Sermon - 9 Pentecost
In the Name...
There was once a gang member who started going to a Pentecostal church and getting his life back together. After a while, he went to see the pastor with a problem, "Reverend", he said, "The gang says they'll kill me if I keep coming here." "Fear not, brother, have faith.” the pastor replied. "The Lord loveth a sinner come to judgment and He will send His mighty host of angels to protect you." "Wow!” the young man exclaimed, "That's awesome, 'cause they said they'd kill my pastor, too." The pastor paused for a moment and asked, "Tell me, brother, have you ever thought about becoming a Catholic?"
"Faith" is a word that gets kicked around a lot. The exhortation, "Have faith!” is usually taken to mean keeping your hopes up, being confident, while "keeping faith" is a synonym for trustworthiness or honesty. Sometimes you hear "Faith" used to describe a religious faction, usually in the first person as in we have "the Faith", but, they don't. And there are other ways. But, we should take a moment and ask ourselves, are any of these what the Bible means when it mentions "faith"?
Today's lesson from Hebrews begins to list a group of men and women who are traditionally called "heroes of faith" - Noah, Abraham, Moses, Rahab, etc. Now, these are all famous Biblical characters, but, what is it about them which would qualify them for the title "heroes of faith"? Certainly, it's not that they were always brave, trustworthy or moral. On the contrary, they were often cowardly, dishonest, and positively immoral. But, what made them heroes was the way they responded to God in their lives, the things they did to show their reliance on, and confidence in, God, even when their world was crashing down around them. To them, you see, "faith" was an action word and not a feeling or a thought.
You've probably heard the story of the man who was hiking and fell off a cliff into a ravine. As he fell, he managed to grab on to a tiny branch and was holding on for dear life. "Help", he cried, "If there's anyone up there, help!” Suddenly, a voice from heaven spoke and said "My son, I, the Lord, have heard you. Let go of the branch." The man looked down into the ravine and then looked up and asked, "Um, is anybody else up there?"
Very often we confuse faith and belief, but, they're really two very different things. In Lewis Carroll's, "Through the Looking-Glass", the White Queen tells Alice that she begins her day by believing six impossible things before breakfast. But, faith isn't about believing impossible things, it's about doing amazing things. Faith is about what we do when God speaks to us. Faith is about obedience, especially when we don't believe.
When God told Abraham to pick up and move everything and everyone in his household, Abraham moved because God said so. That was faith. On the other hand, when God said Abraham and Sarah would become octogenarian parents did they believe Him? Absolutely not. Not at first.
What does it say in the lesson? By faith, Abel offered, Enoch pleased, Noah built, Abraham set out. Faith is verbs, doing something about what God has promised even when it doesn't look promising. Faith is letting go of the branch when belief tells us not to.
The opposite of faith is not doubt. Doubt is natural. Doubt can even be good. It forces us to examine ourselves and our relationships with God and others. No, the opposite of faith is disobedience, and that is never good.
But, why? Why would anybody disobey God? What prevents people from being faith-full all the time? Well, a few things and perhaps none more powerful than what Jesus talks about in the Gospel, today. Fear. Fear.
Our Gospel selection presented us with a series of sayings which didn't seem obviously connected. What, for example, does giving to the poor have to do with staying up late at a party? Blessed are the insomniacs? It's really a very odd passage. It begins with the comforting words that we will be given a kingdom, but ends with the discomfiting image of a burglary.
What links them together is the opening phrase of the passage, "Do not be afraid." "Do not be afraid." Jesus actually taught a lot about this because he knew people are afraid about just about everything. Fear has been a fact of human life since Adam. That's the reason why he disobeyed God and ate the apple - because, he was afraid of losing Eve and being condemned to an eternity of loneliness.
Of course, sometimes fear is a good thing. A fear of falling can keep us off flimsy ladders. A fear of crashing keeps us from being reckless drivers. But, fear is an emotion and, like all emotions, it's not always very rational. In the 1950's, it led people to build backyard atomic bomb shelters. In the 2010's, it makes us take off our shoes at airports.
So, what do we fear? Sickness, financial reverses, earthquakes? Only the things we can't control? That's just about everything. Often, we fear just anything that's different, even if it's better than what we've got now.
Some years ago, a Polish author wrote a play, a satire, which he called "The Police." The premise was that in a fictional police state the last political prisoner, after years of lonely imprisonment, signs the oath of loyalty and is released. This creates a crisis. If every citizen is now loyal to the regime, how can the secret police justify their continued existence, their elaborate network of informers with nothing to report, prisons with no prisoners, courts with no cases? So, they send out a special agent whose job is to stir up dissent, to attack the regime. It's beautifully absurd. Out of fear of losing their jobs, the police end up destroying the docile society they have tried so hard to create and unleash a rebellion which overthrows them.
I read somewhere that the African impala can jump 10 feet in the air and across a distance greater than 30 feet. And yet, these powerful animals can be kept in any enclosure with a 3-ft. high wall. The impala will not jump if he can't see where his feet will land.
Faith is jumping when we can't see where our feet are going to land. Seeing may be believing, but, faith is doing. Whether I can see where I'm going or not, I have to act, I have to behave, I have to live and function responding to God just as Noah, Abraham, Moses and thousands, millions, billions, of other men and women have in the past and are in the present.
Jesus made the point that we will be given a kingdom far greater than anything this world can offer because he wanted us to realize that whatever goes on in this life, triumph or tragedy, is not the end-all and be-all. It's just where we are right now. God will see us through, and He wants us to remember there's nothing to fear about what's really important at the end of the day.
You can count on Him. He's counting on you. And yes, you, too, can be a super-hero, a hero of faith.
In the Name...