Keeping, Strengthening, Faith

Lamentations 3:19-24, Hebrews 11:1-3, August 6, 2017


“Keeping, Strengthening, Faith” The Reverend Doctor Thomas C. Willadsen, First Presbyterian Church, Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Lamentations 3:19-24, Hebrews 11:1-3. August 6, 2017

It’s good to be back.  I was away last Sunday, returning from Synod School at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa.  Synod School is one of the best events our denomination puts on.  It is both restful and stimulating.  At least it was for me this year.  I paced myself.  There are so many great events that it’s easy to get worn out. 

I spent the week leading a class called “Bible Read Aloud.”  That’s just another name for Brown Bag Bible Exploration.  There were seven students in the class.  We met three different places on campus and had conversations about what we saw and heard in the Bible.  I was frankly surprised when the Synod School planners accepted this idea for a class.  Once everyone understood that their opinions were important, and their questions were gifts they give to their classmates we dove right in to the Bible. 

At the start of our second meeting, I asked my students what the opposite of fear is.  I asked the same question on Facebook late in July, and also in worship Sunday I left for Synod School.  The eight of us in my Synod School class came up with eight different answers: confidence, happy, joy, safety, love, fun, security & trust.  Eight people, eight opinions.  Even for Presbyterians that was a lot of variety!  I asked whether they felt like they had to choose a word that no one else had chosen and they said no.  Altogether there were 33 different answers from just 83 responses.  Trust had 12 votes; hope and peace were next most common answers.

I realized, and I hope you are realizing now too, that faith is complicated, but also extremely personal.  I have said before that I believe the opposite of faith is certainty.  And also that it is certainty, more than anything else, that makes believers in all kinds of religions commit acts of violence and terrorism. 

When the idea about a sermon on faith was proposed, I immediately thought of the passage that Hillory read from Hebrews: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  I can’t think of another word in the Bible that is defined as one would find a definition in the dictionary.

One of the courses I took at Synod School was on the Reformation, especially the contributions John Calvin made to the Reformation.  One point that really got me thinking was that Calvin, like the other leaders of the Reformation understood God to be sovereign and free.  Imagine God Almighty, ruling from on high.  I’ll give you minute to get that concept in your imagination.  Now imagine that God’s sovereignty is made manifest by Christ, dying on the Cross.  What kind of sovereignty is that?  How does it feel to have faith, or put your faith in, Christ on the Cross?

Madeline L’Engle gets at this concept of faith, “Our faith is a faith of vulnerability and hope, not a faith of suspicion and hate.”

I thought that asking people for the opposite of fear might lead us to a definition for faith, but I found that it’s more complicated than that.  I fear tornadoes, I have as long as I can remember, when I have nightmares they are usually about tornadoes.  “Security” might be a good opposite for that kind of fear.  If I fear going to my boss and asking for a raise, perhaps “audacity” would be a good answer.  What about the fear one feels in those stressful moments between being diagnosed with cancer and hearing about treatments and starting them?  I’d go with hope as that kind of fear’s opposite.  Which is different from hearing that someone you love has been diagnosed with cancer.

The concept of faith isn’t just complicated, as one of my Synod School teachers said, “It’s messy!” 

So I’ve got a few images for you to think about this morning, a few questions that I hope will help you imagine faith in new ways, and experience faith more strongly.

First, think of faith as a gift from God.  John Calvin believed that our ability to love God and to live in faith is God-given. God gives us faith, God is the object of our faith, and our ability to feel and live in faith are gifts from God that have been deep within us our whole lives.  So let me ask a question, “Do we have faith, or does faith have us?”

Second, think of faith as a muscle that gets stronger the more one uses it.  Look at your life with eyes of faith, and experience life lived on a foundation of God’s love for you, and God’s faith in you. 

Third, you heard that right: God has faith in you.  In one sense you can think of that literally, that, as Calvin said, faith is in you from birth.  It’s original equipment. But God also trusts and loves you deeply.  Think of faith as a two-way street.  We express this faith every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, “thy will be done…”

Fourth, another way to imagine faith is as a plant that needs to be tended.  Gardeners know that plants need sunlight, water, air, time, soil…lots and lots of different things for them to grow in healthy ways.  Perhaps our faith also needs to be tended, and tended in a variety of ways. 

Fifth, Jeremiah, the author of Lamentations expressed a kind of faith that almost sounds defiant to me.  This is from The Message:

 God’s loyal love couldn’t have run out,
    his merciful love couldn’t have dried up.
They’re created new every morning.
    How great your faithfulness!
I’m sticking with God (I say it over and over).
    He’s all I’ve got left.

More than any other prophet, Jeremiah expressed how difficult, stressful, painful being God’s spokesman was.  He suffered when he foretold destruction for the Israelites, and he was mocked when he spoke of God’s coming restoration.   In the midst of the aptly named Book of Lamentations, Jeremiah finds words to express a desperate kind of faith.  I have heard many, many people express that they have felt God’s promise and strength most intensely when they have been in the midst of tragedy. Perhaps that’s because we are most aware of God in our lives when we most need God in our lives.  Does God reveal Godself more clearly, or are we more able to experience it because of the clear focus that fear forces on us?

Sixth, faith is dynamic.  We’re alive; God the Creator is alive; the Holy Spirit I alive; and Christ is alive. My formation class teacher called The Trinity "The Eternal Committee Meeting."  Faith can only grow, change and respond.  The faith you had as a child is different from the faith you have at age 25 and age 85.  Faith can never be “done” or “complete.”  Don’t just give yourself room to grow in faith, expect to grow in faith.

Seventh, and finally, faith has a social component, I found this definition of faith in the Christian Century last month: “Faith moves the believer out of self-preoccupation and into trusting God and regarding the neighbor with love.”

This final thought led to very interesting conversations both at Synod School and Bible Exploration.  Someone in Iowa asked, “Can one have faith in a silo?”  She didn’t mean in the building you see on farms, she meant in a place of isolation, cut off from other believers.  Does one need a community to have faith?  To strengthen faith?  To deepen faith? 

I mentioned before that faith is a two-way street, God has faith in us.  Think of that as a vertical dimension of faith.  But think also about how we live our faith.  We worship together.  We pray for each other.  Many of us serve on committees, on the Board of Deacons and on the Session, all of which are ways we tend and maintain the Church.  Those are all ways we express our faith, ways that we live our faith, ways that we put our faith in action.