Monday, August 09, 2010

Love, Belief, Faith, Trust, Hope: Action Words

Sermon on Proper 14 Year C, August 8, 2010 by Ken Lyon

The Readings

Genesis 15:1-6

The word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, "Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great." But Abram said, "O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?" And Abram said, "You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir." But the word of the LORD came to him, "This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir." He brought him outside and said, "Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your descendants be." And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.

Psalm 33:12-22 Page 626, BCP

Happy is the nation whose God is the LORD! *
happy the people he has chosen to be his own!

The LORD looks down from heaven, *
and beholds all the people in the world.

From where he sits enthroned he turns his gaze *
on all who dwell on the earth.

He fashions all the hearts of them *
and understands all their works.

There is no king that can be saved by a mighty army;
a strong man is not delivered by his great strength.

The horse is a vain hope for deliverance; *
for all its strength it cannot save.

Behold, the eye of the LORD is upon those who fear him, *
on those who wait upon his love,

To pluck their lives from death, *
and to feed them in time of famine.

Our soul waits for the LORD; *
he is our help and our shield.

Indeed, our heart rejoices in him, *
for in his holy Name we put our trust.

Let your loving-kindness, O LORD, be upon us, *
as we have put our trust in you.

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old-- and Sarah herself was barren-- because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, "as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore."

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

Luke 12:32-40

Jesus said to his disciples, "Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

"Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.

"But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour."

The Sermon

It is a Friday night in the spring of my sophomore year in high school. As usual, my school has a sock hop in the gym after the basketball game and I am there. There are some couples dancing to 45rpm records—some boy-girl and some girl-girl--but I’m hanging out with a group of guys who are, as always, trying to work up the courage to ask a girl to dance.

Tonight, something—probably the testosterone coursing through my veins--drives me to overcome my fear and ask a girl to dance. I pick out a cute girl standing just to the side of a gaggle of girls on the other side of the gym. I walk over, ask her to dance, and she says “yes!”

This turns out to be the first of many dances together. Soon, we are seeing a lot of each other. I begin to have some pretty strong feelings toward her; strange feelings that have got me doing some serious thinking.

Is this what people called “love,” I wonder? I know I’m feeling something! Am I now “in love?” Does this mean I should tell her I love her? That doesn’t feel right. I don’t want to say anything I don’t mean.

I don’t know who to credit for this, but somehow, I came to understand that loving isn't all about feelings, loving someone means wanting what was best for them—putting their best interests above my own. Love, I learned, is more than a feeling; love is something one does. Love is very different from that selfish feeling that only wants something from the other.

“Love” is one of five words in today’s readings that have a lot in common. The other words are belief, faith, trust and hope. For many people, these five words are about thoughts or feelings, but for the people that wrote them, and for us Christians, these are action words. Let me say it again: love, belief, faith, trust and hope are not just feelings or thoughts—these words are about decisions we make--decisions that lead to actions.

Let’s see where these words appear in today’s readings.

In Genesis, God comes to Abraham in a vision, saying (and I’m paraphrasing), “Don’t be afraid. I am on your side. Expect a great reward.” Typically, Abraham argues with God about his situation, and finally relents and believes in God, and God, in turn believes in Abraham. Abraham and God arrive at a bargain, as it were, a bargain that requires trust on both sides. Abraham can’t see how things will come out right for him, but he decides to trust God anyway, and God, for his part, knowing Abraham to be a very imperfect man, decides to put his trust in Abraham. This is a deal requiring faith on both sides.

Let’s look at the last three verses of the Psalm. I might paraphrase it thusly:

We wait in hope for the Lord, he is on our side.

Our heart is joyful, for we trust him.

We are sure of your steadfast love; for we put our hope in you.

There’s no need to paraphrase Hebrews. It starts: Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

In the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus says, "Don’t be afraid, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” In other words, God has already decided that you are under his care and living in a world where he rules--there’s nothing you need to—or can--do about it, so don’t worry. The words love, belief, faith, trust and hope don’t appear in this passage, but they certainly come up for me. How can I believe this? Can I trust Jesus when he says this? Does God really love us? Can I dare to hope that this promise is true?

These words, love, belief, faith, trust and hope are used so much in church that sometimes I think they lose their meaning for us. Let’s take a look at what they mean in our non-churchy lives and see if we can shed some light on what they mean when they’re used in church.

Let’s start with love. I’m many years away from being that teen-age boy, but I still believe what I learned then: that love is wanting and doing what is best for the other. But after 46 years of marriage, my understanding of the implications of that belief are, shall we say, more nuanced.

People in long-term committed relationships learn just how important this behavioral definition of love is. We learn that loving means deciding to behave in a loving way even when we don’t feel like it—even when the other has done something we find quite unlovable. And sometimes we are lucky enough to discover that behaving in a loving way brings back the loving feelings that may have momentarily gone away. The feelings follow the behavior.

So, love is a decision to act.

Let’s take two more of those powerful words: belief and faith. Sometimes we say we believe something when we have absolute proof of its truth. For example, we say we believe that the sun will rise tomorrow. We say we believe that if we jump off a tall building, we’ll fall and probably die. But we also use the word belief to mean about the same thing as faith, and that’s the meaning I’m talking about today.

Faith or the kind of belief I’m talking about today both involve making a decision about the future in the absence of logical proof or material evidence to support that decision. In other words, if we have proof of something, it’s not faith.

Having faith in a person means deciding to behave as though we were certain of that person’s future actions.

Have you ever said “I have faith in you” or “I believe in you.” We don’t usually say that unless there’s some real possibility that we might be wrong. So when we say “I have faith in you”, we’ve made a decision to trust, in spite of our fears that we might be wrong.

We can have faith in an idea as well as in a person. Faith in an idea means acting as though that idea were true.

For example, most people believe in or place their faith in the idea of fairness, that is, of acting in a way that’s fair and equitable to all involved. I don’t think that anyone has proved that being fair guarantees anything other than, perhaps, the knowledge that we tried our best to act fairly. But we try to be fair to those around us anyway, and that’s an act of faith.

Many of us here at Grace Church believe in or place our faith in the idea that being a member of a diverse group is better than being a member of a group of people who are all alike. Again, I’m not sure that anyone has proof that diversity is to be preferred over uniformity. But we place our faith in diversity anyway--we decide to act as though we believe it. That’s an act of faith.

One of the things I picked up in Education for Ministry is a shorthand way of describing the idea that faith is a decision. “Faith is acting as though you believed.”

People familiar with 12-step groups may have heard the same idea expressed as: “Fake it till you make it.”

So if anyone asks you how they can have faith, simply tell them to figure out what they want to have faith in, then act as though they believed it, and trust that the feeling of faith will come.

So, belief and faith, like love, are also decisions that lead to actions.

How about that word “trust?” We trust someone when we decide to act like we have confidence that someone will fulfill their promises. So, trusting someone is a lot like having faith in someone or believing in someone. And again, as with the words belief and faith, the word trust often doesn’t come up unless there’s been some thought that trust might not be justified. We don’t say, “I’m going to trust you” unless there’s been some thought that things might be otherwise.

Trust, like love and belief and faith, is a decision that leads to action.

Finally, there’s that word “hope.” The letter to the Hebrews used the word hope to help define faith: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” That sure makes hope sound a lot like these other words. Hope, too, is a decision about the future without complete assurance.

In our everyday lives, we do have hopes, and we do dare to act as though our hopes as though we knew they were going to come true. For example, we go to school or send our kids to school in the hope that knowledge will have value in the future. If we didn’t have that hope, we’d find something else that was lots more fun. Another example: a couple who hopes for a child may set aside a room for a nursery and will it with things for the expected child even before there’s any evidence that a child will be given them.

When I came to this church, I was awe-struck by the architecture and mystified by the liturgy with its strange words and music with all its standing, sitting and kneeling. But something attracted me, and I joined in the hope that there was something there for me. And my hope was fulfilled beyond all expectations. After 30-plus years of participation, I can say that I’ve been led to spiritual places that I never could have imagined.

Hope, like love, belief, faith and trust, is a decision that leads to action.

You’ve heard it said, “Love makes the world go round.” I’d say that not only love, but also belief, faith, trust and hope are what make this world work. The world would grind to a halt pretty quickly if people stopped acting on their faith in an unknown and unknowable future.

Without trust that you’d get paid, why work? Without faith in another’s love for you, why commit to a relationship? Without hope that knowledge will make your life better, why bother to learn anything? Without faith that you’ll live past noon today, why get up at all? The fact that most everybody finally gets out of bed each day is evidence that most everybody has some faith, some belief, some trust, some hope.

I like the phrase, “keeping the faith,” because it emphasizes the behavioral aspect of faith. Let’s ask the question: what does “keeping the faith” look like?

Keeping the faith with someone means that when you hear them being dissed, you stand up for them. My mother-in-law is a great example of someone who keeps the faith with her family. I’ve heard what she says about people who mistreat any of her children, and I hope never to be on the receiving end of that!

Keeping the faith with someone means deciding to act as though we care for them; to act in their best interest.

In our daily lives, we keep the faith with our family, our friends, with organizations we have made a commitment to, even with our country.

Keeping the faith also applies to ideas. We may keep the faith with the idea of diversity by deciding to make sure that a person who tells a racist joke understands that there’s at least one person who doesn’t agree. We may keep the faith with the idea that all people are God’s loved children by deciding to resist the temptation to treat all Muslims as untrustworthy terrorists.

Now, I’d like to talk about how these words, love, belief, faith, trust and hope, might apply to this church—this congregation at Grace.

As for me, I believe in Grace Church as a diverse vibrant loving spiritually growing community, situated in an inspiring building, using liturgies that lead us places we couldn’t imagine. I have faith that this community will be worshipping in this space for years to come. I hold to the hope that by being the people God has called us to be, others will be drawn into our community. And I trust that God will be with us, loving us, no matter what happens.

And I choose to act, as best I can, as though that love, that belief, that faith, that trust and that hope were true.

What faith do you have in Grace Church? What have you decided to trust in? How have you decided to express your love for this church and its members? What hopes do you have, and how have you decided to act on those hopes?

These are questions we all need to be answering. We need to be answering them first for ourselves individually, and then we need to be sharing our answers with others. By sharing these things, we will discover the essence of our common or shared ministry at Grace Church. This is what we’ve been working toward over the past several months with those Common Ministry workshops and those surveys.

Love, belief, faith, trust and hope are powerful words. For some people, these words represent feelings or thoughts, but for the people that wrote them, and for us Christians, these are action words. When our love, belief, faith, trust and hope show up in our behavior, that is when they have real meaning for us and our world.

Let us close with the last three verses of today’s psalm.. Let us read responsively, breaking at the asterisk:

Our soul waits for the LORD; *
he is our help and our shield.

Indeed, our heart rejoices in him, *
for in his holy Name we put our trust.

Let your loving-kindness, O LORD, be upon us, *
as we have put our trust in you.

No comments: