A sermon preached on March 5, 2023 at First Church UCC, Middletown, CT
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 (The Message)
So, how do we fit what we know of Abraham, our first father in the faith, into this new way of looking at things? If Abraham, by what he did for God, got God to approve him, he could certainly have taken credit for it. But the story we’re given is a God-story, not an Abraham-story. What we read in Scripture is, “Abraham entered into what God was doing for him, and that was the turning point. He trusted God to set him right instead of trying to be right on his own.”
If you’re a hard worker and do a good job, you deserve your pay; we don’t call your wages a gift. But if you see that the job is too big for you, that it’s something only God can do, and you trust [God] to do it—you could never do it for yourself no matter how hard and long you worked—well, that trusting-him-to-do-it is what gets you set right with God, by God. Sheer gift.
That famous promise God gave Abraham—that he and his children would possess the earth—was not given because of something Abraham did or would do. It was based on God’s decision to put everything together for him, which Abraham then entered when he believed. If those who get what God gives them only get it by doing everything they are told to do and filling out all the right forms properly signed, that eliminates personal trust completely and turns the promise into an iron-clad contract! That’s not a holy promise; that’s a business deal. A contract drawn up by a hard-nosed lawyer and with plenty of fine print only makes sure that you will never be able to collect. But if there is no contract in the first place, simply a promise—and God’s promise at that—you can’t break it. . . . .
This is why the fulfillment of God’s promise depends entirely on trusting God and [God’s] way, and then simply embracing [God] and what [God] does. God’s promise arrives as pure gift. That’s the only way everyone can be sure to get in on it, those who keep the religious traditions and those who have never heard of them. For Abraham is father of us all. He is not our [literal] father—that’s reading the story backward. He is our faith father.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
One of my favorite childhood books was “The Boxcar Children” by Gertrude Chandler Warner – the story of four children, essentially homeless, and how they first make a home for themselves, and then find a family they’d thought completely lost.
When I was 10, it was my favorite book. Today, many years from my delighted first reading, I’m still impressed by the book, and not just for the enduring story. You see, over the years, I learned quite a bit about Miss Warner, including the fact that no one called her Gertie. She lived in Putnam, up in northeast Connecticut, taught school in the public school system there, and for years was the clerk of the Congregational Church which I later pastored.
Even today, Putnam inhabitants mostly came here from Europe. There are some Black families, some Native families, but not many. It’s a poorer town than it’s neighbors, a former mill town – the last mill, a Belding Corticelli thread mill closed while I was there. Today, it’s a great place to visit if you like antiques.
But that’s not why I’m telling you this. Putnam, you see, was one of those places new immigrants ended up. There were lots of French Canadians – even twenty years ago, the Roman Catholic priest had to learn a Canadian version of Breton French in order to minister to his congregants. In that little town of maybe 6000 people, there were also Latvians, Swedes, Finns and Norwegians, along with smaller numbers of immigrants from other non-English speaking countries.
Miss Warner, seeing the struggle that immigrant children were having in her classroom, wrote The Boxcar Children with an extremely limited vocabulary so that those kids could have the experience of reading something interesting as they learned to read. She wanted those kids to feel at home in her classroom, at home in that community.
Some years ago, I used that same book when helping to teach immigrant kids from Santo Domingo how to read and they were equally thrilled to be able to read a good story.
I’m grateful today for the way Miss Warner worked to make home for those people.
Today’s lesson, from the Letter to the Romans, talks about another kind of home. Of course, Paul’s not talking about houses or human families. He’s talking about the foundation on which all good home is built, something like the ideal home. He says that the home with God that Abraham had was God’s free gift to Abraham. Abraham didn’t earn it, didn’t get enough green stamps to buy it. God gave him a home, and through Abraham, gave that home to all humanity.
I’ve been a pastor for quite a while. I know as well as any of you that not all homes are places where we feel loved, safe, and welcome, just as I know that not all families are perfect. This story is not about the imperfections of real life. It is about the Godly dream, the hope, the goal and aim of our humanity.
We were called, out of our brokenness, to the work of creating a new and better home, a haven of peace and a place of blessing – not just for each one of us, but for all of us, together.
At the end of the month, we’re hosting, sponsoring, a meeting about refugee resettlement. You heard an invitation to help put the meeting on at the beginning of today’s service. But did you realize that we’re not just planning a meeting, and hoping to help a refugee family…. but that we’re reaching out to extend God’s home to people who, right now, feel homeless?
Welcoming a refugee is not just about that one (or more than one) family. It’s also about being and becoming the sort of community which welcomes new people. It’s about extended the warm acceptance we give our friends and fellow worshippers to people we’ve never met before.
The work of home-making to which we are called takes place primarily outside the doors of this room. Really, if we were only good to one another, we wouldn’t be building a home, we’d be creating a club for insiders. That’s why we have to reach out beyond who we know, who we’re comfortable with, to get to know strangers and allow the relationships you build to change you and us, so that we become a deeper and richer home for all.
In the words of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, we have been given a great gift – a home for us, a home for the world… a home that welcomes all, no matter who we are, what we have done – or not done – a home that can build peace among all the world.
Today, I am grateful for the call God has given us to make the world a home for all.
© 2023, Virginia H. Child