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And He Believed

A Homily from Romans 4:13-25

© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

Virginia-Highland Church

June 5, 2005 (Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time)

As many of you know, home repairs have been very much on my mind lately. Brigit and I finally sold our house after nearly a year of trying, and moved into a home much closer to the church, her clinic, and John Francis’ school. Our lives are much better now, but in the course of getting into our dream home there has have been what seems like a million household projects in our old house and in the new one.

The funny thing about many of these projects is that most of them are things that we lived with for years in the old house, but that we new wouldn’t be acceptable in a house that we wanted to sell. It’s funny how many things you can learn to live with if doing so means saving money that you don’t have. We learn to get by on things that are “good enough” even if they aren’t perfect.

Sure, it might be nice to just flip the switch and have the kitchen light come on, but if it comes on after jiggling the switch for thirty seconds that’s “good enough.” It might be nice to have a refrigerator that doesn’t sound like a piece of World War II artillery, but as long as you can turn up the volume on the T.V. it’s not really a problem.

We humans are quite adaptable, and we get used to accommodating the imperfect and the less-than-ideal. Most of the time we do it without thinking, kicking a door to close it or stuffing cardboard under a wobbly table leg without even noticing something was off – until a stranger comes along and we realize how shabby some of our solutions really are.

In our reading from Romans today, Paul takes a look at one of those imperfect solutions that humans still turn to from time to time. The problem it addresses is more significant than a malfunctioning light or a chugging refrigerator: the problem is the universal human condition of sin.

Whether you believe the problem comes from a mistake in a garden or the make-up of our DNA or the inherent nature of mortality – humans are sinful creatures living in a broken world. I’m not speaking here of specific sins, nor am I building up steam for a fire-and-brimstone sermon. I am speaking of our basic, fundamental sinfulness. We do things we know are wrong. We do things we don’t want to do, and we avoid doing the things we know we should. Humans are flawed and fallible creatures, and those flaws separate us from a God who loves us and wants to be a part of our lives.

In today’s reading, Paul points out that one of the first people in recorded history to come up against this gulf between who we are and what God wants to do in our lives was Abraham. In Genesis, we read that God had sat down with Abraham and shown him the night sky. With one arm around Abraham’s shoulder, God waved at the heaven’s and said, “Your children will outnumber even the stars.”

Those children became the nation of Israel and, Paul says, ultimately it became all those who place their faith in God. There was more to God’s promise than simply the hope of a mighty nation. God promised to watch over Abraham’s children, to care for them and protect them. In return, God asked that Abraham’s children keep the teachings that would be passed down to them through Moses. Those teachings made up the Torah, the Law, and they were a way of keeping fickle humans focused on the holiness of God – a way of curbing the sinful tendencies of men and women who otherwise would have not sought the will of God.

Paul points out one major problem with the Law: humans are incapable of keeping it perfectly. The presence of the Law ultimately leads to the wrath of God because humans will break it. It is a “good enough” solution because it gives us something to do, something to aim for, a way to compensate. Following the Law to the best of our abilities gives us a work-around for the problem of sin and our distance from God; but it does not solve the problem.

So what is the solution? If following the Law of God isn’t going to draw us closer to God, what is? How can we fix it once and for all?

Paul says that the answer is “faith.” Seems like an obvious answer since we’re in church. Churches are supposed to be places where faith is nurtured and encouraged, where faith is lifted up, and where faith is restored when it lapses. Paul says that the righteousness of following the Law, any law, will not bridge the gap between us and God; that we can only rely on the righteousness of faith. That’s a good enough answer for church on a Sunday, so we can all leave now and go enjoy Summerfest.

Well, to be honest, I can’t let you off quite that easily. The problem with over-used church terms like “faith” is that we toss them around so often that they lose much of their power and meaning. Ideas that sustained pious Christians through persecution and loss become clichéd and trite.

So what is faith then? Paul gives us a simple example from the story of Abraham. God told Abraham, a man nearly a hundred years old with no children, that he would have descendants who would outnumber the stars. Abraham believed, against all evidence, “hoping against hope” in the words of Paul, that he would have descendants who would outnumber the stars. That is faith.

God told Abraham something, Abraham believed it and acted upon it, and it was counted as righteousness – righteousness in a time before there was any Law or any of the other signs of obedience to God’s promise. Abraham’s “faith” was simply believing that God was telling the truth.

So far, not that complicated; and I hope it won’t disappoint you to learn that I’m not going to try to make it more so. Faith is believing, even when all evidence seems to point to the contrary, that God will do what God has promised. Faith is believing that there is life to be found in death. Faith is believing that we are not alone, even when it seems that everyone has deserted us. Faith is believing that there is mercy even when we think we have done the unforgivable.

But why should we believe that God has promised these things? Where is there a voice of God that we can hear and trust? Where can we put our faith?

These questions seem to get tougher the longer we Christians wrestle with them. Much of recent Christian scholarship and preaching in mainline Christianity seems to be a stripping away of traditions that past generations found trustworthy, a gradual erosion of the sturdy bedrock of the faith. If we are not careful, progressive churches like ours can become centered on what we don’t believe, what we don’t trust, and who we are not.

That is not faith, and that is not righteousness, and Virginia-Highland will need both as it moves into the coming years. Abraham looked out on a strange land, gathered all of his possessions, and – trusting in the promise of God – left behind everything familiar to start a new life.

Whether we choose to enter it or not, the world around Virginia-Highland is changing so swiftly and dramatically that we are finding ourselves in new territory without having moved at all. The days of neighborhood churches seem long gone, and churches themselves seem to matter less and less to most people. Of those who do value what churches have to say, fewer and fewer of them value the progressive values and inclusiveness that are the hallmarks of our identity.

If we honestly look around, the picture looks as grim as the one Abraham must have seen. God promised him a new and fertile land, and he saw a foreign, strange wilderness. God promised him great-grandchildren in the billions, and Abraham saw a body wearied by a century of life.

God promises us the “immeasurable greatness of [divine] power” [Ephe 1:19] will be available to us, and we see empty pews and empty collection plates. God promises us that, through the Church, the wisdom of God will overcome the power of the world [Eph. 3:10], but the only time we see people of faith encountering the broader world is TV interviews where televangelists and demagogues seem hell-bent on letting people know that Christians are idiots.

If we look at what we see, the situation seems hopeless. We might as well close our doors, go home, and start sleeping in on Sunday mornings. If we trust in the promises of God, however, then what we are doing here every Sunday is of critical, life-changing importance. If we trust in the promises of God, then the work of the Church: worship, prayer, fellowship, service is the only work that matters.

If we trust in the promises of God, then the greatest fears of humanity – loss and death – have an answer. We have all sorts of temporary fixes for these things, career goals and busy distractions that are meant to keep our mind off of the reality, the inevitability, of death. In today’s lection, however, Paul reminds us that ultimately our faith should lead us to the final and permanent answer to our fears: the love and mercy of a living God who conquered death permanently and absolutely in raising up the body of Jesus, the Son of God.

Life. That is the full and final promise of God for this church, for the whole Christian Church, and for each of us as individuals. The answer is not in a particular set of interpretations or laws, because none of us will ever find the perfect interpretation or the perfect behavior. The answer is in believing first and foremost in God’s promise of life, of mercy, of hope.

Some might argue that we cannot proclaim that promise at this church in particular. For centuries in many places the promise of eternal life and the love of God has been inextricably linked with racism, sexism, and homophobia. If you were black or female or gay, the Church was willing to let you have conditional access to heaven, but that was about all they would let you have. Consequently, some might claim that we cannot trust in the seemingly impossible promises of resurrection, mercy, and divine presence if we do not also trust in the bigoted baggage that is often associated with those promises.

The truth is, though, that nowhere in our scriptures or in the lives of Jesus or the Apostles do we see that they trusted in bigotry to restore us to the love of God. There is no question that Christians are expected to work to lead lives of integrity and moral purity. Please don’t hear me as saying that there are not right things to do and wrong things to do, that there are not good actions and sinful actions. The clear example of scripture and the early Church is that Christians should set the highest possible standards of moral behavior for ourselves.

But there are two things that I hope we can remember about those standards. The first, and the one that is crucial to Paul’s letter to the Romans, is that those standards do not save us from our sinful nature. They do not offer us the hope of salvation or the promise of being a part of the body of Christ. The mercy of God, the love and acceptance of God, does not depend on us meeting those standards. If it did, there could be no true Christians. There would be no good news.

The second point is one of simple pragmatism. The Church as a whole has never been able to agree on exactly what those standards are. Should all Christians be celibate? Should all Christians be pacifists? Should all Christians be poor? Christians have never been sure on these or hundreds of other issues.

What Christians are sure of is that we serve a God of abundant life and joy. We serve a God of mercy and hope. We serve a God who reached into a tomb two thousand years ago and restored a broken, dead body to life; and ever since then the work of the Church has been bringing life into people and places where everyone thought there was only hopelessness and death.

Times will come when we all, separately and as a church, will face the unknown. None of us will be so righteous, so perfect, that we can expect things to simply go our way. We can, however, trust in the promises of God. We can trust in the stories of our ancestors in the faith who suffered and died in the hope and promise of eternal life. We can trust in the scriptures that carry those stories, and in the Church that has taught those scriptures and reenacted them in the sacraments. Certainly there are plenty of questions, doubts, and debates when we are faced with the mixed bag of our religious heritage; but those arguments are just quick-fixes after all. The real answer is in faith, faith in the one who created us, who redeemed us, and who sustains us, Amen.