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.