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The Faith Difference

wilderness1Genesis 17: 1-7
Romans 4: 13-25
Introduction to the reading
This passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans is his take on the ancient covenant between God and Abraham. Paul explains how this covenant extends over time to include those whose faith resides in Jesus Christ.

You have two inserts in your worship bulletin today. One is an order form for Easter flowers; even as we are now in the barrenness of Lent, still the business aspect of church life requires that we plan ahead.

The other insert is a copy of the back of a Cheerios box. “Make good go round; volunteer at your local animal shelter; share your act of good with Cheerios #GoodGoesRound.” You’ll also notice that the cartoon Ellen’s jacket bears the word “love” in lovely flowing red script.

Now I suppose this appeal to service and caring is all well and good. The health-conscious person who is eating nutritious Cheerios now has more than one reason to feel good – a healthy psyche along with a healthy body. A nice marketing ploy. Notice all the embedded sales pitches: watch the Ellen DeGeneres show; win a trip to LA to be in the audience; join the give-away for a free gift card set (gift card for what, it doesn’t say); enter a secret code to see if you’re an instant winner for one of these prizes; go online to share and, I’m sure, subject yourself to more opportunities to be buy something.

There’s great encouragement in our society these days to give back, to care, to volunteer, to help others less fortunate by giving money, time or effort to a good cause. Appeals from charitable organizations, in the mail and by phone, are incessant and insistent. GoFundMe efforts raise millions for relief after disasters or medical crises. In school, children must fulfill a community service requirement of so many hours for the year depending upon their grade.

What’s behind all this? Sadly sometimes, like the Cheerios box, it’s selling a product. Or, being a super successful charity, some of whose donations actually go to the cause. But more often, I think, these efforts speak to the real need we all have to be good people, to be charitable and generous, to help others, to love one another. A Christian idea, to be sure, but not uniquely Christian.

This whole matter was raised at last Wednesday evening’s Consistory meeting. We were discussing our responses to the narrative portion of the annual consistorial report, which is due to be submitted this coming week.
Question #4 asked what our current concerns and challenges are. One person said “maintaining a sense of relevance and visibility” as other elements of society have taken over what used to be in the purview of the church". For example:

  • the aforementioned service to those in need;
  • the mindfulness/meditation movement (replacing prayer?);
  • the loss of a Sabbath day of rest;
  • individuals orchestrating their own spirituality rather than being part of organized religion, a church congregation.

Keeping the faith component alive, vibrant and strong is indeed a challenge for those of us who are practicing Christians in our society today, especially, I think, here in the East coast metropolitan area.

As followers of Jesus, however, it is important to remember:

  • who we are and the depth of our faith tradition;
  • that our Christian faith lends a larger, higher, deeper meaning to any good works that we do, to any spiritual disciplines that we practice.In a letter to an early Christian community, James, brother of Jesus, says that faith without works is dead. But, I would also say, as others have said, that works without faith is merely a social contract, though a commendable one to be sure. Works without faith can lead to self-aggrandizement or personal gain or a means of boasting.We also heard Paul’s argument: For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law [and the works of practicing the law] but through the righteousness of faith… For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants… Works did not put Abraham in good standing before God; his faith did that.
  • that we constantly strive to understand how our individual lives fit into theological time, within God’s larger story of what it means to be human and in relationship with the holy. This relationship is one of covenant, where God holds firm, but we often let go.

Henry Nouwen, in a book of devotions called Bread for the Journey, wrote:

In our society we don’t speak much about covenants; we speak about contracts. When we make a contract with another person, we say: “I will fulfill my part as long as you fulfill yours. When you don’t live up to your promises, I no longer have to live up to mine.” Contracts are often broken. But God didn’t make a contract with us [through Abraham, Noah and Moses]. God made a covenant.

At the Sacrament of Holy Communion, we repeat Jesus’ words from the Last Supper: this cup [of wine] is the new covenant sealed in my blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. All of you, drink of it…

As we continue to move through Lent and what it means to be in wilderness places, let us remember that our lives are indeed Holy Spirit driven, no matter what we do. The faith component makes all the difference.

Rev. Kathryn Henry
Peapack Reformed Church
Gladstone, NJ
February 25, 2018

khenryRev. Kathryn Henry
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