March 8, 2020 – Lent 2A
© 2020 Evan D. Garner
There’s a scene from the political drama West Wing in which Toby Zeigler expresses his amazement that each of his newborn twins is given a hat. You know the little pink and blue knit beanies that every baby in the hospital is given? It’s one piece of the standard equipment that every child born in an American hospital is given. I’m sure there are some institutional variations in the bag of kit each hospital gives, but I bet the collection is more or less standard across the country: hat, tiny diapers, wipes, brush, comb, bulb suction, pacifier, and formula (if the child isn’t being exclusively breast-fed). But each child also gets some other stuff that doesn’t come in a cute newborn package.
Last Sunday, Suzanne reminded us that, when God breathes the breath of life into humankind, we become a living hunger. Our “nephesh,” she explained isn’t just something God gives to us. It’s who we are. It’s what it means to be human. It is that hunger or passion or desire that sets us apart as the species made in the image of God. Part of being human—our human condition—is being born with a rapacious and insatiable desire for more. We are, in effect, given at birth an invisible basket we spend the rest of our life wanting to fill. The search for enoughness, as David Zahl puts it in his book Seculosity, is a quest that is written into our DNA. And Zahl argues that in religious circles the outdated and, perhaps, jargony word we use to describe that concept of enoughness is “righteousness.” Righteousness is the state of having enough, of being right, of being full, of having one’s invisible basket filled to completion. And, whether or not we use a religious framework to describe it, that’s a quest we’re all on.
In the Book of Genesis, Abram set out in search of his own full basket by going where God had sent him. Expanding the biblical narrative, the Jewish midrash tells the story of Abram working in his father’s idol shop and experiencing within himself a deep dissatisfaction with the idea that one could worship an object made by human hands. Into this longing for a true encounter with the divine, the one true God appeared to Abram and spoke to him and told him to go: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” In other words, if you will leave the people and the place and the mindset you know and set out to the land that I will show you, I will fill you richly—full enough that you will overflow and become a source of blessing for others.
The apostle Paul seized upon this moment and made the story of Abraham the foundational story of how he explained the power of the Christian faith. What our parish’s namesake had been shown in his transformative encounter with Jesus was the fact that our hunger for enough—our quest to fill our basket and achieve wholeness and completeness—is not completed through works but is given by faith. And Paul turned to Father Abraham as the biblical model for that truth. Quoting Genesis 15, Paul wrote, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” This sense of completeness didn’t come to Abraham because he earned it the way a worker earns a wage. It was given to him because he took God at God’s word. When God promised that God would bless him, that God would give him a son, that God would make him the father of a great nation, Abraham believed it—believed that his completeness, his future, his destiny, his progeny would all be fulfilled by God as a gift. And, when Abraham found that it possible for him to believe it as if it were already true, he discovered that, in God, it was already true. His basket was full. His hunger was satisfied. Believing in God, Abraham had enough.
That has radical implications for us that run contrary to our most basic human nature. We’re all trying to fill our own basket in one way or another. Some of us use what David Zahl refers to as “capital-R Religion” to try to fill it. We go to church. We say our prayers. We fast during Lent. We teach our children that what it means to be a Christian is to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. In other words, we sacrifice things of value—time, money, emotional security—to help us feel whole and complete. We measure our sense of enoughness using the comparative standards of “old-time religion.”
But Zahl’s book argues that there are so many other ways we seek to fill our baskets and attain that mythical sense of completeness. In the post-Christian world we inhabit, we turn to parenting, politics, physical fitness, diet, busyness, and wokeness in our search for enough. These “small-r religions” are substitutes for the faith our parents and grandparents maintained—quests for measuring up to completeness by using other standards that are no less religious than the mechanics of corporate Christianity. People who want nothing to do with organized religion, he notes, usually don’t like being described as “religious,” but is there any other way to describe the fanatical pursuit of self-justification and righteousness that is the contemporary American experience?
Yet none of that is what Paul and Abraham and Jesus teach us. On the Damascus Road, what Paul learned was that he could never fill his own basket. He had done everything he was supposed to do—zealous for the faith, a keeper of the tradition, a Hebrew of the Hebrews—and still, when Jesus appeared to him, it all came up short. Abraham trusted God and set out for an unknown land, and, even though God did bless Abraham richly, that fulness wasn’t something that could be measured in earthly terms as he died somewhat estranged from his sons and owning no more land than the burial site he had bought for his beloved wife Sarah. Jesus shows his followers that the kingdom of God is manifest not in victory but in defeat, that we inherit everlasting life not when we seek to save our own lives but when we give them up for the sake of Jesus. That isn’t some secret code or shortcut that leads to your best life now. Following Jesus really means giving up everything—even our own lives. That’s how we find that our baskets are full to overflowing. That’s how our insatiable hunger is finally satisfied—by giving up our quest to fill it ourselves and believing that, by letting go, God fills us.
In this congregation, we have a tendency to try really hard to fill our own basket. We have been given eyes to see the needs in the world around us and the desire to respond to those needs through advocacy, effort, and generosity. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we will satisfy our own hunger for righteousness—for completeness, for enoughness—by working to make sure those around us who are in need get their fair share. But that’s like trying to fill up a basket with a big hole in the bottom of it. It doesn’t work. And it’s not what it means to be followers of Jesus.
Our efforts must begin not from a place of our own spiritual deficit but from a place of God-granted abundance. Our quest for enough can’t begin with us but only with God. As much as we love the kind of world that Jesus stood for, it is very threatening to believe that we are good and right and complete not because of anything we have accomplished but because of something we have been given. But, if we are going to believe in God’s infinite and unconditional love for the world, then that is where we must invest our faith—not in ourselves but in God. Like our namesake, we must let go of the privilege of our accomplishments and, instead of trusting what we have done or what we can do, trust the only one who can fill us to overflowing. Like Abraham, we must believe in the one who blesses us so that we might become a blessing to the world.