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Sermon delivered at St Paul's Cathedral on February 20, 2005

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A Sermon for the 2nd Sunday in Lent

Sermon preached by

The Right Rev. J. C. Fricker

February 20, 2005

There are several encounters recorded in the Book of Genesis between God and Abraham. We hear one of them today. There's a common theme to all of them. The theme is God's intervention in human history to choose for Himself a special people. There are two ingredients to God's call to Abraham to be the leader of this special people. On His part God would be generous, gracious, and a giver of many blessings. In today's reading God promises Abraham that He will endow him with progeny as numerous as the stars, and He promises to give them more land than they can possibly use. Sp the one ingredient is God's gracious gift. The other is Abraham's faith. It would be Abraham's sheer act of faith, along with God's grace that would make Israel a strong people and nation.

I'd like to speak to you about faith today. One of the purposes of Lent is to assist us in the strengthening of our faith.

I think these are not easy times for us to strengthen our faith. There are so many confusing messages as to what faith is made all the more confusing I fear by the rather shoddy presentations of the Christian faith that permeates the television airwaves. The story of faith is so often distorted, and so often presented more for its entertainment value, a constant supply of emotional gratification without encounter. Faith without responsibility.

There is a type of adherence to the church that is not by faith, that does not involve a personal encounter with God, but it is an adherence that looks only for soothing entertainment, a personal feeling of well being which the church is to provide, a kind of near faith, faith light! But the faith that Abraham was called to was a faith with responsibility. How do we come to this kind of faith? There are some very few fortunate people who arrive at real faith by a sort of tranquil ease, who simply find themselves believing, with total trust. I don't think Abraham was like that. But I think Jesus' mother, Mary, was like that. The kind of person born into faith, who never has to have it challenged, but whose whole life is a graceful growing into stronger faith. I've met people like that. I'm sure there are some here today like that.

I often wish I were that kind of person, but I know in my heart I'm not. And I know from my heart to heart encounter with many people in my life as a pastor, that faith is something that usually follows some crisis that shocks us into attention. In between times, there is faith, but it is faith always in danger of being stagnant, of becoming fossilized. Whatever crisis it is that brings us to the brink, we know we have come to a place where no further action by us is possible. It is that very helplessness that defines the crisis. It may be an intellectual crisis, which has brought us to the point where we recognize we have gone as far as our mind will take us in search of meaning, and it has brought us right up to a great abyss. It may be a moral crisis in which we confront for the first time the truth about ourselves. It may be that we are overwhelmed by the tragedy of a terrible loss that has left us stunned and helpless. Whatever the nature of the crisis, it has served to disarm us completely. It has pulled down our vanity.

Now there is no point in pretending that what happens next is automatic. Faith, when it comes, I believe, is a miracle. But it doesn't always come. Sometimes we're left stranded in a spiritual wilderness for years, aware only of a very silent God. At other times God is right there. I suspect that was Abraham's experience.

But then, of course, I can only relate my own experience with faith out of crisis, as can you. When it comes, it does so with authority, and authority that demands surrender, submission, and the response of obedience. But we live in an atmosphere, which militates against this humble submission to any authority, let alone the authority of God.
Yet the ground on which our religion is based is that there is a basic authority, there is a basic belief for us to follow. With St. Paul we must stand somewhere. We must find ourselves with ground under our feet, for the alternative to that is a sort of endless wilderness in which there is no meaning to anything at all. I believe there is a profound conservatism at the heart of all religion, and Christianity has always understood that. There is a given ness to faith, and it is to that givens, that solid ground of our being to which we must be able to confess, and to whom we must commit ourselves.

Life for Abraham could have been effortless. God seemed willing to endow him with an endless dynasty. That's often the way we want our religion, effortless. I suppose we come by it naturally. Our culture is full of examples of the desire for the effortless. Art without the mastery of technique. Employee benefits without earning them. Education without the pains of learning. Religion without the cross.

Well then you can see where the block to faith comes from. We ourselves are the block. We're so often in love with ourselves to the point that we cannot submit to the demands of the divine ground of our God. We suffer the ills of a fundamental narcissism, a fundamental me-only-ism.

Now our religion is precisely counter to this. It asks us to turn away from gazing upon ourselves. Real faith grows in us as we react responsibly to all that God gives us. A person of faith is a responsible member of the community, working with others for a better life for the community. A person of faith is a good steward of the things of creation. He seeks to protect the physical environment. A person of faith loves mercy, does justly, and walks humbly with his God.

That is the lesson of Abraham.

 

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2005 St. Paul's Cathedral, Buffalo New York