unbelief also evoked a rhetorical rebuke in the punch line of the narrative: "Is anything too difficult for the Lord?"

           God didn't shame the couple in a punitive manner. Quite the contrary. We read that "the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised."

           In a delightful double entendre, they named their son Isaac, which in Hebrew means "he laughs." Their son of laughter would always remind them of their disbelief. But he would also testify to how God fulfilled his promise despite improbable circumstances.

           At the beginning of the story, Sarah laughed in disbelief. At the end, she laughed with joy: "God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me. Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have born him a son in his old age."

           God makes something out of nothing. He creates ex nihilo. In the words of Paul's epistle this week, he "gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist." He's a God worthy of our lunatic faith in this Lenten season.

Image credits: (1); (2); and (3)

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