Sunday, August 8, 2010

Faith Lived as a Verb

I've done some "_______ is a verb" sermons before. I might even have said "faith is a verb." No matter; some things bear repeating, and the concept of our beliefs being more than a set of doctrinal statements is one that needs to be engraved upon our hearts.

Some housekeeping notes: I'm moderating comments now; certain individuals have taken to using the comments section of my blog as opportunities to take pot-shots at my (admittedly Progressive/Liberal) stated beliefs. While I welcome the opportunity to discuss, openly and at length, matters of faith, I insist on a level playing field for these discussions. Catch me on Twitter, or throw me a FaceBook message. Better yet, join me for a cup of coffee at the Huddle House.

As days progress, this blog will hopefully become more of a place where i not only post sermons, but actually do blog-like things: commentary and essay. I don't imagine I will be as good at it as Matthew Paul Turner or Roger Ebert, but it might end up being fun.

Anyway, here's the sermon. Feel free to comment, constructively criticize, or post your favorite recipe for pie.

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.
Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation-I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old-and Sarah herself was barren-because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, "as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore."
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

Luke 12:32-40

"Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
"Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.
"But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour."

This is the Word of the Lord.

I'm going to ask a kind of dangerous question this morning: What is “faith?”

It's a dangerous question for a few reasons: first, it's broad. My Uncle John was a professor of drama at the University of Alabama before he retired, and directed countless plays, both for the students and for the Tuscaloosa community theater. He tells of the time he went on a local television show to give an interview about an upcoming play. The camera came on, and the interviewer leaned in, fixed John with a sincere, intense stare, and asked him, “what do you think of art?” Just like any opinion of the nature of the universe of artistic expression will fall short, any answers we find this morning concerning faith are bound to be incomplete.

Second, the concept of “faith” has been so often miscast, misused and misinterpreted that, like the three blind men who attempted to describe an elephant by feeling only the part of the animal in front of them, we can't always be sure we're talking about the same thing. Is faith a thing which assures us we will never lack? Does faith manifest itself in perfect health? Is faith something acquired through believing certain doctrines, or mentally assenting to a given theological ideal? Is faith a vague, indefinable state of eternal hopefulness, or else an unattainable ideal, with such stringent requirements that no one since Abraham has ever really “had” faith?

And let's be honest, the writer of Hebrews doesn't give us a whole lot of help. I mean, as a definition, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” well, it doesn't top the list of definitive phrases in the New testament, does it?

It doesn't help that the original Greek for what's translated as “assurance,” hupostasis, only appears in one place in the entire New Testament. It appears in Christian theology in arguments over the nature of Christ in the fourth and fifth centuries, something that fascinates me but has no real relevance to the discussion today. Here the word hupostasis refers to the essence of faith. What faith is made of.

I wonder if you've heard this verse used in as many different settings as I have, as everything from a kind indeterminate of motivational quote to a justification for believing that if you aren't rich, healthy, and popular you aren't “Christian” enough? It's no wonder that faith is such a wide and confusing subject.

The word “faith” occurs in Hebrews more times than in any other book of the New Testament, and twenty-four times in the eleventh chapter alone. But what is faith? Is it quantitative (a matter of degrees), where you can have measurably more faith than I, or someone else have more than either of us? Is it qualitative, where his faith is “better” than her faith, or the faith practiced at that church is better than the faith practiced at another? Is it a spiritual gift from God? Is it a natural human characteristic?

Well, for the book of Hebrews, Frances Taylor Gench contends that the way the writer of Hebrews uses faith “is closer to the meaning of faithfulness. It speaks of faith as active obedience.” (Italics added)

In other words, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, far from simply mentally agreeing to the concept of God's promises, responded actively to that promise. They lived in that promise. Their faith was not a thought process or a subject of study and discussion. Their faith was something lived. Something that was done, performed, acted upon. Their faith was a verb.

To the prophet Isaiah, to live faith as a verb meant not simply performing the rites, attending to the details and going through the motions of worship. When a person's heart is turned against the needs of the poor, the orphans, those suffering injustice and oppression, the act of worship is, if I may use Isaiah's exact word, an abomination. To put it more precisely, worship is not an event, but a lifestyle. Professor R. B. Y. Scott wrote that worship must be “the expression and symbol of reverence for the moral character of God and the corresponding moral standards which should characterize his people.” Human conduct must be a reflection and imitation of God’s justice, goodness, truth, kindness and mercy. Worship, like faith, is a verb.

Our passage from the Gospel of Luke paints faith-as-a-verb in terms of what, and Who, we hope for. Jesus had just finished telling his disciples to consider how God cares for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, comparing it to the foolish man who had built larger barns to store his goods, relying on his own accomplishments.

Faith as a verb understands that our possessions are tools for the Kingdom of God, and nothing less. Faith as a verb understands that the Kingdom of God is here, now, and in the future, that the same Christ who rose from the dead and ascended to heaven will be returning. Faith as a verb understands that being ready means being active. Worshiping in our actions toward all God has created.

William Barclay, in his commentary on the Book of Hebrews, wrote that “faith is a hope that is absolutely certain that what it believes is true, and that what it expects will come. It is not hope which looks forward with wistful longing; it is hope which looks forward with utter certainty. It is not hope which takes refuge in a perhaps; it is hope which is founded on a conviction.”

Faith is our attitude, conviction or trust that there is an invisible, spiritual realm or energy which not only influences but actually created and determines what happens in the visible, external environment in which we live from day to day.

That's the faith that treats worship as something we do every day, with our hands as well as our hearts, with our pocketbooks as well as with our voices, with our talents as well as with our presence.

That's the faith that depends upon God, that understands the Kingdom of God as the reign of God, “where abundance flows out of God’s own sufficiency and generosity.”*

That's the faith that is a verb.

*Quoted from Sharon H. Ringe

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