Sunday, August 12, 2007

sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 14, August 12, 2007

Faith is often a hard concept to define. You can always look up a dictionary definition, but that fails to do justice to what faith is as we strive to live it out in our faith walk. We are all called to be people of faith and many struggle living up to either their own or others expectations of what faith is supposed to be. I think in my own life, defining faith is a bit like the Supreme Court justice who was attempting to define pornography.

Justice Potter Steward wrote in a concurrence in a court case that “hard-core pornography” was hard to define, but that “I know it when I see it.” To me that also describes my feelings about the word faith. It is hard to define in a tangible way, but I certainly know it as I experience it.

“Faith – the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen – is a tricky thing to master. Some Christians, in their desire to be doctrinally correct, espouse a kind of certainty that I think is the opposite of faith. ‘The Bible says …’ is not the beginning of a statement of faith, but an expression of opinion. One could shape a sermon about faith and ask: What is the opposite of faith? Not doubt, but certainty.” You heard right, the opposite of faith is certainty, not doubt. That will shock many people to hear. But there is much truth in it.

My instinct when I meet a person who believes that they know absolutely everything there is to know about faith and has no questions is to run as fast and as far away as I can. These people have replaced faith the certainty. Isaiah Berlin wrote that “few things have done more harm that the belief on the part of individuals and groups … that he or she or they are in sole possession of the truth…. It is a terrible and dangerous arrogance to believe that you alone are right: have a magical eye which sees the truth: and that others cannot be right if they disagree.”

This is a serious issue for the church today. As we struggle through our differences and disagreement, those who hold steadfastly to the idea that they have an exclusive handle on the truth feel no need to engage in conversation about issues we are trying to face together. It becomes a “my way or the highway” situation in which everyone looses. This cuts off discussion. I believe that our faith can be strengthened in discussion with those whom we might disagree, not weakened. But some, for whatever reason, seem to have a fear of engaging others.

Abraham and Sarah exemplified what faith is. Faith is moving from beyond what we “know”. And that is why I’m convinced that certainty is ultimately destructive to faith. True faith requires us to get out of our comfort zone. Sarah and Abraham were able to move beyond what they knew – in this case that Sarah was barren – into the realm of faith. Sarah’s barrenness was a fact, a hard fact of life. She had to live with this fact all of her life. Barren women were utter failures in her time. They failed themselves, they failed their husbands, and they failed society by their inability to provide offspring for the future. Such was Sarah’s lot in life. She had to live her life as a failure. And when God finally came to them, she was beyond her child-bearing years, everything she knew told her that she would never bear a child. And yet, through faith, she ended up being the mother of a nation. She certainly had her moments of doubt. She even laughed when she first heard the news.

This nation, which came through the faith of Sarah and Abraham also knew all about the experience of faith. They were promised a wonderful land and yet spent many, many years dwelling in tents. They had no sense of finality or stability. I have the benefit of a home, a car, a job. Sometimes I wonder if that tends to make faith pretty easy. I wonder if my faith would be as strong if I had no job or home.

In spite of all I have I am forced to think about all the times my faith has failed. I may not have laughed like Sarah, but there have been many times in my life when I was not as faithful as I wish I could have been.

All too often people try to replace faith with rules and regulations. I did this for many years. Rules and regulations provide substance and something we can easily measure ourselves or others against. That is the place the Israelites found themselves in when the prophet Isaiah spoke of his visions in the passage for today. But all their certainty in their rules and regulations was not faith. Their certainty worked against faith. Their practices became a burden to God, a burden God was wearing of bearing. Their practices had become mere ritual with no experience of faith behind them to make them meaningful. And so God rejected them. God went so far as to tell them that God would no longer hear their prayers. That is a scary thought.

What is it God was wanting from them (and from us). We need to cease doing evil and start doing good. We need to wash ourselves and make ourselves clean. God wants people who seek justice, who rescue the oppressed, who defend the orphan, and who plead for the widow. These are not easy things to do. It is much easier if we can please and serve God through a series of religious practices.

What is it God is calling you to do today?

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