Sunday, October 16, 2016

Sermon: Imagining Faith

Luke 18:1-8
Imagining Faith
James Sledge                                                                                                   October 9, 2016

What is Christian faith? How do you know if you have it? These would seem to be central and crucial questions for Christianity, church, or whatever label you use to describe those who say they follow Jesus. Yet I’m not sure we how much agreement there is on the answers.
For some, faith is mostly about belief, belief about who Jesus is and what he accomplished, belief in the truth of his teachings, belief in the veracity of the Bible, and so on. For others faith seems to be about knowledge or information. People say, “I can’t share my faith with others because I don’t know it well enough.”
Some people think  of faith as hope or trust that God is somehow guiding things toward a good outcome. This hope may be vague or specific. It may be focused mostly on personal benefits such as wealth or health or getting into heaven. Or it may be focused on the flow of history, on the “arc of the moral universe.”
For some people faith includes specific forms of piety and practice. For others, it’s simply the notion that there is a God, some higher power. And there are other possibilities.
In the reading from Luke that we heard last Sunday, Jesus makes a connection between faith and gratitude to God. And in our reading this morning, Jesus again connects faith to concrete behaviors on the part of his followers.
Jesus tells a brief parable with two characters, a widow and an unjust judge. If Jesus were telling the parable in our day, the characters might be different. But in Jesus’ day of male dominated patriarchy, widows were among the most vulnerable. As females, they did not have full legal status, and without a husband or adult son, it was difficult for them to hold onto property or possessions. They could easily end up on the streets, reduced to begging. Presumably this widow’s opponent has taken advantage of this situation.
We may be unfamiliar with the precarious position of widows in Jesus’ day, but we know all about unjust judges or other office holders who utilize their position for personal gain, with no regard for basic morality or God’s concern for the weak and vulnerable. We know all about a world where innocents suffer, where raw power preempts justice.

Every week in worship we pray for things to be different. We ask for the kingdom to come, for God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven. But then we watch children killed by bombs in Aleppo. We watch a carnage of gun violence in our own country with no sign of the political will to do anything about it. And we see people on both the right and the left who’ve given up hope that our political system can function in a manner that benefits all.
Every week we offer prayers for peace, for the Church, for people suffering in places like Haiti, for victims of violence, for friends dealing with terrible diseases, for an end to racial divisions. And all too often, nothing seems to change. Why should we listen when Jesus says to us, “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?” The delay is already more than long. Of course that was true when Luke’s gospel was written as well.
The very first Christians expected God’s new age to show up right away, an expectation rooted in their understanding of resurrection. For them, resurrection had nothing to do with heaven. It was something that would happen at the end of the age, when God’s rule arrived. When Jesus was raised from the dead without the new age arriving, his followers assumed that the new age was right around the corner. Jesus was the first fruits, the pioneer, but the resurrection for all would come soon.
The Apostle Paul speaks in his letters of the nearness of God’s new day, of resurrection for those living and for the dead, but Paul dies only thirty years or so after Jesus. By the time Luke’s gospel is written, it’s been another thirty years. Almost everyone alive when Jesus walked the earth is dead, and it was getting harder and harder to keep expecting Jesus would return any day now.
That’s the setting for Luke to recall these words of Jesus, words meant to encourage people to pray always and not to lose heart. Jesus says, if a wronged widow, someone with no standing, can get justice from a corrupt judge, surely your petitions for a just world will receive a much more favorably hearing. Surely God will not delay too long.
Then Jesus ends his teaching with a rather strange statement. “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" Clearly Jesus is speaking of something other than simple belief. He seems to think that faith includes praying continually for justice and not giving up, not losing hope.
Author and Presbyterian pastor, Eugene Peterson writes, “Prayer is subversive activity. It involves a more or less open act of defiance against any claim by the current regime…” I’m not sure this applies to prayers asking to win the lottery or the baseball game, but the Lord’s prayer…
God’s kingdom come; God’s will enacted on earth? But I’m heavily invested in the world as it is now. I’m fine with some improvements, with making it a little fairer and such, but God’s reign?
“When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" Here Jesus speaks of faith as knowing that the kingdom – God’s new day where justice is done, all are fed, and the last are first – is more real and more true than the world we currently live in. But I refer to the world we live in as the real world. The kingdom is merely a wispy dream. No wonder Jesus doubts he’ll find faith when the kingdom finally does arrive.
Staying focused on a world transformed and made new, praying always for God’s new day, is difficult. I feels impossible sometimes. And so Christians have emphasized the kingdom less and less over the centuries, gradually turning faith into belief so that we get into heaven. But Jesus says faith is about longing and praying and hoping for heaven on earth.
In a world where children are bombed in Aleppo, cholera rages in Haiti, black lives are valued less than white, the rich get richer, and gun violence rages, it is hard to imagine that that the dream of heaven on earth is more real than what we call reality. But Jesus speaks of that as faith, and he calls us to live into the reality of that dream.
Many of you are likely familiar with the old John Lennon song, “Imagine.” It pictures a world nothing like the one we live in, a vision fundamentally at odds with what we say is reality. And Lennon’s vision is not so terribly different from the one Jesus labels the kingdom. For Jesus, this dream is so real that he not only proclaims it, he is willing to die for it. And the resurrection boldly declares that he was right.
Just prior to telling today’s parable, Jesus says that this kingdom already exists within us, among us. And Jesus calls us to take up our crosses, to live in ways that bear witness to the dream of God's new day, to subvert every current regime. Jesus calls us to pray for, to hope for, to work for the coming of God’s kingdom, the coming of heaven on earth.
Can we imagine such a thing? Can we imagine such faith? And if we can, will that reimagine our priorities? If God’s reality begins to break into ours, if that new day we pray for each Sunday, scarcely aware of the words we say, actually starts to take root in our hearts, might not that transform how and where we invest ourselves, how and where we employ our time, our energy, our treasure, our hopes, our dreams, our lives?
All praise and glory to God, who in Christ is making all things new, and who invites us to be a part of it. Thanks be to God!

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