Sunday, August 08, 2004

Proper 14 C

Genesis 15:1-6; Psalm 33:12-15, 18-22; Hebrews 11:1-16; Luke 12:32-40

Happy new year!

No, the Florida sun during this week’s family vacation has not baked my head or distorted my sense of time, although the week went by far too fast.

It is actually hard to know anymore how to mark a year in the life of the church. Do we go from Advent to Advent, following our liturgical cycle? Do we celebrate on January 1, when the calendar announces a new year has arrived? Or do we look to Easter morning to tell us we’ve arrived again at the beginning?

All of these events mark time in our life together as a parish community. But I think a significant period of time has passed, whether or not it’s been quite a full year, when we come together on this day. Today. It’s the first day of Sunday School.

So, happy new year! We’re even having a party this afternoon to celebrate!

Many of us have been busy marking the new year for some weeks now, getting in last minute vacations, shopping for school clothes, registering for classes, preparing lesson plans....the first day of, as Little Charlie calls it, "School School" (as opposed to "Sunday School") has also arrived.

Of course, I want to encourage everyone to become part of our Christian formation programs that are beginning over the next few weeks - Sunday School, EYC, Bright Beginnings, Wednesday evening dinners and programs, and Stewardship. But it is even more important to encourage everyone, whether you come to Sunday School or not, whether you have children in school or not, to take advantage of this time when we do, for all intents and purposes, start a new year, when we are so focused on beginning new things.

This morning’s readings are all about beginning new things, and the measure that marks them all is faith. Our reading from Hebrews lists example after example - by faith the world was created, by faith Abel offered his sacrifice, by faith Enoch lived a life that pleased God, by faith Noah built an faith Abraham and Sarah, the favorite example, set out for a place they would never see with the promises of children they did not yet have and a blessing they had no reason to think they would ever receive.

Just a few weeks ago we heard about Abraham and Sarah’s faithfulness to the laws of hospitality, when they fed and sheltered three strangers who were later revealed to be divine guests. God told them then and there that the first of the starry host promised to them so long before would soon be born. Abraham was stunned speechless and Sarah laughed, so extravagant was the grace.

This morning’s Old Testament reading takes us back in time from that glorious day to one in which Abraham was filled with despair. He and Sarah were considering giving up a secure and stable life to become wanderers, all because God promised that from them would come a chosen people who would live in a chosen land and receive God’s most choice blessing. There was not one shred of evidence that God would deliver on any of it, but - was it faith yet, or boredom, or reckless whim? - Abraham and Sarah packed everything up and set out for Somewhere.

I don’t blame Abraham for being frustrated at first, for complaining that the one thing he and Sarah ought to be able to accomplish for themselves - having their own child - seemed impossible. What happened next changed Abraham and Sarah and the whole world forever. God brought Abraham outside and said, Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. Then God said to him, So shall your descendants be.

What did Abraham and Sarah see in the sky filled with stars that night? Certainly the limitless constellations spoke of abundance, of extravagance, of God’s joy in creating life and light. But sheer numbers aren’t enough to fire real faith, because faith is more than something we can grasp with our minds, especially if we have to do it with a symbol representing a number to which we could never count...

In the stars, Abraham and Sarah saw light in a dark place. Not enough to cast light on the end of their journey, the nature of their blessing, or the face of their child. Not enough to drive away the darkness, but enough to make the darkness dazzle, enough to help them see beyond the darkness filled with uncertainty and fear and frustration and doubt to a God for whom darkness is not dark and the night is as bright as the day.

They believed, and they put one foot in front of the other, and plunged into the deep and dazzling darkness of faith. This is faith, going forward when it would be easier to turn back, or at least stand still - going forward with God simply because God has invited us to. And God has invited us, as surely as God invited Abraham and Sarah, to go forward in faith, to leave behind security and stability as the world measures it and find our safety in God, who is our shield. Faith does not earn for us God’s promise, God’s blessing - faith is our response to God’s promise already given.

Isaac may have been the first new star in Abraham and Sarah’s night sky, but of course he would not be the last. Countless stars have appeared, women and men who, like Abraham and Sarah, went forward in faith simply because God invited them to. We read about them in Holy Scriptures. We read about them in historical documents of the Church. We read about them in newspapers. Most of them we’ll never read about, for their lives are as ordinary as ours. Of them all, we heard it read they died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.

It is the beginning of a new year in the life of our parish, the year by which we measure our intentional formation and education in what it means to be chosen by God, to be numbered among the stars. Through classes, bible studies, youth programs, shared meals, pledge cards, outreach activities, and worship we train our eyes on the heavens to guide us as our feet make their day-to-day journey through the world.

May we all be challenged this morning by Abraham and Sarah and all those others to begin something new, something really new, something that requires us to give up a piece of the stability and security we so fear giving up. It will probably look different for each of us - go to Sunday School for the first time, begin volunteering weekly at LOVE’s kitchen, start praying as a family every day, give more than feels comfortable. By faith, may we go forward with God simply because God has invited us to.

Saint Clare of Assisi, one of the starry host whose feast day we celebrate this week, would give us this blessing on our journey into the unknown: "Go forth in peace, for you follow the good road. Go forth without fear, for God who created you has sanctified you, has always protected you, and loves you as a mother." Amen.

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