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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Lent 02/21/2016

When Kathy and I went on vacation last fall the focus of the trip was to visit Virginia to see George Washington’s home at Mt. Vernon and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville. When we found out how close James Madison’s Montpelier home was we added that to the list. I didn’t study history when I was at college; when I think back I didn’t study much of anything at college with much seriousness. After that though, I became interested in American history, especially the revolutionary period, especially the founding fathers. So for a long time I had thought it would be good to make a trip to Virginia to visit some of the historic sites associated with that period.

It was good; besides the history, Virginia itself is quite beautiful; so it was a good trip for us with a few days in Washington D.C on top of the Virginia part. One of the things I found interesting though, in visiting the presidential homes, is that those who occupied those homes were not portrayed as saints. Obviously they all were great men and deserve to be recognized as such, but they all had flaws too and the tour guides weren’t afraid to talk about that.

In a book I bought while we were on the trip, the author, a prominent scholar of the revolutionary period, says that how these characters have been portrayed has changed over the years. In early biographies you did mostly get what could be called hagiography, making saints of them, citing their virtues and ignoring their flaws. Then he says there was a period when it went the other way with authors intent on making a case that these characters we admired as heroes and in whose honor we made statues and memorials and named cities after, weren’t so great after all. These authors went out of their way to emphasize the faults of these men who were thought to be exceptional. Present day scholarship has become more balanced, similar to our tour guides, acknowledging the greatness of the founders but not afraid to admit that they weren’t perfect.

Which finally brings me around to Abraham or Abram as we encounter him in today’s text. The way he is portrayed in the Bible goes through a process kind of like how the founding fathers were portrayed, except in the opposite direction. Abraham is remembered as the ancestor of the people of Israel, the one chosen by God to receive promises with the story of God to be told through him and his family, part of that story being that Abraham would be a blessing to the nations. Abraham is remembered as being God’s servant, as a man of great faith, faith demonstrated most graphically in his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac at the command of the Lord despite the fact that it had taken forever for this promised child to be born and the fact that killing him would seem to make no sense at all. How could Abraham be the father of many if his only son is sacrificed? It’s a disturbing story for a number of reasons. The Lord finally called it off, but in faith, trusting in the promise, Abraham was ready to go through with it.

So Abraham is remembered as a model of faith, but in the stories about him in Genesis, he is also a flawed character. There are times when he is deceitful and there are many times when he doubts the promises of God, questioning God’s resolve. Rather than trusting God he tries to take matters into his own hands both in terms of producing an heir and in making political alliances. There are times when his actions caused him to be an agent of curse rather than blessing, leading to the suffering of others. In other words, Genesis presents Abraham as a good man, but one with serious flaws.

However, in the rest of the Old Testament and in the New, all those flaws are forgotten or ignored. Abraham is presented only in a positive way, primarily as a man of faith and it is especially so in the New Testament in the letters of Paul. The reasons for that strictly positive portrayal aren’t entirely clear apart from the fact that we do need heroes; we do need people to admire and look up to so to know their flaws isn’t always helpful. In the case of Abraham, though, I wonder if a disservice hasn’t been done. Abraham is a more interesting and perhaps a more helpful character when his flaws are part of the mix.

Today’s reading is a good example. The promise of a child had been made to Abraham and Sarah despite the fact that they were old, but years had gone by and nothing had happened except they’d gotten older and Abraham had fathered a child through one of Sarah’s servants. At that point, faithful Abraham wasn’t so sure about the Lord’s ability to pull off this promise of offspring. He questioned the Lord and the Lord responded by taking him outside to look at the stars and told him that’s how many descendents he would have.

At that point the text says that Abraham believed, but what did he believe? That he would have a child? That God could be trusted? That there were a lot of stars in the sky? We don’t know because it doesn’t say, but right away Abraham is back to questioning, asking the Lord for a sign that would prove to him that the promise was still valid. None of this however, gets mentioned in the rest of the Bible. It’s always Abraham as a man of faith with examples of the times he was obedient, but the role his questions played in his journey of faith is never mentioned, and I think that’s too bad.

What Abraham’s portrayal has done is to help perpetuate the idea of faith as the absence of doubt, the idea that really faithful people never have any questions. It makes me wonder how many people have been lost to the church, not to God but to the church, because they have questions and as a result see themselves as lacking the necessary faith to belong. If you look at Abraham though, his questions, his honest relationship with the God who had made promises to him was an important part of his faith journey.

I just finished a biography of Emily Dickinson, probably the greatest American poet ever. Who would have thought that I’d read a biography of Emily Dickinson? American literature is another one of the things I didn’t study in college. On top of that, who would have thought someone could write a 600 page biography of someone who was in many ways a recluse and hardly even left her room for years. It was quite interesting though; she’s kind of a fascinating character and what I found most interesting was her rather unconventional faith journey.

Living in the mid-1800’s the Christianity of her time was about conviction and the experience of a true conversion experience in which you gave yourself fully to Christ. It was a time of revivals and awakenings as they were called leading people to be divided into the regenerate, those who had had this conversion experience and the unregenerate, those who hadn’t. The unregenerate were then describe as being without hope. Emily Dickinson always saw herself in that group. She watched as family members and other acquaintances had their conversion experience but in honesty she couldn’t say it had happened to her.

When you read her poetry though, along with letters that she wrote, she was on a journey. As a younger person she went to church; she knew a number of clergymen; she knew her Bible and in her writing, in unconventional ways, she probed quite deeply into matters of faith, into questions of life and death and eternity. What she didn’t do was to conform to the religious expectations of her time; she remained on the outside with her questions and probing, causing her family and friends to worry about her eternal destiny.

Wouldn’t who is faithful and who isn’t be understood differently though, if Abraham’s doubts and questions were emphasized as part of him being a great man of faith? I’m not saying that’s the only reason or that faith being packaged as the unwavering absence of doubt is the only reason some might feel they don’t belong in the church or that their faith is inadequate; but when faith is understood that way, the perception can be that unquestioning lock step adherence to all the creeds and doctrines is required, that believing all the right things and having the right experience is required…or else.

It’s funny too, because it’s not just Abraham who struggled. All the great figures of the Old Testament, the heroes, Jacob, Moses, Elijah, they all had their moments of doubt about this God with whom they were in relationship. Even Jesus struggled with who he was and the role he was to play. None of them had unquestioning, unwavering faith; instead it was the struggle that deepened their relationship with a God who can be rather elusive and who doesn’t always act in the ways that we would like.

To me it makes so much more sense that questions are part of the journey. I would hope that someone like Emily Dickinson would feel like she was welcome in this church. My guess is, people like her are already here.

Pastor Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
sent me.”
 
 

 

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