A living faith

Today I want to consider with you what it means to have a living faith. The late Charles Schultz, who drew the comic strip, “Peanuts,” once put together a quiz asking people to list the names of the most important people in the world. In Part One he asks: Who are the five wealthiest people in the world? What are the names of the last five winners of the Miss America contest? Name five people who have won the Nobel Peace prize? And tell me the names of the last half dozen Academy Award winners for best actor and actress?

Most people, Schultz discovered, didn’t do very well on part one of his quiz prompting him to write: “The facts are that none of us remember the headliners of yesterday. These are no second-rate achievers. They are all the best in their fields. But the applause dies, the achievements are forgotten and the accolades are buried with their owners.” So he gave them Part Two: What are the names of the teachers who helped you in school? Name three friends you really trust? Name five people who have taught you something worthwhile? And think of five people you really enjoy spending time with?

Was that easier? Schultz concludes saying, “The lesson here is that the people who make a difference most in your life are usually not the ones with the most credentials, the most money or the most awards. Rather, the people who are most important to us are the ones who really care.” And then he gives us this advice: Please don’t worry about the world coming to an end today… after all it’s already tomorrow in Australia.

Today, we have set aside time to celebrate our children and youth – and the women and men committed to sharing the goodness of God’s love with them as teachers – so let’s be clear that we have some of the most important people in the world right here! People who love and respect – cherish and honor – encourage and support our children and their faith. People who understand that faith is caught more than it is taught – people who grasp that disciples are made and formed but never born – and women and men who know that Christianity is always just one generation away from extinction. These people have embraced what is often called a “living faith.” So let’s be clear about what that means as we look at the story of Abraham who is called the father of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims and then move to Jesus whom we know as Messiah.

Faith, as it was lived by Abraham, is a journey – a pilgrimage – a way of living that constantly calls him “out of the familiar and into the unknown.” One scholar puts it like this: (The Holy One’s) challenge to Abram is about leaving things with which he is accustomed behind and going to a place he has never seen. The command in Hebrew is ‘lek leka’, (is) an emphatic form which we could translate as ‘get going!’ And three things are mentioned which Abram is to leave: ‘Go from your country, your kindred and your father’s house.’ (Howard Wallace, Year A Pentecost Four, at the following: http://hwallace.unitingchurch.org.au/WebOTcomments/OrdinaryA/Pentecost4.html

Are you with me? Faith for Abraham is a living faith, an exploration of trust which pushes him beyond the familiar into the unknown blessings of God. What’s more, this faith journey includes the vast and broad aspects of living – your former country – as well as the most intimate aspects of everyday living – your father’s house. Do you see how the movement in the text speaks of faith on a macro and micro level – from the grand to the mundane – from our careers and life goals to our most secret hopes and dreams?

Many people want to create lives that are safe – security is crucial to them – so they construct habits, religions and opinions built upon fear. And maybe this is a part of human nature because old people do it as much as the young, women as often as men and the rich as much as the poor. And while safety has its place, faith doesn’t look very safe when seen through the eyes of Abraham (and let’s include Sarah) – does it?

As expressed by the Father and Mother of faith, it looks damned risky – always pushing us from the familiar into the unknown – always going out from home base out and into the wilderness – so first we speak of faith as a journey – not a destination nor a set of beliefs, but first a journey. Faith, in fact, is a way of living that calls us beyond the familiar to a search for God’s blessings in the unknown. Now, if faith is a journey, then one of the realities of being on a journey is that you have to keep your wits about you – and that’s the second truth about a living faith. Like the Sufi mystics going to pray at the mosque say: Lift your voice to Allah, but don’t forget to tie up your camel, too.

This living faith journey business takes some common sense in addition to trust; and this second truth is just as important the first. In fact, they must be held together or else we become so heavenly minded that we’re no earthly good for anyone. I think of that great story from Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, the Ukrainian Hasidic rebbe who was the great, great grandson of the Baal Shem Tov who gave birth to the Hasidic way:

There was once a businessman, travelling by coach through a forest, who was accosted by a thief. "Your money or your life," said the thief. "Take all that I have," said the traveler, "but please don't harm me." So the thief took the man's money and was about to leave when his victim begged, "Take pity on me! How can I return home, having spent so much time on the road, with nothing to show for my effort? I'll be the laughing stock of the community. People will say that I failed as a businessman. They won't believe that I was robbed. At least if I could prove that I put up a great struggle before surrendering my possessions, then the disgrace would be easier to bear. Please, do me a favor and shoot two bullets into my top-hat so that the robbery will be obvious."

The thief was sympathetic and obliged his victim by firing two bullets into the hat. "While you're at it," pleaded the traveler, "maybe you could put another two holes into the coach." Again the thief consented, and fired two more rounds into the luxurious wagon. He was about to go when, in a voice which was hardly a whisper, his victim timidly said, "I know that this may seem silly, but perhaps you could shoot a few bullets into my overcoat so that the story will be more convincing." The thief did as he was asked until all his bullets were gone at which point the traveler overpowered his assailant and retrieved his money.
Ok? Faith is a journey – a way of living that demands your total concentration – it is less about belief than action – and it touches every aspect of your life. We’re not just speaking about Sunday mornings or when it is convenient: we’re talking politics, sex, economics, family life and all the rest. Listen to how St. Paul speaks of faith:

Here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: take your everyday, ordinary life – your sleeping, eating, going-to-work-and-school and walking around life – and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for the Lord. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking about it. Instead, fix your attention of God and you will be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what God wants from you and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture all around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you and develops well-formed maturity in you. Romans 12, The Message, Eugene Peterson

Now this does not happen by accident – and it doesn’t happen by magic either: we grow in well-formed maturity, blessed with wisdom and faith like Abraham and Sarah by opening every aspect of our lives to the journey. And here’s one of the hard won truths of a living faith: we can’t do it all by ourselves. It is too counter-cultural – we need too much help to resist giving up – so God created allies for us – and in our tradition we call these allies the Church – the living Body of Christ in a different form.

So jump ahead to this morning’s Jesus story because it emphasizes our need for helpers along the way of faith. It begins by saying that as Jesus was walking along his journey of faith, he saw a man collecting taxes and said to Matthew, “Come along and spend time with me.” And Matthew stood up and followed him. That’s a simple reminder that we can’t stay on this journey into the unknown all by ourselves – it’s too hard – we need help.

What happens next? They go to a party – a feast – a banquet – again we’re talking community and support, right? And who happens to be at this fiesta? Religion scholars and sinners – lawyers and prostitutes – Pharisees and a lot of disreputable characters – people who look good on the outside and folks whose lives are a total mess: now what do you think about that?

I think it has something to do with the fact that within every person – and every church – and every political party – and every religion and country there is always a mixed up combination of good and bad, clean and dirty, hopeful and afraid. Everybody is mixed up, right? The President and the Pope – Mom and Dad – you and me. And faith may have something to do with embracing just how mixed up we really are so that we don’t go around pointing fingers, looking for the sins of others while denying our own and causing more pain than life already bring us. Could it be that part of faith has to do with refusing to play it safe by seeing the good in those we don’t understand? And accepting our own mixed motives? And learning to live beyond our comfort zone of security by trusting that most other folk are just as mixed up and afraid as we are?

I suspect that is part of where Jesus is going when he tells ALL the people at the party – the pretty ones and those who are obviously wounded – go and find out what this means: I am after mercy, not religion! I am here to welcome the outsiders, not coddle insiders. Jesus remembered God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah which began our conversation about faith: Get going so that through you I might share blessings with… whom? Some of the people of the world – just the pretty and the rich – only the Jews or the Christians – mostly the Americans but no one else: no God’s promise of blessing was for all of creation – dare I say even the good and bad all mixed up?

Jean Vanier, who founded a series of small homes throughout Canada dedicated to integrating developmentally challenged folk with mainstream people dedicated to radical Christian faith, wrote:

There is a danger in issue-oriented groups that are not based on community – and that danger is that the enemy is always seen as being outside the group. The world gets divided between the “good and the bad” – and we are always among the good… In this setting the enemy is always outside. True community, however, is different because of the realization that the evil of the world is inside – not just inside the community – but inside of me, too.

And so our teachers – our leaders – and our commitment as a congregation is to teach and embody this inclusive understanding of a living faith: Faith is a way of living that calls us beyond the familiar in a search for God’s blessings in the unknown. Faith is much less about belief than action – especially action that advances blessing for those often forgotten or excluded. And faith recognizes that we are all mixed up and in need of God’s loving hope and healing.

Jesus was clear: “I am after mercy, not religion… I have come to push you beyond your comfort zones and welcome you onto the road that leads us away familiar and into the unknown so that you may share my blessings with all the mixed up people in all the crazy places of life. By doing this, our teachers and leaders – and even our children – join the cause of God’s blessings in the world just as was promised Abraham and Sarah. It is hard work – and it takes a long time to see the evidence – but it is work that heals – and even saves – the world.

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