Today we meet our ancestors- a fitting thing to do on this Sunday when we celebrate the Sacrament of Baptism that begins with the vow: to belong to “the faith and family of Jesus Christ.”
It’s a family that traces back to Abraham and Sarah, and God’s covenant – meaning a pledge God will keep forever - to make them the parents of a multitude of nations. Sarah laughed; she was old enough to be a great, great grandmother; but without an heir and far too old to have one.
Yet, God kept the promise…and Sarah and Abraham realized God had made them with a genetic strain called “faith.” Faith to trust God’s promise that they would have a child; faith to set out on an uncharted journey, leaving behind wealth, lands, houses, and flocks to travel into a future filled with ups and downs and often more downs than ups.
“Faith,” the gene passed from one generation to another to retrace in stories that start with Abraham and Sarah and on to us, giving us our own faith-stories to tell that begin when we begin to realize how uncharted the time before us is:
when we don’t get what we want, from being denied an expensive toy in a store, too expensive for our parents to buy,
to losing a home, and maybe a parent, leading to the sudden change from being well-fed to being forever hungry, and living from one fear-filled day to another,
to applying to a college and not being chosen,
to a job that passes us by, one try after another,
to a heath checkup that brings a dreaded diagnosis,
to the loss of a spouse and an income…
Twists and changes that have us setting out, like Abraham and Sarah, “not knowing where you are going.”
That’s when the “faith-gene” is tested to see if we will trust God’s covenant-promise made to Abraham and passed on to us: to be God to you and to your offspring after you; God Who is a sure foundation when all else crumbles beneath us; a gene in our human DNA called “faith.”
When Bible translators where working in a native village in Africa, they reached an impasse; they could not find a word in their language to use to express faith. It was a time when messages where carried by runners. At that moment a runner came in, announced the news he was carrying, and then fell exhausted on a cot letting out a word as he did.
The translators listened, asked him to repeat what he said, as in his exhaustion, he fell onto the cot and let it bear his full weight. “That’s it!” they said, “That’s the word to use for faith.”
From Abraham on, whenever the future winds into the unknown, the present moment is filled with fears and threats beyond our being able to cope, that’s when the faith-gene is ready to be tested and tried…to be our “cot,” which now takes the strange shape of a cross.
It was a celebrated descendant of Abraham, the Apostle Paul, who carried the faith-gene forward from the family tree of the Hebrews to new branches – grafted on to include the Gentiles. To them, to us, he wrote: It (God’s covenant-promise to Abraham) will be reckoned to us who believe in him (in God) who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.
In Jesus Christ, the faith-gene has us accepting Jesus’ Gospel call heard on this Second Sunday in Lent:
, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Jesus’ call to exercise our faith-gene to pick up a personal cross and follow the cross-bearing Jesus, so, as we do, we experience it is like a physical therapist’s counsel to “work through the pain.” As painful as the treatment may be, muscles are stretched and strengthened and mobility is regained. Thus the chant as therapy is endured: “No pain, no gain!”
The Rev. Dr. Robert T. Baggott, senior minister of Community Church, Vero Beach, FL., tells the story of a clergy friend’s grandfather who was a cross-burning member of the KKK, until one Sunday when worshiping in his church, the line about taking up and bearing a cross came through to him. He’d been putting the cross to the wrong use. He prayed and nailed his racial rage to Christ’s cross; as he did something new came to life in him.
Now years later, when the grandson met Carlton, a Black man from the neighborhood, he learned that his grandfather who had owned the town’s loan company and pawn shop, underwent conversion and was a changed man. Carlton reported,
“If it weren't for him, many of my people would have gone hungry. He was always willing to give you money if you needed it...loaned it to you sometimes for no interest if you were really hard up. He was a good Christian man, and you should be proud." (Quoted from “Day1” for March 1, 2015)
The power of the faith-gene, when a Klansman exercised it and used it to take up Christ’s cross and follow Him.
Also hear in the story of a grandfather’s conversion the cot-like support and cradling comfort he found as he “nailed his racial rage to Christ’s cross,” for Jesus to take and bear.
When life’s pressures are crushing us, driving us to cry out in desperation, wanting the weight to be lifted, hear the Voice of Jesus saying, “Lean on Me! Let Me be your cot.”
On Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway the Rodin Museum not only houses the sculptor’s collections of art but calls to mind a story of Rodin wanting a huge, carved crucifix he saw along the road; so he purchased it and had it crated and shipped to his home, only to find it was too big for the building. As the story goes, he had walls knocked down and roof raised and rebuilt his house around the cross. (Best Sermons 3, Harper & Row, 1990, p. 115).
We who are this generation’s branches on Abraham’s family tree, find the faith-gene in us waits to be exercised as we follow the cross-bearing Christ into places where we may find ourselves resisting whatever is dehumanizing another human being, as we let the cross call us to practice justice balanced with mercy and reconciliation seasoned with compassion.
And, at the same time also let the cross be our cot to support us when we are physically, mentally, and spiritually depleted, or, when guilt-ridden, to cradle us in the comfort of Christ’s sacrificial love that is greater than all our sin.
Thanks be to God Who, when we are called to exercise the gene called “faith,”
fortifies us with the gift called “grace.”