Thursday, July 17, 2008

"Possessed By Faith" the second in a series of sermons based upon Marcus Borg's "The Heart of Christianity"

What follows is a modified transcript. My intent was to carry a working outline with me, but my printer was hinky, so I couldn't get it to print out on a Sunday morning. Panic! Anyway, I did o.k. for off the top of my head, but missed some elements that are now included.
The texts for today are two, and are meant to bring us our attention to other nature of faith. They come to us from Eugene Peterson’s treatment of the text in “The Message.”

The first is from Matthew 17:
14-16At the bottom of the mountain, they were met by a crowd of waiting people. As they approached, a man came out of the crowd and fell to his knees begging, "Master, have mercy on my son. He goes out of his mind and suffers terribly, falling into seizures. Frequently he is pitched into the fire, other times into the river. I brought him to your disciples, but they could do nothing for him."
17-18Jesus said, "What a generation! No sense of God! No focus to your lives! How many times do I have to go over these things? How much longer do I have to put up with this? Bring the boy here." He ordered the afflicting demon out—and it was out, gone. From that moment on the boy was well.
19When the disciples had Jesus off to themselves, they asked, "Why couldn't we throw it out?"
20"Because you're not yet taking God seriously," said Jesus. "The simple truth is that if you had a mere kernel of faith, a poppy seed, say, you would tell this mountain, 'Move!' and it would move. There is nothing you wouldn't be able to tackle."

The second is from James:
14-17Dear friends, do you think you'll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, "Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!" and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup—where does that get you? Isn't it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?
18I can already hear one of you agreeing by saying, "Sounds good. You take care of the faith department, I'll handle the works department."
Not so fast. You can no more show me your works apart from your faith than I can show you my faith apart from my works. Faith and works, works and faith, fit together hand in glove.

This morning I want you to be willing to take the journey a little bit further down the road. If you missed last week, we’re using this little book, “The Heart of Christianity,” as lens through which we look at our own journeys – the Christian life is a journey.

If you think, in your own Christian life, where are you now in your journey relative to where you were when you started it. Which is to say, “how far down the road have you travelled.”

And today, I want that journey to go in a particular direction – from your head to your heart. In the section of the book we’ve been living with these days, Borg asserts most convincingly that faith is “the language of the heart.” It sounds wonderful. We are very good at “heart” language, but we speak about it from our heads.

We have to know what it means, where it came from, what it used to mean – and I love that stuff. You get that from me all the time. I don’t know if you love it as much as I love telling you, but there it is.

I want you to think today of faith as a heart matter, and journey from you heads to your hearts today. Now the problem that we have is that your head is going to want to be a backseat driver and tell you how to get to where you’re going.

How many of you love backseat drivers?

Disengage your brains today, just enough, to let your hearts take over.

But before we get there, let’s consider why it’s a problematic destination. Using some of the keys that Borg points toward – we understand that we are people of The Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment as been a wonderful thing. It has allowed us to see the world, discover wonderful things, it has allowed us to chart courses in life we never thought possible.

But the other side of that blessing is its curse, for it has harmed our capacity to live a “heart-full” life of faith. Because there is nothing to be known that cannot be proven. There is no thing in life to which we ascribe value unless we have mastered it. There is nothing that merits our serious attention unless we know Who? What? Where? and How?

When you’re talking about the things of God, and trying to “prove” it – good luck. For all that is great about The Enlightenment, where it can never satisfy is seeking to approach that which cannot be proven, the God who will not be named, that which we ascribe as the Divinum Mysterium.

In fact, it is so much the case that when we are asked if we have faith in God, what we find we’re really asking is if we believe the right set of claims about God. Do you adhere to the particular creed or doctrinal statements about God, and not specifically the nature and character that is God.

So, faith in God is no longer so much about relationship as it is whether or not we’ve signed on to the party line about of things that have been made a litmus test about what a “true believer” would hold about God.

What things you ask? Oh, you know, things like inerrancy of Scripture God, Virgin Births, stuff like that. To say that you have faith in God, from this point of view is to say that for God to be God these particular things, which have been told us are necessary to belief, must be true – or, the Divinity of God and the person Jesus is suspect.

When I served on the Board of Ministry, in a time of examination before ordination, I once asked a candidate whose written work indicated a staunch adherence to the aforementioned perspective, “If Jesus was not born of a virgin, is he still Lord?”

It was a “gotcha” question. I grant that. But I wanted to see both how he would handle such a question, and, if how inextricably linked doctrine was to his faith.

He paused a moment, a bit taken aback by the question, and knowing that he was on the hot seat, said,

“My answer is no.”

I wasn’t surprised by the answer. I respected it. I didn’t agree with it. And for those within the Christian tradition who live within the earlier paradigm to which Borg references, this candidate is going to serve effectively for a very long time.

Is your faith tied to that? It really is o.k. if it is, but if you are among those who part of this emerging paradigm of Christianity, how do we handle such things?

Borg suggests there is another way to cling to a life of faith that is framed not from revolution but recovery of previous understandings. So, if faith is the language of the heart, and the heart is the place we are called to go, and it is the heart in which our relationship with God through Jesus dwells – then be open to these alternative understandings of faith that have deep historic precedent.

The first of which will sound very familiar, as we've alluded to already – Faith as “assent.” But to what are we to offer our “assent?” A litmus test of theological planks, or the nature and character of God at all?

The second way to view faith prompts another word in our common language – “fiduciary,” or “trust.” A trust in God. In our heart journey, do you have trust in God, based not on what you can or cannot prove, but can you entrust your heart to something or someone precisely because you cannot prove it.

On every piece of legal tender in our country is inscribed the words, “In God We Trust.” The presupposition, at least in its purest meaning, is that very sentiment. We place our trust in the One who is more than us. However, if we really trusted in the God we say we do on our currency, then we would hope or expect that the ways we spend that currency would be in keeping with the ways the One we say we trust in would have us expend it rather than the ways we do: tax breaks for big business; no bid contracts with political cronies; and of course, war itself at the expense of our country’s under served, disenfranchised, lost and forgotten.

This God who has much to say about the plight of the widowed and the orphaned in holy scripture – do we trust in that God enough to spend in ways pleasing to God?

Another example of this kind of trust is cited in the book when Borg speaks of his wife teaching a class and asking the participants what it was like to teach a child to swim. Or do you remember when you learned to swim? Do you remember the fight that goes on between the person learning to do something so counter intuitive to what they think they should do. The key to learning to swim is to understand that you can float, and the only way to do that is to relax and let go. You can’t control the water and swim, you let go to learn how to navigate through it. That is trust, pure and simple.

You think about that and factor it into every aspect of our living in which we circulate and it is a sobering thing to consider how little trust we really show in each other and in God.

The third way to view trust in this emerging understanding is faith as “fidelity,” faithfulness in relationship. How are you faithful in your relationship to God? It occurs to me that this type of faith is tied to vows. Vows taken, kept or broken. In the vows of Church membership, we ask you to vow you prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness.

For any of us in a covenantal relationship, we know something of making vows. Take marriage, for example. Is the key to your marriage your vow or the relationship? Because if I hear the scriptures right and read Borg right, you know well how we can keep the letter of the law, the vow, and have no heart in the relationship. Relationships must be tended, nurtured to have vitality.

The same can be said of our relationship with God. Vows are important, but only to the degree they move us into the daily work of nurturing the character of the relationship we took vows for in the first place. Otherwise, the vows become empty words without meaningful action.

The final view of faith is “vision,” or, how we see things. And if we can see life beyond the literal we make room for the truth of God through Jesus that comes in metaphor and myth. Such things do not mean less true, and such understandings need not make us lose faith, but might instead inspire us to it. There will be more this view in coming weeks.

If we can stretch our understanding of faith, then we come to a new way of believing. Borg points out that “belief” and “belove” have the same origins. So believing does not mean that I’ve signed off of certain creedal statements, therefore I’m in. It’s really a sign, that, if I’m believing God, that I’m “beloving” God. My love is lived beloving God because I know that every breath I take and every day I have is a sign of God loving me.

In my journey to my heart, there is a trust that resides. It matters not what I deal with and endure, there is nothing that can separate myself from the God’s belovedness. Let me not separate myself the belovedness of God that I’m seeking to live through me and into the brokenness of the world.

The journey is calling you to consider the life of faith differently. It leaves many, many questions unanswered. To which I say, “good.” I call upon one of my favorite quotes from Alan Jones who said that “the opposite of faith isn’t doubt, it’s certainty.” Because if I’m certain about all these things, I don’t need faith, and if I don’t need faith, I don’t need God.

On matters of the God, Jesus, the Church and the world, the idolatry of certainty needs to be placed aside. For Enlightenment minded folks, that’s a hard chore. Because we only like what we can prove.

But you can’t prove this stuff. You believe it, belove it, live in relationship with it, and see beyond what you think is. Then and only then, do you become “possessed by faith.”

Faith, as practiced too often, is just one more commodity.
“How much faith do you have?”
“She must have a whole lot more faith than me.”

Keep in mind, Jesus said that faith is not about quantity. It only takes a mere kernel to make a mountain move. That ain’t much, and I don’t see a lot of mountains moving, do you?

So it’s not about the quantity of your faith. It’s about quality of life, of relationship, of trust. It’s a quality that marries faith and works as they fit together “hand in glove.” Works bear witness to the quality of faith we claim to have.

As such, it’s not that you possess faith, but that faith possesses you.

1 comment:

Kathy said...

For someone who "forgot a few elements" you totally rocked the house. In talking to others this week, some have even said this was one of your strongest sermons in the last several months. I think you've tapped in to something crucial here. I look forward to hearing more...