A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City Mo., on March 4, 2012.
The Second Sunday of Lent
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Slip off your shoes and socks and roll your pants legs up and step gingerly into the gently flowing waters of the river of faith. We are people of faith today because faith itself has been carried along in time like an ever-flowing river through the lives of those who’ve gone before us. Take a look upstream and pay attention to those who are there that led you to faith … it could be that one or both of your parents are there … perhaps a favorite youth minister or pastor who shared faith with you is there … likely there are Sunday School teachers who faithfully taught you the story of faith as a child or youth … or maybe it was a friend in college who helped lead you to the Lord. Further upstream from them are those who shared faith with them who shared faith with you, most of whom you don’t even know. And beyond them are others, and so on and so on, on up the stream of faith farther than we can see.
This week I had the marvelous privilege of meeting a UCC minister here in the area and the more we shared our stories, I realized he suspiciously knew a great deal about our church. It turns out he’s Margaretha and Stan Rowson’s nephew and he grew up at the church Margaretha’s father pastored, the Michigan Avenue Baptist Church. Small world indeed! The web of faith holds surprises at just how interconnected we all are.
I love the old poem by mystic artist William Blake describes a golden thread that weaves through time uniting us all. In his poem, everyone is somehow, mysteriously, included and all of us hold the thread in our hands and when the thread quivers on one end, it quivers on the other end. All of us are included, all of us are connected, and a stream of faith runs through time that gives meaning to our faith in God and God’s intertwined connections in the world.
Look upstream and see the long line of persons, most of whom are seemingly insignificant but who are actually as vital to the stream as the most important or memorable persons. They’re all there and you’re standing in the stream because they have been faithful in attending to the faith, living it as best as they were able, faithful to God even in weakness and failure. They’re called “saints” in the Bible as they lived their lives in honesty and as an act of being stewards of faith through their words and their deeds.
Baptist historian Bill Leonard recently accepted the honor of being the first to occupy the James and Marilyn Dunn Chair of Baptist Studies at Wake Forest Divinity School. Both Leonard and Dunn have been among the more famous of our Baptist kin in our time as they’ve both lived faithfully in the spirit of that particular stream of faith that’s been flowing in the last four centuries called the Baptist witness of God. [Understand that other denominations have their own streams, of course, and church history exalts those for their witness too; we’re all a part of the same stream that flows from God and flows through time.]
Professor Leonard noted that the distinguished chair in which his teaching will be known is full of ghosts, listing the impact of the many significant Baptists through the years including Martin Luther King, Jr., who spoke at Wake Forest during the years of the struggle for civil rights in the 1960’s. From Roger Williams in the seventeenth century who sharpened the Baptist witness on soul liberty as an essential freedom one has in Christ to Martin Luther King, Jr., who lifted up “the beloved community,” we come from good stock as Baptists. Not all have been noble, mind you. Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote that heredity is like a large bus “in which all our ancestors are packed,” and every now and then “one of them sticks his head out of the window and embarrasses us.”
But don’t stop there, for if you follow the stream of faith to its headwaters, you’ll come to this story of how Abram received his legacy. Abram had done all that God had called him to do and now it was time for God to name his legacy. He would receive a new name (significant to the ancients as a sign of significant transformation), a land and the promise that he and Sarai would give birth to children who would become a part of God’s larger promise that a mighty nation would count them as patriarch and matriarch of the family clan.
It’s here, in the headwaters of faith we realize we’re a part of that ancient clan blessed by the covenant of God with Abram and Sarai. But guess who else is standing there with us?
Even though we don’t count ourselves as Jews, we’re still the offspring of Abraham and Sarah and so our Jewish cousins are standing there too, recognizing that God’s promise of a mighty people included them before it included us.
What is troubling, however, is that also standing there are the people of faith we call Muslims. They too count the stories of Abraham and Sarah as their own and like us, their kin are traced back to this same story. With one billion Muslims and two billion Christians in the world, it might behoove us to find ways to talk to one another in interfaith dialogue, recognizing that each faith has a sacred history that could become the basis for a respectful conversation with one another.
We’ve not been generous or gracious to each other over time and some of the worst stories of the history of religion are fierce battles between all three faiths. We’ve killed one another in mass numbers and the blood of our kin is on our hands and in our stories. It seems that the world has witnessed the hostility of deep-seated family enmity for too long.
This story of Father Abraham and Mother Sarah is a great uniter among people of faith. It helps us remember that God has always called women and men to live fully in their faith. The challenge then is the challenge today … to listen for God’s calling and to offer our willingness to say “yes” when called. We are such skeptics whenever we hear from God, we hit the pause button, and check the request to see if what’s requested is something we’re willing to do. We operate God’s calling like “call waiting” pretending we’re not home even though we can see who’s calling us.
I’ve been captivated this movie season with a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, “The Descendants,” a story about a modern family with a revered, royal history that crosses over from the days of Hawai’i’s monarchy and missionaries to the present day. Matt King is a Honolulu lawyer who serves his family clan as executor of the large land holdings his family shares. They are the descendants of Congregational missionaries who married native Hawai’ians from the royal family of King Kamehameha and Queen LiliÊ»uokalani, who left large, wildly-valuable parcels of land to be shared by future generations. The land controlled by Matt King and his cousins is one of the few large sections of land not be despoiled by commercial development.
The story is built on a series of subplots that are all very interesting that presents life in the romanticism of Hawai’i’s paradise in very normal ways. There’s grief and the shadow of death, lost love, a father who’s been too distracted with work to have a good relationship with his two daughters and wife, and there are the seeds of a future life that’s yet to be explored. Matt King and his two daughters are facing the tragedy of Elizabeth King’s recent boat crash in which she is left unresponsive and brain dead. I won’t disclose the storyline too much other than to say it’s a terrific movie as it was up for five Oscars. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it to you.
The story helps us understand the value of an inherited legacy and what must be given to that legacy to live more fully in it. What will you do with your legacy? Will you live more fully in it, or squander it and stay in the shallows where the stream has no strength and where the goodness of God is only experienced up to your ankles?
In truth, we all have a legacy to pass along as we live out our own stories. We have something of our ancestors in us as a part of our being born and a part of our living faith. We have their courage and we have the promise of God who has given us a name and an identity.
Intentional interim minister at Countryside Community Church of Omaha, Nebraska, the Christian partner in the Tri-Faith Initiative, a partnership with the American Muslim Institute and Temple Israel. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).