What Kind of Community? (Genesis 15;1-6; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40)
The stories from Genesis 12-25 are about Abraham, called the Father of the Faithful by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In Genesis 12 God promised to bless Abraham by being his God, by giving his wife Sarah him many descendants, and by giving those descendants a land in which to live. Although most Christians have not tied themselves to a specific territory or land (unlike Judaism and Islam), they have, until relatively recent times, understood God’s promise of many heirs to Abraham to be fulfilled in the growth of the Christian Church. Many still do.
Today, although what the 1970’s called “the church growth movement” is passé, many in the church still share in what we might call the triumphalist assumption that actually preceded it by many years that if we are faithful to God (understood in many ways) God will cause numerical growth with the result that Christians will take over the world, at least in a religious sense.Depending on the person to whom we are listening “Being faithful to God” or “Faithful to Jesus” is defined as adopting the “correct” theological, sociological, missiological, or evangelistic principles. If we’ll just get with the right program, all will be well, and, we, like Abraham, will reclaim the myriad of spiritual descendants that are rightfully ours.
Where does that leaves folks like us? Most of you know that we don’t have much of an endowment or a lot of money in the bank. It just takes eyesight to know that we’re not pushing out the walls of this place Sunday by Sunday. So, what are we doing wrong? From time to time I get emails and letters to let us know. Some of them say that we should pay a consultant who could tell us a lot of things that range from we haven’t done the right kind of demographic work and haven’t got a good mission statement, to we do use the lectionary, inclusive language, and aren’t evangelistic enough (in a certain style), or even that we just plain believe the wrong things or the wrong way. We sing the wrong hymns, pray the wrong prayers, and associate with the wrong crowd. I used to find it discouraging, but now it just makes me mad and I delete the emails and throw out the mail.
A thread that I see running through the Lessons for last week, this week and next week is the encouragement of discouraged people. In the Genesis text, Abram has been given big promises by God, but has seen nothing that looks remotely like a pay off. He is honest with God about his disappointment. After God renews the promise of an heir and more offspring than he can imagine, we find that interesting verse: “and Abram had faith in the LORD, and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Paul picked this up in the New Testament, but what the Old Testament statement means, in summary, is that God considered Abraham’s choice to live in certain ways on the basis of God’s promise (his “faith”) as an acceptable way of conforming to God’s standard (“righteousness”). Abraham lived according to the vision of God’s promise, not according to the way things looked right now. That was his faithfulness.
Hebrews chapter 11 is sometimes called Faith’s Hall of Fame. It lists many Old Testament persons (and later) who responded to God with a choice to live life by the vision of God’s promise (as I just said was the meaning of the verse in Genesis). The purpose of Hebrews 11, however, is not only to give us a lot of good examples of faith. The passage is intended to encourage those who had become discouraged, and who weren’t sure they could or should keep on. As Hebrews chapter 10 ends, and as chapter 12 begins we have a challenge to keep on, an assurance of the relevance of the effort. In between come all these so-called heroes of faith – put here as an encouragement to folk who are flagging in courage.
At the beginning of the lesson, the author defines faith as that which puts flesh and blood on the insubstantiality of hope. It is faith that allows people to live in certain ways, in spite of the fact that people say it makes no sense to do so (living according to God’s vision). Abraham was a wonderful example of that kind of life-betting faith when he went out into the unknown and lived in a place he’d never been on the basis of no more than the promise of God. He had the vision to see what God was up to and to act on that vision. The faith of Abraham and Sarah paid off when God enabled them to become parents of an heir in their old age. All the faithful are the spiritual descendants of this couple. The life of faith is about keeping on steadfastly when such keeping on is hard. In fact, says Hebrews, Abraham (and many others too) died before they saw the end of what they began, or the fulfilment of the promise. How does this message speak to us here in this place?
Well, perhaps in this: who knows what is ahead? We are going to have to think creatively how we can be the best community of faith that we can be. It is absolutely true that we have our own Hall of Fame of Faith’s Heroes here. Many we could name many people (for some, parents and grandparents) who have worshiped here and had a vision of what First Baptist Church could be. In a sense, they, like Abraham, died without seeing what they started finished. We are their heirs. What will we do?
The Abraham-story does not say that all Abraham had to do was sit back and believe, put the Almighty in the driver’s seat and praise God’s name (or some such preacher’s phrase). He had a more decisive and active role to play. Just so, I don’t think that it is an exercise of faith for us if we sit back and wait for God to pull off a miracle. I don’t think God will do it for us. I do think God will raise up enough wisdom here to go forward. We need a firm grasp on what faith is. Again, faith puts flesh and blood on the our hopes – which may be little more than wishes. Faith shows up in the choices we make. It was so for Abraham and Sarah, it is so for us.
We used to ask students just before they went into the ministry, “If you only had a few months to live what kind of church would you want”? The question is designed to make students think about what is really important and what the most important choices they have to make are. What might you say?
Let me give you some of the things I would say about my own choices. You will have your own lists. The first one comes right out of our Scripture Lessons: Like Abraham and Sarah, if it were up to me I’d choose to be a part of a faithful community – faithful to God and to one another. At its simplest being “faith-full” means choosing to be full of faith. Again, faith is an action word. It’s not just lip-service to God and to one another, and what we “hope” will happen. Faith is choosing to do something – to live in certain ways. And it’s about keeping on doing it even when it’s hard. It’s not about waiting until we’re sure. It’s about risk-taking. Faith, as I say all the time, is not nodding your head, it’s betting your life. I’d choose to be part of a faithful people.
Next, I’d want to be in a community that prays. This doesn’t mean having a so-called prayer meeting every other night, or certain prescribed ways of talking and listening to God, but it does mean a community that strives for active communication with God. And this can happen in many ways. There’s no one posture, no set of required words, no length. I find the longer I live the more I am simply in silence before God, the less I want to say, the more I need to listen. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I hope that each person here, in your way, includes your church in your prayers every day. I’d choose to be part of a community that prays.
Next I would choose to be in a loving community, which means a community that acts as God does in the world. In a loving community we understand that laying guilt on one another is, very literally, a waste of time. A loving community has learned that, in the Bible, love is not a feeling, but an action to include not exclude, to embrace not push away. Loving is acting for the good of others – both those we know and those we don’t know yet. Being such a community also implies choosing to live in ways that promote justice in the world. I’d choose to be part of a loving community.
All this will, in turn, re-inform our prayers, which will then be prayed more intelligently. And speaking of intelligence, I think it’s important that that I be in a learning community. Learning about the world, with its glory and beauty and wonder, as reflected in art, music and literature. As Baptists, we claim the authority of the scriptures for our lives. Learning how to study the scriptures, and studying them carefully and intelligently, it seems to me is a value worth choosing in this place where we find ourselves. There has been a good deal of foolishness perpetrated in the name of the Bible, and it’s time we learned to think about the scriptures realistically. I’d choose to be a part of a learning people.
But, we can study all we want, and unless we choose to be wise, it is of little value. There are people who control many facts with little wisdom. There have been faithful and wise people in this church choosing to live in certain ways for over 160 years. We have to think about whether yesterday’s wise choices are still wise today. One of my favourite hymns has the old title “Once to Every Man and Nation” (it’s in our hymnal with a more inclusive title). Some of the words challenge us:
New occasions teach new duties
Time makes ancient good uncouth
They must upward still and onward
Who would keep abreast of truth.
We cannot simply repeat the words or the decisions of other generations and expect those words and decisions to be effective. We must keep abreast of truth. Now, even if we agree with our ancestors that there are things that are always and everywhere true, or with the post-modern view that truth is contingent on how we see things, we must still apply truths to specific times and places in order to be wise. Wise people have always known this. Without any question, I’d choose to be part of a wise community.
Last, I’d choose would be to be in a fearless community. Choosing to live by faith means that we will take risks all the time. Here is where our Gospel lesson fits in this morning. It begins with Jesus’ words: “Fear not little flock, it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” I have a hard time seeing in these words the triumphalist vision of taking over the world with which we started today. Here we have a “little flock,” like us, with plenty to fear. Jesus says, “Stop being afraid, even though you are small in numbers.” He continues, “Be generous with what you have because you have a vast treasure and resource in God which no one can take away.” Then there are crucial words: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” This is simply another way of saying that your values form your choices, your priorities, and your love, and these, in turn nurture your values. We should endeavour to live with no fear according to our values, tested by prayer and study, thought and wisdom knowing that we are, after all, in the hands of the God whom Jesus loved. Yes, I’d choose to be a part of a fearless community.
Our lesson concludes this morning with two little challenges to stay alert, because one never knows when the time is up. Many of us were taught that texts like this applied only to Jesus’ Second Coming, which was something to be calculated and fought about. Thankfully, many of us here have given all that up long ago. But this passage does point to a reality. As we saw last week, at some point, time will be up for all of us, individually and institutionally. How would we like God to find us when that does happen, whether that’s our own death or the end of an institution? I should think I’d choose to be caught in the midst of living in ways that lead to faithfulness, prayer, love of God and others, intelligent study of the world and the scriptures, wisdom, and fearlessness. To quote the apostle Paul, “Not that I have already attained this.” Nor will we.
One hundred and one years ago, Henry DeWitt Hyde, president of Bowdoin College in Maine wrote that hymn that we sang before the sermon. It’s one of my favourites. lt began: “Creation’s Lord, we give thee thanks, that this thy world is incomplete.” Hyde gave thanks that the world and humans in it are not finished yet, and that we still have growing and learning and working to do. And he answered the question of choosing to be in a certain way. That last stanza challenges my faith and my action for myself and my church. He wrote.
Since what we choose is what we are,
And what we love we yet shall be,
The goal may ever shine afar –
The will to win it makes us free.
May it be so with us.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.