Sunday, October 06, 2013

We've Come This Far by Faith

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
October 6, 2013

Year C, Proper 22: The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Lamentations 1:1-6
Psalm 137
2 Timothy 1:1-14
Luke 17:5-10

We’ve Come This Far by Faith
            If you were here last week, you may remember that I expressed the hope – the confidence – that we here at St. Paul’s are entering a new era.
            Today we take more steps – very important and beautiful steps into our new era as we welcome Gail Blache-Gill as our Minister of Music and welcome back the St. Paul’s Choir after a much too long hiatus.
            Together we are entering a new era. We are leaving behind the old worries about money and church attendance.
            We are no longer worrying if our church has a future.
            Instead of worrying, we are wondering. We are wondering what kind of beyond our wildest dreams future God has in store for us. And we are wondering how we can work with God to make that beyond our wildest dreams future a reality.
            Now, you know, of course we didn’t get to this new day by accident.
            Oh, no. We got here thanks to the hard work and dedication and persistence of some pretty amazing and talented people – the people who kept this place going during days when the present and the future looked pretty bleak. We got to this new day thanks to people who never stopped believing that this new day would come – who never stopped believing in the future of St. Paul’s – who never stopped believing in our future – who never stopped believing in God’s future.
            I’m happy to have Gail with us for many, many reasons. One of the more selfish reasons is that I can hand off to her the selection of hymns that we sing on Sundays.
            And in a little while the choir will offer an exactly right Offertory Hymn:
            “We’ve Come this Far by Faith.”
            Amen. That’s exactly right, isn’t it?
            We’ve come this far by faith.
            Since here at St. Paul’s we’ve come this far – we’ve come to this new era – by faith, it may be a little jarring to hear the beginning of today’s gospel lesson. The people who’ve been closest to Jesus – the people who’ve heard his teaching – the people who’ve witnessed his miracles – the people who’ve dropped whatever they were doing in order to follow Jesus – the people closet to Jesus say to him:
            “Increase our faith!”
            The apostles’ demand to Jesus to increase their faith sounds like they already have faith and want more. But, the Greek phrase is literally, “Add faith to us.” That has a different ring to it, doesn’t it? That sounds like it could mean that the apostles are completely lacking faith.
            Well, in any case, Jesus replies with one of his best-known metaphors.
            “If you had the faith of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”
            Actually, even this is a little ambiguous.
            Jesus might be rebuking his closest followers, saying essentially, “You’ve been with me all this time and you still don’t even have faith the size of a mustard seed!”
            Or, Jesus could be encouraging his closest followers, saying essentially, “Come on, it’s not that hard. All you need is faith the size of a mustard seed!”
            I always prefer to think of Jesus as encouraging rather than rebuking, but you can interpret his words either way.
            But, no matter how we hear Jesus’ words, the bottom line is that if we have just a tiny amount of faith we can do amazing things.
            We’ve come this far by faith.
            But, what is this faith?
            What is this faith that has brought us this far?
            What is this faith that’s so powerful that even just a tiny mustard seed-size amount can do amazing things?
            I bet many of us here – and certainly most people out there – think of faith as agreeing to certain statements or claims made by the Church.
            In a few minutes we’ll all stand and recite the Nicene Creed. And don’t we usually think of the creed as a kind of checklist of faith that we either agree to or don’t agree to?
            “We believe in one God the Father, the Almighty…” Check.
            “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, …” Check.
            “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life…” Check.
            And so on down the line.
            Now, there’s nothing particularly wrong with thinking of faith this way – of reciting the creed like it’s a checklist of faith. But, we run into problems when we think this is the only way to understand faith or belief.
            We’ve come this far by faith – we haven’t come this far because we’ve checked off items on a list.
            As many of you know, this fall some of us are reading a book called The Heart of Christianity. And in this book the author looks at other understandings of faith, not just checking off in agreement to a bunch of statements.
            For me, the best and most important definition of faith is loving trust – the kind of loving trust that, if we’re fortunate, we’ve experienced with our parents – the kind of loving trust that, if we’re fortunate, we’ve experienced with a husband or a wife – the kind of loving trust that, if we’re fortunate, we’ve experienced with a really close friend.
            Faith is the loving trust that God the Father shares with Jesus – the kind of loving trust that God always wants to share with us
            And, ultimately, loving trust comes from our hearts much more than from our heads.
            In the book, the author points out that the English word “believe” has its root in the word “belove.”
            It turns out that having faith – believing - is beloving.
            Let’s go back to the creed again.
            Doesn’t it feel different to say “I belove God the Father. I belove Jesus Christ. I belove the Holy Spirit”?
            Faith is loving trust. Faith is a movement of the heart. Believing is beloving.
            Which doesn’t mean it’s any easier than the old faith as checklist.
            The apostles had a hard time with faith as loving trust.
            And we have a hard time with faith as loving  trust.
            But, every once in a while, God sends us an example of someone who really is able to put their trust in God – someone who really is able to belove God.
            And, probably out of the whole history of the Church, Francis of Assisi is the best example of someone trusting God – of beloving God.
            Unfortunately, we’ve sentimentalized Francis – turning him into this adorable and eccentric character stuck out in the birdbath preaching to the animals.
            But, the truth is that Francis of Assisi was a radical.
            He was a radical who believed that it was possible to really follow in Jesus’ footsteps – who really believed that the Gospel means what it says – who strove to trust absolutely in God – who beloved God, beloved Jesus, beloved God’s people, and beloved all of God’s creation.
            Francis placed his complete trust in God – literally stripping away his family’s wealth – stripping away worldly pleasures – and giving away his life to God.
            Francis’ complete loving trust in God didn’t make for an easy life – just the opposite, really.
            Yet, here we are 800 years later, and just about everybody who was alive in Francis’ day, including the rich and powerful, are dead and forgotten. But, not Francis. He lives with God - and his memory and example and inspiration remains as alive and powerful as ever. Francis’ faith – Francis’ loving trust – Francis’ beloving did far more – are doing far more than uprooting a mulberry tree.
            And now that same power is available to us.
            My prayer is that God will increase our faith – that God will open our hearts just as God opened the heart of St. Francis long ago. Like him, may we also have faith, may we also have loving trust, may we also belove, may also give away our lives for Jesus.
            We’ve come this far by faith.
            But, with God’s help and God’s love, we’re just getting started.
            Believe and belove.