A Crisis of Faith: Playing the Divine Lottery, 3/8/2020

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The Rev. Clarence on 2 Lent, 8 March 2020 C
Genesis 12:1 – 4; Romans 4:1 – 5, 13 – 17; John 3:1 – 17

We are now 10 days into Lent, that period during which we consider deliberately our faith in an unseen and intangible God.  And ten days in, I find myself in a dilemma.  I had this week a crisis of faith.  I questioned not whether my special prayer to God had reached God, for we are taught that even in our silence, God knows our innermost thoughts.

Herein lies my dilemma.  For two dollars, I purchased this week a MegaMillion lottery ticket.  I am told those two dollars will go towards education in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and, as a staunch advocate of public education, I prayed to God that my $2.00 would reach those needy children.  However, those two dollars promised me even more if I but had faith.

I forgot quickly about the children.  I began to dream about all the things that I could do with my winnings: I itemized the schools and colleges that would receive a donation for scholarships, medical schools that would receive support for research against sickle-cell anemia, breast cancer, HIV virus.  I even thought about underwriting the repairs of our stained-glass windows.  I was feeling really virtuous.  My chest was bursting with pride that I was to be generous, as was expected of a person of faith.  I pointed out to God that, if someone had to win the money, why should it not be me, someone who would share the winning?

Well, not only did I not win, neither did I did get even one of the five numbers.  Moreover, no one whom I knew could assure me that some child, somewhere, would get my $2.00.  But that was not the basis for my crisis of faith.  My crisis was this: God had turned a deaf ear to my plea!  And lo! I have become, as the psalmist says, the derision of those who know me, and of those who say, “Behold!  He has called on his God, but God did not answer him.”  I have become a living example that Christianity is a bust!  I have become the poster boy for those who say, “Faith in God is a big disappointment.”  How can I continue to have faith, when God did not answer my pleas to become a millionaire?

Those two dollars reminded me that faith, trust in the belief that there is a God and that God intends for the Creation good things for those who believe in God, is a risky business.  Faith is not something for the religious faint of heart.  Faith makes one do strange things, where the immediate outcome is not necessarily that for which one hopes or imagines.

Ta256px-Molnár_Ábrahám_kiköltözése_1850ke Abram, for example, in today’s first lesson.  All of us would agree that Abram, at 75 years of age, had paid his dues.  Retirement is the order of the day.  Who needs a calling?  Abram could have said, “God, I am a senior citizen.  Let someone else do it.” and no one would have faulted him.  But God ignores his concerns and says instead, “have faith.  Trust me!!” Abram gets a change in his name and his descendants grow in number, as God had promised.

Abram, now Abraham won the lottery.  Sarah and Abraham, emboldened by the promise of a new land to call their own, discovered upon their arrival a land in the throes of a famine.  The land of promise turned out to be a land of desolation and death.  In fact, although I was not there, I can imagine Sarah turning to Abraham and saying, “Why in heaven’s name did you bring us out here, in our old age, when we had sufficient comforts in our native land?”  Lesson learned: if one can have faith only in that which brings comfort and ease, faith is shallow at best and hollow at worst.  God did not call Abraham to comfort, but to be instrumental in establishing a community that would right what went awry in Creation.  Abraham’s descendants misused their lottery inheritance.

God offered another lottery, a promise to liberate the Israelites from servitude, from slavery in Egypt.  The Israelites, led by the stuttering Moses, crossed the Red Sea under the mighty hand of God’s protection.  They were most assuredly filled with the excitement and enthusiasm of new-found freedom and the promise of a land of opportunity.  They believed that they had won the lottery, but they miscalculated, seeking their own comfort first, rather than seeking to build the community of equity.  The first week, even the first month, maybe the first year went well.  But then life set in.  Hunger and thirst set in.  The novelty of nomadic life wore thin.  Days became years.  40 years!

Faith is a risky business because, more often than not, we are called to leave that which is familiar and comfortable.  And so we must say to those who risk setting aside the familiar, that glancing back over one’s shoulder at that [which] is familiar, is all too human.  The adventure of leaving home and heading into an uncertain future always raises our anxiety.  Memory reminds us of our identity.  But nostalgia can cloud over our spirit of adventure and openness to receiving new things. Beginning a new job or program or ministry in a parish raises anxiety levels.  Our blood pressure rises when something different or foreign is introduced into our lives, for we do not like change.  But that is exactly what God challenges us to live through each day, even if only in minute dosages.  The word of and from God is to move on.  Do not stand still!

Faith, being open to the possibility that God may have plans for us [that] are different from the ones [that] we propose for ourselves, that kind of faith makes one do things that a cool calculation would otherwise deny.   And that is the beauty of the story of Nicodemus as described in our gospel today, Lent II.   Occasionally, the preacher of the day will deride Nicodemus, cite him for cowardice, because he sneaked out after dark, in order to have an encounter with Jesus.  Well, I rather like Nicodemus.

NiJesus_and_Nicodemuscodemus was a leader of those in power.  The writer of John’s gospel calls him “a leader of the Jews,” a term used by John to signify the upper crust, for let us not forget that Jesus Christ, the Messiah of God, was himself by ethnic birth a Jew.  John had no need to play the lottery, to wish for greater comfort, more wealth, or to curry favor.  What Nicodemus had was a curiosity, a desire to discover, to get to the bottom of rumors, good rumors of a man outside his circle.  Nicodemus recognized that he was not certain who this Jesus was.  He, Nicodemus, did not yet have faith in the movement.  Nicodemus, precisely because he was a leader of the upper crust, the ruling elite, had an obligation to see what the commotion was about.

Nicodemus risked his status in the community.  He risked being outed by the paparazzi camped on his doorstep.  He gets to Jesus and comes away convinced of the rightness of his cause.  The Divine Lottery is offered again, to those who would play.  What moves me most about Nicodemus is his inquisitiveness and the very real statement that God makes through him: there is more than one way to get to the Messiah, for God who sees in secret will reward openly.  We are the descendants of Nicodemus who dared to play the Divine Lottery.

Nostalgia can insulate us from the opportunities of the present and obstruct our view of the possibilities of the future.  Sometimes, in retrospect, we can see God’s wisdom and trace the straight line of God’s intent through the crooked paths of our lives.  But at the time, the divine blessing may not be clear, and God’s wisdom is hidden from our eyes.  Our “yes” to the call is a risk of faith.  Nevertheless, none of us would be here today had Abraham and Sarah not risked believing that promise that “God has greater plans for us than we can imagine, and that God was offering the crucifixion and resurrection as the means of realizing those plans.

Where would our great institutions of learning be if their morally imperfect founders, holders of slaves and indentured servants, had not had faith and taken the risk of investing their talent [and] monies, [which] could have been used for their comforts, in faculties, students, buildings, laboratories, if they had not had a faith that propelled them away from complacency, but instead into the future, [if they] had not had a faith that allowed them to bear the brunt of inquisitions and derision?

It is uncomfortable, but true that as soon as we settle down and stop risking, our spirit diminishes.  It is uncomfortable, but true that when a church settles for the traditional because it is safe and feels good, and is unwilling to explore the frontiers of theological thought, it ceases to be a community of faith, and becomes an entity solely of archival interest.  Jesus put it rather bluntly: “If you lose your life, you will find it.  But if you hold on to your life, you will lose it.”

It seems to me that if we Christians are to claim, even reclaim, that right to speak and act as Christians in our era, in our modern times, and not allow another large or small vocal group to say who can or cannot be Christian, we must be willing to take a risk[. A] risk that says Jesus has called us to go beyond our selves, beyond our limiting and limited thoughts and structures, into a world of possibilities where we may not always be comfortable[. W]here uncertainty may [be] the currency of the day but where, at the end of the day, God will still be God, there to assist us as we move toward God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven.