There is a hidebound old preachers’ story that goes something like this. One Sunday an Episcopal Bishop, in an unnamed diocese, was visiting a parish for Confirmation. The parish was doing it up right: two adult baptisms, a big anthem from the choir, and an all-ages picnic afterwards. They'd been there all morning, and by the look of the length of the line at the serving table, they were going to be there for a while yet. The Bishop was in that line, waiting patiently and chatting with parishioners, and when his Grace got to the serving table, they say that the first person he encountered was the woman dishing up the barbecued chicken. She smiled nicely, picked out a piece with the tongs, and put it on the Bishop's plate. The Bishop looked down at that lone little drumstick and then asked, "Excuse me, may I have two, please."
"Sorry," replied the lady at the table, "one per person. You can come back for seconds later."
"But,” he said, “I didn’t even get breakfast before the 8 o’clock. I’m famished!”
She shook her head. "One per person," she repeated.
Sometimes when I turn on the TV, it seems to me that the only thing that is on anymore is reality shows. I know that if either Mark or I were big Netflix people we could easily curate our own individual screen experience to our private specifications, but we’re not invested enough in the whole video enterprise for that. We just randomly check in on cable TV every now and again.
It happens that Mark and I both love to cook, and one thing we did used to enjoy was watching the Food Network – but that was back when it actually taught you how to cook! (I know I’m dating myself there.) These days, it’s a parade of back to back episodes of Chopped, Beat Bobby Flay, or Cutthroat Kitchen. Other networks show food competitions too: Hell’s Kitchen, Top Chef. And so many other reality shows that also have that competitive edge: Love it or List It. Storage Wars. So You Think You Can Dance. The Bachelorette. Now one reason for this is that competitive reality programming is cheaper to produce than a show with actual characters and plot. Yes, the producers manipulate the situation to whip up conflicts and dramas, but you don’t have to pay a team of people to sit in a room and write dialogue. Another reason, though, is that we are naturally drawn, as human beings, to stories with conflict and drama, stories of people overcoming the obstacles to win a contest. We want to know who’ll still be there at the finish line.
And Abraham believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.
This moment in today’s Old Testament lesson, when Abraham puts his trust in God, comes very early in the Bible. Abraham is one of the first characters we really get a full story of in Scriptural history, and we meet him near the beginning of the book of Genesis, the first book in the Old Testament.
The story goes that God picked Abraham to be the ancestor of his chosen people. God designated him along with his wife Sarah to become the parents in faith of the entire Judeo-Christian tradition. This reading we just heard records the moment when God is making that historic promise to Abraham. It’s a clear starry night in the desert, and God takes the initiative, as he always does, and speaks: God brought Abraham outside and said, "Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your descendants be." And Abraham believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.
This is not only the first place in the Bible that talks about God’s initiative to create the spiritual community we’re part of. It’s also probably the first place in the Bible that points toward one of the core principles we rely on as Christians, which in technical language is called justification by faith. Justification by faith is so important, according to the Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde, that "where the church no longer speaks this word, it has lost its reason for being."