Saturday, February 16, 2008

You Gotta Have Faith

Texts: Genesis 12:1-4
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

Perhaps like a lawyer remembers the first time she brought a case to court, or a teacher the first time he assigned (and then had to grade) 10 page essays, this preacher remembers the first time she was told to proclaim the word of God.

I don’t remember how it felt to stand up in front of my peers and preach, or how I picked the text or if I felt good about the sermon after I had preached it. What stands out the most in that memory is how I – and quite a few of my classmates – had longed for a form to follow and how our preaching professors wouldn’t give it to us.

Nice people, these professors of ours, but they refused to do the simplest thing to help us prepare. We wanted a list, a “all good sermons must include these things” kind of list, to know that if we followed this list, or this model, this outline, we would be guaranteed to have a decent sermon. And they said, no. Pick a text and preach the Word. That was our list.

Our professors wanted us to have faith in ourselves and more importantly, in the way God would work in and through our voices. We wanted a checklist, a form to follow, a way to guarantee we would get it “right.”

Whether we be seminary students learning to preach or not, we all often want a list – these are the things we need to do in order to get things “right.” Get our work right, our relationships right, our life right. Sometimes it seems like it would be so much easier, so much nicer, if we just had a list of things to do or not do, and as long as we followed that list, all would be well. We’d be the perfect preacher or lawyer, we’d be the perfect parent, we’d live a good, healthy, and fulfilling life – guaranteed.

Many of us struggle with accepting that we don’t have to be perfect. That we can indeed mess up at our jobs, at it can still be okay. That we can forget a birthday (here and there) or say the wrong thing and the people we are in relationship with will still love us. That we can make wrong decisions in our lives, go down the wrong path for awhile, and still, we can recover and live beautiful, fruitful lives.

When it comes to our faith, that desire to have a list, the need to be perfect, the longing to have a guarantee that we’re doing it “right,” often doesn’t go away. We want some sort of faith check-list in order to know we’re right with God.

I’m okay with God because I’ve done a pilgrimage or because I’ve fasted every holy season just like I’m supposed to or because I’ve gone to church every Sunday. I’m okay with God because I’ve been given this list and followed it to the T. I’m okay with God because of what I’ve done.

Those of us who long for some sort of list, some sort of guarantee, some way of being able to measure our rightness with God, aren’t alone. In his letter to the Romans, Paul addresses the issue of being right with God. For many people, being right with God was proven by the works you did. The law – the list of rules and regulations passed down from generation to generation – was viewed as a way to measure your righteousness. The more perfectly you followed the law, the more right you were with God. If you have the law and can obey the law, then you KNOW that you are righteous. You can look back at your successes and prove it.

Paul challenges this assumption with lovely rhetoric and usage of the ultimate model of faith for the Hebrew people. Abraham was seen in first century Judaism as the model of obedience to God. And Abraham, it was commonly understood, was a follower of the law (even though it had yet to be given) and it was by the law that Abraham was in right relationship with God.

While the Bible does not give us much background on Abram before he becomes Abraham, Jewish midrash and extracanonical literature filled in the blanks by imagining a man faithful to the one true God long before he was called by this God. Abram of the extra-biblical traditions some how obtains knowledge of the true God (some texts say as early as the age of three), tries to convert his whole family to the true faith, destroys idols of the false Gods, and is taught Hebrew by an angel of the Lord. He is a true, good, faithful follower of the law – long God initiates any covenant with him.

These extra-biblical traditions were developed to answer a question burning on the law-abiding minds of faithful Hebrew people. Why did God choose Abram? What things had he done, what laws had he obeyed, what were his works that made him worthy, that made him righteous?

The truth is, as Paul tells us, Abraham did nothing. Abraham wasn’t made righteous, wasn’t made right with God, by what he did or didn’t do. He wasn’t chosen because of some great deeds or holiness we don’t read about in the Bible. God choose Abram because God wanted to. And Abram, in response to this call, didn’t go around smashing idols or building temples or converting his whole village – he just believed. Abram is righteous – is in right relationship with God – simply because God said go and Abram went. Abram had faith and that faith, that gift from God, is where the right relationship with God lies.

While people in Paul’s world wanted to point at the law, prove their righteousness by their deeds, Paul contends that no one is righteous by what they do. If we were made righteous by the law, we’d all fall short and none of us would be in right relationship with God. We are right with God because of God’s grace and because of this gift of faith.

The truth is: there is no checklist. No matter how hard we try to follow the law, we will never be perfect. No matter how hard we work in any of our relationships – even our relationship with God – we will never be perfect. And yet God loves us still. God loves us despite our imperfections. And in response to that love, we are to believe. Believe in God, believe in God’s love for us.

Just believe; sounds simple but it’s not that easy. Maybe it’s because we’ve been hurt too many times by the world around us, but for many of us, it’s hard to believe that someone – anyone, let alone the Creator of the Universe – will love us no matter what. It’s hard to accept that our righteousness is not determined by how many good works we do, how many good deeds we can store up, how much we can prove we want to be right with God, but simply by our faith, our own yearning to be in relationship with God. We are in right relationship with God as long as we yearn to be in relationship with God.

That’s not to say we can’t grow in our relationship with God; as Paul tells us later in Romans, Abraham grew in his own faith even as he offered glory to God. We can grow in our relationship with God, grow in our faith. But the things we do, the words of praise we offer – none of these make us worthy of God’s love or gain us some sort of perfect faith. They come as a response to that love and out of the faith we already have.

None of us will ever have a perfect faith. None of us will ever follow the law perfectly. None of us will ever be able to prove our love for God by what we do. But all of us can accept the love God has given us. All of us can yearn to be in relationship with this loving God. All of us can strive to respond in love. All of us can seek to follow the model of Abraham. He accepted God’s blessing, God’s favor, God’s love and let his faith grow from there. May we do the same. Amen.