Dean Baxter: “Lent: A Time to Renew the Assurance”
I am honored to be here this morning.
Someone once said that hospitality is the art of making people feel at home whom you wished were at home. But I must say that you have made me feel at home here in this wonderful, wonderful community of God. I’m very grateful to your pastor, a dear friend and mentor of mine for many years, for his very generous invitation to be here.
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it Abraham obeyed when he was called. It is important that we remember Abraham, the father of what we call the Abrahamic phase, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, was an adherent to none of these. In fact, he was not yet Abraham, but Abram, an uncircumcised, tent-dwelling nomadic pagan whose spirituality was essentially spirit communication through dreams and trances, building stone altars in oak groves, offering animal sacrifices, and interpreting the movement of the sun and the stars.
But the Bible tells us that Abram from the beginning in what may seem to many of us to be a relatively primitive way of doing religion, he honored God. He honored God as his Lord above all, and God honored his faithfulness. Abram honored God’s call and claim upon his life that he might be willing to leave all the things that he had and loved, to leave the stable urban environment, the land of Er of the Chaldeans, and become a wondering nomad.
Among the things that God loved about Abram was that Abram loved and trusted God more than the wealth he had acquired as a herder and as a nomadic trader. Abram had acquired great wealth, cattle, sheep, camels, and donkeys. He had silver and gold in great quantities. He had slaves, male and female, and he even had a small fighting army of three hundred and eighteen soldiers. Now, to many persons of his day and of our day, this would be more than sufficient to have a sense of being blessed by God. In fact, I imagine Abraham could have gotten on television with this blessing plan. But Abram’s faith was about more than personal wealth. For he was on a pilgrimage with God. A pilgrimage into the vision of God, the God who said, “I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” At the core of the meaning of Abram’s life was that he was a man for others, a co-worker with God in the welfare of the world. So therefore he was on an unfolding pilgrimage to discover exactly what this meant.
And I pause here to say that a pilgrimage is different than simply a journey. At Washington National Cathedral we have almost a million worshippers and visitors a year, but less than half of those are actually there as they would consider it a pilgrimage. They’re there for architectural, art, cultural activities. But a journey is that in which we are seeking something that might be the fulfillment of a curiosity or a destination or a life’s ambition. But a pilgrimage is a journey into a Holy place. It is seeking the mind and dream of God and our place in the dream of God. Like a journey, a pilgrimage may have detours. It may have deadends and hills and valleys and rivers to cross. But important as the end in a pilgrimage, is that God is shaping us in the journey.
Now, of course, we are human beings. If any of you are like Nathan, you like being in control. Now I realize that in the Church not all of us need to be in control. We just need to control the folks who are! But indeed when we understand that what is different about a pilgrimage is that God is in charge.
Now, I was having some real spiritual struggles back here late fall and in the winter, and struggling with my vocation. Now, what is God calling me to do at this time in my ministry? And I was posing and testing with various ones, and my brother, who is a pastor, and I was talking with Wayne, and Wayne listened for a while. And then he said, “Nate, if God is your co-pilot, change seats.” Now, what I came to understand is that God is not there to assist me; I am there to assist God! That God determines the direction of the pilgrimage.
And so God loved Abram because he had decided that God would be the pilot. And so when he was called into this nomadic life with the promise of great expanse of land inhabited by his descendents, through whom all the nations would be blessed, he trusted God. But that was three chapters ago, and in Biblical chronology, three chapters is a long time. And so Abram had begun to lose the assurance that God was going to do what God had promised. He had tried to help God. As we often do, he took up a love slave who was trustworthy, and he adopted him as was the custom of his time, that he might be the heir that would manage his affairs in case of his demise. And, of course, Sarah tried to help by giving to Abram her slave, Hagar. But Abram tried to be patient. But he was now at a point when he needed a renewal of assurance from God.
Every Christian, every Christian is called to a life of pilgrimage with God. Karl Barth reminded us we are in a partnership with God, an unequal partner, but a partnership with God to create something that will bless the world around us, that will bring into sharper relief, shalom, the vision of God for human community. That we might participate in healing and reconciling, enabling justice making and peace-making.
As St. Paul said to the church at Galatia, “You were running well. What hindered you from obeying the Gospel?”
I wonder today, in mainline Christianity, what hinders us. Is it wealth? Impatience? Have we become overcome with the cares of daily living and professional life? Or is it intellectual arrogance? Is it religious irrelevance, or just weariness with church politics?
I believe that the mainline Church in the United States, among others, needs a renewal of assurance. A renewal that God has a purpose for us. Although we have been divided throughout our history in this country, Christians of a progressive and prophetic vision, have themselves lead throughout our history, with the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, public literacy, health care, welfare, child-labor protection, orphanages, hospitals, civil rights. Yes, in many things we ran well.
But what is hindering us now? Have we lost courage? Are we weary in doing justice? There is critical work to be done. The Kingdom has not come. There are the problems that include the violence, domestic violence, gun violence, street violence, violence among our children, violence in the media, violence in our music. There is a vulgarism I our culture today that is become an acceptable way in which we understand life. There is the persistence of racism in our society. There is poverty, poverty, and unbelievable poverty, especially among women and young children. And there is a disrespect for so many in our society, including our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, whom God is calling us to welcome them to their rightful place at the table among us in Church and in society.
Leander Keck, a Yale theologian, in his book called The Church Confident, he calls and challenges the Church, in particularly progressive Christians, to remember that they have a call of God. And he said that we need to change. In fact, his words were, “Christianity can repent; we can change our direction.” But he said, “One thing we must not do is we must not whimper.” When the Church is about only surviving, about budgets and preservation, when our energies are consumed with bickering and internal conflict, that is whimpering, and ultimately we are then weary into impotence and paralysis.
I think of the wonderful story about the Jewish synagogue. A young rabbi, who came with a vision of how they might move forward, discovered that there was real conflict in the parish about the issue of the reading of the Torah. There were the sitters who said that the reading of the Torah in for instruction, and therefore we should sit appropriately. And there were those said, but it has the words of the prophets, and out of respect we should stand. Almost sounds Episcopalian! And, as this debate went on and the young rabbi worked at trying to find some consensus to move them off of this place of where they were locked and bogged down, and finally he decided, “you know, if I could go to the oldest member of this congregation, tell them the conflict, they could tell us what was originally done, and we could move on.” And so they went out and found Mr. Greenberg. They found him there in a nursing home, and he took with him the leaders of the sitters and the leaders of the standers. And they got there and he went up to Mr. Greenberg, “Now, sir,” he said, “tell us in the early life of this congregation, did we stand or did we sit for the Torah?” Mr. Greenberg scratched his head, and he sat there and he pondered and he said, “Think. You’ve got to have an answer. Were we sitting or were we standing?” And he pondered more. And he said, “Please give us an answer. We are embroiled in conflict.” The old man said, “Ah conflict, yes, I remember conflict!”
What is remembered most about our life? Is it the proclaiming and the living of the Gospel, or is it about a community in conflict? What can we learn from the story of Abram? What can we learn from his faith?
First of all this Lent we are reminded that no matter what the state of our religious life, no matter how primitive or simple or sophisticated we perceive ourselves to be, even in this eclectic time when indeed we are blending in many ways New Age experiences and Ecumenism, when we find that our spirituality is able to expand even to experiences of the ?, we are walking the labyrinth. We may be quiet like a Quaker, or promenading like an Episcopalian. We may be Zen Baptists, or shouting Methodists. But whatever it is, the truth is, God will find us there.
But when we decide that we really believe and we want to make God the center of our journey, we want a journey into the dream of God, which is a process of discovery—then God, as he did for Abram, balances the books and takes the faith that we have and balances whatever else might be inadequate. For God, as we see in the story of this primitive nomadic man, what we see is that God is concerned about the heart.
Jesus said that God lookest on the inward part, on the heart, even though we may look on the trappings. Or this commercial that said in the cruise line, encouraging a wife to take her husband after many years on a cruise, the comment was, “His hair line may not be where it used to be, and his waist line may not be where it used to be, but his heart is still in the right place.”
God wants to know, “Is our heart still in the right place?”
Secondly, Abram would not let comfort deter him from the journey, would not let it satisfy his hunger to walk with God. Barry Miller once said, “In the Americas, especially in the United States, what we worship is the seductive goddess of success.” The German theologian, Nortee Soel (?), The Window of Vulnerability, had this challenge to you and to me. She wrote, “Many mildly class people are seeking today for a new spirituality. They want to add something they already have, education and profession, upbringing and secure incomes, family and friends, religious fulfillment, for meaning of life, food for the soul, consolation, and all that is to be added on top of their material security as a kind of religious surplus for those who are already over-privileged.” He says, “We seek spiritual fulfillment of life in addition to the material blessings from above, simply to supplement our riches.”
As Christians, I believe this morning that we need to understand two things. First, that we are a people under judgement. And secondly, we will not be judged by what we have or have acquired. That it may come as a surprise to many of us that Jesus did not have a car. That he didn’t have a chariot or a horse. If you remember the triumphal entry, he actually had to borrow a donkey to make the triumphal entry! Jesus did not have a tent or a house or a condo. He said, “The Son of man has no place to lay his head.” Jesus did not have a bank account. He had to actually fish to get money for taxes. He didn’t have a degree. He didn’t belong to a social club. Didn’t have a corporate title. These things are not bad in themselves. We can all rest and be relaxed. It is just that these will not impress our Judge. Jesus will not be impressed by those things.
Rather, as it says in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus will want us to know and what to know, “Did you feed the hungry? Did you give drink to those who were thirsty? Did you welcome the stranger, the person who was ostracized, who was on the outside of the accepted circles of our wold? What about those who were sick? Sick in body, but also sick in mind, sick in spirit, who had become sick and tired of economic oppression, sick and tired of somehow their social location being the judge of who they were. Did you reach out to the sick? And the prisoner? Did you give the prisoner hope? Did you reach out to the family of the prisoner? Did you try to change the system, to give a reason for hope?”
Thirdly, Abram was a man of prayer. In that dreamlike state when God came to him, Abram talked to God. But he not only talked to God. He listened. He listened. How many of us as Christians have a prayer life? Do you have a prayer life? And if you have a prayer life, does it include listening. Or is our prayer only about telling God what’s on our mind?
I’m sure you have friends who when you’re together they do all the talking. And when they’re finished, the conversation is over. Sometimes our relationship with God is like that. But prayer is about waiting on God. You know when the Scriptures Old and New Testaments, the Hebrew, the Greek Bible, when it speaks about waiting upon the Lord, it means a kind of prayerful, patience experience with an openness, a sensing of God’s voice and presence, waiting for God to speak to us, to direct us.
There’s a wonderful prayer that I love from India, from the Hindi. The prayer says, “To talk with God, no breath is lost, so talk on. To walk with God, no strength is lost, walk on. To wait on God no time is lost, so wait on.”
If we want a renewed assurance in this Lent season then indeed we not only have to have a prayer life, but we need to etch out that time to wait with God and to wait for God.
And finally, someone said that an optimist is a person who puts on their shoes when the preacher says “finally,” but finally, finally, what we learn from Abram is spiritual integrity. Abram was honest with God. See you have to understand Abram was angry. He had told everybody that he was going to bless the world. And in a culture where it did not matter how much wealth you had, if you didn’t have heirs somehow this suggested that you were not in the favor of God. So here is Abram telling everybody what God was going to do, is going to have all these descendents and he couldn’t make one child! And Abram was now frustrated. He was angry. But in that dream he laid before God and he told God that he was angry. And God heard him.
You know, it’s important in our prayer life to be honest with God. God knows! God doesn’t need us to tell what’s going on. But God likes the fact that we are honest, that when we hurt, when we are angry, when we are confused, God likes the fact that we tell God how we feel.
It sort of makes me think of Lucy in Peanuts, when Lucy was trying to correct Charlie Brown and Charlie Brown’ s attitude, and she said to Charlie Brown as she was quoti