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About Faith

A message preached by Jay P. Rowland at the First Presbyterian Church, Rochester MN on Sunday August 7, 2016.

Text: Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

About Faith

This faith community otherwise known as First Presbyterian Church of Rochester MN has had a presence here in this city since 1861.  As I thought about this scripture passage, I found myself wondering if people who don’t know anything about this church are interested to know how long “we’ve” been here.  My mind answered that what might be more interesting to such folk is what it is we say about ourselves (what it is we’re doing here).  Chasing that idea, I went to our church website.  On the home page, in the box that says “Welcome to Our Church” if you click on “read more” then scroll down below a picture of the lovely exterior of this church, there it sits.  The word Mission.  Ours is “to help people on their spiritual journey rely on God as they (we) face the difficult and demanding questions of life.”[1]

As we all know, lately there has been quite a few difficult and demanding life questions (perhaps ongoing crises is more accurate) in the forefront of life.  Crises which have been harming people in our society and in our world, not to mention the global threat posed by climate change. It may be an understatement to say that our mission has perhaps never been more important than it is right now. The words which the prophet Isaiah attributed to God regarding the situation at that time continue to apply to and underscore life in our world right now:

…  your hands are full of blood.

16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;

remove the evil of your doings

from before my eyes;

cease to do evil,

17     learn to do good;

seek justice,

rescue the oppressed,

defend the orphan,

plead for the widow.

…  19 If you are willing and obedient,

you shall eat the good of the land;

20 but if you refuse and rebel,

you shall be devoured by the sword;

the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Given all the racial tension and political tension and the daunting problems of terrorism and global warming, I’m wondering what I might say today that would help anyone on their spiritual journey rely on God given the difficult and challenging questions of life in our time—here in the year 2016.  Obviously I don’t think there’s anything I can say that would singularly help someone on their spiritual journey—but if I had to come up with one sentence, here is what I would say:

No matter who you are, where you’ve been, what you’ve done, you have a place in God’s kingdom.

I love to talk about (preach) the kingdom of God because that’s (to me) what Jesus spent most if not all of his time revealing and describing.  At the same time, I worry that the term (“the kingdom of God”) is so ambiguous (irrelevant?) to most of us in our daily life.  And that’s unfortunate.  Because, as I say, it’s what Jesus was (is) all about.  So, how might this … idea … become not merely relevant but real, visible, in such a way that it impacts how we think about and deal with the racism … terrorism … rape culture … injustice … global warming … or whatever is going on in your life that has you struggling to rely upon God and walk spiritually?

How indeed.  My answer is that the kingdom of God becomes visible (real) whenever God’s love, mercy, peace and justice revealed in Jesus Christ is reflected in our actions and our choices.   And so, our reflection of the kingdom of God here on earth really matters—more, I would say, than anything else we may say or do any given day.

God expects the good news to be known by everyone who does not yet know or believe it, or anyone who once believed it but life beat it out of them.

No matter who you are, where you’ve been, what you’ve done, you have a place in God’s kingdom.

God calls each and every one of us to do our part to share this good news–regardless of age, health, gender, race, creed or orientation.  What does it mean to “do our part”? To me it simply means that our actions and our choices reflect … point to … promote … God’s healing love, mercy, peace and justice as revealed in Jesus Christ.

The only problem, as we all know, is that on any given day or moment our actions and our choices contradict … even obstruct … rather than reflect and point to the love, mercy, peace and justice of the kingdom of God revealed in Jesus Christ.

But God provides a solution to this thorny problem.  The kingdom of God arrived here on earth with Jesus Christ.  And so, the “success” of God’s kingdom here on earth is not about what you or I or any of us say or do on any given day, it’s about our faith in what God says and does.

God’s solution is prominently on display in the excerpt we just heard from the letter to the Hebrews. Hebrews chapter 11 presents faith in human terms—specifically the experiences of Abraham and Sarah.  Like Abraham and Sarah we too endure periods of doubt and restlessness.  Hebrews 11 encourages us, like Abraham and Sarah, to live as much as we can like strangers in this world in order to avoid becoming distracted from the World that is coming to us, that is the kingdom of God–the coming reign of Christ, the City designed by God.

Nathan Nettleton says that one of the biggest stumbling blocks to faith is that sometimes people get faith confused with certainty.  Hebrews 11 declares that faith is “the assurance of things hoped for”.  That’s a far cry from certainty. Now we hope for those things that God promises: salvation, resurrection, eternal life, fulfillment, wholeness, reconciliation, etc.  Nettleton thinks that because of our preoccupation with CERTAINTY we tend to focus on the details of these promises rather than on trusting God the giver of the Promises.  And when that happens, we get lost.

Hebrews 11 reminds us that Abraham and Sarah set out not knowing where they were going. Can you imagine what that was like? Can you imagine doing such a ludicrous thing?  Nettleton: They did not do this because of their certainty about what the promised land was like. They decided God was faithful and would take care of the details so long as they stayed connected to God and each other along the way. What motivated their faith was not their understanding of theology, Nettleton notes, it was not because they could explain the concept of the atonement or get their minds around the trinity. It was not because they spoke in tongues or understood the signs of the last days. It was because when God said “go that way” they went that way believing that God would be faithful to them along the way.

Nettleton suggests faith isn’t (or shouldn’t be) about believing in God because God promises us that all will be well. He says it’s about believing that all will be well because we trust in God: “Faith is not the certainty about what we will find at the end of the journey, it is the belief in the goodness of God that assures us that the journey will be worthwhile.”  (italics mine)

Nettleton again: Our Christian faith is not only about opening the door to let Jesus into our life/heart — it is also about opening the door then going out and letting Jesus take us places.  Our church’s mission declares that this is something we can and must do together.  This is how we practice, how we make the kingdom of God more visible, more real; how we practice “reliance upon God as we face the difficult and demanding questions of daily life.  Being a member of any church is not a destination, Nettleton says. It is more like taking our seat in a vehicle that’s already going somewhere with people who are actively hungering and thirsting for God’s love and peace and justice to prevail in this world, people who follow Christ in seeking its fulfillment.

Faith is not about pretending that we will somehow avoid suffering, or agony or crisis.  Rather, it is the learned ability to live with life’s uncertainties without being crippled or hindered or burdened by them, or worse yet by FEAR.  Faith is about choosing to live with courage and boldness and integrity.  It is a way of being, a way of living, a faithful stance towards life in the company of Jesus and his people. This way of being and living, this faithful stance happens here whenever we gather around the word and table of our Lord.  The kingdom of God becomes visible every time we gather together here to worship the Lord and declare our faith … every time we gather here together to pray …  every time we come together here to eat and drink our faith … every time go from here to love and serve the Lord.  And so, once again, let us come to the Table, where Jesus himself meets us, nourishing us and encouraging us to rely upon God and one another as we face the difficult and challenging questions of life.