Saturday, February 27, 2010


[A sermon preached at Saint Faith's Anglican Church in Vancouver, BC on the Second Sunday of Lent, 28 February 2010, on Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18]

When my mother was a little girl, London frequently experienced fogs laced with the smoke caused by the burning of soft coal. These deep, shrouding fogs, sometimes called ‘pea-soupers’, were the cause of numerous forms of distress.

• Native Londoners lost their way on the streets and struggled to find their homes.
• Traffic accidents, ranging from simple ‘fender-benders’ to multi-car crashes with serious injuries and fatalities, increased.
• People with asthma, emphysema and other respiratory conditions were confined to their homes and occasionally hospitalized.

Once my mother and my grandmother were travelling home in a taxi enveloped in one such fog. The driver had little visibility as he tried to find my grandparents’ home, one of those identical council row-houses that can still be found throughout the London metropolitan area. My mother, a young girl then, began to panic. My grandmother, herself no stranger to panic attacks, turned to her and asked, “Jane, do you have faith in God?” “Yes,” my mother answered, “I do have faith in God.” “Then why are you frightened?,” my grandmother asked. There is no record of the taxi driver’s participation in this theological conversation. But I have no doubt that faith was a necessary quality for his work as well.

Today Abraham is asked the same question, though his questioner is God, the Holy One. Abraham is lost in a personal ‘pea-souper’. He and his wife, Sarah, are past their child-bearing ages. Despite his evident wealth and status, Abraham lacks that one possession not denied to the poorest of his slaves: a child who will ensure the continuation of Abraham’s lineage into the next generation. This is the practical and tangible immortality Abraham and Sarah seek, but it has so far been denied them.

God makes an unprecedented promise to Abraham: I will make your descendants, your physical descendants, as many as the stars, as innumerable as the grains of sand in the desert or on the sea-shore. When Abraham questions God and points out to the Holy One the fact that he is well past his ‘best before’ date, God simply ignores this objection and reiterates the promise. So Abraham enacts a covenant ritual, even as his head must be telling his heart to prepare for disappointment.

God passes between the sacrificial carcasses, an act that seals God’s commitment to the covenant. God makes no demands of Abraham; it is a free gift that God chooses to make (The Jewish Study Bible 2004, 35).

Abraham believes in God and in the promises that God has made. One commentator writes that “faith does not mean believing in spite of the evidence. It means trusting profoundly in a person, in this case . . . God” (The Jewish Study Bible 2004, 35).

Like Abraham and Sarah before us, we are enshrouded in a ‘pea-souper’. Our national church has reduced the number of staff several times over the past ten years and every national committee is being asked to do more with less. Our diocese has faced the two-pronged fork of declining cash revenues caused on the one hand by our commitment to the full inclusion of gay and lesbian disciples of Christ in the life of the church, on the other hand by the general decline of so-called ‘institutional’ religion throughout our region. Our own parish faces a decline in active membership as members age and new residents of our neighbourhood seek community elsewhere. As a person whose livelihood is tied closely to this institution we call ‘church’, I hope that I will be excused a few anxious moments.

But I am brought back to the central question again and again: Do I have faith in God? Do I believe that the good news of God in Jesus still speaks to the Vancouver in which I live and work? If CTV and Donald Sutherland can ask me to believe in Canadian athletes whose performances continue to inspire us, then can I believe in a God who calls me to do justice, to love covenant loyalty and to walk humbly before the One who created all that is, seen and unseen, the One who became incarnate in Jesus the son of Mary and Joseph, the One who speaks through the prophets, sages and holy women and men throughout the centuries to this very day?

Frederick Buechner, the American novelist and essayist, writes of Lent as a time for Christians to ask what it means to be themselves. He suggests a number of questions, but I will only pose one today: “If you had to bet everything you have on whether there is a God or whether there isn’t, which side would get your money and why?” (Buechner, Listen to Your Life 1992, 56). I will not ask any of you to give me your answers now, but as we navigate this fog that surrounds us and which threatens to obscure our way forward, the time has come for us, individually and corporately, to answer this question in our hearts and in our minds. Do we believe that God has a purpose for us, that God is trustworthy and that God is working in us, through us and, most importantly for us?

Abraham and Sarah believed this. My grandmother, as oft as she was beset by anxieties, believed this. My mother believes this. I hope that I believe this. I pray that you all believe this. If so, the way through the fog won’t be so daunting, dicey perhaps, slow perhaps, with a few back-tracks perhaps, but not daunting. Amen.