What is Faith? part one

What does it mean to be a “person of faith?” I’ve been struck lately by how often I consider this question. We live in a time of change, maybe even crisis, in the church. There’s no doubt. Pews that were once full are a little more spacious on Sunday morning. Some of our sisters and brothers are looking at their church finances only to discover they may need to leave a beloved historic building behind if the congregation is going to stay open. There’s anxiety in the system.

We are very fortunate at Holy Communion. We are not in danger of closing. Our congregation is growing, not quickly, but sustainably. Still, the wider question continues to come up for me, even as your pastor here. What does it mean to be a “person of faith” in this changing landscape?

The question usually occurs on the edges of the community of faith, and indirectly, like when I’m working through pre-marital counseling with a couple, when one person is an active member in a congregation and their partner stays away from church. How do we talk about faith? The question arises when I work with family members plan to a burial for a member who has died. More often than not active members of a Christian community are in the minority in a family. What is faith? The question came up this week at Theology on Tap. A group of about 30 of us gathered to talk about gun violence. I stayed after and talked with our bartender who called himself “an atheist,” but “I really liked what you guys were saying.” I find myself wondering in all of these encounters: What does it mean to be a “person of faith?”

In some ways I’m not really anxious. I’m hopeful. I know the church will change. And let’s be real. The church NEEDS to change. Most church’s wouldn’t start their mission statement like we start ours: “Holy Communion is a welcoming and diverse community” So many people have been told they are not welcome by the church because they asked questions about whether the earth was just 6000 years old or the authority of a leader. People have been for told they aren’t welcome because of their gender, their sexual orientation, their class, their race or their political positions. When church spends so much time excluding people, when the church offers bad news, can we really wonder why Sunday attendance is down? The church needs to change, and the church is changing.

I am confident that there will be followers of Jesus in the years, and centuries, to come, because I think our world is in need of what Jesus has to offer. More than they know, our society is hungry for good news. That is what “Gospel” means after all, “Good News.” We are hungry for good news. I think that deep down, without naming it, people are hungry for faith.

So what is this faith? What does it mean to be a person of faith? The Book of Hebrews answers the question at length in our reading this morning. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The writer of Hebrews goes on. By faith Abraham set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he reached the promised land. By faith Abraham and Sarah had children in their old age.

Now, don’t start sneaking to the door. I know some of you are very grateful to have made it beyond child-bearing years. You’re not interested in God rewarding your faith by giving you children when you are “as good as dead” (Sometimes the writers of the Bible don’t make the best word choices). Still, don’t get too nervous. God probably won’t choose to bless you with children in your wiser years because you have faith. Probably. There are other blessings that come from faith.

By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau. By faith Jacob blessed the sons of Joseph. By faith Joseph warned his people of their coming exodus. By faith Moses was hidden from Pharaoh and grew up to lead his people out of Egypt. The author goes on “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…shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire.” Faith has consequences.

Now the author of Hebrews wrote these words thousands of years after the events occurred. As they say, hindsight is 20/20. It’s easy to see faith in God at work when the people are already saved. It’s a little more difficult when you’re facing the lions and you can see them licking their lips. But that’s just it. Faith, in the tradition of Hebrew’s is about the long view.

Hindsight may be 20/20, but foresight is pretty good too. We do well at taking the long view at certain times, like the beginning of the school year. Before the homework starts. Before we’re in the middle of grading and the long hours of soccer practice, school, homework, musical rehearsal. When we take back to school pictures, it’s easy to be filled with ideas of college and career. The trick is to hold on to that long view. How do we keep the faith?

The writer goes on to say that many of the Biblical heroes “died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.” Here the letter to the Hebrew’s invokes Moses specifically. In the book of Numbers we learn that Moses died before the people make it to the promised land. But he dies up on a mountain, where he can see the long view. He has faith that they will make it there. Dr. King famously used this image in his last sermon. I have been to the mountaintop. He said, “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!” That’s faith.

There’s a poem that has come to mean a lot to me. It’s called the “Prayer of Oscar Romero” which is partly why I paid attention to it in the first place. There’s a mystery to the title, because it’s not really a prayer. And, more importantly, it wasn’t written by Archbishop Romero, the martyr of El Salvador who stood with the poor. It was written by another Catholic bishop around the time of Romero’s death. But the poem speaks to the tense situations that Dr. King and Archbishop Romero faced.

It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.

Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying that
the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

That is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

What does it mean to be a person of faith? I want to posit today that it means taking the long view. The Gospel has it’s own way of putting it: “Keep your lamps lit.” I think these warnings from Jesus are meant to help us keep the main thing the main thing. Know what it is you hope for. Keep that in perspective.

For me, the center of the Gospel is the promise of Jesus that the Reign of God is coming. In the end God wins, love wins. We will make it to that promised land. We will live in a world where justice rolls down like water and righteousness like an overflowing stream. We will learn to treat our sisters and brothers with dignity. We will pound swords into plowshares. The challenge, in the words of Jesus, is to seek first the Kingdom of God. And maintaining the long view can be difficult. We can get distracted. It can be hard to keep awake.

I’ve told you before, I’m struggling this season with watching the news. I’m so glad the Olympics started this week, because the paper and the radio will have more to talk about that the Election cycle. This has been a brutal political season so far. Now, I believe in the separation of church and state. I will never endorse a candidate from this pulpit. The church can’t even endorse if the candidate is sitting in our pews and running unopposed. But I can talk about the general sense of the political landscape.

I find myself tired and irritable after reading news about the election. It seems so often this year, we’re not being asked to vote FOR a candidate but to vote for to keep someone else, someone awful, from office. The overall tone is so negative.

There was an interview on NPR this week that was balm for my soul. Khizr Khan was interviewed by Kelly McEvers on All Things Considered. Khan is the father of the US Army Captain Humayun Khan, a war hero killed in Iraq who happened to be a Muslim and from an immigrant family. The father famously offered Donald Trump his pocket Constitution.

What moved me wasn’t his rhetoric at the convention, but the passion in his voice when McEvers asked him about the Constitution. Khan immigrated to this country, eventually attending Harvard Law School. The constitution wasn’t a prop for the night. He often carries it with him in his jacket pocket. His copy is worn from use, and filled with underlines and highlights.

McEvers asked him to read something that was particularly meaningful to him. He picked the 14th Amendment. You could hear the emotion in his voice as he read the guarantee for equal protection under the law to all citizens “born or naturalized.” You could hear the faith this man had, the faith of an immigrant who chose to come to these United States because he hoped for equal protection. He hoped for safety, security, and the chance to make a new life in a place where he did not have to fear his country’s own army or police force. He holds on to that hope, literally.

“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for.” In the midst of such a negative climate, keeping our eyes on the ideals we all share. In the midst of all the muck, to lift up our eyes and to focus on our common values. When the going is rough, and slow, and frustrating, to take the long view. To keep our eyes on the prize, and to trust that God is doing better for us than we can do for ourselves. That is faith.

As the world changes around us, can we be a community that helps people lift up their eyes? Can we rise above the frustrating humdrum and offer hope? Can we take the long view? Together, can we be people of faith?

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