7th August 2016
Genesis 15 v 6
with Canon Cheryl Collins
There was a time when one couldn’t be sent on a training course or workshop in the Church of England without being asked to do a trust exercise. A particularly popular one involved standing in the middle of a circle of people with linked arms, closing one’s eyes and letting oneself fall backwards, trusting that the circle would catch you.
I’ll try not to wonder why we don’t play them so much anymore, and instead direct you to our readings for today. One commentary wrote of Abram in our Genesis reading ‘He rests back in the arms of the promise giver’. You can see why that beautiful picture reminded of the trust game.
Trust, or faith to be more theological, is the theme which unites today’s readings. We hear of Abram’s faith in God’s promise of descendants, we hear the writer of Hebrews unpack the meaning of faith as assurance of things hoped for and use Abram as one of his examples of faithful living and we hear Jesus inviting us to put our faith, not in possessions (this follows on from the parable of the rich man which Maggie unpacked for us last week) but in God- for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
So I’m going to use these passages to try and unpack what faith is and how we show it in our lives.
In fact, there is one verse in today’s readings which is one of THE key texts about faith- Genesis 15.6
‘Abram believed the Lord and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.’
Paul explains this verse for his readers in both Romans 4 and Galatians 3, and later Martin Luther made it a central plank of his exposition of justification by faith.
So what’s it all about?
Let’s focus down even further on three key words- believed, reckoned, righteous.
Believed- this is the expression of Abram’s faith. It’s rich layers of meaning become more visible when we look at a variety of modern translations- put his faith in, believed in, relied on, remained steadfast to, fixed his heart on.
Reckoned gets it’s meaning from the practices of the Temple at Jerusalem where the priest had to ensure that one’s gift was properly offered at the altar. Other ways of saying it would include declared him, counted it to him and credited it to him.
Finally, righteousness. In the Bible this state is understood as being rooted in the intentions of the covenant making God. In fact, God, YHWH, embodies righteousness. YHWH”s righteous actions restore wellbeing to creation and the covenant community. So righteousness is about relationship and community. It’s about doing justice to a relationship one is part of, about right standing with the other party. The Bible frequently uses it as an ethical term for those who invest in the community and its wellbeing, who take responsibility for the community by conforming to the limits and requirements ordained by God. In law it can be seen as another term for the innocent- those who can justify their conduct to other members of the community.
YHWH’s righteousness is not without its challenges. We see in this passage that Abram questions God with a degree of doubt, where is the heir you promised me? The prophets too hold faith in tension with doubt as they attempt to proclaim God’s promises to a people broken and in exile. In some cases, they attempt to set limits on God’s righteousness- Jonah is pretty fed up when he discovers that God’s righteousness extends to the people of Ninevah when they repent.
So God’s righteousness includes the power to declare as innocent those who are in fact guilty, a power which we know as grace.
This means that faith is not about us and what we do, but about God. We are faithful when we recognise God’s righteousness towards us as our treasure and fix our heart on God.
Faith is a response to God.
It responds to God’s promises and therefore declares that reality is not just about what we can see and touch and manage, it is so much more.
It has a scandalous element, because quite often it calls us to trust in God’s promise when evidence against that promise is all around. So Abram had received nothing but God’s word when he believed God. He and his wife were at that point still as old and childless as they had been before God spoke. His faith, our faith, is made possible by God’s word, but often there is nothing else apparent for us to base it on.
Faith is the opposite of fear and anxiety. Notice that in both Genesis and Luke the first instruction is ‘Do not be afraid.’ We are afraid when we leave God out of our equations. We are anxious when we consider only our own resources.
Faith recognises that God is God, our God, the one for whom we exist, the one in whom we move and live and have our beings. God’s god-ness is enough for us, more than enough it is always extravagant, overflowing and generous. The fullness of God is the fullest fullness possible. It makes a holiday suitcase look half empty.
Because faith is the assurance of things hoped for it is always looking ahead. The writer of Hebrews expresses it in his talk of the heavenly city to which the faithful are travelling. To die in faith is to trust in God’s future even in the deathly present. Faith believes that God can and will make all things new.
By now you might be thinking ‘Well, that’s all very lovely but how does it relate to me? I’m just an average sort of Christian, I’m not planning to be a hero of the faith like Abram or Moses or Paul.’
Well, in the immortal words of Bob Dylan ‘You gotta serve somebody, now it may be the devil, now it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.’
Since Bob is often as obscure as the book of Revelation what does this mean?
Human beings are spiritual beings. And our spirits are being formed and shaped every moment of every day whether we realise it or not. We gotta serve somebody.
So either we’re opening ourselves to God’s transforming love or we’re letting the world around us, the values and practices of our culture shape us into nothing more than consumers, or cogs in the machine, or would be controllers who believe the lie that if we only posses the right information &/or the right techniques we can control our lives and always bring about the results we desire.
Faith calls us to surrender to God, to let ourselves fall back into God’s loving arms so that God can transform us. We have to let go of control or the illusion of it. John Donne puts it powerfully when he prays ‘Batter my heart three personed God’ and goes on to compare himself to a city under siege by God, longing to let God in but unable on his own to find the will to do it.
And when we surrender to God we learn to live as pilgrims. Our life is a pilgrimage. And our homeland in God helps make the values and practices of the world around merely relative because we know there is another way, a more excellent way.
Faith calls us to challenge the wrongs of our society and to live in a way which expresses as much as we can the righteousness of God. For we cannot love the God we cannot see if we cannot manage to live in a way that shows love, is in right relationship with our neighbour, both here in Sudbury or on the other side of the world.
The most observant of you may have spotted the paradox at the heart of faith. Since it is God who does the transforming there is nothing we can do to make ourselves into the right kind of Christian. We cannot just acquire all the information or techniques. It doesn’t work like that. If we make our faith, our own work, then it turns out the only person we have faith in is our self.
That’s important for me to remember at the moment. As I try to listen and learn about Sudbury and St. Greg’s, as I consult others, read the right books and go on all the right training courses I may fool myself that I am becoming better equipped to lead us into the new future that God is calling us to. It’s not that such efforts have no value, they do. But the more excellent way, the only way to make sure we are moving into God’s future and not one we’ve dreamed up ourselves is by making ourselves available to God. By listening for God’s word to us in our scripture reading, by seeking to see God’s movement in our lives as we reflect on our day, by showing up and being open and ready to respond to God.
Abram believed that God had a new future for him and his family despite the evidence that he had no family to speak of. He fixed his heart on God.
The writer of Hebrews reminds us of the witness of those who have died in faith, trusting in God’s promises.
Jesus calls us to make God’s transforming love the treasure at the heart of our lives, to surrender ourselves to that love.
And the writer of Hebrews proclaims to us that therefore God will not be ashamed to be called our God, indeed he has prepared a city for us all where we may rest in peace and rise in glory.