First Presbyterian of Lafayette, Louisiana
March 20, 2011 – Lent (A2)
March 20, 2011 – Lent (A2)
Psalm 121 (Cantor – Bruce Turner)
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
I wonder how many of you have ever been in a house of mirrors? It can be a lot of fun wandering through halls – even running into walls you did not know were there. The curved fun house mirrors can be fun, too. I enjoy exaggerating the shape of my body, though I must confess that sometimes the flaws I deny become too real in those mirrors.
In the reality show "What Not To Wear" contestants are ambushed by friends to confront their unflattering and outdated clothing choices. One of the first steps in the journey of transformation for the contestants is to step into a booth with mirrors all around them to get a 360˚ view of themselves. No flaws are hidden from the 360˚ mirror.
That is what we have in the scriptures today, a mirror of our lives that offers no retreat from our past, present, or future. It is overly tempting to think of these stories simply as stories of other people's lives, but they are so much more than that.
How hard it is for us to understand and connect with Abram. He leaves his father's land to go somewhere that we know of because we have read the ending, but he did not. He left his social network, and I don't mean he simply "unfriended" people he wasn't really friends with. I mean he left all that could offer security, peace, and prosperity to go after a promise… and Lot said, "All right – I'll go too!"
Lot is an interesting character, and it seems strange that he is tacked into the last line of this passage. Yet there may be some connection to the idea that through Abram God will dole out blessings and curses. That's an attractive offer to be a part of! I can't say that Lot's motivation was purely selfish, but it is interesting to follow him as he journeyed with Abraham – moving through famine and into such wealth that they had to separate to keep the peace between their herdsmen. Then we see his final decline in a cave, barely surviving with his two daughters and nothing else. I wonder if there isn't something of Lot in each of us as we go to church and seek the blessing of God.
That's a view I don't want to look at in the mirror – the convenience of faith! Abram, who would become Abraham, did not have a convenient faith. Paul reminds us that the faith of Abraham was not about his works. Abraham did hear and follow God, but not out of obedience to a doctrine or a rule. He did not do it so that God might do something for him. He did it because God had already made the promise to him to bless him and to cause others to be blessed because of him.
His faith was reckoned as righteousness! That's one of my favorite Biblical phrases. It's like God said, "Well I reckon that's alright by my way of thinkin'." I reckon... I suppose... Sure... Whatever... All of these words carry some ambiguity. They are blessings and curses that depend on context and inflection to interpret, and God has given Abraham the green light to do both – to bless and to curse. Why? It is because of his faith. Not because of what Abraham has done or will do, but because of his openness to God's presence and activity. Sounds good, but it must be easy for him, huh? I mean, God talks to him in dreams and sends angels to him in the daytime. That must be nice.
Last Sunday night, several of us watched the movie "Brigadoon" together. It's a story about a mythical town in Scotland that only appears for one day every 100 years. Two American businessmen on a hunting trip wander into it, and discover its secret. One of them represents the lover and the dreamer; the other is a pragmatist, disbelieving all that the senses and the rational mind cannot confirm. Yet in the end both of them have a part to play in the salvation of this mystical community.
It strikes me how even today there are those who reject faith in God because they cannot see it, taste it, or touch it. It strikes me how this question was important even while Jesus walked among us, for he said to Nicodemus, "we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony."
What angles of the mirror do the words of Jesus give us? Do we see the reflection of the church in them? Do we feel the exasperation of witnessing to the tremendous acts of God only to be told that we don't offer the things another church does? Or maybe, just maybe, we see the reflection of Nicodemus. Maybe we have been devout followers of the way but never really seen or experienced something that we know without a shadow of a doubt is from God. Or maybe it's worse than that. Maybe we have become churchgoers – attending services and feeling affirmed but never challenged.
The tension in the church today, I believe, is found between the need for stability and the calling to leave it behind. That is the tension Nicodemus faces when he is told that he must be "born from above," because he cannot get around the idea that Jesus is not asking him to do something. Instead, he is asking him to realize what God has done!
"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved." This is what God has done.
And the amazing thing is this: God's activity includes Lot, and Nicodemus, and pragmatic skeptics who have never seen a miracle even though they are involved in one every minute of every day. All are part of the grand pageant that is God's good and imperfect creation!
I cannot tell you what God has done with horse and rider that were thrown into the sea or the Lots and Nicodemuses of this world. All I know is that Jesus Christ offers us the experience of Abraham. All I know is that our actions for good or for ill are woven into the fabric of the universe, for God justifies even the ungodly.
Paul doesn't mean just anybody. Paul is clearly setting up the idea that you don't have to be a Jew by birth to be adopted into the family of God. It is through faith in Christ that we become heirs to the promise of salvation. I do not know how far and how wide God's net is cast or what God will do with those of us who need more proof or call God by another name when the stage is struck and the cast of characters of all of human history take off their masks and costumes. But I know this. I know that I am caught up in that net. I know that salvation starts now. I know that miracles happen when any person of any age draws a breathe and exhales life for trees and plants. I know that all of this is because of God's action and that my faith - however puny it may be – is reckoned as righteous in the site of God.
Now here's the really good part: just as God promised to be reflected in the character of Abraham, so God promises – even elects – to be reflected in yours! In your suffering, in your adversity, in your joy and in your celebration, all of these offer the chance to experience and to express the hope, the providence, and the love of God Almighty!
Because of Jesus we can taste and see that the Lord is good. Because of Jesus we can hear and understand the miraculous as something that we expect. Not that God caters to our wishes, but that it is God who constantly, lovingly reaches out to us and offers us new life from above.
Zoe and I were listening to the radio on the way to school the other day. They told a story about a baby that appeared to have been sitting in the debris of the tsunami for three days. They called her "Tiny Miracle". Zoe said, "We should pray for them!" and we did. She prayed for the daddy to be able to care for the child without a momma, even though neither parent was acknowledged. Later that day the father was found, and the next day the mother was reunited with them as well. All three had been torn apart by the powerful waves. When Zoe heard the news she said, "That just breaks my heart!"
God certainly was not waiting around for Zoe's prayer, but through the miracle of faith she was attuned to God's activity. That is what the mirror of scripture offers us the chance to reflect. It is not up to us to determine God's actions. It is only up to us to reflect God's character. What matters most is that we become open to the transformation that God offers us, that we follow God – even risking our own security – when we would rather stay comfortable, and that we remember that God's offering of grace extends far beyond our own reach.
In fact, our ability to reach out in faith is simply the beginning of something even more incredible that God is doing, has done, and will continue to do throughout all of time and space. May it be so with me. May it be so with you. And to God be the glory both now and always, amen!