St. Paul’s – Proper 14 – 8/7/22
Working with the Rio Grande Borderland Ministries, my experience is that immigrants come to America in the hope of securing a better future for themselves and their children. Once they arrive here they struggle for decades to accept themselves as hyphenated people — people who live in the liminal and often lonely spaces between homelands, identities, and cultures.
They have a passionate desire to belong, combined with a fierce need to stand apart. They have a yearning for a safe place to call home. The torn, divided gaze that marked them as foreigners — glancing backwards in nostalgia while straining forward in hope. Their will to shape a life worthy of the sacrifices, losses, hurts, and challenges that came with immigration. Their tireless conviction that more and better was not only a possibility, but a promise.
In our lectionary readings this week, the Biblical writers capture similar experiences of in-betweenness — experiences of loss and hope, exile and belonging. Directed by God, Abraham gazes at the night sky, trying in vain to imagine descendants as numerous as the stars, while his wife, Sarah, remains heartbreakingly barren. The Psalmist writes of those who hope in [God’s] steadfast love, even when that hope entails little more than patient endurance through famine, suffering, and death. The writer of Hebrews acknowledges that the heroes of the faith confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, seeking a homeland even as they toiled in exile, desiring a better country, that is, a heavenly one. And through the Gospel writer, Jesus describes faithful servants who wait for their beloved Master through the long watches of the night, hopeful that he will return home and reward their diligence — albeit at an unexpected hour.
Each of these readings describes the lives of the faithful. Each explores what faith looks and feels like in the world we actually live in. Abraham’s belief is credited to him as righteousness. The eye of the Lord is on those who trust him as their help and shield. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. The servants who put their faith in their Master’s return are blessed and rewarded.
Okay….the question this morning is: what is faith?
Many people were taught that faith was a matter of creeds and doctrines such as the Nicene Creed we say each Sunday. A matter of intellectual assent. To accept Jesus into my heart, to be born again….To accept Jesus into my heart was to affirm a set of claims about who Jesus is and what he accomplished through his death and resurrection. To enter into orthodox faith was to agree that certain theological statements about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the human condition, the Bible, and the Church, were true. When the Christians I knew spoke of growing in the faith, what they meant was that they were honing their doctrinal commitments. Making sure they had their theological ducks all in a row.
For me, this way of believing — this way of defining faith as an intellectual assent to precisely codified doctrines — has slowly but surely fallen apart. Not because I can’t agree, but because my yes, in and of itself, has not fostered anything close to the meaningful relationship I desire to have with God. If anything, the intellectual agreement has been a smokescreen. A distraction. A poor substitute for the real thing.
So again, what is the real thing? What is faith? As I’ve spent time with the lectionary readings this week, I’ve been struck by the fact that they affirm a definition of faith that my immigrant friends would understand. The texts describe the faithful as people who set out for new places, anticipate new arrivals, wait for big changes, and search for new homelands. In these texts, the faithful are nomads. They wander. They contend with a holy restlessness. They straddle the hyphen. They work for the transformation of this world even as they yearn with all their hearts for another.
Faith as it is described in Scripture is not, in other words, a destination. It’s not a conclusion or a form of closure. Faith is a longing. Faith is a hunger. Faith is a desire. When one gets right down to it…Faith is part trust, part knowledge, part following—-faith can;’t be reduced to a few steps; it is a way of life, the walk of a lifetime, one day at a time.
According to Abraham’s story, faith is the restless energy that pushes us out the door and onto the road in pursuit of the inheritance God has promised. Faith is the audacity to undertake a perilous journey simply because God asks us to — not because we know ahead of time where we’re going. Faith is the itch and the ache that turns our faces towards the distant stars even on the cloudiest of nights. Faith is the willingness to stretch out our imaginations and see new birth, new life, new joy — even when we feel withered and dead inside. Faith is the urgency of the homeless for a true and lasting home — a home whose architect and builder is God.
Likewise, according to Jesus’s parable of the diligent servants, faith is a posture of active, engaged alertness. It is the rightly aligned heart, the dressed-for-action body, the lit lamp on a dark night. It is the humble willingness to steward a house we don’t possess until its rightful owner comes home. It is the patient ability to wait on a Presence that has not yet arrived, to wait on a promise that has not yet been fulfilled. It is an overwhelming desire to welcome, serve, and nourish Jesus — whenever and however he makes an appearance. It is the daily business of living on our tiptoes, our eyes on the door, our hands ready at the knob for the Master’s joy-filled arrival.
By these definitions, the opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is complacency, apathy, resignation, and cynicism. The opposite of faith is falling asleep. It’s pie-in-the-sky, a disengaged acceptance of the status quo, a refusal to embrace holy restlessness as an incentive to work for a more just and loving world here and now. The opposite of faith is accepting anything less than the kingdom God wishes to give us. It’s hanging back and holding still when the call of God on our lives is to move. Story about Marta….
As a friend of immigrants, living at a cultural moment when immigrants are facing unspeakable hatred, contempt, and abuse here in the United States, I am particularly grateful that God loves the traveler, the wanderer, the foreigner, the exile. I love that those who embrace in-betweenness can serve as vital, living metaphors for the life of faith — contemporary parables for the Church’s growth and edification. I love that those who don’t belong are the closest to the heart and mission of God. And I love that the holy restlessness we feel as people of faith comes from God’s restless love and desire for us. The home we strain towards is the same home God is preparing for us right now, because it is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom. All we have to do is journey towards it. All we have to do is welcome it by faith.
Home At Last
Let us pray
O Gracious God,
whose lover’s quarrel with us
is our anguish, history, and hope,
we confess that too often we lack courage
to join your lover’s quarrel
with ourselves and the world.
We have not quarreled with power
when it’s used only for the privilege of a few
because too often we’re the privileged.
We have not quarreled with the cleverness
that twists truth into lies to profit some
because too often we’ve profited.
We have not quarreled with the arrogance
that dictates the dominance of one race,
or nation, or gender, or religion
because too often we’re the dominant.
Have mercy on us, heal us, Lord,
and deliver us from our self-promotion,
cowardice and lack of compassion.
Then empower us to be among those
who dare to do the things that are just and beautiful,
true and faithful, visionary and deeply joyful,
so we may be free and whole
and home at last, home where we belong,
home with our true selves
home with each other,
home in the human family
home with you, Lord God.