Sunday, March 12, 2006

Lent 2: Generational Faith

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

A few minutes ago we celebrated a parent-child dedication
in which the parents made a promise to (quote)
“lead this child to respond in faith
to the love of God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
A basic element of these dedications at Park View,
for the parents, and for the rest of us,
is a commitment to “pass on the faith”
to the next generation.

That is a most worthy commitment.
It’s the whole point of our children and youth programs.
It’s that commitment to pass on the faith
that motivates churches like ours to hire pastors like Ross,
who will devote time and care and attention to this task.
It’s a non-negotiable priority.

I assume there isn’t a person here,
who would say it’s not a priority.
I assume we are in total agreement on the importance,
for any church, to pass on the faith to the next generation.

But like many assumptions we make,
it’s a good thing sometimes to stop and think about it,
and ask what’s really behind that assumption.
Why do we assume it?

Why is it important for us
to “pass on the faith” to the next generation?
What is our motivation?
That’s not a question we ask very often.
Maybe you never have.
But I figure it’s worth asking.

Let me throw out some possible answers.
Maybe we pass on the faith
because we want our children to have a set of
beliefs and values that are similar to ours.
After all, we call them values, because they’re worth something.
We value them. And obviously, we value our children.
So of course we want our children to share our values.
I know that I, as parent, certainly want that for my children.
So maybe passing on the faith to the next generation
is a way to ensure that what we value, remains a value.

Or...maybe we pass on the faith,
because we want to leave a legacy.
Don’t we all have a basic wish to be remembered?
We’re human. We know we are mortal.
That one day we will be gone,
and someday, possibly, forgotten.
That’s a sobering thought.
So maybe passing on the faith
is a way to create something permanent,
in an impermanent world.
To leave something behind when we go,
so others will remember.

Or...maybe it’s important to pass on the faith,
because it helps the generations coexist peaceably.
Generations overlap, obviously.
The older ones are still around
while the younger ones are taking over.
So we have more peace and harmony across generations,
if we are all still working from the same page.
If our children start to take a different path,
and we’re still around to see it,
it can be threatening.
It’s potentially a source of great conflict.
We’ve all seen it happen.

Now those are all logical reasons to pass on the faith.
And I think they are powerful motivators
to keep this a high priority in the church,
to make sure our children are well-nurtured in the faith,
and come to own it for themselves.

But as I thought more about it,
I came to the conclusion that these reasons aren’t good enough.
They’re logical. They’re well-meaning.
But they’re all oriented toward ourselves.
So that our values are maintained.
So that we are not forgotten.
So that we and our children can live peaceably with each other.

It seems to me, that whenever the motivation for a life of faith,
centers around our happiness or well-being or benefit,
something is out of kilter.
In our modern, Western expression of Christianity,
we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over,
it’s not about us.
It’s about God.

I hope that doesn’t sound like a new idea.
To explore it further,
let’s look again at this morning’s reading from Genesis 17.

There’s a number of things remarkable about this covenant with God,
not the least of which, is Abraham is 99 years old,
when he signs off on it.
It’s a covenant that stipulates that old Abraham and Sarah
will be the ancestors of multitudes of people, of nations.
And they have yet to produce their first child.
In this covenant, God says to Abraham,
“Walk before me, and be blameless.”
In return, God promises his blessing.
“I will bless you,” he says to Abraham.
“I will bless you,” he says to Sarah.
And God adds, “And I will make you a blessing.”
It’s a defining covenant for Abraham and his descendants.
They will forever be defined as the “chosen people of God.”

And notice v. 7:
“I will establish my covenant between me and you,
and your offspring after you throughout their generations,
for an everlasting covenant,
to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”

Everlasting covenant. That is why we pass on the faith.
We are still under covenant with God.
We nurture faith in the next generation,
because we have a covenant to keep with God.
“Walk before me,” God says. “Be faithful to me.
And I will bless you.
And I will bless the world through you.”
This was not a covenant with Abraham alone.
It’s still in effect.
We are still bound to God in covenant.

Yes, we also have a new covenant in Jesus Christ.
In Christ, both the demands and the promises
of covenant have gone to a higher level.
“You have heard that it was said, but I say to you.”
Jesus takes it to a higher level.
But this covenant with Abraham was never done away with.
“I have come,” Jesus said, “not to abolish the law,
but to fulfill it.”
We nurture faith in the next generation
because we have a solemn agreement with God to do so.
It’s a response of obedience and faithfulness to God.

Of course, living out this covenant with God,
has its advantages for us, as I noted.
There will be a consistent set of values to shape our lives,
and the lives of our children.
We will leave a legacy of faith, after we’re gone.
There will be greater harmony between the generations.
But the real reason we do it,
is that we are bound to do it.
Bound by a covenant.
We are still “God’s chosen people.”

Now, hear me out on this. I’m not being presumptuous.
I didn’t say, “God’s favorite people.”
To admit we are God’s chosen people,
is most definitely not a claim of special privilege or divine favor.
Not at all. It means God has a claim on us.
We are not our own.
We are obligated, we are bound.
We are bound by a covenant that requires us
to lay down all selfish claims.
God chose us to lay down our selves,
in order that God could use us for his larger purposes.
It’s the kind of choosing, that if we really had our druthers,
we’d probably say, “No, that’s okay. Choose them!”

But we have indeed been chosen.
We are the heirs of Abraham,
Paul says it in Romans.
By faith, we are under the same obligation that Abraham was.
To walk before God, and be blameless.
We are under the same covenant.

That should make us look at our heritage a little differently.
We Americans have a reputation, probably well-deserved,
for being short-sighted when it comes to our history.
We think anything that’s really important,
is either going on right now,
or is just about to begin.
We have a bias against anything old,
and we privilege anything that’s new and improved.
If anything, we should have a bias toward the old;
toward the faith of our ancestors,
if we are under the same covenant they were.

Instead, we’re always looking for what’s new.
We think that what we have going right now
is the only thing that really matters.
We judge our beliefs and practices
purely on whether or not it works for us right now.
If it doesn’t seem to work for us,
throw it out and try something new.

Brothers and sisters,
we can’t afford to have that attitude.
We are bound by a 4,000 year-old covenant.

We should all be learning as much as we can
about those who have gone on before us,
about what they believed, and why,
and what motivated their lives and faith.
It does not mean we copy them.
We don’t live in the past, but in the present.
We have to take stock of our times.
But we do that, taking account of past faithful ones.

Our personal story this morning comes to us,
because a family at Park View decided their past
was worth remembering and learning from.
During the past year, Carmen Strite Miller
had her parents, Lewis and Ethel Strite,
come up to her house every Tuesday,
and spend part of the day with her.
She got them to tell stories, especially Lewis.
And when he started talking,
she turned the tape recorder on.
Hours and hours of story-telling,
were transcribed into pages and pages of text.
I asked for a copy of that story,
and looked through it for the parts of the story,
that give some clues to how Lewis received his faith
from his family and church before him,
and how he lived it out,
and attempted to pass it on to others.
So this is only a small slice of the larger story,
but it is a major theme throughout.
Lewis’ health is at a low point right now,
so he can’t share it himself.
How fortunate for us all that Carmen did what she did.
His story will be read by his granddaughter, __________

There is one quote in that story that’s well worth repeating.

I don’t know anything at all about Elias Kulp,
the Mennonite revivalist that Lewis responded to, in an altar call.
I have no idea how solid his theology was in his sermon,
but the words he spoke to 15-year-old Lewis,
when he came forward to give his life to Christ,
could not have been wiser, or more radical.
They were words we all should take to heart.

He said, “Remember, Lewis, from now on, you are not your own.
You have been bought with a price,
therefore, glorify God in your body which is His.”

What a profound difference it would make in our lives,
if we awoke every morning being reminded
that we are not our own.
that we belong to God,
that we are bound, in covenant,
with a God who has a claim on us.
And who will bless us beyond measure,
but on God’s own terms, not ours.

When we realize how much we live for ourselves,
and how far we have strayed from the claims of God on our lives,
there is but one response in prayer,
“Lord, have mercy.” Kyrie eleison.
Let us make our confession to God by singing that prayer,
and continuing with the confession, as printed in the bulletin.

—Phil Kniss, March 12, 2006

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