Sunday, March 03, 2013

Learning Faith

Learning Faith
Gen 15:1-18[1]
  Most of us can say that at some point in our lives we have been shaped in a significant way by special people.  If we’re fortunate, we can say that there have been many special people who have shaped our lives.  They may have been parents or grandparents, teachers or pastors, friends or colleagues.  We tend to call them “mentors.”  They teach us something important about how to live and work and be better people.  I’ve had many mentors in my lifetime, from family to pastors to professors to colleagues to friends.  I’ve learned most of what I know about life and love and faith from them.  Some of these people we look to as mentors in faith.  We call them prophets, sages, and saint.  Whether we’re talking about Billy Graham, or Martin Luther King, Jr., or Mother Teresa, they are people who seem to have a kind faith that transcends what the rest of us seem to be able to attain.
  That’s why we look to them as mentors and role models.  We call them saints because we recognize that they seem to have a higher level of faith in their interactions with God. It’s tempting to put them “on a pedestal” to separate them from the rest of us.  That can be just a convenient way to let ourselves off the hook so that we don’t have to try to rise to a higher level. But a better approach would be to respect their faith in a way that challenges us to grow in our own faith.  We recognize them as special people so that we may follow their example in an attempt to attain at least a small degree of their faith. 
  I think Abraham and Sarah were people like that.  At an age when most people should be enjoying their twilight years in the safe and comfortable surroundings of home and family, they set out on what must have seemed like an improbable journey.  They left everything behind because God called them to go to a place yet to be determined!  And they did so based on a promise--that God would bless them and would make of them a great nation (Gen. 12:1-3).  That must have seemed a strange promise, given the fact that they were childless and both of them were in their seventies!  And yet, despite all the odds, Abraham and Sarah had a kind of faith that enabled them to look past all that.
  Over the years, God continued to interact with Abraham and Sarah, repeating and confirming the promise to bless them.  In our lesson for today, it would seem that Abraham has been doing some thinking about the promise.  In fact, in response to God’s reaffirmation of the promise of blessing, Abraham responds with a strange kind of faith: he asks a fairly direct question that might seem to contradict the whole notion that he had any faith!  God appears to Abraham in a vision and says, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great” (Gen. 15:1).  In reply, Abraham asks what God could possibly give him since he and Sarah were still childless.  As the Good News Version puts it, ““Sovereign Lord, what good will your reward do me, since I have no children? (Genesis 15:2, TEV).[2] 
  That may seem like a strange way to express faith.  In fact, in many traditions, questioning God is considered to be the opposite of faith.  And yet it is through his questioning that Abraham rises to a higher level of faith.  Because of his question, God reinforces the promise using a means of “signing a contract” that was common in that day.  That’s what the ritual involving the animal carcasses is about.  In essence, if you wanted to make a contract with someone, you would use this ritual as a way of saying, “May the same thing happen to me if I break my promise.”[3]  And I think Abraham walked away with a faith that was stronger for having questioned.
  It seems to me that one way to learn faith is to pursue our questions.  I think that ignoring them or suppressing them actually deprives us of the opportunity to grow.  It’s understandable that we may not want to face our questions about God head on.  Some of them can be frightening.  Especially the ones that deal with the mystery of human suffering.  It can be incredibly difficult to face the question of why bad things happen to good people--especially when you’re the one bad things are happening to![4]  But like Abraham, when we face our questions, or perhaps even better, when we voice our questions to God, we give ourselves at least the chance of growing in our faith.  It provides an opportunity for us to deepen our trust in God’s promise based on the “awareness that God really is God.”[5]  It creates an opening for us to affirm with the Psalmist that “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living” (Ps. 27:13).[6]
  As we examine our faith during this year’s season of Lent, I think it’s important for us to realize that at least one way of developing the heart of trust and the eyes of faith is to give full voice to our questions about God.  We may never get an answer to all our questions, but when we allow our questions to come out into the open, we open our hearts to experience the awareness that God really is God, and that we can entrust our lives into God’s loving care.[7]  It seems to me that’s how people who have the kind of special faith Abraham and Sarah had develop that special kind of faith.  It’s a way for the “rest of us” to learn faith.  It’s a way for us to imitate the faith of the saints who have gone before us (cf. Phil. 3:17), and so learn a higher and deeper faith ourselves.

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/24/2013.
[2] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, 141: “Clearly, the faith to which Abraham is called is not a peaceful, pious acceptance.  It is a hard-fought and deeply argued conviction.”  Cf. also C. Westermann, Genesis 12–36, 219
[3] Cf. Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis, 181.
[4] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 133: “Trust is active and real precisely when one is aware of one’s vulnerability, of one’s ultimate helplessness before the threats of life.”
[5] Brueggemann, Genesis, 143. He defines faith as “a certitude that is based not on human reason but on a primal awareness that God is God.” With reference to Abraham, he continues, “The same God who gives the promise is the one who makes it believable” through “the new awareness that God really is God.” Cf. also Terence E. Fretheim, “The Book of Genesis,” New Interpreters Bible I:445, where he says that Abraham’s response to God’s reassurance is that he “trusts in the one to whom his faith clings.”
[6] Cf H.-J. Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 337, where he says that the psalmist trusts God despite the afflictions he faces because he “has anchored his life entirely in Yahweh.”
[7] Cf. J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” 787, where he says that for the Psalmist anxiety is not a failure of never, but a “failure of trust.”  He says, “Left to depend on ourselves instead of on God, we fail to experience joy (v. 6) and life in all its fullness (v. 13).”

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