Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Power of Faith

Scripture for the 2nd Sunday in Lent includes Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38

Nothing is simple in the Book of Genesis. For one thing, whenever a pivotal story is told, it is told twice, and with noticeable differences between the two tellings. In our Lenten series today, Diana Elvin will help us explore the two creation stories that are told, back to back, consistent in their central message that God made and loves the created order, but inconsistent as to how it all happened.

Perhaps we just shouldn’t be surprised that the foundational book of the Hebrew Bible regales us with two versions of watershed events. Consider it basic training for Christianity that presents its anointed holy one Jesus Christ not in one Gospel, but in four.

In today’s portion from Genesis, we hear the second of two stories about the covenant God made with Abraham. If you found something missing in today’s version, namely all that real estate in Canaan that Israel was promised by God, you’ll find that’s in the earlier version, a chapter or two earlier. And the other big difference is that in the first version, it looked as if Sarah’s maidservant’s son Ishmael was going to be the heir apparent to God’s covenant promises, but by the time of this second version (13 years have passed), Ishmael no longer has such hopes pinned on him. Maybe he had become such a difficult teenager that he’d burned his bridges—we just aren’t told. So the drama intensifies as God promises to Abram and Sarai (as they are still called) a son of their own who will bear the family standard. As part of the deal, they’re given new names—not major changes, but subtle ones. Abram becomes Abraham and Sarai becomes Sarah… but don’t expect me to tell you what the differences mean. The language experts say they don’t know, except that the newer names sound less Semitic and more Aramaic, and the point (probably) is that this elderly couple is expected to live up to their new names—which (probably) mean “exalted father” (Abraham) and “princess” (Sarah). And, by the way, the fact that Sarah gets renamed means that God—this time—is including her in this new version of the covenant. Given the tenuous place of women in patriarchal societies, this is a big difference between the two versions. Maybe it’s proof of evolution, and evidence that behind every patriarchal society stands the matriarchal presence that knows how to get things done.

What’s worth keeping from all this? How about a lively sense of what old age is for? If it isn’t dramatic enough, getting called out at age 86 (first version) to play a key role in helping God form a new nation that will bless all other nations, imagine it happening again at age 99 (second version)! There’s a lot of laughter in the background of both stories. In an age when there were (probably) no little pills to help things along, a lot was being asked of Abraham—and Sarah. As St. Paul reflects on their stories several hundred years later, he observes that the God in whom Abraham and Sarah believed “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Hoping against hope, Abraham believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations,’… (so) He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead… or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”

Well, then. Let’s hear it for the power of faith and the virtue of glorifying God! But lest we get lost in fantasy about old age, virility, and fertility, let’s take home the message that becoming elderly in no way disqualifies—and may in fact uniquely qualify—a person when it comes to helping God bless other people. It’s common to say that elderly people have in their toolkits wisdom, perspective, a certain regard for the little things that manifest caring, and the ability to see the forest for the trees.

But the Abraham and Sarah stories show that something more is required, for old age (and any age) to connect with the missionary drive of God. St. Paul teases it out when he observes, “it all depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all… descendants.”

Packed into that rich statement are several insights. The whole enterprise of life, from God’s primeval creation of this biosphere to God’s new creation of a new heaven and a new earth through the self-offering of Jesus Christ, all rests on grace. For that reason, the primary way that we human beings may contribute to the enterprise of life is by the exercise of faith, trust. And the beneficiaries of our contributions to life are not to be limited to our own tribe, family, denomination, party, or persuasion. All of these insights Paul harvests from the stories of Abraham and Sarah, which makes me think that a deep trust in the grace of God is the most useful tool in the toolkit of old age (or any age).

There’s one more thing to take away from the Abraham and Sarah saga, and what St. Paul makes of it. This is especially pertinent in a season when the Anglican Communion has called her members worldwide to recognize that we and our planet are in crisis, requiring us to rediscover a proper stewardship of our environment.

Paul casts the story of this elderly couple as an example of God bringing about a new creation. He says that the God Abraham and Sarah believed in is the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” This is God’s generative nature, not confined to the start of our universe, but woven into the web of being is this leaning into new life that allows God to be known as the one who says, “Behold, I make all things new.”

But, to do that, God requires old people-- and young people, and middle-aged people-- who are willing to unsettle their lives as radically as Abraham and Sarah, who moved at a great age not into assisted living, but into unmapped territory as they left their ancestral home in what is now Turkey and migrated west towards the Mediterranean coast of Canaan. God requires people willing to be stirred out of retirement, out of comfort zones, out of age-old assumptions and entitlements, to become stirrers of a new creation, a new society, new ways of being in the world.

God required of Jesus of Nazareth a degree of commitment unique among human beings, but not inherently different from what God needs from us all, the faith and trust we’ve seen in Abraham and Sarah, the kind that will commit the whole of life into the hands of God.

As Jesus displayed and expressed this deep trust, willing to embrace the worst that human nature and human society could dish out, his own disciple Peter took him aside and scolded him for exaggerating the risk, over-stating the challenge, and frightening the weak. This was no longer a private conversation, for we’re told that Jesus turned and saw his disciples nearby, near enough that he knew that loud Peter had been heard, anxious Peter seen. Whereupon Jesus rebuked Peter for being short-sighted, self-absorbed, and timid.

However we understand the plight of our planet, however we would advocate going about repairing the damage, addressing the plundering, and protecting the endangered, our scriptures put before us today the sharply opposite examples of Abraham and Sarah at their best, on the one hand, and of Peter, on the other, at his worst.

What story will be told of us? What does God require of us now? Among the choices we have, how will we recognize and make the very best ones we can?