Sunday, August 18, 2013

State of the Union

How do we discern the state of things, and how do we act on what we discern?

Proper 15c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Will the hearts of the prophets ever turn back — those who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart? They plan to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another. Let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully.

Article 2 of the Constitution of United States instructs that the President “shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” For just about a century — since the days of President Woodrow Wilson — this has taken the form of a speech delivered to a joint session of Congress, often with additional guests such as the Justices of the Supreme Court and the military leaders of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. By tradition the speech is delivered early in the year; and as the Constitution requires it normally consists not only in an assessment of the state of the nation, but also as a way for the President to give an outline of possible or desired legislation for Congress to consider.

All of our readings today present us with a kind of State of the Spiritual Union — about how things have been, how they are and how they ought to be. To carry the analogy further, all three of these readings are a bit like the speeches a President might make in wartime!

Jeremiah in particular delivers the word of an impatient Lord and God. Jeremiah lets the people know that God is not happy with the state of things: in particular not happy with those prophets who are relying on their dreams instead of upon his word. They are leading the people astray with their dreamy promises, and Jeremiah as much as says, “Who do they think they’re fooling? Don’t they know that I can hear every word they say?” “Who,” says the Lord, “can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? Do I not fill heaven and earth? I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name.” The spiritual state of things is unhealthy when those charged with speaking truth — for that is what a prophet is, or is supposed to be — when a prophet who is supposed to speak the truth is speaking lies; and God is not pleased with this state of affairs.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews has a more upbeat message — a message of encouragement for the church to persevere in the midst of difficulties. This writer does not play down the difficulties — in fact the whole first part of the reading is a catalog of how the great heroes of the faith of the past, men and women, persevered and endured in the midst of sometimes terrible persecutions and suffering — and still, in spite of that perseverance and heroic action, they did not receive the reward that is yet to be bestowed upon all who are faithful in running with perseverance the race that is set before them. This author pictures these heroes of the past as if they were the cheering section in a great stadium, urging the present participants in life’s struggles onward and upward with their cheers and their applause, the cheers and applause of that great cloud of witnesses. The state of the world, this author seems to say, is still full of peril and persecution, but the promise of the future is there, with Jesus who is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, and who has run the race before us and taken up his place at the right hand of the throne of God. And the agenda for action for the future, is to persevere and run the race with faithfulness, those of us who are still on our feet and running, with our eyes fixed on the prize, which we too can share if we run faithfully in the footsteps of Jesus, who has gone before.

Finally, Jesus himself has the last word, and he paints a picture of a state of things that is hard to hear. Just as the Lord spoke through Jeremiah and Ezekiel that it does no good to speak peace when there is no peace, so too Jesus assures his hearers that he has not come to bring peace to the earth, but rather division. And this isn’t just division such as we now seem to find inescapable — between Democrats and Republicans, between the rich 1% and the 99% of the rest of us, between people of different races, nationalities and religions — but this division will come right home, right into each household. Fathers and sons will be against each other; mothers and daughters will be against each other; and let’s not get started on the in-laws!

Then, with a rhetorical flourish, Jesus gets back to the state of things in an abrupt assault upon his audience — something no President would be quite so bold to do. (Although I do recall, not too long ago, a bold comment that I saw from one President in recent years, when President Obama, in a State of the Union address, disagreed with a ruling of the Supreme Court, and the cameras zoomed right in on one of the Justices angrily shaking his head and frowning!)

Well Jesus does more than shake his head and frown! Jesus gets on their case because they seem to be adept at speaking the truth about the future when it comes to trivial things like the weather, by interpreting the appearance of the earth and the sky; but they don’t seem to understand how to interpret the really important signs of their times. For it is these signs — the state of things — that will shape both their immediate future and the future of the world — the world to which Jesus has come not to bring peace but rather division.

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And are we any better? We are surrounded by those willing to debate whether global warming or climate change are real or not, or whether they are caused by human activity, as they see the signs of the ice caps melting and the waters rising and the storms becoming more severe. But how often do you hear anyone talking about the spiritual climate in which we live? For surely the signs are just as clear that there is a crisis in faith as much as there is a crisis in the climate. Prophets of prosperity keep sharing their dreams that all will be well — at least for those who are already well off — and some of them peddle their snake oil of “succeed by greed,” to a populace eager to hear good news for the few at the expense of the many, and so unwilling to open their eyes to the collapse of society around them. Politicians will wave a Bible in one hand, proclaiming themselves as virtuous believers, while advancing policies that turn away the stranger or the refugee, cut back help to the sick or the suffering, and take the means to find food and drink from those who hunger and thirst. And all of this while apparently forgetting the one who said that it was in welcoming the stranger, comforting the sick and the prisoner, and feeding the hungry, that you did it unto him. I don’t want to go all Jeremiah on them, but, “Woe to you, false prophets!” seems to be an appropriate thing to say.

What is the state of our spiritual union? Dare we look closely at the signs of the times in our own lives, and find there places that need that cleansing fire and washing baptism that Jesus promises to bring us? Beloved, Christ gives us the opportunity, while there is still time, to lay aside the weight of sin that clings so closely and obstructs our view from the realities before us. When we do this we will be able to run the race with perseverance and courage. Countless throngs have gone before us and they cheer us on. Listen — you can hear their voices echo in the walls of this church, you can see their testimony in its windows. They urge us on, my sisters and brothers in the faith, they urge us on in the call to a truly abundant life. May we have the courage boldly to proclaim what we believe, to run the race, and to claim the promise.+

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Living As If

Faith is living as if what you believe were true was true.

Proper 14c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
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.

A friend of mine, June Butler, lives in Louisiana, but she has visited here at St James Church. She writes on the internet under the name of Grandmère Mimi, at a blog called “The Wounded Bird.” Her slogan there is, “Faith is not certainty so much as it is acting as-if in great hope.” That strikes me as a profound way of expressing a simple truth.

For faith is not certainty. It is not about something which you know for a fact to be true, but something you believe to be true, something you hope to be true. What’s more important, our faith and our hope are proclaimed by our acting accordingly, acting “as if” what we hoped for were a certainty. As the author of the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” It is about assurance and conviction, not certainty. These two qualities reflect the outward and the inward aspects of faith. We receive assurance from the outside: from the faithful testimony of fellow-believers, and from the experiences we ourselves have; and these outward experiences ratify and confirm and strengthen our inward faith, our conviction of things not seen.

This echoes a line in Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans. He writes, “Hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?” Hope is about what you do not have, but which you believe you will have some day. It is based on a promise, a promise from one in whom you believe, in whom you place your trust, strengthened by your experience and the testimony of others.

Faith is, then, about things you believe to be true, but which you cannot prove to be true. Yet still, through that assurance and conviction, you hope that they are true, and you live your life “as if” they were true.

This is a bit like the principal called “Pascal’s Wager.” Pascal was a seventeenth century scientist and mathematician, and also a very serious and devout Christian. (It is good to remember that science and faith need not be enemies!) As a founder and developer of probability theory Pascal also scored a point for God. In his“Wager” he posed the question this way: either God exists or God doesn’t exist. If God exists, and I live my life in accordance to that belief, I stand the chance to gain life everlasting. If in the end it turns our that God does not exist, I haven’t lost anything. So wise people will bet on God existing, and live “as if” God exists — for by doing so they might gain everything, and if wrong they definitely lose nothing. This may strike you as a calculating way to come to some kind of faith; but then, Pascal was a mathematician: his faith was not based on certainty, but probability, common sense, and hope and trust.

Let me give you another example, about that little phrase, “I believe...” You would not normally use that phrase to describe something about which you are absolutely sure, some incontrovertible fact, some certainty. I would not, for instance, say, “I believe this is Saint James Church” or “I believe that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.” In fact, I would normally use the phrase, “I believe,” as a way to indicate — paradoxically — that there is some slight doubt or insecurity in my mind concerning the accuracy of a given fact. “I believe so” is a way of expressing a personal opinion, perhaps even a strong one, but with the possibility that it might just be mistaken. It is a way to indicate a degree of fuzziness, as when someone asks me if they can catch a #9 bus on a given corner and I say, “I believe so.”If I were absolutely certain, if I knew the bus stopped right there, I would just say, “Yes.”

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Now, of course, this doesn’t mean we should dwell on the doubt or in the doubt. With Pascal we are encouraged to place our bets on God rather than on Not-God. We are called to rest in trust and hope, and frame our lives “as if” what we believed were true for a certainty was true for a certainty — putting our faith in our faith, our hope in our hopes, and our trust in the one whose promises are sure.

Abram does just that in the portion of Genesis we heard today. God promises him not only that he will have an heir, but will have more descendants than there are stars in the heavens. But God does not show him a vision of the children who will flow from him, the offspring of this father of nations. Nor does Abram demand a sheaf of birth certificates for proof — long form or short. No, Abram trusts God who shows him the stars themselves, and challenges him to count them, and promises him descendants more numerous than they. It is as if God were saying, Can not I, who created all these, and set these countless stars in their places in the heavens, can not I fulfill my promise to you and make you the father of many nations? And so Abram believes — not because he has seen his offspring, but because he has seen God’s greatness, and his hope has been rekindled by God’s promise — God whose faithfulness is great — and the Lord reckons it to him as righteousness.

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Jesus makes a similar promise to his disciples in the gospel passage we heard this morning. He also tells two parables about the nature of faith — to show that it is about acting “as if” — trusting in what we believe is true even when there is no certainty or proof that it is true.

One parable is about being careful: you can’t tell when a robber might rob your house, but you believe it could happen — so you always act as if it could happen at any time, even though it might never happen, if you are lucky! As with Pascal’s wager, even though your home may never be burgled, you are prudent enough to have proper locks on your door, and maybe even an alarm system from ADT. So we act as if the thief might break in and steal, to be prepared for this possibility, even if a thief never breaks in and steals.

Now, that’s not an entirely happy parable, as we certainly don’t hope our home will be broken into, but just the opposite. But given what Jesus also has to say about where our treasure should be — in heaven — there is also a happier lesson in all this. Let’s apply Pascal’s principle to it: if our true treasure is in heaven, and if we act that way, living our lives as if all that mattered is our eternal home with God, we would need fear no earthly thief, no loss of earthly treasure — for our hearts truly would there be fixed upon the life of hope and trust and faith in the one whose promises are sure.

We get a glimpse of that trusted one himself in the other parable Jesus tells in the passage this morning: the one that describes servants waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet. They do not know when he will return, but they believe that he will return. If I were to ask one of them, “Is your master going to return?” they would rightly answer, “I believe so.” But were I to ask the hour of his return, they would rightly say, “I don’t know.” And so they act as if: as if their master might return at any moment; for in fact he might return at any moment, even though he only will return at one precise moment, the moment he actually arrives — and blessed are the servants who have acted as-if all along and so are prepared to welcome him.

This is what living life “as if” is all about — being prepared for the surprising arrival of the one whose return is promised, and whose promises are sure. This is the substance of our hope, our trust, and our faith. My brothers and sisters in Christ, are you with me on this? I hope you are, I trust you are, and I’ll bet you are!+