Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost – Year C
Sunday, August 8, 2010
Let us pray: O God we gather as members of the community of faith. Faith is an important part of the way we imagine our existence in the world. We guide our lives by faith and we strive to be more faithful in all the ways we live and serve. May my words help us to understand the relationship we have with you as your faithful people. Amen.
As I contemplated these passages this week, the reading from Luke's gospel was the one that seemed to speak to me most clearly. That's what led me to choose the title for this reflection, and I had ideas that I might begin with a reminiscence of my time as a Boy Scout which was extremely short, and my much longer history as a scout leader in the early 1980's. However, as the week went on, it was the passage from Isaiah and particularly the letter to the Hebrews that became more influential in my preparation, which as you've already heard is a little walk down the road of contemplation on the subject of faith. I will eventually end up at Luke's gospel, but first let's hear again, perhaps in slightly different words, what the author of the letter to the Hebrew says about faith:
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Not a bad description as I see it, for something that is often difficult to describe. As members of a community of faith one might expect that we would be able to describe with a fair degree of certainty just what it means to “have faith”, but I suspect instead that it would be a rather difficult and complicated thing for many of us to do, myself included. What does faith do for us, what questions does it help us to answer, what purpose does it serve as a component of the depth and breadth of the meaning of life? These are all questions that arise for me when I consider the topic of “faith”.
I think for many people faith has something to do with the future. Certainly a good portion of the Christian faith or Christian theology has been occupied with questions about the future. This is apparent in the writings of Paul – his early letters hinting quite directly at a soon to come end time and then as time progressed and the cataclysmic, apocalyptic event he expected did not seem to be so imminent, he changed his tone and wrote about these so-called end times with a much less sure and more ephemeral tone. One of the little jokes that occupied me and my fellow students in preparation for ministry, and a joke that like many jokes, belied a certain truth and perhaps an even deeper fear, was to be sure we had a clear statement prepared on eschatology when we encountered the people who were subjecting us to our final interviews before ordination. It took the form of a joke probably as much because of the sesquipedalian nature of the word “eschatology” - I think we just liked saying it – and pretending that we knew what it meant – when in fact the deep fear around the little quips and jokes was that we probably did not have much of a clue at all. At least that's one way of thinking about it. Eschatology which is about “end times” was and is an important component of any foray into Christian theology, but as we discover in survey courses – it was far more important to early Christians than it is to us who live some two thousand years later. A certain perspective is gained when something that is expected to happen does not. Paul found that out and as I've said, toned it down.
Of course, questions about end times is not limited to the Christian faith. Has anybody heard of the buzz that's been going around about the date: December 21, 2012? Apparently some interpretations of signs and writing from the Mayan culture point to that day as one which will have cataclysmic significance for the earth. I expect that more than a few millenialist Christians have cottoned on to the date as well. For despite the fact that many followers of the Christian faith have moved away from an eschatology which sees the end of the world as we know it, there are still a number of Christians who guide their lives by that kind of system of belief.
Well, some of you may have taken a glance at the title for this reflection and are now perhaps wondering if I count myself among that group. Let's just say that I'm not stockpiling canned veggies and fruit nor smoking an abundant supply of jackfish and lake trout to take to some backcountry enclave where I can wait out the apocalypse. And I'm expecting that we'll have figured something out to power our vehicles before the oil runs out.
But of course we don't know for sure and I know that it is in answer to these otherwise unanswered questions that we develop our systems of faith. And certainly the deepest question that faith attempts to answer is one about the meaning of life and beyond life what happens to us when we die. One might say that faith which includes a belief about the end of the world as we know it is just a taking of that concern to its ultimate conclusion. And regardless of how we ask and answer these questions I do know that they can be a source of great comfort and hope for us in the way we go about our lives in the here and now. And it is hope that I myself want to focus upon. For if I have a concern about some branches of the Christian faith and the over emphasised concern about so-called end times, it is that they are often an ultimately quite hopeless set of beliefs, offering hope only to a chosen few and perpetual condemnation for many more.
Is this what the passage from Isaiah today is about? Is this a passage which has the prophet telling the people that the jig is up, that they've had it, they are done for? Well, yes it certainly seems to be an angry – perhaps frustrated is a better word – God that Isaiah is asked to speak for. But you'll notice that the concern is not about end times for the people, but rather a call from God that the people should act more justly. While concern about the future is certainly a part of faith, it is also about the way we live our lives in the here and now. It is about creating a better future for others on earth.
Last September I was invited by the Amadiyyah Muslim community to participate in a “World Religions Conference” - the third such event in Yellowknife. The format for the event is to invite a number of people from different faith perspectives to describe how their faith addresses a certain topic. Last year the topic was “Concept of Salvation”. There were people speaking from the Buddhist, Aboriginal Spirituality, Muslim and Christian perspectives. We tried hard to include other faith perspectives, most particularly a perspective from the Jewish faith and while we were unsuccessful for last year, I think a mild controversy that occurred led us to find people who might be willing to participate in subsequent years. That's a whole other story that I will leave for another time.
The reason I mention this is because in large part, the work that I did to offer a Christian perspective and I was very clear that it was “a” Christian perspective and not “the” Christian perspective – for I would not dare to speak for all of Christianity nor was I under the impression that my perspective would even represent a mainstream Christian view – in fact I was most worried about feedback and critique of my position not from those of other faiths, but from the very sisters and brothers with whom I share the Christian faith and ultimately I was proven correct to be so concerned! I will say that despite being buttonholed after the event, that an amicable acceptance of differing views was ultimately achieved.
To sum up what was probably a twenty-minute presentation I would say that the concept of salvation in the Christian faith has both personal and corporate dimensions. There is the “what happens to us beyond life on earth” question – which I've already alluded to in this reflection, but there is also the “what does it mean to live faithfully in the here and now” question which I think is connected very deeply with our faith and with our understanding of the role that God plays in the present and our understanding of responsibility that God places with us to be messengers of God's way, hope and comfort on earth right now.
To me this is the essence of the passage we heard from Luke's gospel this morning. In passages which address the issue of faith, we hear Jesus telling his followers to be ready. This is not readiness for something that lies in our own personal futures – although that aspect is also there, but a readiness to be people of faith in the here and now. Faith is about the way we live our lives – not so much with an eye to the future and what faithful living will get us in that future, but with a concern for life as it is now – for the way we should live justly, for the way we share life on earth with those around us.
Here's how Jesus summed it up, in the translation by Eugene Peterson that goes by the name The Message: The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being. To me, that says something about now, and also tomorrow. Amen.