“Abraham believed, and God reckoned it to him as righteousness.” This is one of the most influential sentences ever written. God reckons Abraham’s belief as righteousness. The question, “what is righteousness?” lies beneath everything we do and say as Christians. Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann says that (at least in this story from Genesis 15), “Righteousness is to trust God’s future and to live assured of that future even in the deathly present.” The world is deathly, overwhelming, scary, exhausting. We understandably want control. Control is God’s job. When we trust God’s control, we’re “righteous,” or, “in the right relationship with God.” Abraham trusted God to deliver the promised future. That was his faith.
The text of Genesis is short on how that took shape; our Second Reading, from Hebrews, illustrates Abraham’s faith with the image of a city. Hebrews says Abraham left his earthly city of Ur (in modern day Iraq) and lived in a tent as a migratory herdsman in Palestine. Abraham gave up his earthly city for the promise of a heavenly one. Cities in that world were identified with their surrounding inhabited regions, not entirely unlike today, when we may call Valparaiso home but live outside city limits. The difference was everyone had a city. Today, you may say, “I don’t live in a city.” That never occurred to anyone in Abraham’s day. You had a city. Having no city means forsaking any earthly citizenship. No constraints, no protections. Outside a “city” is a wild and dangerous place. Cities are ordered, walled, governed. Out here we have no control. Hebrews says Abraham chooses this life because he looks to a city God controls. We romanticize Abraham’s nomadic, frontier living. Some of us like camping or hiking in wild places. We do that with all the controls civilization offers. Abraham’s living in a deathly present. God promised Abraham descendants. In today’s story, Abraham does not have any descendants. Nor does he have a city. He has no control.
Humans want control. I don’t like to admit it about myself because I don’t think of myself as a controlling person. Is what you’re doing interfering with my Clash of Clans game? Are you interrupting my reading? No? Then I don’t care what you do. But I want control. At least some. I’d like to believe that I have some control over my children. I want the things I say to them to influence them. They do, but I cannot coerce agreement. (I can coerce compliance for a few more years, but I cannot coerce learning, wisdom, I cannot coerce them to believe I love them.) I’d like to believe I exert some control when speaking publicly, whether in church our out in society. I’d like to think my words shape things. And, yeah, they do, but I do not control because of it. I do not coerce 100-150 people a week to believe in God or coerce a city council or zoning board into believing that something is a good idea. I’d like to believe I can control my country, that I can make people agree with me through my inimitable delivery of unassailable truth. But I cannot coerce agreement from people, and frankly some of those who disagree with me scare me. I lack control, but I want it.
One of the more pressing contemporary examples of an attempt at control is religious nationalism. The merging of a religious identity with a national identity. This has become common all over the world. Religious nationalism blames a country’s problems on the failure to keep one religion’s practices. It demands special privileges for that religion within the nation. Usually, it is a cover for claims to racial superiority and a justification for subjugation of minorities. In America in 2019 Christian Nationalism is a strong enough current that Church leaders including ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton have had to speak publicly against it, signing the statement, “Christians Against Christian Nationalism.” When you get down to it, Christian Nationalism—no matter how much Christian imagery you thrown in with it—is an attempt to control. We try to coerce the faith of the people around us and use the faith to coerce others to look and act as we do, and, if they won’t, to coerce them to leave by whatever means necessary.
We’ve seen it. The deadly rally in Charlottesville two years ago, where people claimed God wanted a Jewish-free, black-free America. The shooting in El Paso last weekend. (That somehow got lost in the news, that the killer targeted people he assumed were racially inferior to him and draped this in religious language.) And those are big stories. They don’t even cover the day to day attempts to coerce people into not receiving health care because Jesus the great physician doesn’t want that, or to coerce people into reciting biblical passages because it Christianizes us, or to coerce people into living arrangements that are unhealthy or deny their identity because Christ wants it apparently.
There are a lot of problems with that. One we in the Church are poised to speak about is that God does not coerce belief. That’s our First Reading. This scene relates Abraham’s first verbal response to God. When God called Abraham and said, “Hey, Abraham. It’s God. Go to Palestine!” Abraham said nothing. He packed his stuff and went. When God said, “your descendants will be as numerous as the grains of sand on the desert floor,” Abraham silently believed. Today, Abraham talks to God. God says, “Do not be afraid, Abraham, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” Abraham says, “Yeah, see, God, um, I don’t think you are going to do what you promised. You promised me descendants as numerous as the grains of sand on the desert floor. Well, Sarah and I have never had any children and, now, we’re too old.” God says nothing. So, Abraham pushes: “When I die my chief slave will be tasked with selling my property. God, that’s not what you promised.” In the time when this story is set, that’s what you did if you were wealthy and had no heirs: a top slave disposed of property. It’s the final step on the flowchart. If no one else is around, we’ll compel a slave to help. But God’s promise to Abraham is a matter of faith, not of necessity. God will not compel the promise or coerce its fulfillment. Forcing a slave to handle Abraham’s probate is not God’s promise. That’s not God.
What does God do? God reiterates the promise. God says to Abraham, “Look at the stars, count them if you can; that’s how numerous your descendants will be.” And Abraham believes. There was no coercion. Heck, there was nothing like proof. It’s the same basic metaphor, just in the sky instead of on the sand. That’s faith. Faith cannot be coerced. It can be assured. We need constant assurance. Luther says in the Large Catechism that on account of sin we must constantly keep God’s Word in our heart, on our lips, and in our ears. Otherwise we immediately wander. But God does not coerce us into belief. God reveals God, and God invites us to trust God’s revelation.
We find some way to screw this up. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone meaning well saying “God gave us free will so we could decide on our own to follow God.” The implication then being that if you don’t follow God it’s entirely your fault, and God will send you to hell. It’s a short hop from there to say, “If I just happen to speed you on your way there, well, I’ve used my free will correctly so, I’m good.” That’s just more coercion! That’s not God. In our First Reading, God does not say to Godself, “Okay, I’m going to reiterate the promise, and if Abraham doesn’t believe, I’ll fry him.” God reveals God. God says, “I love you, Abraham, and I am going to make you a great nation.” When Abraham believes, he is in right relationship with God. When he doubts, at the beginning of the reading, he is not in right relationship with God. But, they’re still friends. It’s not like if Abraham died at that moment, he’s eternally cursed.
God invites trust. I don’t know why. It’s not how I would run things, but, as God frequently reminds me, I’m not God. God does not coerce Abraham. If God does not coerce faith, why would we think we could? God does not offer Abraham definitive proof of God’s trustworthiness. If God doesn’t do that for Father Abraham, why would we think we could? I think that in today’s world, in our situation—America 2019—our faithful witness must be “Neither God nor humans can coerce faith.” God wants you to trust God. God’s not going to coerce that, and neither am I. Maybe that doesn’t sound churchy; maybe that’s not what we think of as witness. But, when the Word of God became flesh, he did not coerce, but hung from a cross, and even on the cross was inviting his fellow crucified into right relationship: I swear to you today you and I will be together as God desires. It is a word of grace for our church to speak, “God does not coerce faith, and neither will we.” It’s a word of grace today to say, “We will not legislate righteousness.” It’s a word of grace to say, “Yeah, you can’t control your kids. No one can control their kids.” It’s a word of grace to say, “God wants you to know God, and God will be here whether you’re doubting or believing.”