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March 4, 2012 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
The Future: Trust but Verify
Professor Emeritus of Old Testament, Columbia Theological Seminary
Genesis 17:1–7, 15–16
It is thus a core task of covenant theology to live within the naturalness of our natural lives, as creatures of the earth who work and eat and labor and die—like all other living beings; but to try to turn these occasions into markers of praise and thankfulness before God, the Life of all life. Insofar as the self can stand in this conjunction, all moments enact the covenant between God’s “I will be” and the human “We shall do and we shall hear.” The routine happenings of life may thus become caesural events of godliness; and the caesural may also somehow be integrated into a coherent spiritual life.
In dealing with the Soviet Union, Ronald Reagan skillfully used the phrase “trust, but verify.” He was pressed to “trust” by people who were passionate for some restraint on the arms race that was eating us alive. But he did not want to be soft, so he qualified “trust” by requiring inspections, evidence, and verification. That combination worked for him—and maybe for us in our Lenten journey of faith.
Paul writes this lyrical chapter, Romans 4, to the church in Rome. He writes to the church as it is deciding how to move forward, not a bad text for a church that is between pastors, that must think about its future. There are hints that some in that church in Rome did not want to think about the future.
Maybe they preferred to think about the present in ways that generated quibbles and quarrels or debates about what was required in order to pass muster about faith and about conduct and about who was best and the most qualified to be in leadership. Or maybe they were preoccupied with their celebrated past. The Jewish Christians liked to think about how they had kept all the requirements of Torah; the Gentile members of the church liked to brag about their freedom that was grounded in the reasonableness of their thinking. They debated past and present, with all their pride and their scruples, and their passion for control, and perhaps they debated about what to give up for Lent in order to be more intentionally people of faith.
But Paul abruptly changes the subject on the church in Rome. He tells them that their past—Jewish or Gentile—is not very interesting, because no one is really qualified because of their past, because all have sinned and fallen short. He tells them that the present measuring up to requirements for faith in the present tense should not be absolutized. So do not, he says, linger over a proud past or a reoccupying present tense, because it is all about the future to which God is summoning us, the future that God is creating before our very eyes. Trust that future and walk into it.
Paul reaches back to Father Abraham, the oldest guy in the memory of Israel, as a harbinger of God’s future. You remember Abraham from our reading in Genesis. He was ninety-nine years old, and he had no heir and no way to get an heir. Paul says he was “as good as dead,” which means he had no chance for a son. This preoccupation with “reproductive possibility” indicates how contemporary the Bible is! Without an heir in that ancient patriarchal world, life was a total dead end. But God comes into his cul de sac and announces a future that required incredible trust on Abraham’s part. A son would be given!
You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. . . . I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations; I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. 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. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan. (Genesis 17:4–8)
What a mouthful! The one with no future will have a full and rich and glorious future, all because of the gift of God.
Paul takes up this old memory and transposes it into the church’s future. And Paul, with his uncommon imagination, magnifies this strange gift of an heir with other lyrical claims. He says,
It depends on faith, in order that the promise rests on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham.
It all rests on grace, the inexplicable gift of God’s grace in God’s generosity that shatters all of our categories. It requires only faith, only trust, only readiness to receive. And if that is not impressive enough, try these two extrapolations that Paul offers:
“Who gives life to the dead.” It’s all about God’s capacity to create new life and new possibility beyond all of our control and explanation. It turns on the resurrection of Jesus, just as Jesus promised his disciples in our Gospel reading. It is this newness that is sung in our Psalm. The Psalm we read begins, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But the Psalm ends in wild praise and thanks, because God has raised this desolate psalmist to new life. On the same way the church lives in the wake of Easter, celebrating that God overcomes the power of death and refuses to let Jesus be negated by the power of the empire. Talk about a future!
But Paul goes further with the chill-bump-producing affirmation: “Who calls into existence things that do not exist.” This is a summoning of creation out of nothing, this God who has said, “Let there be light,” “Let there be life,” “Let there be dry land” “Let there be new possibility.” Talk about a future!
The lyric of Paul is outrageous in its extravagance, but it is the ground of faith. Paul links these three claims for God’s future:
A baby born to this aged couple
A dead man raised to Easter life
A world made out of nothing
A family, a life, a world! All things new by the good, generous work of God, who refuses to let us remain in a failed past or in a mesmerizing present.
The church lives by the surprises of God, and we situate our modest daily newnesses in that big lyric: a life changed, a sinner forgiven, a meal served, a garden planted, a mission undertaken, a friendship that transforms, and before we know it, we say, after the gospel and with great exuberance,
The blind see.
The deaf hear.
Lepers are cleansed.
The lame walk.
The dead are raised.
The poor rejoice,
because this is the gift of God in which we trust.
All this required is trust. All that is needed is to give ourselves over to the strange, inexplicable power for life that breaks all the old resistances of fear, anger, anxiety, and despair. So it is with our father, Abraham. He trusted. His trust was taken by God as full obedience. Such trust is not such an easy matter. We hold ourselves back. We calculate. We wait to see. We are suspicious. But that is the plunge of love when we risk ourselves into the power of bottomless love. That is what we do when we fall in love. Abraham, in that instant of promise, fell in love with God. And so he reached into the future given by God. Genesis says only that “he went.”
But Paul says more:
verse 20: No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God.
verse 20: He grew strong in his faith.
verse 21: He was fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.
The long history of faith, with all the saints, is the story of walking into the future given by God. Lent is a time for sorting this out. Popular Lent is too much preoccupied with guilt and repentance. But not here. Lent is rather seeing how to take steps into God’s future so that we are no longer defined by what is past and no longer distracted by what we have treasured or feared about the present. Lent is for embracing
The baby given to old people
Resurrection to new life in Easter
The offer of a new world made by God from nothing
And so in this great church, a new future of gospel possibility.
But I have not yet come to “verify.” Not just trust; verify . . . seek evidence . . . require facts. Faith around evidence that comes in narrative form:
Abraham’s faith came to verification with Isaac:
By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old . . . and Sarah herself was barren . . . because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and him as good as dead, descendants were born, as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore. (Hebrews 11:11–12)
The faith of the church is received by testimony. So Paul writes:
. . . That he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve, then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, some of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also me to. (1 Corinthians 15:5–8)
If you want verification that God’s promises are kept, you will not find that verification among the new atheists who have reduced everything to a tight little package of reasonableness that easily explains everything away. Nor will we find verification among the fundamentalists who have God in such a box that there can be no room for inexplicable gifts. You will find verification among the daily performances of the trusting ones who live out their trust in ways that the world terms foolish.
The verification is in a church ready to be venturesome into God’s future.
The verification is in a church that pays attention to those disqualified by the capitalist system.
The verification is in the acceptance of those who are unacceptable.
The verification is in the commitment of time to neighbors when we prefer to have that time for ourselves.
The verification is in the telling of hard truth about the world, and that in a culture of denial.
The verification is in the slant toward justice and peace-making in a world that loves violence and exploitation too much.
The verification is in footing the bill for neighborliness and mercy when we have many other bills to pay.
The verification is in lives that give testimony before the authorities who want to silence and intimidate and render irrelevant.
It turns out that the world teems with verification, concerning babies from the barren ones, lives have surged in the midst of death, hurts that have been healed, estrangements that have been reconciled, enslavements that have turned to freedom, all around us, particular, concrete, specific, for people like us.
Ronald Reagan’s move insisting on “trust and verify” was, in fact, a complex, complicated, partial accomplishment, much less clear than his simple rhetoric might have suggested. And so the church’s invitation to “trust and verify” is also complex, complicated, and partial. But it is decisive for us. So imagine in this Lenten season moving beyond treasured pasts, moving beyond precious present-tense arrangements to new God-given prospects. It is no wonder that the psalmist can at the end sing,
From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
these who seek him shall praise the Lord.
May your hearts live forever!
All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.
For dominion belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations. (Psalm 22:25–28)
It is our song too. We are on our way rejoicing . . . into God’s future.