Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Adam D. McCoy, OHC
Lent 2B – Sunday, March 4, 2012
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
From the sayings of the desert fathers:
It was said of Abba John the Dwarf that he withdrew and lived in the desert at Scetis with an old man of Thebes. His abba, taking a piece of dry wood, planted it and said to him, ‘Water it every day with a bottle of water, until it bears fruit.’ Now the water was so far away that he had to leave in the evening and return the following morning. At the end of three years the wood came to life and bore fruit. Then the old man took some of the fruit and carried it to the church saying to the brethren, ‘Take and eat the fruit of obedience’. (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 85)
This story from the desert fathers is about faithful obedience, obedience and faithfulness in the face of futility. A piece of dry wood stuck in the ground in the desert. A young monk devoting every night of his life for three years to going off to get a bottle of water just to pour it on the ground. Not a hint of what he must have thought, trudging back and forth on his very short legs. What an absurdity. And then, after three years – an interesting period of time in itself – what seemed dead sprang to life. Roots, branches, leaves, flowers, fruit. Life from what was dead. Something from nothing.
Lurking in the background of this delightful story is more than just a hint of Genesis, of the creation story. Of something coming from nothing, or next to nothing. Of life coming from where there is no life, of fruit borne from a tree at the end of three years of carrying the water of life through the desert in the dark of night. Not magic, but hard work, obedience to what to others must have seemed absurd, something unheard of. And then, in the midst of the congregation, the fruit of that resurrected wood, fruit from a new Eden perhaps. Delightful.
And similarly with the story of Abraham and Sarah. An old man, a barren woman, stuck out in the desert somewhere. An impossible instruction, impossible certainly in the ordinary way of things. But Abraham and Sarah trust God, and undertake the project, as it were. I must confess, I like this story more and more the older I get. And the child of their obedience is born. I can imagine them showing off the child in the midst of the assembled family, the fruit of their old age, the child they never expected to have, the fulfilled promise of their posterity.
And lurking in the background of this story as well is the creation story. Of something coming from nothing, or next to nothing. Of life coming from where there is no life, of a child born from a couple whose bodies had passed beyond that stage of life, but who in obedience to the promise undertook what seemed absurd. Absurd and delightful. So delightful that Sarah could not repress her laughter, and so the child of promise is God-Smiled, Isaac: God smiled on his barren creation, and out of nothing brought the future, out of what seemed dead brought life.
And so our Gospel this morning. What good is a dead messiah? Whoever heard of dying and rising again? What sort of new world can come out of failure? Peter is not unlike Abraham and Sarah, like how I imagine John the Dwarf must have inwardly reacted to his abba’s instruction: How can this be? Abraham politely questions the Lord; Sarah laughs out loud; John the Dwarf, like monks in every age, probably thought his thought to himself and then, in Fr. Huntington’s polite words, treasured it up. Peter is not especially polite, like Abraham or Fr. Huntington. He doesn’t laugh like Sarah, and he certainly doesn’t put his inner thoughts on hold and get on with it, like John the Dwarf. No sir. He rebukes Jesus for what makes no sense at all. “Get behind me, Satan.” The purposes of God are fulfilled in ways that seem absurd to the world, and Peter is living very much in the world. But God asks us to have other eyes, to have an imagination, to act in obedience to what seems impossible.
Lurking behind the Gospel story is the creation story as well. Why is there something and not nothing? Because God wanted it, wants it, speaks the word, and in obedience to the word, what is comes into being. When God wills that life may transform life, he brings it out of what seems a void, the darkness of obscurity, a people off to the side of things, unimportant in the eyes of the world. His only son is born of the promise, born not in the usual way, to a mother who is, like Sarah, ecstatic at the news. Jesus labors three long years, carrying the water of life to those who do not always know what it is or respond, and at the end of it himself is on the wood planted in the ground. But the fruit that wood bears! The joy as the news is brought into the midst of the assembled family. The joy as the gathered church sees him once again in their midst, the fruit of his obedience and the love of God. What a delight!
So. We want to find our life? Lose it. Follow the Word in obedience. What it asks is absurd, we think. I’m past my time and as good as dead. The water is too far and my legs are too short. I can’t understand what is new to me. So, follow our mothers and fathers in the faith. Think our thoughts, laugh our laughs, rebuke the Lord if that’s our style. And then get on with it. God is bringing what is new out of what is old. God is bringing fruit from the dry wood, children from barren people, life from death. The creation is made new again.
As the sentence which follows our Gospel says: “I tell you solemnly, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God coming in power.”