Lent 2011 II
Lent 2 2011
Two of the lections for the second Sunday of Lent focus on Abram/Abraham. So shall I. With the knowledge that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam revere him . I shall try to explain why.
12:1 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.
12:2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.
12:3 I 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."
12:4a So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him.
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
4:1 What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh?
4:2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.
4:3 For what does the scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness."
4:4 Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due.
4:5 But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.
4:13 For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.
4:14 If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void.
4:15 For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.
4:16 For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, 4::17 as it is written, "I have made you the father of many nations") -- in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. 4:18 Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations’, according to what was said, ‘So numerous shall your descendants be.’
Faith: an Immigrant Leads the Way
We come from Abraham and we go to him; and while we are here (on earth) we would do well to honor him. Stay with me awhile and what I mean should become apparent.
Half the world honors Abraham as its spiritual father. The qualifier “spiritual” is important. I, for instance, am grateful for that featured player in Genesis because he started it, the history of salvation, when he got up and left the Tigris and Euphrates delta to make a new life for himself and his family seven hundred fifty miles to the west, convinced he would become the father of Bob Howard and a lot of others (see Genesis 12:2). That history (of salvation) is now my history.
I know a little about spiritual fathering, sometimes referred to by its other metaphor, shepherding the flock. Recently, for instance, we feted one of my “little boys” from Brooklyn, now six feet four, 215 pounds, and fifty-one years old, with a standing rib roast. I’d call it a “fatted calf,” but the little boy is no prodigal, having made a good way through life without going to the dead end of wine, women, and corn husks. He played on the church’s junior high basketball team which I coached somewhat feebly. He reminded me that I saw him in the neo-natal ward before his Dad, a telephone lineman, had a chance to; a fact his mother still uses to tease his father. My little boy, now an IBM troubleshooter, holds me in fond and revered remembrance (like Abraham’s posterity does him?) beyond any reasonable justification.
When you have the time, ask me too about one of my “little girls” from Long Island now awaiting knee surgery, how we recently reconnected: she thought I might be dead, but it was a computer program’s glitch, not a coroner, that issued my virtual death certificate. I sought advice and intervention from my orthopedist on her behalf, explaining to the doctor that Grace was one of my little girls, like a daughter to me. She laughs at that suggestion, but also signals she is flattered by the thought.
Old Abraham has millions, no billions, similarly, spiritual children, for whom he paved the way, if not in similarly citable personal ways as Pastor Howard, then to far more benefit eternally.
Like a good spiritual father, Abraham shows us the way… most especially how to believe. A writer who learned from him put it this way, that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). The Apostle Paul turns lyrical (see Romans 4) describing the old patriarch’s faith: that he goes forward “hoping against hope” that he would see the fulfillment of the promise given him, that he would be the father of many nations, more numerous than the sands along the shore. Those around Abraham must have thought him nuts when he reported this epiphany (as those around Mary surely did, nuts or incredibly naïve, when she told them she would be having a child by the Holy Spirit), a barren old man with a wife in her nineties, that they could ever have a child, let alone a vast posterity.
Faith is reaching out into the emptiness and discovering not just something but everything. Like Abraham.
Like Jesus. A correspondent of mine refers to death as Das Ende. That way of putting it has a definitive German ring to it. The End beyond which lies who knows what. But to go to that End intentionally by way of a brutal execution, being strung up on two crossed beams of wood, that defies imagination. Except that that is what Jesus does, believing that there will be a good end to his End, consequences, not just beneficial, positively transformative for this old, battered, and beaten world. On Good Friday he thinks to create everything out of nothing, a new beginning from his Das Ende. We name it resurrection. We go toward it, not just at the end of April, but at the end of time.
There must be a million examples of this creatio ex nihilo, besides, of course, the first one, when God’s Word made the universe out of nothing.
I have been witness to (and beneficiary of) one such imitation of Abraham’s faith, the reaching out into the unknown to make something good issue from of a journey into the dark unknowing. So I read my mother’s experience: it becomes clearer and clearer to me as I travel to Das Ende. She left her home (more a shack than a cottage) in Fintona, Northern Ireland, a child nine years of age, crossed the Atlantic in the care of her older sister of sixteen, to make a new life in the States, never to see her mother or father again. Thenceforth, every parting from family, however brief the separation, drew nostalgic tears from her eyes, as if waving goodbye to her parents. I can hardly begin to fathom the depth of her childhood terror facing life in a new land as a virtual indentured servant to her aunt. Our daughter Gwen, who has written a novel about my mother and her sister’s emigration, “Two Blossoms on a Single Stem,” depicts Evelyn and Emily crying themselves to sleep in a windowless bedroom on the top floor of the rooming house on Franklin Avenue in Stamford. But they hoped against hope; and they made something out of tears and loneliness: lives and families to be happy with and proud of. Gwen’s book concludes with the report that my mother dreamed mightily that her child would someday go to college and become a minister. Right, I didn’t stand a chance of doing anything else for the fifty years of my seniority.
Is there anyone in reading-distance of this illustration with a family that honors immigrant ancestors that cannot tell a similar tale of Abraham redivivus? Finding abundant life emerge from dark and forbidding corners? Fulfilling impossible dreams? Bearing the unbearable sorrow? Running where the brave dare not go? Abraham has fathered many children, one of them, right you guessed him, Don Quixote, whose spirit slumbers in every human soul.
And you? Tell me your confirming story.
Abraham pioneers our faith, shows us the way through these shadowed valleys, hoping against hope, dreaming the impossible dream, until we, co-workers with God, fashion something better, a lot better, and arrive at the pastures of peace... or, if you prefer something more metropolitan, the streets of gold. Little wonder, then, that when describing Das Ende Jesus, in the parable of the rich man and the poor man, equates heaven with being held in the bosom of Abraham.
Like I stated at the beginning, we come from and go to that Chaldean immigrant; and, while on our own migration through time, Abraham can show us how to do it, make the most of it. Let Don Quixote, Evelyn, and a few billion others say, with Jesus too, “Amen.”