Sunday, February 17, 2008

Second Sunday in Lent

Genesis 12

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. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I 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.” 4So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him.

Romans 4
4 Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. 5 But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.

There’s nothing like a good poll to excite people or get them all bent out of shape. A recent survey says 15 percent of us would trade in our domestic vote for the opportunity to vote south of the border. In my day, we called that treason. Who are these people? Show yourselves, I say. If the number is correct, 10 of you are thinking about Obama or Hillary right now. Shame on you.

Closer to home, the first phase of the Emerging Spirit workshops are just about done, and as preparation begins on phase two, we have a chance to reflect on some of the things we learned. I learned, for example, that 99 percent of the people who took my workshop were carried into church for the very first time. Young and old, urban and rural, 99 percent of the 400 or so people I met were born to the church. From the moment they were first aware, they have been aware of the church. The same cannot be said for the majority of 30-45 year-olds that we are trying to reach. There is huge gap in experience, which I will come back to.

There are also a lot of facts and figures presented throughout the events, most of which people accept as accurate. Except one. Almost every time we share that 84% of Canadians believe in God, we get questions.

Did they ask them what they mean by ‘believe’?
Did they say what kind of God?
Was this the monotheistic God of Christianity, or some other type of God?
How recently did they ask this question?

And so on. The number comes from Decima or Environics –
I can’t recall which – and it is always a source of considerable debate. And I’m not sure why. Maybe it is the next number (19% of Canadians worship on a regular basis) that makes the first number so hard to accept. It means that 65% of Canadians can’t (or won’t) find their spiritual needs met by an organized religion. That means that nearly 20 million Canadians are thinking about their God, but choosing not to locate this thinking within tens of thousands of worshipping communities.

Suddenly we see why this particular statistic is so hard to reject. 65% of voters may vote against the Prime Minister in the next election (and he’ll still win), but at least we can understand their reasoning. When 20 million people reject us, it requires us to do some massive soul-searching. Hence all the questions about the 84% number itself. The response we are looking for, within the Emerging Spirit campaign, is a shift in thinking from the “if we build it, they will come” to “what barriers have we created to participation?” How can we change to make ourselves more open to the community? It is a big project.

It does leave me very curious about 20 million potential friends out there. How many came and then left? How many have never been? We do have one number that helps me sleep at night, a number that was checked and rechecked and became the basis for the entire Emerging Spirit campaign. 77% of Canadians between the ages of 30 and 45 said they would be interested in knowing more about a church like the United Church. 77 percent. We even have hockey jerseys with 77 on the back.

For those millions that believe in God and have never been in a church, we can hopefully describe them as pre-church. Our task is to welcome them with the assumption that a life of faith lived in community is more rewarding and more inline with God’s plan for our lives. We need each other: to support, to comfort, to teach and encourage. These are the marks of a community of faith: walking with fellow believers at every step of life’s journey. Trusting that with God, and each other, we never walk alone.

Taking this a little further, we could say they are pre-religion. Now, religion as a concept has taken a pretty big hit in recent years. People love to say “I’m spiritual, and not religious,” meaning exactly what the survey says. They have a sense of the divine without placing this in a religious context. Fair enough, but every religion is different, and has different ideas about the nature of God and God’s relationship to the world. Without at least knowledge of religion, it would be difficult to give belief some shape.

This morning we meet one such couple, Abram and Sarai, who are among the 20 million Canadians (maybe they were Canaanites) who profess belief without nesting that belief in any one religious tradition. They were definitely pre-church, and probably pre-religion too. And if we asked St. Paul, he would throw in pre-law. Maybe we could say Abram was pre-law and Sarai was pre-med, since we know she was well acquainted with gynecology. (A little Bible joke for you to share with friends)

What St. Paul means is that Abram and Sarai (later Abraham and Sarah) are faithful before Moses and the law. They are described as righteous without ever knowing about the 10 commandments or the other 600 or so laws that make up the Jewish religion. Soon they will begin to submit to what will later become part of the law (and this will be more painful for Abraham and his guy friends) but until then, they are decidedly pre-law.

Paul really puzzled over this idea, in part because he had rejected his own understanding of what it meant to be faithful. We have to tread carefully here, because the Jewish religion has been subjected to too many attacks by people trying to explain Paul. It may be enough to say that Paul was trying to reform his faith as much as he was trying to create something new. His goal was getting people to rethink their relationship to the law rather than turn away.

Back to Abraham and Sarah, Paul lifts them up precisely because the were regarded as faithful without the law as a reference point. What then, becomes the measure of faithfulness in the absence of the law? What is faith pre-law? There are at least two answers.

The first answer is trust. Abraham and Sarah trusted in God, and were willing to leave the safety of tribe and family and follow God into the unknown. They trusted God to guide them, and to fulfill the promise of a future. Their trust was not a pre-condition for a reward, it just was. They trusted in a God that was interested in a relationship. And in many ways, the beginning and end of faith is seeking a relationship with God. God called, they answered.

The second answer is righteousness, and he describes it this way:

Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. (Romans 4.4-5, NIV)

It is remarkable how often Jesus and Paul use the language of labour to make their point. In this case, a working person understands that with each passing hour the employer’s obligation grows. Friday is looming, and the credit increases as more work is completed. But this is not God’s way. God’s way is the workers in the vineyard. I’ll skip to the end of Jesus’ mediation on work, found in Matthew 20:

8"When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, 'Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.'

9"The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denari. 10So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denari. 11When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12'These men who were hired last worked only one hour,' they said, 'and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.'

13"But he answered one of them, 'Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn't you agree to work for a denarius? 14Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?'

God gives an equal wage to the guys who slept all day, and only managed to get to work by four. We were there at nine, and we spend the entire day in the hot sun, only to discover that the vineyard owner is some kind of radical. Maybe a socialist. And Paul says “to those of you who worked all day, and yet graciously accept that God loves the lazy, to you I give the name righteous.”

Righteous people expect no reward. Righteous people love the fact that God loves jerks. Righteous people know that God’s generosity is something to behold, and not something to resent.

All in all, we can imagine that Abraham and Sarah were pretty remarkable people. God saw trust and a willingness to accept God’s mysterious and wonderful and sometimes frustrating ways. God saw a couple that wanted a relationship with just such a God, and that was all that was needed. The rest is history.

In Canada, at this moment, there are up to 20 million Abrahams and Sarahs: they shovel their neighbour’s walk, they recycle, they keep the ingredients of a casserole on hand just in case, and they care deeply about their community and nation. They believe in God.

When we told them that we wanted to be known as the church that cares for the earth, the church that encourages questions, and the church that is open to change, they leaned in, but found it hard to believe we could be that church. Our task, should we choose to accept it, is to be that church and tell our story. It is far from mission impossible; maybe mission challenging, but we have God’s help. Thanks be to God. Amen.


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