Prayer of the Day
O God, our leader and guide, in the waters of baptism you bring us to new birth to live as your children. Strengthen our faith in your promises, that by your Spirit we may lift up your life to all the world through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
1The Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
4aSo Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him.
1I lift up my eyes | to the hills;
from where is my | help to come?
2My help comes | from the Lord,
the maker of heav- | en and earth.
3The Lord will not let your | foot be moved
nor will the one who watches over you | fall asleep.
4Behold, the keep- | er of Israel
will neither slum- | ber nor sleep;
5the Lord watches | over you;
the Lord is your shade at | your right hand;
6the sun will not strike | you by day,
nor the | moon by night.
7The Lord will preserve you | from all evil
and will | keep your life.
8The Lord will watch over your going out and your | coming in,
from this time forth for- | evermore.
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
1What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? 2For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” 4Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. 5But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.
13For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.
16For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, 17as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”)—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.
1Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Sermon – Pastor Meggan Manlove
I was drawn to our scripture passage from Genesis, the call of Abram and Sarai, this Lent because of our emphasis on baptism. It’s true that the story of Nicodemus and Jesus carries heavy tones of baptism as well. But when I stop to consider for myself or teach a group of people about how our God is a god of covenants and promises and faithfulness, it is the story of Abraham and Sarah that I turn to first.
If you are reading along in Genesis, there is an obvious literary break at this point in the narrative. This break in the narrative distinguishes between the history of humankind and the history of Israel (the people, not the nation).
The God who calls the world into being now makes a second call. This call is specific. The call is addressed to aged Abraham and Sarah and the purpose of the call is to fashion on alternative community in creation gone awry. As one scholar [Brueggemann] says, “It is the hope of God that in this new family all human history can be brought to the unity and harmony intended by the one who calls.” It is clear from the verses we read today that the call to Sarah and Abraham has to do not simply with the forming of Israel (the people, not the current nation), but with the re-forming of creation, the transforming of all nations.
There are two themes central to this story and central to our Lenten theme of living into our baptisms: promise and faith. Promise is God’s mode of presence in this story. The promise is God’s power and will to create a new future sharply discontinuous with the past and present. The promise is God’s resolve to form a new community shaped only by miracle and reliant only on God’s faithfulness. And then faith is the response to God’s promise. Faith is the capacity to embrace the future God announced.
We Lutheran Christians gathered in sanctuaries for worship today are not the only ones who turn to this story to remember the relationship of God’s promises and the response of faith. Our Jewish friends turn to this story with us.
On February 24 an email was sent from our presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton about a spike in anti-Jewish hate and that extremist groups were planning a national day of hate for the 25th, targeting Jews. If we think for a minute that anti-Jewish hate and anti-Semitism exist only in major urban areas or on the coasts, we only need remember the anti-Semitic language etched on the stones of the Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial in Boise in 2017 and swastikas that were found painted on historic Boise buildings and in the underpasses on Boise’s Greenbelt in 2021.
This is a modern issue with ancient roots. I’m particularly aware of my own responsibility to not perpetuate the problem in this moment because we are spending a year in Matthew’s gospel and much of Lent and Holy Week in John’s Gospel. It is bad readings or misinterpretations of these two gospels especially that have led the Christian church itself to be ani-Jewish and anti-Semitic.
Too often we have easily lost track of the inter-Jewish disputes occurring in the gospels. Instead, we have read, or been told, that Jesus was rejecting all Jewish law and customs. Further, and even more damaging, the church has blamed the Jews for Jesus’ death on the cross instead of seeing Jesus’ crucifixion as Rome’s decision, Rome’s power, and Rome’s form of execution.
Interpretations of the Apostle Paul’s letters have also been problematic at least and harmful at worst, which brings us to today’s reading from Romans. First let’s remember that Paul’s mission to the gentiles was to announce that the same relationship, the relationship Paul called faith, had become available to non-Jews through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Gentiles, that’s you and me, could be part of the people of God, Israel (the people, not the nation), alongside the Jews.
As Paul worked to build up the Jesus community, the central conflict developed around this question: whether non-Jews in Jesus communities also had to live as Jews. Paul insisted they did not. He saw Abraham’s faith relationship to God as prior to circumcision and prior to the faith practices of the Torah given at Mount Sinai.
Paul also knew that God’s saving power in the Exodus, through the Red Sea, came prior to Mount Sinai and the Torah. Paul never challenges the Torah-shaped life of Jews. He does affirm that Torah life follows God’s creation of a relationship with Israel.
Let me put this another way. God redeemed the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, where they had been Pharoah’s people. The revelation of the Torah came as an answer to the question, “How shall we live, now that we are God’s people?” God redeemed non-Jews, gentiles, through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Whereas Jews are guided by the spirit of God into the lifestyle of Torah, we are guided by the gifts of the Spirit into the lifestyle, or law, of love. To state it plainly, Christians are not the “new Israel” or the “true Israel.” According to Paul, when gentiles come into Christ-faith through God’s grace, they become “those who share the faith of Abraham” (Romans 4:16). We have been “grafted in” to the holy root, part of the dough that is made holy by the holiness of its first fruits (Romans 11:16-17).
Given this relationship with the Jewish people, the anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic hate in Christian history is heartbreaking. Our own Lutheran tradition bears extra pain, which the ELCA acknowledged in 1994 and again 2021through A Declaration of the ELCA to the Jewish Community.
One paragraph from the document reads, “In the spirit of … truth-telling, we who bear [Martin Luther’s] name and heritage must with pain acknowledge also Luther’s anti-Judaic diatribes and the violent recommendations of his later writings against the Jews. As did many of Luther’s own companions in the sixteenth century, we reject this violent invective, and yet more do we express our deep and abiding sorrow over its tragic effects on subsequent generations. In concert with the Lutheran World Federation, we particularly deplore the appropriation in our day of Luther’s words by modern anti-Semites for the teaching of hatred and incitement to violence toward Judaism and the Jewish people.”
It is statements like this one that actually give me hope. I have deep and abiding hope that the Holy Spirit is at work through new scholarship, through inter-faith relationships, and through individuals and groups of people who say no to anti-Semitism. The rise in anti-Semitism in the past few years has me on alert and it is surely part of the reason I preached this sermon today, and yet I can see that the Holy Spirit has been at work. In our ecumenical tradition we do not perpetuate anti-Semitism as unconsciously or consciously as we did in the past.
Still, there is more to do. There are more ways in our families, our circles of friends, and our larger community where we can stop the spread of anti-Semitism and affirm the blessedness of the Jewish people. I invite you to ponder those small and large actions as you leave this space.
I take comfort in the fact that since the earliest chapters of Genesis, God desires a thriving and diverse creation. We read in those earlier chapters of Genesis that divine intentions are repeatedly corrupted (think the Garden of Eden, the Great Flood, the Tower of Babel). Human hearts remain perpetually wicked. However, and this is the big however that keeps repeating throughout scripture, instead of quitting, God decides on a different strategy such that “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” through Abraham.
First comes the call. God calls Sarah and Abraham to a land God will show them. The call is followed by the promise. God will make of them. God will bless them. God will magnify their name. God will bless those who bless them. Notice that the future to be received by the people Israel is no accomplishment or achievement of their own. It is a gift by the one who is able to give good gifts.
Abraham and Sarah may not be able to conjure up these gifts, but they can receive them. They can and do concede that the initiative for life is held by this other one, by God. Abraham believed the promise. He obeyed. He asked no questions. Trusting the promise without any visible evidence is what is meant by faith, itself a gift from God.
This is the gift given to us in the waters of baptism, not by anything we do to initiate the gift. We, like our ancestors of faith, are recipients. Our church professes that baptism brings forgiveness of sins, redeems us from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation or healing to all who trust the promise.
We follow a God of promise, a God of relationship, who has continued since the very beginning of beginnings to desire relationship with creation. God desires a thriving and diverse creation, with multiple life-giving relationships. Some days that can be a utopic vision seemingly out of reach. Today let it be the world we help create because our God is faithful, strengthening us for the work, and is always accompanying us.
Prayers of Intercession
Sustained by God’s abundant mercy, let us pray for the church, the world, and all of creation.
A brief silence.
O God, you so love your church. Raise up leaders who care for your people. Bless lay theologians, seminary and college professors, and all who are called to the ministry of teaching, that they form and inspire us for the work of the gospel. Merciful God,
receive our prayer.
O God, you so love your creation. Breathe new life into our planetary home. Guide the work of researchers, scientists, and activists who love your earth and who inspire us to care for the natural world. Merciful God,
receive our prayer.
O God, you so love the world. Uphold leaders who resist tyranny and oppression. Strengthen organizations that promote peace and harmony (especially). Direct their work to alleviate human suffering and to address its root causes. Merciful God,
receive our prayer.
O God, you so love your people. Draw near to all who live with mental illness, depression, or addiction, and accompany them in healing and recovery. Hear the cries of those who look to you in their distress (especially). Merciful God,
receive our prayer.
O God, you so love your children. Bless the young in our midst, and delight us with their joy, wonder, and curiosity. Revive our ministries with children and youth and equip us all for faithful discipleship. Merciful God,
receive our prayer.
Here other intercessions may be offered.
O God, you so love your saints. As our ancestors in the faith have been a blessing to us, so inspire us by their example of holy living to be a blessing to those who come after us. Merciful God,
receive our prayer.
We lift our prayers to you, O God, trusting in your steadfast love and your promise to renew your whole creation; through Jesus Christ our Savior.