Genesis 12:1-4a, Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
We were playing a team-building game at work last weekend, and one of the questions asked during the game was, “If you could be any superhero, which one would you be?” It wasn’t my question but I did have an answer. If I could be any superhero, I think I would choose to be Batman. As far as I know, and I could be wrong because there are a lot more superheroes now than there were when I was a kid, but as far as I know Batman is the only superhero who doesn’t actually have any super powers. Batman can’t fly or turn invisible or become a flame or anything like that.Batman is just a guy who has trained his body and his mind and his reflexes as well as it is possible to train them, and he gets the most out of his gifts as it is possible to get, and as a result he fights crime and saves Gotham City on a regular basis.
I would not say that Batman is my hero, but if I were going to be a superhero I would be Batman. I think that there is a lot about Batman that I could learn from and apply in my own life.
While Batman is not necessarily my hero, I do have some heroes and there are things that I can learn from the heroes that I have. We each have our individual heroes, people like our parents or grandparents or teachers or mentors that we can learn from and hope to emulate the best of. We also have more public, more well-known heroes, people like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama or George Washington. Whoever your heroes are, there are ways in which you probably try to learn from them, ways you try to imitate them, ways in which they influence you.
When I was thinking about heroes I remembered a sermon I preached years ago and I pulled it out. How many of you know what the town of Vidalia, Georgia is famous for? That’s right – Vidalia onions. For a little while, though, Vidalia was famous for something else. The town was featured on Nightline back in the mid 1990’s. The show focused on the town’s reaction to people with AIDS through the lens of three different people.
The first person was the only doctor in the county at that time who would treat AIDS patients. Each week the doctor would drive hundreds and hundreds of miles to clinics scattered throughout the Georgia countryside. Keep in mind what we did and did not know about AIDS 20 years ago and you will realize in some ways this practice was on-the-job training for the doctor, because when she started treating AIDS patients she had no special background and no particular experience. The doctor and her patients were all learning together as they went along.
The second person was a woman who had contracted AIDS. She spoke movingly about her struggle with accepting that she had the illness, telling her family and her friends, and living in an area where everyone knew she had AIDS and how that gave her kind of a stigma in the community. One of the more powerful moments for me was when she talked about being willing to go on national TV and talk about the mistakes she’d made and the consequences of those mistakes, even though it was very humiliating, in order to maybe keep someone else from messing up like she had.
The third person was a minister whose son died of AIDS. The son was living in California when he learned he was dying, and he was not going to come home to Vidalia. The son knew what it would be like, especially back then, for a minister in a small town to have a son dying of AIDS in the house, and the son did not want to put his family through that. But the minister insisted that his son come home, sent him a one-way ticket to Georgia, and nursed the son faithfully until death came.
In some ways at that time those three folks became heroes to me, and their stories gave me hope. It’s not just because of what they did, but because of why they did it. The doctor talked about her decision to treat folks with AIDS being influenced by her Baptist roots. The woman with AIDS talked about her sharing with others as a ministry, as a response to God’s love. The minister whose son died spoke powerfully of the love of Jesus for the outcast. Those folks did not become heroes just because they did the things they did. They became heroes also because their brave and loving actions were motivated by their faith.
The reason that those folks became heroes to me is the same reason that Abraham is a hero for Paul. When Paul wrote the letter that we read from this morning, he was writing to a group of Christians that came out of other religions, and many of those folks used to be Jews. If you grew up a good Jewish boy in Paul’s time, your heroes were some of the great Jews of the faith, men like David and Moses and Abraham, the father of the Jews. Those were the heroes. Those were the folks, among others, that young Jewish kids would try to pattern themselves after.
All of these great heroes of the faith died thousands of years before Jesus was born. That was the problem for Paul. Since these heroes died before Jesus was born, they could not possibly have accepted Christ as their savior. But these people must have been able to stand before God clean and upright even though they never knew of Jesus. The Jewish Christians believed that these people must have been justified to God by what they did, by following the old laws.
And if that’s what the Jewish Christians believed, then they would want to follow the old laws. It’s not enough to believe in Christ, they would say. You must believe in Christ and be circumcised. You must believe in Christ and do animal sacrifices. You must believe in Christ and follow the dietary laws. Not just Christ, but Christ and.
That’s Paul’s challenge. How to preach that we are saved by our faith to a group of people whose heroes seem to be saved by their works. That’s what Paul has to do.
In our passage from Romans Paul takes us all the way back to Genesis, all the way back to Father Abraham. Abraham was a wealthy man. He owned lots of fields, had large herds of animals, plenty of employees. Abraham was a wealthy, established, successful business man and farmer. But he gave it all up and he left his home and he hit the road.
Why? Because God made a promise. God promised to make Abraham, who had no children, the father of a great nation. God promised that everyone in the world would be blessed through and by Abraham and his descendants. And Abraham believed God, and so Abe and his family packed up and hit the road.
Jewish converts had always admired Abraham because of what he did. But Paul tells them to look past what Abraham did. Paul tells them to look at why Abraham did it. All that stuff that Abraham did was great stuff, and we are all glad that Abraham did it because where would we be otherwise, but the key, Paul says, is why Abraham did those things. Abraham did them because of his faith. Abraham’s faith is what saved him, not his actions.
So Paul says to the Romans, if Abraham is your hero, and if you want to pattern your life after him, the point is not to do a lot of stuff because it seems like good stuff to do. The point is to believe in God. The point is to have faith. What stuff you do will come from that.
I didn’t admire those folks in Vidalia just because of what they did, although I am glad they did those things. I admired them because of the way it was their faith in God that led them to do those things. I admired them because they were in touch with God’s voice, and when God said “Go,” they had the faith to do it.
Stories like the story of Vidalia, GA or the story of Abraham give me hope. They give me hope for the future, and they give me reassurance about my relationship with God. Jesus gave his life on the cross as a sacrifice for my sin, for our sin. What can we do to pay that back?
Not enough. There are always other people who can do more than we can. There are always people who have more money or more talent or more influence. There are always people who face greater tests to their faith, who take greater risks. Just to judge by our actions, we are not good enough.
Fortunately, when we stand before God we are not judged by our actions. We are judged on our faith. Do I believe in God? Yes. Do I believe that Jesus was God’s son? Yes. Do I believe that Jesus died and was raised again? Yes. Not how many sermons did I preach, or how big was the church, or how much I put in the offering, or what did I give up for Lent, but do I believe.
And of course that does not mean that anything goes in our lives. IF you believe in God, if you are a Christ-follower, your faith will show in the way you live. That’s Paul’s whole point. Abraham’s faith showed in how he lived. The flame of God’s Spirit that burns in us shines through our lives and through our words and through our deeds. Just remember that the key thing isn’t the lives and the words and the deeds – it’s the faith.
How has this week been for you in terms of cultivating your faith? I confess I haven’t done as well as I wish I had with some of the spiritual disciplines that Jenn talked about this week. If you were here last week, you’ll remember that Jenn compared Lent for the Christian to spring training for the baseball player. A time to get in shape, a time to get ready for the season to come. I echo her call from last week: “Can you make a resolution this Lent to doing something intentional—something you do not normally do—to cultivate your soul between now and Easter? Can you spend time meditating on the Psalms or the Sermon on the Mount each day? As we journey towards the Cross, what are we going to do to cultivate our souls for the Spirit’s growth?”
As we cultivate our souls, as we strengthen our faith, remind yourselves that all will be blessed. Not just the wealthy, or the good singers, or the good prayers. All will be blessed. Not just the missionaries or the preachers or the Sunday School teachers. All will be blessed. All who declare their faith in Jesus Christ. All who live out of their faith in Jesus Christ. All will be blessed. Amen.