Sunday, August 15, 2010

Faith As a Verb Redux

I used to worry about repeating myself too much in sermons. What I've learned is that, however effective we preacher types are at communicating, most congregation members aren't going to remember what you said last week... and those that do most likely won't remember the week before.

In any case, some things bear repeating, and sometimes the Revised Common Lectionary (and, dare I say, the Holy Spirit) demand repetition.

I have to give a word of appreciation to friends on Twitter who helped me compile both bumper sticker quotes and "hot-potato" questions. I promise to miss someone: Heather Detloff, A. Theist, Kathryn Bell, S. Hamm, Rev. John Jensen, Grace, Shirley Ostrander, Rev. Deborah Matthews, Erica, and Crystal Lewis. Not only did they help me write this sermon, we had a howling good time doing it.

A note about the closing line: In the worship service, instead of intoning "Now let us recite the Apostle's Creed" or some such, I introduce that part of the service with a (usually) passionate exhortation: "Christians! What is it that you believe?" The idea is to encourage all of us to think about the words we are saying.

Comments and constructive criticism, as always, are welcome.

Isaiah 5:1-7
Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.
And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?
And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.
For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!

Luke 12:49-56
"I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!
From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law."
He also said to the crowds, "When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, 'It is going to rain'; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, 'There will be scorching heat'; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

Hebrews 11:29-12:2
By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.
And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets-who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection.
Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented-of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

This is the Word of the Lord.

What does faith look like?

Do you demonstrate your faith with a bumpersticker? “Honk if you love Jesus,” “Smoking or non-smoking? Make your eternal reservation now!”
“If God is your co-pilot you're in the wrong seat,” “My boss is a Jewish carpenter,” “1 cross+ 3 Nails= 4 given,” “REPENT OR BURN,” and “Real Men Love Jesus.” My second favorite one is “my other car is a fish,” but my absolute number one is this: “Jesus Loves Everyone... But I'm His Favorite!”

Is this what faith looks like? A bumper sticker?

Do you demonstrate your faith by where you go to church? Is a Presbyterian a more faithful follower of Christ than a Methodist, or is a Methodist a more faithful follower of Christ than a Lutheran, or is a Lutheran a more faithful follower of Christ than a Baptist? Is someone who goes to First Presbyterian a more faithful follower of Christ than someone who goes to Third Baptist? Is it more faithful to recite the Apostle's Creed or the Nicene Creed? Is it more faithful to view Baptism and the Lord's Supper as sacraments, or as ordinances? Is it more faithful to go to church on Saturday or on Sunday?

Is this what faith looks like? Sitting for an hour or so in the right building?

It's no secret that we live in an impatient society, insisting on instant gratification, black-and-white positions, quick fixes, and easy answers.
We have internet banking, microwave meals, instant messaging and drive-through windows. We treat information much like fast food, expecting politicians to be able to state their position on complex issues within a television soundbite. We are a society which is becoming more and more dependent on pundits and talking heads to form our opinions, and as a result we are a society that is becoming more and more anxious, more afraid, desperate for answers, assurances, and security.

It's no surprise, then, that we too often expect to be able to encapsulate matters of faith into concise, easy to swallow, solidly defined statements: things which are right over against solidly defined things which are wrong; clearly understandable declarations short enough to fit into a standard cell-phone text message. We judge someone's level of faith – indeed, whether or not they have faith at all – on how they answer certain (usually hot-button) questions: “Do you believe the Bible is inerrant?” “Do you believe in the virgin birth?” “Do you believe in creationism?” “Should women be allowed to preach?” “Do you take part in Halloween?” A friend tells me she's gotten this one: “homeschool, christian school, or public school?” to determine how serious she is about raising her children in the faith. Some people will even draw conclusions about your level of commitment to Christ with a question like “are you a Republican or a Democrat?”

Is this, then, what faith looks like? Saying the right things, giving the proper answers?

Do you demonstrate your faith by answering what Tony Campolo refers to as “hot potato questions” correctly? By way of answer, think about famous preachers and successful politicians, people who have enjoyed great success at putting the “right” answers to those kinds of questions. Now think of how many have been exposed as frauds, caught in illicit affairs, arrested on ethics charges, dismissed from their pulpits or impeached from office.

Clearly, what one says doesn't always reflect one's faith.

So... what does faith look like?

The writer of the Book of Hebrews contends that faith is not something that is said, but something that is done. Look at the words the writer uses: “conquered, administered, obtained, shut, quenched, escaped, won, became, put to flight”... and yes, also “suffered, persecuted, tormented, and wandered,” and that's not all of them. The point is that the “cloud of witnesses” we are reminded of in the Book of Hebrews were not seen as faithful because they had the right bumper sticker, or went to the right church, or voted for the correct people, or answered the questions the right way.

It was what they did that proved them to be faithful... and if we may use the example of the reading from Isaiah, “he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry,” it was what the children of Israel did that proved them to be unfaithful.

Actions, not words, are what faith looks like.

I am not about to suggest that we must “do” things to receive salvation. It is as true today as it was when it was written to the church at Ephesus: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” The grace of God is just that – grace, a gift freely given not when we decide we want it, or when we find it or say all the right things in a prayer, or when we finally somehow earn it, but grace given freely, extravagantly, audaciously! Grace given on a cross on a hill outside of Jerusalem, grace flowing from an empty tomb.

With that said, we must understand that when we truly believe something, we cannot help but act upon that belief – our core principles, our true convictions, these are at the root of everything we do. Our faith guides our actions. We do what we believe!

The story is told of a man who did not believe in the existence of God. He was walking one evening, and lost his way, and in the failing light he stepped off a sheer cliff. As he fell, he happened to grab hold of a small tree growing from a crack in the rocks. He held on for dear life, trying desperately to figure out what to do. He cried for help, but he was a long way from town, and no one heard him. His arms were losing their strength, and his grip was failing. He was slipping, and soon he would fall to his death.

Finally, with nothing left to lose, he cried out, “God! Help me!” Immediately a voice rang out from the heavens, “My child, do you believe?” “Yes, Lord, I believe!” “My child, do you trust Me?” “Yes! Yes, Lord, I trust You!” “Let go, my child, and I will catch you.” “...Is there anyone else up there?”

Now, you and I are not likely to be in a situation where the only thing between us and certain death is a branch growing off the side of a cliff. And whatever the pundits and prophets of doom may say, we aren't likely to ever be called upon to endure real persecution to test our faith in God. So what does our faith look like? What should our faith look like?

How do we respond when someone we do not know is in need of food?

How do we react when a group of people we have no connection to is treated unjustly?

When called upon to speak, do we use our voice? When called upon to give, do we open our purse? When called upon to act, do we move swiftly?

It's possible that you are like me. When I ask myself those questions, when I compare what I know about how God expects a person of faith to react with how I really do react, I'm not real proud of the results.

I'm too quick to judge, too quick to dismiss, far too swift to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear, far too eager to say that I haven't got enough time or enough money and anyway it's someone else's responsibility. When I examine my heart and my motives, I have no other answer than that I am wrong. I need to change.

When the Scriptures speak of repentance, it isn't simply feeling sorry that we did wrong. Repentance carries with it the mandate to commit to change. The good news is that we Christians have a wonderful gift, the Holy Spirit, who acts as a guide, a teacher, a comforter, and an agent of change in our lives.

I am not alone – We are not alone!

Where I was silent, with God's help, I can speak. Where I was stingy with my resources, with God's help, I can become generous. Where I was callous and uncaring, with God's help, I can become compassionate. I can, and with God's help, I will.

“Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”

With God's help, I can treat these words as more than a pretty saying from the Bible. I can look to them as clear direction, as an exhortation to respond to God's call to act on what I believe!

Show, don't tell: Christians, what do you believe?

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