February 25 2024     Sermon  St. Margaret’s  Galiano

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16   Psalm 22:23-31   Romans 4:13-25   Mark 8:31-38 

There are times when I have trouble praying.   Threatening events on the world stage, broken relationships, disappointment with myself, feeling disconnected from the Holy Spirit... so many reasons.    Real reasons.  

         What do you do when you have trouble praying?

Sometimes reading scripture helps me along;  or reading prayers, whether from people through history, or in the liturgy.

But there are moments when I review the life of a Biblical character, or someone with whom I identify in church history, who I may think of as a mentor,  that seems to show me a path through my prayer blockage, sparked by their experience. 

 To do my part in prayer is like holding my end of the line open, to indicate my availability and desire to hear from the Lord, as well as to speak from the heart.

         On this second week in Lent, we welcome into our lives as a host would a house guest, 2 significant components in the great narrative which has preceded us, and in which we work out the details in our little lives.  Both stories continue to offer insight, direction, and wisdom from God through an individual’s life experience, which at different times have given me the wherewithal to pray again.

The first story is of Abraham, not just the little incident in our scripture for today, but the whole run of Abraham’s life, through the lens of his encounters with God.

Our glimpse of Abraham in Genesis 17 today follows his initial appearance in  Genesis 12, in which God speaks, saying that he is to be the “Father of many peoples”, that through him “All the families of the earth will bless themselves.” 

Now Abraham seems a pretty ordinary, fallible person, sometimes self-serving, or acting primarily from self-interest, but otherwise willing to take God at his word, and respond.  God speaks to Abraham through his life-journey, his mistakes and waywardness as well as his faltering attempts to follow the Lord’s guidance, to LISTEN to the Voice of God and FOLLOW.  God reaffirms His decision to create a covenant commitment with Abraham to influence all of history. In response to God’s declaration of unconditional covenant with Abraham,  The Lord says to Abraham, “Walk before me, and be blameless.”

These two phrases seem to me to offer insight or interpretation of each other.

(a) to walk before God is to consciously acknowledge that every thought, word, and action ~ your whole life ~ is lived in the presence of God.  It is as though God is saying to Abraham not only “I am with you”, but that he is watching and listening.

(b) to be blameless; usually we understand this to mean that a person is of such good character that no charge of wrongdoing could be brought against them.  But too often Bible stories are slipped into a moralist interpretation, as though God sits at a giant ledger-book, giving us a series of positive checks or negative X’s throughout all our days, at the end of which he will make a mathematical calculation in which the positive ticks minus the negative marks will determine God’s ultimate evaluation of us.  

I want to challenging that moralizing drift, which makes a caricature of God’s relationship with us.   It is simply inadequate and wrong. 

The Hebrew word behind the English word “blameless” literally means “whole” or “complete”, reflecting our understanding of integrity.  This means the Lord is saying he wants All of Abraham, total commitment.  God’s purpose is to bless Abraham, in order to bless not only his own descendants, but all families on earth. 

The Lord says to Abraham in Genesis 17:1, “I am the Lord, the Almighty” (El Shaddai in Hebrew).  Therefore, “you walk before me in wholeness” ~ a kind of vulnerable consciousness of being “before the Lord”.

Following this, the Lord says, “And I will make my covenant with you.”  In other words, this agreement between God and Abraham is God’s initiative, wholly undertaken by the Lord.   In fact, Abraham says nothing in response, but falls on his face.  

So God is the One who upholds the covenant which he establishes with Abraham.  The implication of this is that we are not participants in a contract with the Lord in which we offer something to God in exchange for something from God.  No.  While it might first seem like this to us, in fact God Alone guarantees and upholds the covenant agreement.   No matter what, the Lord intends to partner with Abraham (and all who follow in the “faith” of Abraham), through his faithfulness and unfaithfulness, his good behaviour and bad, to accomplish God’s purposes in with and through Abraham (and hopefully in the same way through us).

This story of Abraham is foundational not just for Israel, but for all people ~ at least that is God’s intention.   Again, this is not a conditional commitment the Lord makes ~ but unconditional, come what may, in order to bless all people. 

 Now in your life and mine, as you look back along the pathway of your years, you realize that there were times in the midst of the good and confusing and strange and bad when you might say, looking back, that you were guided, or that you received an unexpected gift, or discovered that the twists and turns of life that made you seasick at the time finally lifted you to the surface of the chaos in a feeling like surfing on top of the ocean waves.    Surprise, paradox, wonder : these are often our experience of the covenant relationship in which God holds us.

An illustration of this to me is that our Psalm of praise and delight in the Lord today is the second half of the same psalm that Jesus quoted on the cross : “My God, my God ~ why have you forsaken me?”  The first half of the Psalm seems from our vantage point to describe precisely the agony Jesus experienced before he died.  Yet the second half of the Psalm is like a shaft of light and warmth and hope in an otherwise gloomy, dark and foreboding painting by Rembrandt.   What seems like a profound dis-junction to us might be a signal that the power of God’s purposes comes as light through a crack, in puzzling paradox.

A further insight about God’s promise to Abraham comes through the passage from Romans 4:13 where it says the promise is not through the law but through the “righteousness of faith”.  In Romans 4:4 we read that “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”.   So, what is an appropriate response to the Lord’s declaration of covenant with Abraham?  Trusting faith-in-action.  This requires humility, but also boldness!

When we read the word “faith” in the Bible, we should always write beside it the word “faithfulness”, because while both of these words are used in English, only one word is used in the Biblical text to convey both understandings.   Faith is not a passive cognitive assent with no further life change, the way you would tick a box in a questionnaire.  Rather, faith is active trusting initiative in how you speak and act and live, congruent with the promises of the One in whom you express that faith.  Trusting God changes how you live, not just your thoughts and feelings.

If I ask you whether you believe I’m a good driver, and you said “yes”, I would interpret it to mean that you would willingly get into the car I’m driving.  When you think of faith, consider how it is changing or will change your actions, how you will engage and pursue your particular life, to reflect and embody the life of Christ.

When the faith of Abraham was reckoned to him as righteousness ~ as the right way to respond to God ~ I don’t interpret that to mean that Abraham always acted correctly.  In fact we read that he wandered from God’s way of doing things on repeated occasions.  BUT, he “walked before the Lord” in wholeness (that includes brokenness), perhaps trusting that if he made mistakes as he was boldly attempting to align his life with God’s will, that the relationship with the Lord would lead him forward in the right way.



To live by faith does not mean just keeping a rule book of Do’s and Don’t’s.  Rather it means risking a creative engagement every day stepping forward purposefully while trusting yourself to God.   If you step off the trail, in other words, the Lord will call you back.  Through Abraham we see that faith means trust-in-action.


The second pivotal story which can become foundational for us is the story about Peter at the centre of Mark’s gospel, chapter 8 (of 16 chapters).    Peter is revealed throughout the story about him in the gospels to be quite impetuous ~ often speaking too quickly, putting his foot in his mouth! 

What happens?  Very bluntly, Peter rebukes Jesus; then Jesus rebukes Peter!

Is this a portrayal of a terrible breakdown in their friendship, or could it be testimony to the closeness of their amazingly strong relationship?

It is astonishing to imagine this incident as casting light on the covenant relationship God has with us through Jesus.... but it does.

What happens?   Jesus says plainly to his disciples that he anticipates suffering, betrayal and even death.  However this does not fit with Peter’s expectations of Jesus, nor with his idea of how God acts, or what might be required of those who follow Jesus!   But who would rebuke Jesus?? ~ unless you were so close to him ~ heart to heart ~ that you knew him as someone profoundly committed to you, closer than a brother with whom you shared literally everything?

Peter let’s it fly ~ shoots from the lip ~ you might say:  “No way Jesus!  Suffering and death are not the way this story-line is to go!  Not for the Son of Man!!

Peter confronts Jesus, but Jesus turns and immediately rebukes Peter, saying “you don’t know the things of God the way you think you know what it means to be human”.  “Adversary of God ~ is that who you are, Peter?  Get behind me!”

What fascinates me is that Peter is both passionate and impulsive, so bold to enter into a closeness with Jesus as intimate as Jesus is with him!  Yet this is a positive image for us ~ a kind of risky faithfulness in response to Jesus.  Perhaps Peter wanted to show Jesus that his boldness was to reflect the bold impact Jesus had upon his disciples?! Yet he was wrong ~ 180 degrees wrong, in his interpretation. 

As in any good friendship, risks of truth and humility are present.  And if you follow the story after Jesus called Peter “adversary of God ~ Satan”, you see that there was not a separation, but Peter continued to follow Jesus, continued to be a leader among the disciples, until at last, the night before Jesus was killed, Peter betrayed him saying 3 times that he never knew Jesus! 


Peter’s last word about Jesus before Jesus’ death is a denial of ever having known him!  Yet, several days later, Peter ran to the tomb...., and later still, on the shore of Lake Galilee, the resurrected Jesus asks Peter: “Do you love me? And then Jesus commissions Peter to “feed my sheep”.     Not the rejection implied in Mark 8!

The first words Jesus ever spoke to Peter were “follow me” (Mark 1:12); the last words the risen Christ spoke to Peter before disappearing into the heavens were also “Follow me” (John 21:22)   Might this impact how we read the shocking rebuke Jesus gives Peter in Mark 8, when he says, “Get behind me ~ Adversary!”   Instead of imagining that Jesus is saying “get away from me, enemy of God”, is he instead challenging Peter once again to “Follow Me!” by saying “get behind me”?

The Lord Almighty ~ El Shaddai ~ underwrites the covenant through Jesus to the extent that even our failures may open to opportunities for further service, intimacy with the Lord, and faithfulness ~ we just have to keep walking before the Lord in our attempts at faithfulness as well as our failures, in wholeness and humility.

Between the story of Abraham and the story of Peter I see your life and mine.  Many twists and turns, some faithfulness, some reckless unfaithfulness, some unknowing mistakes, even betrayal and worse.  Yet God’s call to Abraham to “Walk before me in wholeness” is echoed in Jesus’ words and actions in relation to Peter, inviting him again and again, no matter what Peter says or does, to “Follow me”.

As we consider Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem towards his betrayal and death, during these weeks before Easter, we are encouraged to walk in bold humility or humble boldness before the Lord, to risk our own lives by following Jesus as Peter did.

The Lord is the One who calls us to wake up in the midst of the paradoxes of our lives, to see that letting go of everything in Jesus’ name is opening our hands and our hearts to receive the fullness of God’s presence in Jesus in our very selves.                                                                       Amen

                                                                        Eric Stephanson