Last week, we heard about God’s covenant with Noah, his family, and indeed all of creation that the earth would never again be destroyed by flood. This week, we hear about God’s covenant with Abram, who gets a new name in the process: Abraham – father of a multitude of nations. Sarai gets a new name too: Sarah – meaning “queen.” God makes this covenant with Abraham several times: first in Genesis 12 when he tells Abram to get up and go to the land I will show you. This is the second time God restates his covenant promising children to the aged Abraham and the barren and aged Sarah. Now both of them struggle to believe this, regardless of what Paul says in Romans! There will be fits and starts along the journey – places where they even appear to have trouble believing God is going to come through. But God is faithful and remembers the covenant, in spite of Abraham and Sarah’s shortcomings and doubts. This is the faithfulness of our God in spite of our human frailty.
In the gospel readings, we are getting another perspective of God’s covenant faithfulness – one that perhaps is a bit more oblique. Last week, we heard of Jesus’ baptism: the voice declaring him as “beloved Son” and the one in whom God takes great delight. But the scene immediately following is one of trial and temptation, not one of comfort and ease. This week, we hear that Jesus tells his followers plainly that he will undergo great suffering, be put to death and rise again on the third day. Suffering? Death? Testing and trials? This sure doesn't feel much like the covenant faithfulness of God, does it? This is why Peter protests against this vision – it doesn't feel like what God should be up to when it comes to salvation.
The paradox here is this is exactly how God works out salvation – both in spite humanity of and through it. Jesus, whom the writer of Hebrews calls “the pioneer and perfector of our faith,” shows us through his life, ministry, death and resurrection that the pattern of salvation is counterintuitive to human desires. It’s not the road we want to take, but it is the only road for the faithful – that of death and resurrection.
None of us wants to die – none of us. And I’m speaking of more than just the final, physical end of our existence on planet earth. I’m talking about the dying to self – the dying to our own ego need to control and manipulate both ourselves and others. This takes many forms. Maybe it’s dying to the need to be right and win fights at the expense of others. Maybe it’s dying to never being able to admit you are wrong so that you can truly and humbly seek the forgiveness of others and live in healthier relationships. Maybe it’s letting go of a vision of yourself that isn't true anymore … or perhaps never was. This is what Jesus is speaking of when he tells his followers to deny themselves – deny the ego needs of your self … which always feels like death and it is.
When we do this, we continue the work of Christ as his Body on earth. In our own flesh, God is still working the plan of salvation both through us and in spite of us. We lost one of the people who did this well this week. The Rev. Canon Malcolm Boyd died in hospice care in Los Angeles. His name might not immediately be recognizable, but his life was one lived in this pattern of dying to self. Malcolm began his career in film as a producer – even starting a production company with silent film star Mary Pickford. But shortly thereafter, he followed the same call as his grandfather - into ordained ministry as an Episcopal priest. He graduated from Church Divinity School of the Pacific and was ordained a priest in 1955. He was controversial from the start. Dubbed by a newspaper as the “Espresso priest” while serving in Colorado as a campus chaplain because he hosted conversations on faith in coffee houses and reading his gritty poetic prayers, he ran afoul of the local bishop and resigned his post. He went to Detroit as a campus chaplain next and got involved in the Civil Rights Movement as a freedom rider and marched with Dr. King. He wrote prolifically. Unlike the Elizabethan language of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, Boyd wrote prayers from the darker side of life – about people on the margins … drunks, prostitutes, hoods, the poor, people of color. He saw God in nightclubs, slums and in the streets. His best known book, Are You Running With Me Jesus? became a New York Times bestseller, much to his surprise. He ushered in a whole new way of being clergy – blurring the lines between what was thought to be “proper” and “holy” and what was considered “base” or “profane” … not unlike the savior he followed. I daresay Boyd’s unflinching look at God’s presence in the broken places paved the way for other clergy, like Nadia Bolz Weber, to follow in those steps. He was controversial and criticized for his flair for the spotlight. But his most personal and courageous act was telling the truth of his life at an Episcopal convention in 1976 when he came out as a gay man. In a day and time where homosexuality was considered by most a “lifestyle choice,” Malcolm found himself unable to find a call in the Episcopal Church – we weren't quite ready for that yet. An old friend who was rector of St. Augustine by the Sea in Santa Monica hired Malcolm and, while some left in protest, those who stayed found in him a caring priest who could bring Christ to those who felt alienated by “organized religion.” He met his partner Mark Thompson, editor of the Advocate, in the 1980’s and Mark was at his side when he breathed his last this week at the age of 91.
Malcolm Boyd deeply influenced my parents … and in turn he influenced me. As one of our brothers in the Body of Christ, God showed us the continuation of that pattern – covenant faithfulness both in spite of us and through us. Malcolm could ruffle feathers and make you squirm – he was not perfect! But like Abraham, in spite of his very human shortcomings, God was faithful to him and those he served in the course of his life. This isn't to say he didn't have hardships, for he certainly did. Yet Malcolm had a way of confessing God’s presence and through him we witnessed Christian justice making and the radical inclusion of everyone in the kingdom. Malcolm Boyd’s life serves as a reminder to each of us that this pattern is our pattern too. God’s covenant faithfulness is operative in spite of and through you and me … each and every one of us.