Readings Genesis 17.1–7, 15, 16 Romans 4.13–end
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
Last week Noah and the flood. This week, more Old Testament giants, Abraham and Sarah. God promises them that, despite age and infertility, they will give birth to nations of people. They are the patron saints of all those who see the autumn of life as days of promise and opportunity; they are the Engelbert Humperdincks of the Hebrew Scriptures. In the second reading,St Paul takes up the case of Abraham as he grapples with a challenge that may be not utterly different from that we shall face here in just over eight weeks.
Paul is a Jew. His is a demanding faith, not a matter of vague inclination towards God but obedience to God in the concrete realities of life. It has a law, to give shape to the life of faith, in public and in private, in the big things and the small. It is this strong tradition that has made God real to Paul, and now he has been forced to come to the conclusion that Jesus is the one in whom all God’s promises to his own people are coming true. Some of his fellow Jews agree with him, some disagree – and that’s hard – but now many pagan people are drawn to Jesus as well – and that’s a puzzle. These are not people who have followed the Jewish law all their life, these are people coming to God from a background of, well, God knows what.
What to do about these people when they come to your church? This is a core issue for Paul. Some say that it’s the Jewish Christians, those who have kept the faith down the generations, who should call the tune and it’s for the pagan Johnnie-come-latelies to fit in with them. Paul disagrees: what God is doing in Jesus is not just Judaism-plus; it’s a new creation.
His argument takes us back to Abraham. He is the Father of us all, says Paul, both Jew and Gentile. He will also, by the way, be the one whom Muslims look back to as a spiritual ancestor: Tony Blair, at the 2001 Labour Party Conference, warning against knee-jerk reactions towards all Muslims after September 11th, caused some sucking-on-a-lemon expressions in the audience when he pronounced, in a rather preacherly tone, ‘We are all children of Abraham.’ He is, then, a unifying figure (Abraham, that is); and what makes him this? It is the way he gets right with God, not by obeying the Jewish law (which doesn’t exist then) but by trusting in God.
Abraham had faith. He looked at his and Sarah’s circumstances, which were not that promising from the procreational point of view; then he listened to God, ‘who gives life to the dead and calls into existence things that do not exist’ and was ‘convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.’ That’s Paul’s point, trusting in the God who brings something out of nothing, not just once at the dawn of time, but again and again, and (most wonderfully of all) in raising Jesus from the dead. So, says Paul, whatever your past, whether it’s very pious or frankly riotous, if like me you put your faith in God, the God who brings something out of nothing, who raises the dead, then we are on the same level.
In the last twelve months, in our tiny way, we have seen this God at work among us. It was in Lent 2011 we said goodbye to Cate Irvine, as she moved on from being Team Vicar here to a new job. Changes like this are fascinating in the way they can reveal the preconceptions that ordinary people have about the church. Some years ago I was responsible for a church building that burnt down. The assumption of quite a few locals was that the site would be turned into flats, because – obviously – no-one goes to church these days. There was some surprise when they discovered that we were going to rebuild. Similarly, I have picked up one or two remarks – perhaps you have too – which betray an assumption that the Church of England is in retreat everywhere, so it must be here in Richmond; that this was a staff cut; and that there is some plan to turn this place entirely over to community use because – obviously – no-one goes to church these days. And it’s been good to say, ‘No; this is what happens in a healthy church: vicar moves on to a good job elsewhere, new vicar arrives – in time – to take their place in what is a good job here.’
Even so, twelve months ago, there was anxiety. Would there be the people to keep the show on the road, without the active presence of a parish priest? Well here we are: a confident congregation, gently growing, conscious of where it needs to develop and grow further, committed to this as a place where the rumour of God can be heard. We have, in our small ways, continued to trust in the promises of the God who ‘calls into existence the things that do not exist’, and God has not disappointed us. That is a real cause for thanksgiving this morning. But also this morning, let’s think who else might be about to put their trust in God’s promises.
They live round here somewhere. They may have come here regularly, but faded when the vacancy occurred. Perhaps they saw there was going to be a lot to do and feared that, as when you get too close to a helicopter, they might get sucked up into the rotas. Or perhaps they used to come occasionally, but never quite stuck. Or they may have thought of coming but never quite made it; and when they heard there was no vicar here, they might have made those assumptions I mentioned just now. Whoever these people are, a seed of creative doubt may soon be sown in them. They are aware – or soon will be – that the new man is coming (and I want to hear your ideas about how we get that news out to the neighbourhood here about David Gardiner’s arrival), and they say, ‘Oh, new vicar; big service on April 30th. So, things are happening there. Maybe I’ll look in and find out.’
That might be a way in which God, whose promises we trust, might any day now begin to nudge someone towards realising that their life holds real promise too. If they come here to explore that promise, if they stay and find their feet, what to do with them? Who will call the tune? The moment may come, as it did for Paul and his Christian comrades, when you have to ask: where to strike the balance between those who have kept the faith all this time and those who are newer but who, by the grace of God, are on the same level? what things belong to the gospel, which never changes, and what belong to the packaging of the gospel, which does change, and sometimes must change? Big questions; exciting and – in this new chapter of St Matthias’ life – unavoidable.
When our church building was finally about to reopen after the fire, it was also Lent. We taught ourselves a new hymn, first, because Lent is a time for hard work; secondly, because it would help those of us who were long in the saddle in that place to remember how it feels when things are new; and, thirdly, because we believed the hymn had something to say to us at what was a time of promise. What might it have to say to us now, and here, in our time of promise?
Let us build a house where prophets speak
and words are strong and true,
where all God’s children dare to seek
to dream God’s reign anew.
Here the cross shall stand as witness
and as symbol of God’s grace;
here as one we claim the faith of Jesus:
All are welcome in this place.
Engelbert Humperdinck the UK’s septuagenarian entry for the 1012 Eurovision Song Contest.
Let us build a house by Marty Haugen http://www.methodist.org.uk/index.cfm?fuseaction=opentoworld.content&cmid=3138