Pentecost 20 Traditional Sermon
So, how would you answer the question, “What is Faith?”
<CONGREGATIONAL ANSWERS — Believing in something you can’t see … faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen … doing the right thing … rooting for the New York Mets … reading the Bible … living as God wants me to live … trust> Nice answers … so, given the wide variety of our answers may we consider that faith is …. More of a journey than a destination? … More about the heart than the head? … More about deeds than words. … More an experience than a possession? It is one of the crucial questions that confront a Christian. Let’s consider a few stories so as to find some help.
Mark’s Gospel tells the story of a man and his son, who is possessed by some spirit or illness. Let’s listen in on the story:
‘Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.’ He answered them, ‘You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.’ And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it threw the boy into convulsions, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the father, ‘How long has this been happening to him?’ And he said, ‘From childhood. It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.’ Immediately the father of the child cried out, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’
“I do believe … help me overcome my unbelief.” Isn’t that the human plight? We want to believe, but we struggle to believe. That is why we refer to faith as a journey. It is why we point to our hearts when we talk about it. It is why we believe that faith is experienced. And why we encounter faith as an evolving process. But human as this all is, we still desire some surety, don’t we? … some proof … some piece of bedrock upon which to build the structure of our faith.
Larry Walters had faith – faith in himself. Faith in his desire to fly. Let’s hear a bit of his story. It is a true story. You can Google it. Let’s listen in through the words of Robert Fulghum:
Larry Walters is a truck driver, thirty-three years old. He is sitting in his lawn chair in his backyard, wishing he could fly. For as long as he could remember, he wanted to go “up.” To be able to just rise right up in the air and see for a long way. The next chapter in this story is carried by the newspapers and television. There’s old Larry Walters up in the air over Los Angeles. Flying at last. Really getting UP there. Still sitting in his aluminum lawn chair, but it’s hooked on to forty-five helium-filled surplus weather balloons. Larry has a parachute on, a CB radio, a six-pack of beer, some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and a BB gun to pop some of the balloons to come down. And instead of being just a couple of hundred feet over his neighborhood, he shot up eleven thousand feet, right through the approach corridor to the Los Angeles International Airport. Walters is a taciturn man. When asked by the press why he did it, he said: “You can’t just sit there.” When asked if he was scared, he answered: “Wonderfully so.” When asked if he would do it again, he said: “Nope.” And asked if he was glad that he did it, he grinned from ear to ear and said: “Oh, yes.”
Yes, where we place our faith is important, too. But so many of the things in which we place our faith are temporal and limited. The foundations the world offers us eventually show themselves to be sand. Our calling as Christians is to build our foundations upon Christ, so that we can remain connected to God’s Spirit.
Let me tell you a bit of the story of my day yesterday. In the morning I had a funeral for our member Frances Brouse. Fran clearly placed her life in God’s hands, and built her life upon the foundation of God’s love for her. She was a lifelong Christian and nurse, and a missionary in Liberia for 12 years. She knew where faith was rightly placed, and her family knew, too.
Later in the day I had a wedding, for our bride and groom Hilary & Jordan. It was a modest wedding, but a beautiful wedding. They made a conscious choice to not buy into all the pomp and circumstance of what weddings in America have become. The wedding ceremony was as full and rich as any wedding I have officiated over. But it was focused. It was focused on the core of covenantal love necessary for every marriage, and it was a ceremony which demonstrated that the couple had placed their love into God’s hands. I was a well placed choice – well positioned start for their life together.
But … is that even enough? Is it enough to just trust God? Is it enough to know Jesus as your savior? Is it enough to be baptized? Is it enough to come to church? Is it enough to receive Holy Communion? Is it enough to study the bible? Is it enough … is it enough? Can it ever be enough? Frederick Buechner asks that question in his reflection on Faith” from his book Wishful Thinking. Let us step into his story of faith and hear a short segment of it.
Faith is better understood as a verb than as a noun, as a process than as a possession. It is on-again-off-again rather than once-and-for-all. Faith is not being sure where you’re going, but going anyway. A journey without maps. Tillich said that doubt isn’t the opposite of faith it is an element of faith.
Can we ever really insure that God will love us? Can we ever be faithful enough? Our Gospel Lesson speaks of a mustard seed. We love that image. Something tiny becoming great. It’s an underdog story. Tiny seed make the big time. But our lesson also speaks about the life of a servant. We don’t love the slave story so much. Do what you’re told, we hear. Worthless slaves, we are named. Don’t eat with your master – serve him. Admit it… when you think of the story of the mustard seed, you forget that this story is also part of the lesson, don’t you?
Yes, all this talk about faith in today’s parable is confusion. Where do we go? When I struggle like this, I search out people smarter than I am. And I found these words from Kayla McClurg in her Inward/Outward devotion from the Church of Our Savior parish. They were helpful words for me as I tried to wrap up these thoughts. Let’s step into McClurg’s story.
Jesus says we might not need what we think we need. A bigger bucket of faith is not the answer. Even the tiniest speck of faith has more power than we have dared yet to call upon. What we need most is simply this: to get busy doing what we ought to do. Asking for more faith can be one of our delay tactics—oh, what amazing feats we would accomplish if only God would give us more faith! In the meantime, we sit back and wait for “it” to happen. Doing what we ought to do, on the other hand, is for right now, this moment, whatever the condition of our hearts, whatever the quality or capacity of our faith and trust.
So maybe the right answer is in fact the easiest answer to the question, “What is Faith.” Faith is God’s work within us. And … Faith is our work within God’s Kingdom. Whether small or large … whether in freedom or obedience … using words or deeds … from our heads and our hearts. So, let’s get to work …. And let God get to work in us. Amen