Meadowbrook Congregational Church
Rev. Art Ritter
March 8, 2020
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.
For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us,
as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”) —in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him.
A monastery in Europe was perched high upon a cliff, several hundred feet from the town below. The only way to reach it was to be climb into a basket which was attached to a slender rope moved by a pulley through the efforts of several monks, who tugged and strained with all of their might. Obviously, the ride up the steep cliff in the fragile basket was terrifying. One tourist got exceedingly nervous about half-way up as he noticed that the rope by which he was suspended was old and quite frayed. With a trembling voice he asked the monk who was riding with him in the basket how often they changed the rope. The monk thought for a brief moment and then answered quickly, “Whenever it breaks.”
Playwright Neil Simon once said, “If no one ever took risks, Michelangelo would have painted the Sistine floor.” What is the biggest risk that you have ever taken? I am not much of a risk taker but I can think of some small things in life that elevated the heart rate and got me considering the sanity of my position. I remember standing at the top of the 120 feet, almost vertical drop at Summit Plummet Water Slide at Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon water park. I almost changed my mind and headed back down the stairs before I realized that such a retreat would be embarrassing and then summoned the courage to take the plunge. I also recall volunteering a few years ago to sing the opening lines in the local production of Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat. To this day I am still not certain what possessed me to accept such a challenge. But I did it. I know some of you were there to see and hear my song. When the house lights dimmed and the music began to play that day, I was about as terrified as I have ever been in my life.
Perhaps the biggest risk that I have ever taken was moving my family to Utah in 1999. I have shared this before with participants at Mayflower Café. It was difficult leaving behind our comfortable life, wonderful church, beloved friends, and my parents to embrace the unknown of Salt Lake City. I had rarely been that far from home much less live far from home. A couple of my colleagues advised against the move, believing it was foolish to take my children to a land where they would live with the consequences of being a religious minority. But somehow Laura and I took the risk and found Salt Lake City to be a wonderful place to live and to raise our daughters.
Commentator John Holbert calls this morning’s Scripture lesson from Genesis “the lynchpin of the Bible.” Here in this brief passage something of crucial importance happens. Abram is called to do the work of God. Rather than speaking directly to the mass of humanity, expecting each person to do God’s will, God now chooses one person through whom God will attempt once again to effect the divine work in the world. That person, called to take the risk of acting for God, is Abram.
God said to Abram, “Go from your country, your kin, and the house of your father to the land that I will show you.” This was a difficult command involving several risks or leaps of faith. Moving to another land. We know the pain of leaving behind the comfortable and familiar for the unknown and the uncertain. Many of us know how hard it is to leave loved ones behind. Many of us know how difficult it is to sever the sacred roots of those whom we have grown to trust and rely upon deeply. We know the anxiety of being called to go into a dark wilderness, to an unknown place. We wonder, “How will we find it? Exactly where are we to go? Will it be a long journey? Will the road to this place be difficult?”
Along with the invitation came a promise. “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” The word “blessing” at its root refers to God’s favor. In the Old Testament blessing was connected to prosperity, fertility, and victory. Yet that favor carries with it a strong flavor of grace. God’s blessing is something that isn’t deserved or created by the person whom God blesses. It is always a gift.
God promised to make Abram and his wife Sarai into a great nation. But even the appeal of that promise didn’t make a whole lot of sense. The goal of their culture at that time was to accumulate enough stuff so that people would never have to move again. The prize in life was sheep and goats and cattle and land and children. Apparently Abram and Sarai had all of the first four that they needed. They probably felt like they could have done quite well staying right where they were. Yet this blessing that God promised the two of them was something totally different. Now their life would be defined by not by possession but by how, through them, the world would be blessed. What Abram and Sarai would do would not yield the security and comfort and that made worldly sense. God was asking them to take a risk. In order for them to be blessed and to be a blessing for others, they couldn’t stay where they were. They had to leave home. They had to depart into the unknown. They had to move on.
Doug Bratt writes that “perhaps God called Abram and Sarai to move on, to strike out on this new and dangerous adventure, because Abram can’t discover all of the blessings that God has in store for him unless he disentangles himself from what he settled for. Maybe God understands that for Abram to recognize the blessings God will give him, he must give up many of the ‘blessings’ he had accumulated.” God does not promise to bless Abram into order to make his life fulfilled or empty of hardship. God does not promise to bless Abram so that he can settle down and raise a large family that God will give him. God does not promise to bless Abram so that he can travel a little, pay for his kids’ education and then save enough to retire comfortably. God promises him blessing so that Abram can graciously show the favor of God to the people around him. Abram and Sarai were blessed so that they could bless the entire world. And the world could not be blessed unless Abram and Sarai left their country, moving on, leaning into the future by traveling toward the land that God promised to show them.
This seems to happen a lot in the Bible. It is full of stories of people asked to move on, to go to someplace different, to a new task or an unknown land. Moses was called from tending sheep to leading his people out of slavery. Ruth gave up her homeland and her people to remain faithful to her mother-in-law Naomi. Jeremiah, feeling incompetent and unprepared, goes to speak God’s word. A young Mary enters the unknown, listening to the messenger of God and trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit. Fishermen and tax collectors leave the world they know and follow Jesus into discipleship. Saul, persecutor of Christians, is blinded and instructed to go to a Christian community where he is despised, to find the source of his healing. Again and again, when we read through the stories of the community of faith we find people who follow God by leaving the places that are familiar and comfortable, almost as a precondition for receiving and being a blessing to others.
The writer of the book of Hebrews defined faith as being sure of what we hope for and being certain of what we do not see. Certainly living by faith isn’t something with which most of us are proficient, or even comfortable. Lizette Merchan-Pinilla writes, “All of this struggling, failing through error, making mistakes, straddling the mud puddles of life, and still missing the mark where faith- and more specifically our faith journey- means danger of the unknown, threatening to most.” Many times our choice is awarded to what is known, rather than to what is too new, too risky, or too foreign. There are elements of life that we just have to take by faith. Sometimes it seems as if God throws us a curve. Sometimes it seems as if God gives us a pop quiz for which we haven’t studied. Sometimes it seems as if God has taken away our road maps or GPS. What is asked of us in life is something that brings us worry and fear. God desires faith. Fear needs security. Faith takes risks. Worry wants predictability. Faith loves hope.
Living by faith is a journey, a process, and Abram and Sarai are the perfect role models. They had to leave home in order to become who they were called to be. They had to take a risk in order to discover the future that God intended for them. They had to move on, to begin a journey in order to become their fullest selves and benefit others in the best possible way. The God who commands and promises is with us on that journey. God is committed to a future with those who faithfully respond.