18 Pentecost: “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead.”

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Guérison de dix lépreux, 
by James Tissot

From the Rev. Clarence E. Butler
13 October 2019 C

The issue before the house this morning is faith.  This should come as no surprise to you, for after all we are in church, the one place where the lessons read in liturgy and the preacher of the day should address the issue of faith.  We have faith in many things: that the bridges and viaducts over which we travel are safe.  And why is that?  Because the women and men who designed them and who inspect them and who repair them are properly trained and certified.  That the food which we eat or the water which we drink is not hazardous to our health.  And why is that? Because trained men and women have given to regulatory agencies guidelines that monitor harmful microbes.

 

 

 

By Phillip Medhurst -  Photo by Harry Kossuth, FAL,

By Phillip Medhurst –
Photo by Harry Kossuth, FAL,

The question, though for me in the context of religion, is this: How do we acquire that intangible entity which we call faith?  In matters religious, what criterion undergirds our faith, that there is a God?  How can we access that criterion?  That is to say, how do we come to acquire that thing, that entity?  Is that criterion as tiny as a mustard seed, as the gospel lesson from last Sunday suggests, when the disciples asked Jesus to increase their faith?  Is there a path which will assure us that we will become experts in faith?

I suggest to you, what each of you intuitively senses, that there is no singular path, no one travel guide, that defines and shapes our journey into or toward faith.  Let me put the issue this way: we are taught, and we know from experience, that each of us is uniquely made.  Except for identical twins, no one of us, no siblings in the same family, reared by the same parents, are alike.  And, now, among researchers, the question is being considered to what extent identical twins are truly and totally identical, for the one will like one flavor and the other another.

If, then, no handbook or no encyclopedia defines how one might acquire this nebulous thing called faith, surely I would not raise the matter, if I did not have a suggestion, “my” suggestion, as to how we come to have, to develop, and to maintain our faith.

If we look objectively at the Old Testament lesson, we are reminded that the acquisition of and retention of faith in God is not an easy undertaking.  Jeremiah informs us of a God who deliberately lets his chosen people be taken captive into exile.  And if that were not severe enough, what does that God do?  God tells those folks to marry, reproduce, and pray for the welfare of their new location, for they may yet enjoy benefits there, even under their servitude.  Who can have faith, when they are so far removed from home?  Perhaps, though, a better question to ask might be: What caused them to be taken captive and into exile in the first place?  Did they desert God, or did God desert them?  Did God weaken their faith?  Did God destroy their belief in their role in creating a more perfect union among humankind?  Or did they individually and communally misstep?

That appointed for today’s gospel reading brings also into question another question of faith.  Is faith in God limited to one tribe, one culture, one nation?  One of the ten sufferers of leprosy—all ten of whom were cured and sent back to the priests of the temple or synagogue, in order that they might be removed from the list of untouchables—one returns to Jesus, to give him an extra thanks.  Their faith in the healing power of Jesus was what had healed them.

May we assume that the nine forfeited their cure, because they did not return to give Jesus special thanks?  That their faith was less strong, that they proved themselves unworthy of the promise of God and God’s will that all should be whole?  Yet, did not all ten do exactly what Jesus had instructed them?  The point here is that an archenemy, a lesser person, someone outside the tribes of Israel, a Samaritan, returned.  Geopolitical powers were at play.   And, in the process, we are taught that faith in God could extend beyond the chosen.

This brings me back to the question before the house.  What directs us to and maintains us in our faith?  For me, faith is both personal and communal, in whatever setting, but especially so in the religious arena.  That one element, which is an intangible one, is memory.  It is remembering and relying on memory, on words passed on from generation to generation that undergirds and sustains our faith.

Because Paul is not my favorite apostle, I tend to afford him short shrift.  However, today, I give him his just due.  The key to faith is held in the opening words of today’s epistle: “Remember Christ Jesus, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel.” (2 Timothy 2.8)

I found myself this week in a supermarket, not an usual occurrence.  Like Saul on the road to Damascus, I heard this voice calling my name.  It was a female voice, a timbre not traditionally associated with God’s voice.  That alto voice belonged to a friend, the wife of a friend and former colleague.  She was all aglow with an experience which she had had while traveling.  And she could scarcely contain herself.

While visiting her brother at a church in New Haven, she introduced herself to a stranger who lived next door to the church.  When asked where she was from, she made the throwaway comment that she was from the Finger Lakes in New York State.  That stranger, whom she had encountered, was someone who knew me and my late wife, who was a former colleague of the woman in the supermarket.

We put our shopping on hold.  We, then, told each other stories of times past.  We reminisced.  We remembered.  She, now a non-churchgoer, remarked that in some inexplicable way, we are all interrelated and interconnected.  She stopped just short of saying, as I would say, that there is a Creator God to whom and by whom and through whom we are all connected.

But what about remembrances?  One of the purposes of remembering is to figure out who we are as a people, as citizens of these United States and as denizens of world.  We meet here each week in this sacred place as people of faith, in order to figure out who we are, and just as we believe that we have gotten it right, we are met with a new challenge.

Despite the wonderful strides which we have made in our natural sciences and in social sciences and in the humanities, so much of life is shrouded in the darkness of unknowing.  We do not know where we have come from, where we are going, or who we are.  Having our vision obscured by the shroud of unknowing is like being lost in the night of time.  But people of faith use memory to figure out where they have come from, where they are going, and who they are.  That is why we tell the stories of faith, time and time again.

We want to know about Abraham and Sara, of Isaac, Jacob, Ruth, and Mary.  We want to know about their journey of faith, because that knowledge may just help us to understand our own.  Of course, above all we want to know how, in the face of sometimes overwhelming difficulties and odd, they found God—or better yet, how God found them.  How did these people claim their destined legitimacy, and how do we claim ours?

The act of remembering is one of the most vital mental and spiritual disciplines we are called to exercise.  Without memory, we can hardly live the life of faith.  Some have chosen not to call that act of remembering faith, or to attribute those connections to a Creator God.  Yet, without memory, and above all, without faith in that memory, we have no connection to the past, no understanding of who we are or of where we have come from, no means of forgiving, or of loving, or of appealing to a merciful God who forgives us of our misdoings that haunt our memory.

Paul says to Timothy, “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead.”  That is to say, remember two things about Jesus: that he experienced death, and that he rose from the dead.  To that say, Christ experienced the same kinds of disappointments, fears, losses, pains, and heartaches that you and I feel.  The gospels have not shied away from recording some of them.

And so it is that Paul reminds us: In order to know, we have to remember.  Individual and communal memory assures us of something which we did not witness.  Our individual and communal memory allows us to believe that the Christian life is intended to be lived.  Ten were cured.  Nine proceeded to the Temple, as required by social and religious law, in order to be declared clean, a declaration which allowed them to reenter society, as productive members of their respective groups.  What that says to us is that our story is not over, until life is redeemed, and all our doubts and difficulties and bitterness are overcome by God’s triumphant grace.

Through that chance encounter at Stop and Shop, I was compelled to remember an earlier time in my life.  I was called to remembrance and through remembrance back to what undergirds faith.  Remember who you are.  Remember the story of faith—the faith of our ancestors.  It is in remembrance that we believe our eternal and glorious victory will be claimed by Jesus Christ, risen from the dead.

Amen

(Featured Image: Guérison de dix lépreux, James Tissot; https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/objects/4527)