Reformation Sunday (October 30, 2016)

Abraham is a paragon of faith. When you think of “faith,” you think of “Abraham.” God calls him, and promises, “I will make you a great nation. I will bless you, and bless the world through you.” God tells him to pack his things and leave his comfortable city of Ur for Canaan, the crossroads of the ancient world. Armies, nomads, and immigrants pass through from Asia, Europe, and Africa. Every time the Pharaoh of Egypt and the King in Mesopotamia want to fight, they’ll do it in Abraham’s yard. Abraham will take these challenges as opportunities to serve God by serving others. We read the story over the summer, and refer to it in our Great Thanksgiving this fall, of Abraham welcoming three strangers, giving them food and water, and realizing that they are God. That sort of thing happens for Abraham. The journey of faith never ends. He is never in possession of its fulfilment. Its end remains a promise he lives into each day. He inspires us to live as God calls us to live. When following Jesus becomes hard because family is so stressful, we turn to Abraham. When following Jesus becomes hard because we’re waiting so long, we turn to Abraham. When following Jesus becomes hard because the needs before us are so pressing, we turn to Abraham.

This guy is the opposite of the Abraham thrown at Jesus by some of his Hebrew followers. Their Abraham represents nostalgia. Their version of history is creative. “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.” The central narrative of the Hebrew people is the Exodus, the story of God using Moses to lead the people out of 400 years of slavery in Egypt. Slavery is kind of a big part of the story. Not mentioning it would be like talking about the founding of the United States but denying the Revolutionary War every happened. Their Abraham is a convenient ancestor who allows them to forget their past, and claim self-reliance. Slavery is shameful, God frees them from slavery, but depending on that means depending on God, so they pick a different story, one without slavery in it, and thus try to master their own life. But, even their Abraham is fanciful. If they looked at him at all, they’d see his faithful life pointing forward to Jesus, who stands before them today.

Jesus offers freedom. Freedom from what? What do we mean? Freedom from the King of England? Freedom isn’t free? Freedom of speech? Freedom of religion? Freedom to do business? Freedom from discrimination? Lots of different meanings of Freedom, and we should probably be specific. Jesus offers freedom from everything that keeps you from being fully human, everything that keeps you from being the creature you are meant to be. He offers that freedom to be human by being the freedom to be human.

Jesus is the most human being there ever was. His life as John describes it is lived entirely in trust that his Father has it under control. The theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg writes of the father-son relationship in the Trinity as one of gift and risk. God the Father gives to God the Son everything there is about being God—all the power, all the glory, all the knowledge…all the God. God the Son, Jesus of Nazareth, uses his being God to glorify God the Father, and ultimately trusts God the Father enough to lay down being God, and die. He trusts God the Father will pick him up again. That is the most human thing to do, to trust God to take us up. And now Jesus calls us, whom he has claimed as his own brothers and sisters—God the Father’s children—to live in the same manner, laying ourselves down, trusting God to take us up. He calls us to live like Abraham did.  Abraham welcomed strangers. When he heard his cousin, Lot, was in trouble, he rushed to help him. And he was willing to risk losing his son (the only tangible sign of the promise) if that was how the promise was going to be fulfilled. And in so doing Abraham loved God. In the same manner, Jesus calls us to welcome strangers, help those in trouble, and trust that God will deliver on the promise even when all seems lost.

This call falls flat with Jesus’ audience. Indeed, even as he speaks some of them are looking for good throwing rocks. It is a hard sell. You know, God says, “Love me and love your neighbor; you can’t do one without the other.” I’m convinced that half the reason for joining those two is that God knows we don’t want to do the second one. Loving an invisible, unknowable spirit is relatively easy, especially if I can customize him to hate what I hate. I can trust that kind of guy. It is a lot harder to trust my neighbor: they might not be exactly like I am. God says that my not trusting my neighbor is faithlessness.

I heard a lot of faithlessness Monday night at the Valparaiso City Council meeting. For those of you who don’t know the story, the city owns a vacant lot near the post office on Vale Park. Porter Starke, which provides mental health services, is next door. They partnered with Housing Opportunities and proposed to build 31 low rent apartments there. The mayor offered to donate the land. Now, in the interests of full disclosure, this was a project close to the hearts of some Trinity members. And I say was, because in case you missed it, the city voted not to proceed with it. The comments from my fellow residents were disgusting.

I heard a woman say she once encountered a mentally ill man from Porter Starke, nothing dangerous happened and it hasn’t happened again, but the city should make sure she never has to encounter anyone she doesn’t want to encounter.

I heard people brazenly say they didn’t want “those people,” poorer or darker skinned, near them, as they might bring “different values.”

I heard a wealthy citizen rise to mock a college professor who had testified to her difficulty in finding an apartment as a single mom, and to tell her with a condescending laugh that her own daughter had no trouble finding an apartment, and “maybe you should’ve tried the internet.”

I heard a man (not a police officer) reassure us that he keeps Valparaiso safe by stalking a homeless man every day.

I heard person after person say that they moved to Valparaiso from Chicago to get away from poorer and darker people, and that it was the city’s job to protect them from the poor and dark skinned.

I heard a respected developer claim that the poor can pass through walls and other solid objects and come be poor near his property.

I saw a Councilman smile smugly as his No vote ripped homes away from thirty-one families.

I saw the Incarnate Word of God offer the freedom to be fully human, to love and trust God and our neighbors in some small way, and I saw those to whom he offered this lift their rocks and stone him to death. I heard the mob yell, “Crucify him!” And he’s dead.

And yet here I am, and here Jesus is, saying, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” I guess he’s not dead. It is Sunday, after all. On Sunday Christ overcame death and the grave. His disciples said, “Pilate had you killed!” And Jesus said, “Whooo, Pontius Pilate! It’s only death. I just got my father to pick me up.” “What are you gonna do, Jesus?” “Oh, I am gonna go offer them life, again. You’re coming with me.”

Jesus keeps on offering us life as fully human. Like Abraham, we are never in possession of faith’s fulfillment. Faith is a way of life. We live into the promise each day. Had a City Council vote gone differently, we’d still not be in possession of the End or Purpose of life; we’d still be living into the promise. So we are going to live into the promise today. We’re gonna ask the Holy Spirit to show up and move us into the promise. Like Abraham and Sarah we will set a table and share a meal wherein God will appear. We will confess the Lord’s death and resurrection, trusting that God takes up our lives again and again so that we can give our lives to others. We will place our wealth in the offering plates and our food at the foot of the table, trusting that it will bear fruit and that God will provide what we need. We will make our lives a declaration to a hostile world: Christ makes us fully human, and offers that to you as well. By the grace of God we will not go back to the comforts of Ur, but will stay here in Canaan. And we will pass each day living into the promise, God’s words to Abraham, “I will bless you, and bless the whole world through you.”