This week’s sermon references two texts, Genesis 12:1-4 and Romans 4:1-17. The story of Mother Antonia can be found in more detail in this article or in the book Prison Angel, which you can order here: Prison Angel.
When We Find that We Are Loved
Abram’s father was a man named Terah, who led them out of Ur to take them to the Promised Land. Only they didn’t make it to the Promised Land, they made it part of the way, and then settled comfortably in a city called Haran. Terah spent the rest of his days in Haran, always part-way to the Promised Land. The Bible doesn’t say why Terah left Ur to go to Canaan, whether God had spoken to him about it, or if he even believed in God. Stories in the Midrash, which are commentaries written by later Rabbis to explain and flesh out the Torah, don’t have a very high view of Terah. They say he was a maker of idols.
One of the more entertaining stories talks about a time when Terah left young Abram to watch over the shop, and Abram smashed all of the idols except for the largest, and then he put a big stick in that statue’s hand. When Terah got back and saw the biggest statue holding a club and all the other statues smashed, he said, “Abram, what happened?”
And Abram said, “Well, they all got in a fight over who would receive an offering.”
Terah said, “Abram, they’re just statues, they can’t do things in the physical world!”
And Abram said, “Then why do you pray to them?” But that’s a long way away from our story.
What interests me is that Terah took his family partway there, and then stopped somewhere he was comfortable, and settled. That’s where Abram was when he started: comfortable and settled. I think we’ve all been where Abram was at some point in our lives. Comfortable being part of the way there. Proud of ourselves for all that we’ve achieved, and not really looking to challenge and push ourselves further. A lot of times we underestimate the great things that God can do through us. And either because we are afraid or because we’re comfortable, we end up spending most of our lives part of the way there.
Then God says to Abram in Haran, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” Notice that God calls Abram out of Haran with a promise. God does not call without a promise. If you hear God calling to you, and believe me that can be a scary thing, that’s why angels always say, “Do not be afraid,” remember that God’s call doesn’t come without a promise. The promise that God will be with you, the promise that our lives will be blessings, the promise that our efforts will not be in vain. But the flip side to that is that God does not promise without a call.
When God calls, Abram answers. He doesn’t just respond with words, either. When God says, “Go to the Promised Land,” Abram doesn’t say, “Man, God, that’s a good idea, I’ll do it as soon as my kids are grown, or I’ll do it as soon as I’ve got enough money to take on a journey like that.” He just picks up and goes. Now that’s faith. One of the biggest pitfalls of modern faith is how enamored we’ve become with words. We love to throw words around about what’s important to us and what we think is right, but we’re not very good at backing those things up with what we do. But when Abram hears God, he simply starts walking. A perfect example of faith.
Abram is such a good example of faith that Paul brings him up when Paul writes to the Romans about justification. Justification is a tough doctrine to talk about in the 21st century, mainly because it was such a big deal in the 16th century. The Reformation conversation about justification by faith and justification by works was dominated by the problems that plagued the church at that time: widespread corruption among the clergy, and practices like indulgences where the church offered people the chance to buy themselves out of purgatory so they could pay for new cathedrals. You can see why Luther and Calvin and Zwingli wanted the church to be focused on faith rather than on buying ourselves a path to righteousness.
But the problems of the church today are much different. As DC Talk, a ‘90’s Christian rock group put it, “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, then walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle.” The danger today is that so many Christians believe that all there is to faith is just saying that we believe. We have to let go of the Reformation understanding of justification and listen for what Paul’s words have to say us today.
The crux of Paul’s argument is that Abraham was justified by faith. And because he was justified by faith, he can’t claim that he did anything to earn that faith. Paul’s point for the Romans is that grace is a gift, it is not something we earn by saying or doing the right things, nor is it something that we can inherit by being brought up in the faith of our ancestors. Grace is simply a gift from God, offered not just to one special group of people, but to any person who hears God’s call and chooses to respond. And Abraham heard God’s call and chose to respond. That’s why we sing that Father Abraham had many sons, even though he only had two. Because Abram was the first to hear God’s call and promise and respond with faith, he is not just the father of the people of Israel, but the Father of all who respond in faith to God’s call. That’s why when we’re counting Abraham’s sons we say that I am one of them, and so are you.
But how do we know that Abraham had faith? If we look in Genesis, we don’t read that Abraham had faith because he said, “I believe,” Abraham never said anything like that. We know that Abraham had faith because he started walking towards the Promised Land. Faith is what we do when we hear God’s call and promise. Either we put our faith in God, and we put one foot in front of the other, or we put our faith in something else, our work ethic, our intelligence, our job, our beauty, our strength, and we try to forge a way forward with that.
Grace is the gift that God offers us. We don’t have any control over the gift. We don’t get to do something that guarantees that we are given that gift. And we certainly don’t have any say in whether someone else receives that gift, no matter what we think of our neighbor down the street’s late night comings and goings. What we do have control over, is how we respond to that gift.
Abraham responded by gathering his things, leaving his comfortable life, and setting out for the Promised Land, no matter how unsure he was. I want to share with you another example of faith, a woman named Mary Clarke, who came to be known as Mother Antonia.
Mother Antonia grew up comfortably in Beverly Hills, the daughter of a wealthy businessman. She had always helped the poor, but something changed in her when her priest took her to La Mesa state penitentiary in Tijuana. She began volunteering there, and was increasingly convinced that God was calling her to ministry in this place. Following her second divorce, she decided she wanted to devote her life to God. But no religious order would take a divorced woman. So she put on a black dress and sewed a veil for herself and went to church, where she made her own vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
Then she moved into La Mesa State Penitentiary, where she lived in a 10 X 10 ft cell for more than 20 years. She cared for the sick and the dying, she brought in medical care for the poorest of the inmates. She buried those who had no family to bury them. She fought for better treatment for people in prison. She loved the guards, listening to their problems and offering wisdom and advice.
Prisoners say that she once quelled a riot just by walking through the middle of it. When the inmates saw her walking through the crossfire, the fighting stopped. She died last year in Tijuana, after founding an order, Eudist Servants of the Eleventh Hour, at the request of her bishop. They now continue her work.
“When you know in your heart that something is right, that it’s who you are, that God is calling you to do something,” she said, “you make the sacrifices you have to make.” Like Abraham, God called, and she responded. This is what faith is. It might not happen in such a grand way, God may be calling you somewhere else. But to have faith is to get your feet moving when you hear that call. You have faith the moment you act on that faith. As Frederick Buechner once wrote, “Faith is the direction our feet are moving when we find that we are loved.”
You don’t always know what the journey will be when your feet start moving. You don’t know how many detours you might take, or what sort of pain you might endure as you go. What you do know, is that the direction your feet will take you, is toward the Promised Land.
 Beck, Richard. “The Little Way of Mother Antonia” Experimental Theology blog post, Published Dec. 10, 2013. Accessed March 15 2014. http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2013/12/the-little-way-of-mother-antonia.html.
 Yardley, William. “Antonia Brenner, ‘Prison Angel’ Who Took Inmates Under Her Wing, Dead at 86” The New York Times Online. Published Oct. 20, 2013. Accessed March 15 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/21/us/antonia-brenner-prison-angel-who-took-inmates-under-her-wings-dies-at-86.html?_r=1&.