Abraham and Us: Recognizing Faith

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St Paul’s Church Bantam Connecticut on March 20, 2011

There’s a little poem I saw somewhere that begins:
Men’s faces, voices differ much,
Saints are not all one size.

Relationships with God come in all shapes and sizes.  That’s good news and bad.

It’s bad news because we like to have simple answers and standard sizes.  I went looking for socks the other day and found some marked:  Sizes 6-12.  One size fits all – or almost all.  How do they do that? I don’t know, but they do fit. Christian faith is not like that.  “Saints are not all one size.”

But that’s good news because I think it helps to know that not all Christians are the same size.  In other words, I can’t expect to be the same kind of Christian as St. Paul or St. Francis or Joan of Arc or even as another member of this congregation. So that’s good news:  I don’t necessarily have to write epistles or preach to the birds or lead armies or even necessarily make a pot of soup for the Tuesday program – though I hope some of you will.  Some saints will do that and some won’t and that’s fine.

But that’s bad news because our relationship with God is so important, so life-changing, that we can’t help wanting a prescription to follow and be able to analyze everyone else by the pattern that works for me.  Maybe it’s partly the pattern of life in an industrial society. You remember how Henry Ford said you could have a car in any color you wanted as long as it was black.  So you can get a six pack of beer but probably not a seven pack or a five pack. We live in a standardized world.  We obsess about every child reading at a certain level by a certain age. Some churches have a check off system:  attends every Sunday, pledges 10%, joined a Bible study group, etc. so they measure up.  And that’s all great but take that same trio I started with, Sts. Paul and Francis and Joan of Arc and ask what they had in common or even whether they pledged and went to Bible study and I don’t see a standard pattern.

It’s hard to avoid thinking that if others see God through different eyes and respond to God in different ways, there’s something wrong with them.  They must be deprived or depraved, or unhappy or heretical.  I mean, if my congregation, my church, the Book of Common Prayer and the Anglican form of Christianity have been the means by which I have come to know God’s love, it’s hard to understand why someone else would want to be a Methodist or Congregationalist or Roman Catholic. In fact, we ought to want others to know God’s love as deeply as we do and more deeply. I want that for you.  But it doesn’t necessarily mean that God’s plan for you is the same as God’s plan for me.  It doesn’t mean I should be working to get all of you off to seminary and ordained. This congregation doesn’t need a lot more Episcopal priests. One is more than enough.  What it needs is maybe one of those and some Vestry members and a treasurer and clerk and an organist and sexton and someone to set up the coffee hour and someone to pitch in at the food pantry and soup kitchen and lots of people to pray for everything that needs prayer. We don’t need fifty sopranos; or fifty quilters. We need fifty or a hundred or more individuals, all different, each responding to God in a different way and each playing a different part in God’s church and God’s world.

I think very often we are like the infant who has just discovered the joys of pablum and offers others at the table a taste from her spoon. Pablum is wonderful stuff, but most of us have moved on. Some of us have moved on to broccoli and others to spinach; tastes differ. We all need vitamins and minerals but we don’t all need to get them in the same form.

Episcopalians have often said that our goal is “unity in essentials and diversity in non-essentials and charity in all things.” But what’s essential and what’s non-essential?  That question is being asked these days with new intensity. What is it that we have to agree on in order to live together in one church?

I raise these questions because this is Abraham Sunday. Always on the Second Sunday in Lent we hear about Abraham.  Abraham followed God’s call and came into the promised land. And here we are: Abraham’s descendants.  What do we have in common? What do we need to have in common?  What is essential to serving God and following as Abraham did?

When we look at the readings this morning they show us drastically different ways of response to God. But let’s start there:  What is there in these readings for us to learn?  The Old Testament passage is amazingly brief and shows us God giving Abraham a command and promising Abraham blessings. But all God asks of Abraham is obedience.  God said, “Go,” and Abraham went. And that’s pretty much how it was for Abraham.  God spoke and Abraham jumped.  That’s one pattern of response and for some people it’s an easy and natural response:  just tell me what to do. It worked for Abraham; maybe it’ll work for you. It won’t work for me or most Episcopalians.  We always want to know why.

I remember trying to get that across to a former Roman Catholic priest years ago who was on his way into the Episcopal Church. I kept saying, “John, when an Episcopal bishop asks you to jump, your response isn’t, ‘How high?’ but ‘Why?’” Abraham wasn’t an Episcopalian; he didn’t ask; he just did it. Leave home and family, OK.  Sacrifice your son, OK. God tells me what to do and I do it.  That was Abraham’s way and that’s still the pattern in some churches.  Here are the rules; don’t ask.

But what a contrast with today’s Gospel.  Here’s poor Nicodemus trying to figure it out, trying desperately to understand what Jesus is talking about. Nicodemus had questions and wanted answers. Hard to imagine a sharper contrast with Abraham.  But some people are like that also, and need to be, need to ask questions, need to explore answers.  I think that’s more comfortable for Episcopalians than Christians in some of the narrower traditions. We want reasons, want to understand, more like Nicodemus than Abraham.

I remember coming by a church once that had signs out front saying: “You have questions; We have answers.” But there’s an Episcopal Church over in Bloomfield that gives its members bumper stickers saying: “Thoughts provoked daily.” Not answers provided, but thoughts provoked, questions raised.

So there are at least two patterns, two ways of being a Christian, and the epistle leads us in still a third direction by stressing faith and picturing Abraham not so much as a man of obedience as a man of faith.  The problem is that we don’t really see that in the Biblical picture of Abraham; what we see is what he did.  And I think we need to pay attention to that. I think most Christians have trouble with the idea of faith because it’s so invisible, so unmeasurable, and it seems to ask us to see what can’t be seen and measure what can’t be measured. How do we know faith?  How can we be sure?  And of course, that’s a paradox, maybe an oxymoron.  We’ve been brainwashed by science into thinking we have to be able to use the same techniques scientists use to prove faith, demonstrate it.  But you can’t. If you can measure it or know it or be sure of it, it isn’t faith; it’s something else.

Abraham was told to go and he went.  On the surface, at least, that’s obedience, not faith, but it is the evidence of faith. And I think that’s what we ought to look for.  If we have to look for faith, let’s look for what we can see. Now, that gets us into potential trouble because it seems to be saying that works is what matters. It isn’t.  But what I’m suggesting is that most of the time it’s the only part of faith you can see. It’s all we can see of Abraham’s faith.  It’s all we can see of Paul’s faith or Augustine’s faith and probably all we can see of our own.  And what I’m suggesting is that we need to concentrate not on what we can’t see but what we can.  And we can take these two contrasting pictures – Abraham and Nicodemus as two pictures of faith in action.  God told Abraham to go and he went.  That’s faith in action. Nicodemus came to Jesus to ask questions and that’s faith in action also.  It’s faith that cares enough to ask question.  Faith that takes the time to come and discuss and try to understand.

I would even go so far as to say that we shouldn’t worry about faith, not think about it, not concern ourselves about it. Yes, I know, we are saved by faith, faith alone, but somehow the more we worry about it, the less we have it. The more we aim at it, the more we are likely to miss it.

I came across some words of Rabbi Abraham Heschel that I think throw a useful light on the subject: He said, “The secret of spiritual living is the power to praise. Praise is the harvest of love. Praise precedes faith. First we sing, then we believe. The fundamental issue is not faith but sensitivity and praise, being ready for faith.”  Notice the hierarchy:  Praise is the harvest of love. In other words, love produces praise and praise leads to faith. First we sing, then we believe. It sounds counter-intuitive, but isn’t that what St. Paul is saying in that great 13th chapter of First Corinthians when he says: There are three things that matter: “faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of these is love.” That’s Paul, remember, Paul the great advocate of faith: Love, not faith, is greatest.

Would it fit with your experience, I wonder, to suggest that love leads to praise and praise leads to faith? that love is greatest because love is the foundation, that love is greatest because love is the end, that love is the beginning and end, and that we are saved by faith through grace because faith is the name of the critically essential response we make to that love that surrounds us and draws us ever onward and upward?

Abraham is one role model; there are many. “Faith,” the Epistle to the Hebrews says, “is the evidence of things not seen.” And it goes on to cite the various scriptural figures who responded to God in various ways, by making an offering, building an ark, saving a baby, abandoning Egypt, by being stoned to death, sawn in two, killed by the sword; suffering destitution, persecution, torment.  Those acts are not faith themselves but the visible evidence of invisible faith.

I knew a senior warden once who would come into my office at regular intervals to worry about a particular phrase of the Creed that he wasn’t sure he believed. And I used to say, Stop worrying.  You’re in church every Sunday, you serve on the Vestry, you contribute your time and talent to every good cause that comes along, and you take the Creed seriously, and you care enough to ask good questions. If that’s not faith, I don’t know what is.

Saints are not all one size.  Be who God is calling you to be, now, where you are; respond in love, respond with praise, and the evidence of your faith will be there.

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