Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent
Sunday, February 28, 2021
Trinity Lutheran Church, Worcester, Massachusetts

Watch Here (TLC Worship Service 02/28/2021)

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Experts who study human relationships, point out the difference between transactional and relational relationships.

Transactional relationships are those relationships defined as focusing on a short term transaction that serves the need of self and asks questions such as: What do I need from you?  What can I get from you? How can you serve my needs?  A transactional sales relationship is driven by the sale – I try to get you to buy the most expensive item I can sell you even if you don’t need it, can’t afford it, or don’t really want it; marriages can be transactional – in a transactional marriage the spouse is used only to meet the personal needs of the other spouse; congregational life can be transactional – the needs of humans are lost behind the need for Council members, volunteers, money – new members are seen not as sinners in need of the grace of Christ, but a new source of labor and money.

Opposite of a transactional relationship is a relational relationship. A relational relationship is focused on the long term relationship between two or more people and asks questions such as:  What do you need?  What can I give you?   How can I serve your needs? A relational sales relationship is driven by taking the time to meet the customer’s needs – maybe this customer buys a smaller item, but the customer is more satisfied with the experienced and then also buys other products or makes referrals to friends; relational marriages is ones where each spouse puts the needs of their spouse first, where they avoid win-lose arguments; congregational life that is relational – sees each other first as humans with hopes, dreams, needs, sorrows, passions, in a relational congregation people prioritize relationships first and all the to-do list tasks of ministry second. 

Transactional vs Relational Relationships … What kind of relationship do you think God has with us? The stories from our scriptures this morning – are they transactional or relational?

In God’s covenant with Abraham & Sarah [Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16], and with Jesus’s invitation to the disciples to take up their cross and follow him [Mark 8:31-38], the two stories the lectionary gives us today on this Second Sunday in Lent, are they transactional or relational? To be honest, I have read them as transactional stories.

“The Lord appeared to Abram,” we read in our First Reading from Genesis” and  the Lord said to him, “I am God Almighty, walk before me and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” [Genesis 17:1-2] A transactional read is reinforced in verses 9-14 which our reading this morning leaves out – the requirement of circumcision. In verses 9-14 God commands that every male who wants to walk in the promise be circumcised. The transaction was clear: walk in the way of the Lord, be blameless, circumcise all the males, and be rewarded with a multitude of nations and kings coming from the peoples.

There are real life implications today if we read this story as transactional. If we walk with the Lord in blamelessness, if we circumcise the thoughts and desires of our hearts, will we too be rewarded? Maybe not with a multitude of nations, but maybe some other earthly reward?

There are Christians today who believe this. Some Christians preach the Prosperity Gospel – the belief that God rewards earthly righteousness with material blessing.   Live a good Christian life and your paychecks will be bigger, your houses will be larger, and your vacations longer.

That belief exists in us in other subtle but real ways. It’s not uncommon when people receive a tragic health diagnosis for them to ask, “Did I do something wrong? Is God punishing me from something?” The belief is that in return for living a good life, God will protect us from harm. Or at the time of death, “He lived a good life, I’m sure he’s going to heaven.”  The belief is that in return for a good life, God will grant eternal life.

These views take a transactional view of God. We give to God prayer, money, service, so that God gives us what we want. But ultimately, that view is centered on the self: what can I get from God? What blessings can I negotiate for with God?  

Even the invitation to take up the cross and follow, can be a self-serving transactional relationship. One might read this story as a self-serving transaction: Want to save YOUR life? Take up your cross and follow Jesus. For Jesus said: “Those who lose their life for my sake, and the sake of the gospel, will save it.”  A transactional view of this story would have us take up the cross, not for the sake of others, but for the sake of ourselves.

The problem with the transactional view of these stories, and a transactional view of our relationship with God, is that this view doesn’t move us beyond ourselves.   Transactional faith is focused on the WHAT of SELF: what’s in it for me? What will I gain? What I will receive? What will I lose? That is the definition of sin.  Sin turns us inward to focus on ourselves at the expense of others.  But the scriptures do not promote sin, Jesus does not teach us to sin.

That’s why I think we are to read these stores as relational stories. Relational faith is not about the “What we get from God.” Relational faith is about WHO God is – about who Jesus Christ is for us and for the world, about WHO our brothers and sisters in Christ are, about WHO God is calling us into relationship with.

The promise God spoke to Abraham & Sarah, was not about the WHAT they would receive, they would be dead before their ancestors would form multitudes of nations producing kings. The promise was about WHO they were – beloved children of God receiving new names – and about WHO God would remain in relationship with long after Abraham and Sarah were dead and buried. The promise was a public covenant of God’s relationship with God’s people that began in Abraham & Sarah, and CONTINUES TO THIS DAY – a promise of relationship, forever.

The invitation of Jesus to take up our cross and follow, is also an invitation to move into the WHO of relationship.  A common mistake Christians make, is to equate the cross with the daily sorrows of life. It’s a mistake to believe that “our cross to bear” is physical disease, mental illness, addiction, or whatever personal pain we experience.

Friends, that is wrong, that is not the cross Jesus was talking about. To live as a human is to experience sorrows. Each human, every Muslim, Jew, atheist, or person of any religion or no religion, can identify some burden or heavy load to carry as a result of living as a human on earth. But, while the pains of life are real, they are NOT our cross to bear.

The cross Jesus was talking about was the way we give of ourselves to bring life to others. The cross is our calling as Christians to self-sacrificial and self-emptying love and service. The cross are all the ways we set aside our own needs, conveniences, privileges, and power, in order to serve those around us who are suffering and in need. The cross is the way we are in relational relationship with those around us.  

We take up our cross as we live out our Lutheran understanding of vocation. As Lutherans, we understand all the relationships we find ourselves in as the vocations of daily life in which we love and serve others. Each of us has vocations/relationships with others as citizens, family members, as employees or employers, neighbors, church members. We follow Christ, by taking up our cross, when we love and serve others through these relationships.

I’m not a parent, but I’m sure those of you who are know the ways you have been  required to set aside your own needs in order to serve the needs of your children.

I am an employee of this congregation, and while I love my job and can’t think of anything I would rather be doing, there are still those days when I can think of doing something other than the daily tasks of ministry, and yet, along with you and millions of others workers around the world, we set aside those pursuits, and show up for work, and try to put in a good day’s work.

We take up the cross and follow, in all of those ways we step up, speak out, and participate in love and justice in the world. The life of the cross is the work of racial justice, when we who are white and comfortable in our privilege, step up and speak out, against the systems and ways people of color do not experience equity and equality in this country.

This is what it means to take up our cross and follow Christ. On the cross, Jesus gave himself away for the life of the world. The cross today, is the way of life and service, the way we give of ourselves, so that others are blessed.

The Good News today, is that in Jesus, we have the hope and promise of God  who is in relational relationship with us. In the waters of baptism, God makes the same relational promise to us that God made with Abraham and Sarah – that God will be with us forever. In the call to take up our cross and follow – is the relational promise that Christ took up his cross first, to proclaim relationship with us, a relationship that not even our sin or death can break.

God does NOT look at us and ask, “What can I get, what can I extract from those  humans?” Rather, God looks at us and says, “Here’s what I will give those humans:  I will give them the name BELOVED, and I will give them my very self.  I will give them myself in the form of Jesus.” God looks at us and says I will give them everything I have:  I will give them myself in relationship!

That’s the promise of God in relational relationship with us. The promise of life, healing, and love flowing into us, flowing through us, flowing all around us. The promise of life with God forever!

And so, friends, in response to God’s love for us, and as we journey together through Lent, and hold each other accountable to the Lenten disciplines of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving … How might these disciplines lead you deeper into a relationship view of relationship with God and with each other?

As you fast …WHO are you seeing in a new way? Who are you noticing that you have overlooked or forgotten?  Who are you being called to love in a new way?

As you pray … WHO are you being called to pray for? Whose needs will your pray for? And how might that prayer spur you to action?

As you give alms … WHO are you being called to bless in a new way through your financial offerings?

In these ways, how is the Holy Spirit renewing your relationships for the sake of life, healing, and wholeness?

Thanks be to God!