Follow Me

lonely_footsteps_in_the_sand_by_daila0701-d3ncbfdOur reading from Matthew chapter 4 this morning tells us how Jesus called his first four disciples – all fishermen; saying to them, “Follow Me.”

This puzzles me, because the first chapter of Matthew tells us that Jesus will be called “Emmanuel” – “God with us.” This speaks to how we see God as always right here, alongside us. Through Jesus-Emmanuel, we know God experiences what we experience. God feels what we feel. God knows birth and death just as we are born, and will someday die. “Emmanuel” is a statement of our equality before God. We are one of the many children of God standing alongside the first child of God, Jesus Christ.

So, how can the same Gospel teach that we are following behind Jesus (as the disciples were and at the same time walking with Jesus, our sibling, at the same time? Is Jesus our leader or our companion?

Now, how some interpret the idea that we “follow” Jesus troubles me. “Following Jesus” does not mean that we are desperately clutching at the hem of his robe to be dragged into Paradise. “Following Jesus” does not mean that we must adhere to some very specific interpretation of God’s Word or risk eternal damnation. “Following Jesus” does not mean we check our brains, or our hearts, at the door.

On the other hand, some people go a bit too far with the idea of Jesus as a companion. Yes, Jesus is Emmanuel, “God with us.” But, this does not mean that Jesus goes everywhere that we want to go. Jesus is our companion. But companions walk together. They support each other.

We do not slavishly follow Christ. But then again, we cannot expect Christ to follow us just because we want him to! And yet many, Fundamentalists and Progressives alike, believe exactly that: justifying their own particular perspectives as the only one that is blessed by God. (Well, except atheists, who just want you to believe their particular perspective!)  Many go further, claiming we’ll be blessed only if we have enough faith in what they believe. Really?

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Freedom

There has been a debate since at least the time of the Judges in Israel, more than three thousand years ago, as to where we should draw the line between Communal Faith and Personal Faith: Should our personal faith and practices take precedence? Or, should they be subservient to those of the community of which we are a part?

article-2544061-140565F4000005DC-472_634x667This morning’s reading from Luke is part of a sequence of parables that all have to do with how to live a life that reflects one’s devotion to the Torah; or, in other words, how to live faithfully.

At beginning of Luke 13 we read of Pilate murdering Jews at sacrifice and the deaths of others at the collapse of the Tower of Siloam; and the people ask “What sin did those who died need to repent of?” Jesus responds by teaching that we are not called to worry about others’ sins, just our own: and that repentance is an ongoing process, not a one-time event.

The remainder of this chapter contains the Parable of Mustard Seed, among other parables, in which we learn that the seeds of the Kingdom of God are all around us: hidden, but ready to spring forth in a wonderful way without warning, and that we cannot stop it.

All of these stories and parables are used here to show us how to live a faithful life – one that is conforms to the faith traditions, laws and customs of the community, or the Torah, which is far more than merely the Law. But, this morning’s story about the crippled woman, in the middle of this chapter, is unique in the Gospels, and presents a different lesson. …So, why is it here, in between these other two sequences of stories?

But first, let’s talk about Sabbath.

The Sabbath is a day of “Rest” although it’s hard to get agreement on what a “Sabbath Rest” actually is. All would agree that it is more than merely a day to not work. It is a break in the rhythm of our week, intended to get our minds and spirits off of the drudgery and challenges of life that we face each and every day. Sabbath is meant to give us room to reorient ourselves, to focus on what is really important rather than on what keeps us busy.

Many through the centuries have tried to enforce “Sabbath” practices through the law and stern teaching. The Puritans did so: forbidding all “nonreligious” activity on the Lord’s Day. Meals had to be prepared the day before; only the Bible and other religious texts could be read; and games and sports were banned.

The problem with this approach is that it enforces the appearance of Sabbath without necessarily making room for what is at its heart; and so for many, the Sabbath is a day of dread. Those who impose such rules, often even on those who are not of the same faith, are resented and sometimes even feared. Legalism supplants Grace; oppression overwhelms joy.

And, this is not just some long-ago quirk of our ancestors. Some of us may have ovens with a “Sabbath” setting, included so that observant Jews can have a hot meal without having to do the work of cooking on the Sabbath – it cooks itself. And, how many of us have been given a guilt trip at one time or another for not attending church on Sunday? Or worse yet, for going to a sports game, or even one of those godless rock concerts, instead?

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What is Faith?

Hebrews is unique, no other book in the Bible is quite like it. It reads like an old time evangelist’s sermon: full of color, movement, stirring imagery and ringing phrases that were meant to be memorable when spoken. We are familiar with many of those phrases, such as: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen” – and – “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” – or – “Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.” So then, what is Hebrews 11 teaching us about what “Faith” is?

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What is Faith?

 

It’s not a simple question.  For us, the answer to that question begins with Genesis … and never really ends.

As I’ve said before, Faith defines how we see ourselves, who and what we choose to have relationships with, and what we envision our end (and the eventual end of all Creation) to be.  Faith helps us make sense of the events and circumstances that shape us and our world.  It lays out a path for us to follow into the future.  Faith enables us to gaze into the infinite and the unknowable and find a place there for ourselves.  It helps us make sense of the mystery of God and the vastness and beauty of Creation.  And, it enables us to exist in a world of uncertainty and change.

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A lot has been written on the topic of Faith; not just the in Bible, but in everything from Hamlet or Pilgrim’s Progress, to Harry Potter and Star Trek. We admire those who have faith, and we honor those who die for their faith.  We seek to encourage faith in others, and our faith impels us to minister to those in need.  Faith is a powerful thing, and central to our existence, even though we may have a hard time defining exactly what it is.

 

The 11th chapter of the Book of Hebrews is a profound response to the question of “What is Faith?”  Hebrews is unique, no other book in the Bible is quite like it.  It reads like an old time evangelist’s sermon: full of color, movement, stirring imagery and ringing phrases that were meant to be memorable when spoken.  We are familiar with many of those phrases, such as: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen” – and – “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” – or – “Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith”.

Much of its Theology is subtle, but the delivery isn’t, nor was it intended to be. The author was addressing a community in crisis.  The people had lost their faith, and had no hope in their future.  The author intended to stir them up; re-awaken their faith; and help them reclaim God’s hope and plan for themselves, their community, and their future.

Chapter 11 is where the evangelist reaches the crescendo of their message.  I imagine them preaching it: arms waving in the air, voice thundering, starting each new thought with the ringing phrase “By Faith” …

By Faith Abraham obeyed when he was called … (and)

By Faith he and his descendants dwelt in the land God promised them, even though they did not yet possess it… (and)

By Faith Abraham believed God’s promise of descendants, despite he and Sarah being far too old to procreate…

By Faith!

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A Message for All Ages: Faith with a Capital “F”

This example using a Dollar Bill shows how and why Christianity is a communal faith and not an individual one: that we are called to work together to make a difference in the world.

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Show a one dollar bill to your audience…

Question: What is it?

Possible Answers: A Dollar, Paper Money, etc.

Question: What is it worth?

Possible Answers: One Dollar!

Question: But it is just a piece of paper with some printing on it!  Why is it worth a Dollar?

…Your audience will (hopefully) get stumped on this one, because there is really no reason why a dollar is worth a dollar other than because everyone agrees that it is worth a dollar.

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Faith

Sermon presented at the Congregational Church of Grafton, MA, July 1, 2012.

Texts:

Mark 4:30-32 (Parable of the Mustard Seed)

Hebrews 11:1-7 & 11:32-12:2

What is Faith?  That’s not a small question.  In Christianity, the answer to that question begins with Genesis … and never really ends.  Faith defines how we see ourselves, who and what we choose to have relationships with, and what we envision our end and the end of Creation, to be.  Faith helps us make sense of the events and circumstances that shape us and our world.  It lays out a path for us to follow into the future.  Faith enables us to gaze into the infinite and the unknowable and find a place there for ourselves.  It helps us make sense of the mystery of God and the vastness of Creation.  Faith enables us to exist in a world of uncertainty and change.

Faith.  A great deal is expressed in that one tiny little word.  So, it’s kind of audacious to think we can have any sort of meaningful exploration of this topic and yet still have time to get to the Sox and Mariners game this afternoon.

A lot has been written on the topic of Faith.  Not just the Bible, but everything from Hamlet or Pilgrim’s Progress to Harry Potter and Star Trek.

We talk a lot about Faith too, saying things like “I have faith in Evolution” or “This (or that) strengthened my faith” or, “I lost (or I found) my Faith.”  But, we never define what Faith is, even though we talk a lot about how much of it we have, or need, or how to find it, or how to use it.

We also talk a lot about how important faith is to us.  We admire those who have strong faith, and we honor those who die for their faith.  We seek to encourage faith in others, and we minister to those in need as a product of what our own faith impels us to do.  Faith is a powerful thing, and central to our existence.

Yet, even though we talk a lot about what to have faith in; or, how to find faith; or, how to use our faith, we never define what it is.  It’s assumed we already know.  I’m not sure that’s a good assumption.

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