Ignore the fact that I kind of sound like a baritone in the audio this week. I’m pretty sure one of us has been sick at some point throughout the entire month of February. I’m SO ready for spring!
I decided to preach through the Epistle selections in the lectionary throughout the Lenten season this year. Obviously, I preached the Gospel last week (Lent 1 = Jesus in the wilderness), but I am going to try to stay in the letters from here on out. I preached out of Romans this week, which was paired with the Abraham narrative in Genesis, because Paul talks about having a faith like Abraham’s. We sang and danced to Father Abraham during the children’s sermon and then I talked about looking at the entire Abraham narrative when we think about having faith like his.
Rehoboth Congregational Church
February 25, 2018
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
A Faith Like Abraham’s (All Of It!)
Bruce and I met when we were both on staff at a youth leadership program at Lancaster Seminary called Leadership Now. The mission of the program – the tagline that was on all of our brochures and shirts and other SWAG – was, “Cultivating a faith that celebrates questions.”
This program was built on the opposite foundation of blindly following religious doctrine. Students were encouraged to ask questions; about their faith, about their parents’ faith, about the church, about the bible, about worship and about the world we live in (everything, really). This program wanted to resist spoon-fed Christianity; rather, they wanted each student to foster their own beliefs.
This idea was new to me. I did not grow up in a heavily indoctrinated church, but I think I always kind of took thinks at face value. I do remember sitting in Sunday School one week and our teacher was explaining the meaning of the word, “Amen,” which essentially means, “So it be.” When you say, “Amen,” at the end of a prayer, in a way, you are affirming whatever was just said in the prayer. My Sunday School teacher said she was going to read several statements and we were to respond affirmatively with the phrase, “So it be,” to each statement as our way of saying, “Amen,” and agreeing with what she said. I piped up, “Well, what if I don’t agree with what you said?” (Sorry – even the most well behaved preacher’s kids have their moments.) I distinctly remember her taking a deep breath, raising her eyebrows at me and exasperatedly saying, “Trust me, you’ll agree with these statements.”
And I did; she certainly was not saying anything controversial. The point of the exercise was not to stir up an intense theological debate; it was to teach us the meaning of the word, “Amen.”
But that moment always kind of stuck with me. Because I never really thought I was allowed to ask questions about what I was being taught in church or – gasp! – have doubts.
I was heavily influenced by Leadership Now; now, I take the same approach of “celebrating questions” when I teach confirmation and lead bible study. Even here in worship, I think it is okay (albeit frustrating for you at times) for me to look at a scripture and say, “I am just not sure I believe this” or, “I struggle with this story,” or, “I cannot reconcile what this means.”
Which is why, at first glance, our two scriptures for this morning – read in conjunction with one another – are a little bit troublesome for me.
Let’s start with the second passage we heard from the New Testament; Paul was writing to the church in Rome in response to growing tension between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. He was addressing the differences between adherence to the law (which Jewish Christians were accustomed to) and righteousness of faith (the path understood by many of the Gentile Christians, who just did not grow up following the law). Paul’s point was that it was not the law that mattered most in how they lived their lives and built their church, but their faith.
In other words, Gentile Christians – even without strict adherence to the law – had the same access to God through the grace of Jesus Christ that Jewish Christians did.
For the record, I completely agree with the point Paul was trying to make.
But there is another layer to the grace we receive through faith that I want to explore this morning. In this particular passage, Paul points to Abraham, which, of course, leads us back to this morning’s Old Testament reading from the book of Genesis.
I want to take a slight detour for a moment and talk about how I choose our readings every week. For the most part, I follow the Revised Common Lectionary, which is a three-year cycle of weekly readings from the bible used by many Protestant and Catholic churches in the United States and Canada. Every week there is a passage from the Old Testament, the Psalms, the letters of the New Testament and the Gospels. The reading from the Gospel follows the rhythm of the church year and the other passages are often thematically related to it. Preachers can choose one or any combination of the four passages for their weekly worship.
I was recently asked about the lectionary and why I follow it and I thought my responses were worth repeating here, in case anyone was curious. Do I have to follow the lectionary? No. There are advantages and disadvantages to it. The advantage is that is brings me around the bible and encourages me to preach on books and passages I might otherwise overlook. It is nice that the passages are often thematically linked, which creates a more cohesive understanding of the bible. It is also nice that a lot of my colleagues are also following the lectionary, so we are all essentially preaching on the same thing and can brainstorm together. The disadvantage, though, is that sometimes, because it jumps around so much, we only get pieces of the story.
Which is kind of the problem this morning.
Okay, let’s get off of our detour and jump back into this morning’s text. In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul points to Abraham when he talks about the righteousness of faith.
“The promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed … to those who share the faith of Abraham.”
“Hoping against hope, [Abraham] believed.”
“[Abraham] did not weaken in faith.”
“No distrust made [Abraham] waver.”
Paul paints Abraham as the picture of obedience and then, in the passages from Genesis that have been paired with the lectionary readings, this picture is kind of set up for us.
In this morning’s reading from the book of Genesis, we hear part of the story of Abraham. Abraham was 99 years old when God appeared to him and told him he was going to make a covenant with Abraham that he was going to be the father of all nations; and this covenant was not just between God and Abraham, but also between God and all of Abraham’s offspring, generation upon generation. This, God explained, would be an, “everlasting covenant.”
I was reading a commentary this week that pointed out that, okay, this is all well and good and everything, but Abraham still had doubts along the way and did not fully submit to trusting God. Perhaps not in these particular passages, but when you look at the entire Abraham narrative, he stumbles once or twice. On not one, but two occasions when they were traveling as aliens outside of their own land, Abraham did not trust that God would protect them on their journey; Abraham took matters into his own hands and told people that his wife, Sarah, who was beautiful and desirable, was his sister so they would take her as a wife and his life would be spared. And when Sarah was not able to bear him children, Abraham did not trust that God would reverse her fertility struggles; Abraham took Hagar, the Egyptian slave-girl, as a wife so that she could conceive his child. And, in Genesis 17:17, which the lectionary conveniently cuts off one chapter before (this morning’s reading stops at chapter 16), Abraham literally fell on his face laughing after God told him that God was going make this covenant with him and he was going to have all these children.
Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’
This is not the picture of perfect obedience. This is the picture of a man who had doubts along the way; who sometimes took things into his own hands because he was unsure of where God was taking him. This is a man who sometimes had a hard time believing in the promises of God’s covenant.
I have to laugh because, in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, he said that, “No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God.” No offense, Paul, but I beg to differ.
That being said, I do not think his distrust made Abraham an unfaithful man; I think it made him human.
I think we can do one of two things here. We can look at the picture of Abraham that we see solely from this morning’s lectionary and then read Roman’s reflections in his letter to the church in Rome and seek to have that kind of faith; the kind that does not waver, the kind that is strong and obedient, the kind that lives up to God’s covenant.
Or, we can remember the other parts of Abraham’s story and give ourselves permission to have that kind of faith. We can give ourselves permission have doubts along the way, to struggle to fully submit to God. We can be gentle with ourselves if we get impatient while we wait for God’s promises to come to fruition. We can laugh at God when those promises seem impossible and know that God is not going to take those promises away.
Because faith is believing in God’s promises, but it is also working through those moments when you do not.
Paul was trying to settle a dispute between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, saying that it is not strict adherence to the law that gives us access to God’s grace, but faith like Abraham. And I agree with him – but not necessarily for the reasons he gave. Paul kind of put on rose-colored glasses when it came to what Abraham’s faith looked like; but I love the whole story. Abraham’s story is a beautiful one, full of struggles, full of doubts and full of moments – just like the ones I experience in my own life – where he did not feel as though his faith was strong.
And absolutely, a faith like that will give us access to God’s grace.
Friends, I do think we should share the faith of Abraham – all of it. I think we should share his struggles. I think we should share the moments where he hesitantly takes things into his own hands. I think we should share the times when he believes that God is not listening. I think we should laugh when the promises seems out of reach or too good to be true.
But, then; then, we should remember that the everlasting covenant God made with Abraham is a covenant made with us as well. We should hold onto the hope of that bold truth that God is faithful; that the promises made to Abraham are still made to us today and that God is always with us.
Paul is right. The grace that comes from this kind of faith is not something we can get from the law.
So may our faith give you the strength to believe in the promises made to Abraham. May you allow yourself to have doubts, to be frustrated in God’s timing and even to laugh at the possibility of what those promises might look like. May you celebrate your questions and those child-like moments when you think, “But want if I don’t agree with that?”
This Lenten season, may you also hope against hope that God is with you on your journey; that Easter is coming, that redemption is always possible and that resurrection is real and true and powerful.
Thanks be to God!
 Romans 4:16, NRSV
 Romans 4:18, NRSV
 Romans 4:19, NRSV
 Romans 4:20, NRSV
 Genesis 17:7, NRSV
 Genesis 12:10-20, 2:1-18
 Genesis 16:1-16
 Genesis 17:17, NRSV
 Romans 4:20, NRSV