Friday, September 18, 2015

Will Our Faith Have Children?

Faith Lutheran Church, Staples
September 20, 2015/Vibrant Faith Weekend
Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7 (Narrative Lectionary)

The great American poet and author Carl Sandburg once said that “a baby is God’s opinion that the world should go on.”[1]

How true!   What wondrous hope is rekindled in our hearts every time another child comes into the world.  We feel in our bones that every newborn infant is a downpayment on the future—a sign that life indeed goes on.

Alongside this deep investment of ourselves in bringing babies into the world, there is the heartache of those who find it difficult if not impossible to conceive and bear children.   The pain of that can be so raw.

So imagine the kind of emotional environment in which Abraham and Sarah must have lived!  They had longed for children for decades—but to no avail.   The biological clock was ticking, and the alarm of menopause had already sounded—“ it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.” (Gen. 18:11)

Abraham and Sarah had been long resigned to the reality of childlessness, when three strangers stopped by their tent and surprised them with a prediction that could only make Sarah chuckle: “ Then one said, ‘I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.’"  (Gen. 18:10)

You can’t blame Sarah for laughing.   She knew the score here: it was her body, after all, that had already gone through the “change of life.”

But the visitor to their tent by the oaks of Mamre did blame Sarah for laughing, because he had not just told a joke here—they had moved into the realm of God and God’s astonishing, reason-ignoring, death-defying promises.

Barrenness of the womb was what it was (so Sarah and Abraham thought):  a high, thick brick wall between them and the future.

But in God’s economy, in God’s realm, such brick walls are trifling things, with nowhere near the power we assign to them:  “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” (Gen. 18:14)

So when Abraham by rights should have been drawing Social Security, his elderly wife Sarah conceived and bore a son—and Medicare picked up her hospital bill!   Instead of meeting with their lawyer, their accountant and their funeral director to “set their affairs in order,” Abraham and Sarah were comparing paint swatches for their nursery—their days now punctuated by the pitter-patter of tiny feet.

And, just so they would always be reminded of God’s promise, their incredulity, and God’s last laugh-- Abraham named their baby boy Isaac, which in Hebrew means “he will laugh.”   Little “Ha Ha” growing up under their ancient noses!

And this child, this baby truly did embody (in the words of Carl Sandburg) God’s opinion that the world should go on.   For little “Ha Ha” was the child of promise—God’s promise—the progenitor of a people in whom  “all the families of the earth shall be blessed,” (Genesis 12:3)   

The babies would keep coming, for generation after generation among the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, and one of those babies would arrive in the fullness of time (Galatians 4:4)—and his name would be, not “Laughter” but “Jesus” for he would save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21).

Now the year is 2015—over twenty centuries after  the Real Child of Promise was born…..and although physical barrenness (“infertility issues” as we like to say) still happens….there is a plethora of medical treatments that can be tried….some of which transition a couple from no kids to almost too many kids! 

Physical barrenness may no longer be the impregnable wall it once was….but I wonder whether it might have been replaced, with a kind of spiritual barrenness we feel keenly nowadays.   

Will Our Children Have Faith?  Is a landmark book written by Christian educator John Westerhoff in 1976 (and still in print!).....a book whose title some folks have turned inside out to craft an even more plaintive question:  “Will our faith have children?”
Childless couples can explore fertility treatments….but what about this other body, the Body of Christ?   Our numbers as Lutherans have been slipping for decades in North America.  We seem to have lost the knack for bearing and birthing children of God.  My friend Dr. David Anderson likes to say that the prayer uttered most often by Lutherans is:  “Dear God, please get my grandchildren to church.”

This “barrenness” of the Body of the Church looms like a high, thick wall between us and the future, and we are tempted to lose heart…..

…but when such ruminations  lead us to start sinking into a slough of despond, that question comes back—a question posed to our great-grandparents in faith, by the oaks of Mamre so long ago:  “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”

The “infertility issues” we recognize within our branch of the Body of Christ need not have the last word.   God has given us all that we need to start bearing children of faith once again.

And the “cure” isn’t some exotic, new-fangled concoction.   The treatment for our loss of capacity to form Christ in our young ones is right under our noses, graciously given to us by God.

This treatment starts with the Gospel itself—God’s sin-forgiving, barrier-breaking, future-opening Word in Jesus Christ—who lived, suffered, died and rose again for us and our salvation.

This treatment focuses on recovering our capacity to drench, indeed to marinate our young ones in the promises of God…from the cradle to the grave.   

This is what your congregation’s embrace of the Vibrant Faith Frame this weekend is all about.   You are opening yourselves up to the “fertility treatment” God provides in widening and deepening our appreciation for ALL the ways God labors over us, with us and through us to “form Christ” in the next generation of believers who are already in our midst.

Let me describe five principles that undergird this understanding of how faith is formed in us and our young ones:

First, God invites us to remember that faith is formed by the power of the Holy Spirit through
personal, trusted relationships, often in our own homes.

Since at least the 1950s we Lutherans have tended to “outsource” Christian formation to the professionals, to think of our church-based Christian education programs as the main (or in too many cases the only) means by which Christian faith is planted and grown.    Just drop your kids off at our church building for one or two hours a week and we’ll teach them how to be Christians.

God invites us to recover the other 166 or 167 hours in every week—to discover and leverage all the ways that passing on faith happens through forming and sustaining Christian relationships.

Second, God invites us to broaden our view of “church” as a living partnership between the ministry of
the congregation and the ministry of the home.  Your involvement in our synod’s Fostering Vibrant Faith project will help you re-envision your congregation….to shift from seeing it as an Old Country Buffet where we gorge ourselves with enough spiritual food to last us until the following Sunday….and, instead to view Faith Lutheran as a well-stocked grocery store where we pick up in and take home the spiritual food we’ll eat throughout the week.

Third, God opens our eyes to see that where Christ is present in faith, the home is church, too.   Jesus is surely present here in this congregation gathered around Word and Sacrament—that is and always will be the flaming center of our life in Christ.    But it is from this flaming center that we pick up the embers (the fire starter!) to kindle the fires that burn in all the places where God’s people live and learn and work and love one another. 

Fourth, God surprises us with the awareness that faith is caught more than it is taught.    As we grow deeper into reclaiming the other 166 or 167 hours of every week in every place where the baptized children of God live….we remember that there are not only facts to memorize but practices to embrace… daily prayer, dwelling in God’s Word, having caring conversations, serving our neighbors, giving generously.

Fifth, God speaks to us the truth that if we really want Christian children and youth, we need Christian adults.   I often hear the question: “What’s wrong with kids these days that they aren’t coming to church?”   That’s NOT the issue.   The issue is how are we Christian adults making good on the promises we utter at every baptism here in this congregation?

For in a great act of recklessness, the same God who has saved us in Jesus Christ has also sent us--entrusted us with the holy privilege of passing on Jesus Christ to others, starting most often with those who eat out of the same refrigerator, under the same roof.

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

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