The Land of Laughter: Second Sunday in Lent at Christ Lutheran Church in El Cerrito, CA – March 1, 2015
Second Sunday in Lent / March 1, 2015
Genesis 17:1-7,15-16 Psalm 22:23-31 Romans 4:13-25 Mark 8:31-38
The Land of Laughter
We are now well into the season of Lent. For a book that my brother Philip and I are writing, I’m translating a sermon by Martin Luther on how to prepare to die. Now that really gets into the self-denial our lesson speaks about today, doesn’t it? It is hard to think about making a will – in Resurrection Lutheran Church in Oakland they just had a lawyer give them a presentation about making one – and it’s difficult to think about where you’ll be buried or cremated, what service you would like to have, what hymns you want the congregation to sing, and so on. Luther says that it is good to think about that when death is still far off and not when it is at the door. At that point you want to share your forgiveness and goodbye’s with everybody and think about God’s grace, the new life you are about to enter through the narrow passage way of death, and the waiting arms of all your loved ones and Jesus Christ and all the saints in light: the grace of life in heaven.
(Now several in the congregation are in their nineties and one man is 99 and one woman 102 years old. I brought up the family of the oldest Wall Street investor, Irving Kahn, who died at 109; one sister, Lee, died in 2005 at the age of 101; another sister, Helen Reichert, was seven weeks short of her 110th birthday when she died in 2011; and their younger brother, Peter Keane, died last year after turning 103. So in our congregation, we have something to shoot for!)
Luther maintains that we are lost when we face sin, death, and hell standing by themselves alone. But through our faith we look through sin and see the grace of God, through death and see life, and through hell we see heaven’s salvation.
When Jesus warned his disciples that he must undergo great suffering and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed and in three days rise again – Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, as if Jesus had an evil spirit.
Peter was looking at suffering and death as if that is all there is and don’t we often look at it the same way? Jesus was looking through his suffering and dying to a healing and wholeness and resurrection that would set our hearts rejoicing. In our prayer for the day this morning we said, “Oh God, by the passion of your blessed Son, you made an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life.” That instrument was of course the cross. Our prayer continued, “Grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ that we may suffer shame and loss for the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ.”
Wow! I don’t think that we have to pray to bring it on. If we follow Jesus, it will come all by itself.
Just look at what Jesus did. He had to rebuke Peter, because we have to confess that we perceive most everything in a this-worldly perspective alone. Heaven for Jesus was more than just a silver lining around death and so he was about to convert the cross from the most brutal Roman instrument of torture and death into the wonderful symbol of love and life, so that many of us even wear it as a decoration.
How is it possible to look through the utter rejection of Jesus by this world and see God’s unconditional acceptance for us in it? How is it possible to see Jesus Christ sitting at the right hand of God in “the Kingdom and the power and glory forever” through that dying figure nailed to a cross? The answer: it’s by faith. It’s by believing in God’s promises.
Watching the casket of a friend lowered into what seemed like a grave 14 feet deep into the ground, how can we see angels, a band of angels bearing the soul of a person to heaven and home? It is by faith. It’s by believing in God’s promises and seeing through sin, death, and hell – the grace, life, and heaven that God promises.
Look at Abraham and Sarah. God musters Abraham and shows him the stars. That’s how numerous your descendants will be. He’s old and Sarah is barren. God tells Abraham that his descendants will be as innumerable as the grains of sand on the shores of the sea. He’s old and Sarah is barren. God changes his name from Abram, a most noble father –- think of Jesus name for Father, Abba – to Abraham, father of a multitude, father of many peoples. And God did not overlook the woman, the way human history through the ages was wont to do. God changed Sarai’s name, which meant “my princess” to Sarah, meaning the mother of nations. You have got to be kidding: Abraham was almost 100 and Sarah was barren.
When everything is stacked up against the promises of God, we have to pray to God to increase our faith and make it strong. Like the poor father prayed for the healing of his son, “Oh God, I believe, help my unbelief.” Help me trust God so much that I overcome my unbelief.
When we keep on keeping on in faith God’s mighty hand can work through us and bring about the blessings of many. Evidence does not help us. There are 2.2 billion Christians in the world today, 1.6 Moslems, and about 14 million Jews, all who refer their faith to Father Abraham. But what are statistics to you and me? God has already fulfilled that promise to Abraham and Sarah, but how does that relate to you and me?
So way back then Sarah laughed. That they should still have a child was ridiculous. She presented her Egyptian maid, Hagar, to Abraham and Hagar bore Ishmael – but that was because Abraham and Sarah could not believe the promise.
Then lo and behold, Sarah really does become pregnant in her old age and bears the son of promise and they name him Isaac, meaning “he laughs,” because Sarah says, “God has brought laughter to me; everyone who hears will laugh with me. And she [continued], Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” God had the last laugh because God had said it and heaven must have become a land of laughter.
But children of our old age tend to develop mental problems. Not necessarily, of course, but Isaac does not catch on very well on the way to his sacrifice: “Father, we have the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” It does not seem like he can put two and two together, although he was almost sacrificed. Jesus is of course the real Son of promise.
But imagine what kind of suffering turned Abraham into the father of three faiths. Not only does he have to wait 100 years for the promised son. Then Good tells him to sacrifice him. When we are the people of faith there are many obstacles that certainly get in the way and we have to keep on keeping on and pray God to increase our faith all the way through, so we fix our gaze on God’s grace beyond our sin, life beyond death, and heaven beyond hell.
Sometimes I realize that I either take these promises selfishly or I don’t see the promise apply to me, when it comes down to it. It must be selfish to believe that the afterlife is a benefit only for me, and truthfully, believing in heaven is certainly a comfort that keeps me going. But God’s promises are designed as a blessing for multitudes.
For the afterlife begins with our baptisms. The name changes of Abraham, Sarah, Peter, or say Pope Francis, who was Jorge Mario Bergoglio, for example, means that this life lived in the Holy Spirit of God begins right here, while we live in Jesus name.
Can we see through the sandwiches we make for the Souper Center to people with homes, working in jobs that provide living wages, willing and able to put food on their own tables? There are those in all societies who are sick or have mental problems that will need our care. Can we envision a humane way to provide it for them?
I was reading about the heiress Bettencourt, of the L’Oreal estate of 40 billion dollars, 92 years old, with the slogan, “Because I’m worth it.” Somebody stole a whole island from her that she owned. Meanwhile walking through the streets of Berkeley at night the homeless are sleeping on the sidewalks, in the doorways, under bridges, begging for money on the exits of the freeway. Billionaires and the wretched abject homeless are just different sides of the same coin minted in hell.
Can we see the promises that God has in mind for us through all this sin, death, and hell? God will reveal to us the little things that we can do, little loving acts of kindness that God magnifies with grace to continue the love affair God has with all the people that need to be saved.
We ourselves today who are worshipping God here this morning: we have been baptized. We believe the promises of God. And with that we pray that our hearts and souls become one in Christ; that our hearts throb together with the love and compassion of Christ. Worshipping God means living the new life in the light of our faith, in the light of God’s grace. How does our little congregation spread the good news so God makes good news happen even in our neighborhoods?
Jesus had to deal with his disciples, because they wanted to avoid all that suffering. I believe Jesus was talking through Winston Churchill, when that great man said, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” We pick up our cross and follow, but see through it all, the wonderful world of heaven, the land of laughter. Amen.
 New York Times, Obituary Page B15, February 27, 2015.
 Mark 9:24.
 The Souper Center is a Richmond food pantry, in which hundreds of homeless receive meals every day and in which volunteers from our congregation make the sandwiches and serve them once a month.
 NY Times, Feb. 26, 2015, page A1 and A11.