Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 | Psalm 19 | 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 | John 2:13-22
There’s news out this week of a study that found something, well, quite surprising. Or perhaps it wasn’t surprising at all. You may be a better judge about these things than I am.
The findings were drawn from the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project, a large and comprehensive study of aging conducted by the University of Chicago. So the study examined many questions around a wide variety of topics relating to aging, but what made the headlines recently, of course, had to do with sex. And what they found is pretty interesting.
As you might expect, in long-term marriages there is something of a decline over the years in sexual intimacy—life happens, after all, with its demands and distractions, intimacy evolves from the physical, even as it deepens.
So it declines, until you get past 50 years of marriage, that is. That was the surprise. According to a New York Times article this week: “While most long-married individuals reported steady declines in sexual activity, those who passed the 50-year wedded mark began to report a slight increase in their sex lives.”[i] And frequency continued to improve from that point through 65 years of marriage.
Now it would be difficult to draw too many conclusions from this, and probably inadvisable for us to spend much more time on this in our particular venue, but there’s something to be said here about the nature of relationships and the shape of life over the long haul.
And to draw in the Genesis text here, it is probably important to note that the story makes no claims that the birth of the son and the nation of this promise to Abraham, age 99, and Sarah, age 39—sorry 90—came about by supernatural means. Something, um, physical, let’s say, had to happen. So this couple may be yet more evidence for the findings of the study.
But, of course, there’s more here, isn't there?
This story is about the nature of faith. And one of the highlights that’s found in all of today’s texts is the gift of a faith that endures when everything around us seems to suggest the path of least resistance. There is something to be said for holding on, for listening for the better thing, the enduring thing. So Romans praises Abraham:
He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. 20 No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22 Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
Anne Lamott says well what many of us have come to understand. "I have a lot of faith,” she writes. “But I am also afraid a lot, and have no real certainty about anything. I remembered something Father Tom had told me—that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns."[ii]
You see, it seems God lives more in the uncertainty, than the certainty. For whatever reason, this just seems to be the way it is. It’s in the bumps and purple bruises of a life lived where we encounter God and God’s long presence of faithfulness. It is in the wrestling with God and ourselves that gets us to Easter. And more often than we’d like, it takes seeing something through to realize the pay-off. Most of what really matters to most of us has probably come with a healthy dose of difficulty and challenge. It takes losing our lives in order to see them saved, and to see our lives become a blessing to others. It takes paying attention to the beauty, the purple flowers in the field, even as we walk through it with a limp.
That’s certainly the sense we get in Mark, isn’t it? We’ve skipped from the beginning of Mark where we were last Sunday to the middle, in fact to a turning point in the story at which Jesus begins to define for himself and for his followers who he is and to whom he has given his life. Rather than a great political rival of Caesar who will bring about Israel’s independence, he is the Son of God who has come to suffer, whose identity will not be known until after his death. The path Jesus will take will raise resistance in those around him, including his closest followers.
This is pretty clear by the structure of Mark. Mark 8:22-10:52 is considered by many to be a unit. It is a section that is bracketed by two healings of blind men. At the beginning of the section, multitudes are following Jesus. Then in-between we get three predictions of Jesus’ death—today’s story is the first of those. And by the second healing in chapter 10, the resistance has spread like a virus even to his closest followers.
From here on out in Mark, Jesus will only refer to himself as the “Son of Man.” His identity and his calling become clear, and the uncertainty of the road ahead along with it, and yet, he demonstrates a faithfulness to a mission that he alone believes, a faith that surpasses Abraham and Sarah as he makes his way to the end.
I think one of the great gifts of life is when we get to see images of faith like this. For me, it has the power of blessing, as it invites me to hold on when my own faith may be wavering. Seeing your strength makes me better.
Barb and I sat down with some long-time friends recently. The woman had lost her dad the week before in an incredibly unfortunate series of circumstances. Perhaps the hardest of these was that our friend had made the decision to cut herself off from her parents some time ago. It was a decision, I suspect, that not many understood or found themselves completely comfortable with. I know I wondered about her choice.
Her parents, you see, are really nice people when you talk to them. Sweet, kind. If you knew them socially, it would have been pretty difficult to imagine why their only daughter would remove herself from the relationship.
Of course there was more to the story. The family was ravaged by alcoholism which was all the more dysfunctional because the parents chose to hide it from everyone, and chose to deny it everywhere. Our friend had grown up in a household in which the story on the inside was tragically different from its public face.
So some years ago she began to do her work in earnest. She went to counseling. She went to Al-anon. She told her parents, the story isn’t over, but I can’t do your work for you. When you are ready to have a healthy relationship with me, I’ll be here. And she began to speak the truth that she knew in the places that she needed to.
Of course, not everyone understood this. Of course, it resulted in untold pain, and probably some considerable criticism of her for being such a judgmental daughter to such nice parents.
It would be nice to say the story has a happy ending. Her dad died from injuries sustained in a single-vehicle traffic accident. It seems likely the accident was intentional. And yet, she was able to be by his bedside as he died, having told him what she needed to. There was a certain beauty in the end, even as the tragedy of a life and a relationship there has been lost.
But the bigger finding for me, was hearing, as she told the story for us, how she had found herself and her center in the midst of a profoundly tragic situation that few understood. The gift was in getting a glimpse of the courage of my friend as she remained faithful to a true way even as she faced the subtle, if not outright judgment of some, including myself. And the gift was witnessing in her the freedom that comes from such a journey.
Because it seems to me, this is the stuff that lasts. This is what is eternal. This is the stuff of salvation, and for better or worse, it is found only by holding on to the promise through the long hard struggle, and doing our best to notice the beauty God has placed along the path. As Romans says it later, “just as Christ was raised … so we too might walk in newness of life.”[iii]
[i] Jan Hoffman. “Married Sex Gets Better in the Golden Years” New York Times, February 23, 2015, accessed on February 27, 2015 at http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/02/23/married-sex-gets-better-in-the-golden-years/?_r=2.
[ii] Original source uncertain. Drawn from http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_march_1_2015, accessed on February 27, 2015.
[iii] Romans 6:3-4