Proper 14 Year C RCL Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
8 August, 2010 Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23
Trinity Episcopal Church, Ashland, OR Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
The Rev. Anne K. Bartlett, Rector Luke 12:32-40
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. Amen.
In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, columnist Peggy Noonan wrote:
The biggest political change in my lifetime is that Americans no longer assume that their children will have it better than they did. This is a huge break with the past, with assumptions and traditions that shaped us.
Optimists think that if we manage to turn a few things around, their kids may have it . . . almost as good. The country they inherit may be . . . almost as good. And it's kind of a shock to think like this; pessimism isn't in our DNA. But it isn't pessimism, really, it's a kind of tough knowingness, combined, in most cases, with a daily, personal commitment to keep plugging. (1)
Do these words resonant with you? They did with me. I worry about the future our children and grandchildren will inherit, the seemingly insolvable problems my generation has bequeathed to them. This is not the Age of Aquarius we thought was dawning back when we were young. This is an age of anxiety and anger and an increasing disconnect between the old-fashioned American dream and the reality of ordinary people on the ground.
Another sea change since the 60’s has been the place of the church in the culture. So much has been made of the rise of the religious right, of the growth of conservative Christian congregations. But the truth is, the political leverage of right-wing Christianity peaked some years ago and has been on the wane for a while. But what is also true is that mainline Christian denominations have been marginalized in numbers and influence to the point where even many of our friends –much less the media -- think it’s quaint that we still bother to worship on Sundays, because, really, what’s the point?
We may be getting back to where to started two thousand years ago – the church as a minority, countercultural sect. Though in this country we are not persecuted, thanks be to God, we have definitely been discounted as having anything important to say to society at large. And it’s all happened so fast, to those of us of a certain age, our loss of place in the culture, our not-so-long ago positions of prestige and status and influence.
This may not be a bad thing. For years now, I have come to believe that as a church we’re being purified, to use traditional Christian language – and why shouldn’t we? It’s our language, it belongs to us, and we should use it, even if it isn’t in fashion to use such words as “sin” and “redemption,” even if it makes some folk uncomfortable to hear words like “purification” and “faith.” We lose our language, we lose our bearings, our identity as Christ’s church. We forget we have been bought with price and we become instead a gathering of like-minded, friendly, tolerant people who find fellowship and comfort and a sense of belonging, but please! We don’t really want to be changed, much less transformed. Let’s not take this church-y stuff, these ancient texts, these aesthetically-pleasant rituals too seriously.
I have two words from the Lord for us today. Please take them seriously.
The first word is this: Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Those words were written to a struggling Christian congregation who was facing hostility, not mere indifference, from their surrounding culture. They were words written to encourage them, to put some courage into them, by reminding them of what they already knew in that way of “deep knowingness” that comes from within, rooted in experience. When you hear these ancient, encouraging words – faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen -- don’t make the modern mistake of thinking of faith as “belief” in the sense of giving intellectual assent to a set of propositions, almost in the sense of doing someone a favor by deigning to agree to such things.
No. Let go of the head trip, the over-importance of your own thoughts. Rather, reframe faith as trust. As in: These words are true and can be trusted. As in: an assurance, an inner conviction, a trust that God will make all things well in God’s good time. As in trusting the Way of Jesus to be the Way of Life, the Way Home. I have faith, I trust the Holy Spirit is working in me and in you and in our world in ways we cannot begin to imagine.
We say in the old words of the Nicene Creed that we believe in God, we believe in Jesus Christ, we believe in the Holy Spirit who gives us life. Faith is believing in things that cannot be seen, trusting in things that cannot be proved. I believe in my marriage. I believe in my children. I believe in you. I believe in the future of this parish. I don’t know what shape it will take, but I believe in your ongoing, enduring, and faithful life as Christ’s Body in this place.
Credo. We believe in God. Credo. We give our hearts to God. Our heads follow as they can, some days more easily than others. Faith is trust that the God whom we have come to know in creation and in Jesus and in the presence of the Holy Spirit, the God whom we have come to know in Scripture and sacrament and in the ordinary everyday-ness of our lives is the same God who will see us safely Home, you and me and the whole world, the whole broken, blessed creation.
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Abraham and Sarah, the biblical parents of us all, showed us how to live in faith, how to experience life as a journey, not knowing exactly where we are going, ever on the move, camping out, glimpsing and greeting the Promised Land across a far-off river, never fully getting there this side of the Kingdom, but trusting we are Homeward bound. That’s the life of faith, with all kinds of adventures along the way, some bringing sorrow and tears, others bringing delight and ever-unexpected newness of life.
In the “deep knowingness” of faith, we, like Abraham and Sarah and all the saints, know that we are but strangers and sojourners upon this earth, resident aliens, homesick pilgrims yearning for the city of God, longing to be Home, trusting we are beloved children in spite of our selves, this ragtag, motley crew of men and women and children called the Church, trying to make our way Home by following the Way of the One we call the Christ, plugging away with a daily, personal commitment fueled by prayer and sometimes by our own stubbornness not to give up.
It’s just so easy to get lost. To give up. To wander away. To lose faith that what we’re doing means anything.
That’s exactly, precisely when we need to be encouraged. Which is why we need to be in each other’s company on this journey Home.
Listen to what Frederick Buechner says about faith, in writing on this text:
By faith, we understand, if we are to understand it all, the madness and the lostness we see all around us and within us are not the last truth about the world but only the next to last truth…Faith is the eye of the heart, and by faith we see deep down beneath the face of things – by faith struggle against all odds to be able to see – that the world is God’s creation even so. It is God who made us and not we ourselves, made us out of his peace to live in peace, out of his light to dwell in light, out of his love to be above all things loved and loving. That is the last truth about the world. (2)
And then Buechner goes on to say, Is it true? And he answers, No, of course not. Look at the world around us, the madness and the lostness of it. But Yes, it is true, we know it is true in that way of deep knowingness, we have experienced those moments of God’s grace, we have caught glimpses of God’s peace and light and love, those holy moments we cannot forget and that keep us going in spite of ourselves. So we live, says Buechner, in the
no-man’s land between the Yes and the No because that’s where faith lives, and always has; and we wait for the next invasion of hope, for yet another glimpse of Kingdom even now breaking into our world, into our sight.
Which brings me the second word from the Lord this day: Be not afraid, little flock, for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom. Be not afraid. But of course we are afraid. And when human beings get afraid, we clutch, we tighten, our breath becomes shallow. When we are not afraid, when we trust, we let go, we loosen our grip, we breathe from our bellies like little children do.
When we are afraid, we tend to trust only what we can see and touch and count and control. We cling to our stuff as if it could save us often more out of fear than out of greed. We clench, we cling, we hold tight, we pull inward and away from others, we lose our faith in the promises of God.
Again this week, Jesus tells us to be ready, to be alert and attentive, because our times are in God’s hands and we need to be ready to receive the gift of God’s presence, which can happen at any moment, day or night. But the tone of today’s gospel is not one of alarm or cause for panic but rather a plea that we remain ready to receive the gift of grace, that we are willing and ready to be in those thin places where heaven touches earth where we are no longer servants but beloved friends at Our Lord’s banquet, where he sits us down so that he, himself may serve us and feed us.
There are altars everywhere. There are signs of the Kingdom below the surface of things every moment that can be glimpsed here and now by those who have eyes of faith to see, there is an ongoing invasion of divine hope into our anxious, angry, clenched-up world.
I believe that. I’ve experienced it. And so have you, dearly beloved ones. So have you. And I also have come to believe that it is the task of the church, of this church, to hold that hope – in faith -- for the sake of the world – not a Pollyanna-ish hope, not a silly, ungrounded optimism, not a denial of reality, but a strong and brave and gritty and enduring hope that is rooted in the deep knowledge of the gospel. That is what it means to have faith. That is our burden and our blessing.
In Christ’s name, this day and evermore.
1. Peggy Noonan, The Wall Street Journal, August 7,2010, OpEd Page.
2. Frederick Buechner, Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons (2006), “Faith,” p.71.