Sermon, 8/20/23: You’ve got to have faith!

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12 Pentecost

Psalm 133; Genesis 45:1–15; Roman 11:1–2a, 29–32; Matthew 15:10–28

“And hearing this Jesus replied (to the woman), ‘What faith you have!  Let it be as you wish!’ Matthew 15:28

If you were to visit a church in a country whose language you did not understand, it is likely that you could assume, with confidence I might add, that the prayers and songs of praise, as well as the preacher of the day are all engaged in discussion of or a display of faith, that one intangible element which is the glue that holds it all together. 

In our own liturgical tradition, reading as we have in recent weeks about events in Joseph’s life, whose faith and belief in God sustained him when his very life had been threatened.  All of St. Paul’s letters to the new budding Christian groups under his tutelage, including that one to the Romans, just minute ago read, give example after example of the need for fortifying one’s faith and what benefits come to those who have faith. 

And Matthew, who has recorded for us the nature-defying acts of Jesus, does not take a back seat to anyone, when it comes to describing or defining faith.  Setting aside for a moment, Christ’s declaration to the woman who had come to him on behalf of her daughter, or his comment to Peter who began to sink when he had doubts, the one example which has always intrigued me, in reference to the word “faith,” has been Christ’s use of the mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds.  I am not a farmer and nor do I claim to have a green thumb.  Yet, it is because of that little seed that I have a confession to make. Today, you are going to be privy to a conversation which I have often with myself.

My confession: It is often difficult, indeed extremely difficult being a Christian and maintaining a strong faith.  As a student of history, the events of these last several days now taking their place alongside others in our nation’s long and tarnished history, I confess my difficulty in maintaining faith.  How, so ask I myself, can people of faith, those who, like myself, claim the faith of Christ whose central and crucial message is one of love and respect for the dignity of every human being, enact violence and degradation upon others?  Is our faith the same?  Do we parse our belief differently in the crucified and risen Christ when Christ preached love and inclusivity?  Do we not share the same Book of Records, the Bible, which is unambiguous in who Jesus of Nazareth is?

When is faith not faith, but a theatrical slogan, a made-for-TV soundbite, employed to hide an inner hollowness, a stagnation which Matthew has captured in today lesson, recording Jesus Christ as saying, “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart. And this is what defiles.” (Matt. 15:18)      

One would hope that being a Christian and having faith are identical.  However, I am not so certain about that.  When I was younger, I used to marvel at those Christians who were so sure, so certain of their faith.  Theirs was almost a blind faith.  However, even as a teenager, I never had blind faith, and as I have grown in years, I have come to question whether blind faith is faith at all.  If blind faith is that which is required to be a true Christian, I fear that my belief in God, as learned from my childhood, is in jeopardy.  My faith is strong one day, so strong that I amaze myself.  Then on another day, I question where my faith is.  One thing is certain: I do not possess blind faith. 

Prior to the pandemic, professional offices provided patients with reading materials.  Today, the dentists and physicians “process” their patients.  Appointments are usually without delay, so that reading materials, which others had fingered, are not available.  However, pre-COVID, while waiting, I leafed through a magazine, and this is what I read: “There was this old timer who was given to quoting scripture and who said that he trusted totally in the Lord.  One of his favorite lines was “God will provide.”  Well, a hurricane was due to make landfall, and the authorities advised the old man to seek higher ground.  He responded, “God takes care of those whom he loves.”  Four hours later, as the river swelled and began to flood the man’s house, the authorities appeared in a motorboat and tried to convince the man to abandon his house.  He refused to leave, saying, ‘God is my rock and my salvation, of whom (or what) shall I be afraid?’  Sorry, God put me here and this is where I’m staying.”

Two hours later, the old man looks up into the sky because he hears a racket and there he sees a helicopter.  One of his would-be rescuers, using a megaphone, calls out to the man and even climbs down the rope ladder to beg the man to climb aboard the helicopter.  Yet again, the man rejects this offer of rescue.  He said, “God will provide.”  Well, the hurricane made landfall, the river flooded out the land, and the man drowned. 

When he got to heaven, the man reproached God, saying “God, I believed in you, I trusted you to save me.  Yet, you let me down.  You let me drown.  How could you do that to me?”  God responded: “Listen!  Three times I came to you, and each of those times you rejected my offer of help.  Who do you think it was who sent the folks to warn you the first time to vacate?  Who was it that sent the men in the motorboat?  Who was it who brought a helicopter to your rooftop?  You should be grateful that I admitted your sorry self into heaven, since you had such little faith in me.  For, it is also said of me, that God helps those who help themselves.”

I shudder when I encounter anyone who tells me, “I have not once doubted the existence of God,” or who tells me “Not once has my faith in God been shaken.”  I say to myself, can that person be a true disciple of Christ?  For heaven’s sake, even Jesus of Nazareth whom we call the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, had his moments of doubt, or at least the men who recorded our gospels teaches us so.  Every disciple, the crowds, those who journeyed with Jesus, those who witnessed firsthand the wondrous works he performed, had doubts, challenged him, deserted him at the moment of his crucifixion.

The question of the day regarding faith, yours and mine, comes from Jesus and is the same posed to his closest circle of disciples, after many others in the larger discipleship had left because, in their words, “This is a hard saying: who can accept it?” (John 6:60) The 5000 men, not including the women and children, had come, proclaimed Jesus of Nazareth to be the Messiah, had been fed, had had their physical needs satisfied.  However, they were not prepared to accept the simple command to love neighbor as self.  Like the inner circle, they claimed, “This is a hard saying: who can accept it?”  They could not accept that simple demand which had been placed on them. 

This is both a warning and an assurance for us.  The warning is that just because we follow Jesus today, does not mean that our faith will not be challenged, this afternoon, tomorrow.  We will falter and doubt.  Challenge and doubt come with the territory of faith.  Jesus came into their world to turn things 180 degrees and to ground them firmly in God’s way.  The assurance that faith, our faith, is grounded in the unchanging love of God, if we but believe, is given us in that beautiful tale of Joseph, the boy of the multicolored coat who became a man, and the retort of the woman who broke tribal and gender boundaries, not for her own sake, but for that of another human being, for her daughter.   

As much as we modern Christians would like to believe, Peter’s confession is not blind faith.  Peter’s confession of faith is a mustard seed sort of faith, as was that of the Canaanite woman.  It is not big at all.  It is a faith, though, that undergoes challenges and pruning, a faith that needs watering.  It’s a faith that does not like everything that she has seen or heard, or as she has been treated, a faith that keeps her from walking away.  

If we are honest, we confess to a faith that causes us occasionally to wonder and at other times to cause us to question.  Like Peter, those remaining 11 disciples, and the Canaanite woman, we have options, too.  You and I have before us some very difficult times.  Our faith does not allow us to ignore the moral and religious questions, with which we now find ourselves faced.  We are a Jesus people.  We are a people of faith.  The matter before us is how best to articulate and illustrate that faith in Christ?  To the world outside these sacred walls, we are the woman who came to Christ, not for herself, but for her invalid daughter. 

Faith addresses the hunger, embedded in our DNA from creation, that despite all that would engage us in battle and would cause us not to believe, that mustard seed of faith forces us to long for and to do the right thing?  That faith, which we often question, gives us confidence of life beyond what we can see and touch?  That faith, often challenged and often believed miniature and insufficient, that faith connects us to what is holy.

We know, as Christians, that blind faith is not expected of us, because a blind faith, turns the love of Christ into a me-ism.  We know that as Christians, as we ply the streets of our respective locales, we can call out to God, “Where are you?  Why don’t you help?  This is too difficult!”  And, if the biblical record is accurate, God does not reject us for any of this.  Instead, God listens and then speaks, often in the voice and actions of those least expected to be God’s messenger.  

To whom shall we go, when our faith seems to desert us?  With Peter, we can say, “Christ, I don’t understand you; I don’t even like you sometimes, maybe even most of the time, but in your words and actions, you have shown me what is essential to life.  We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”  Amen