Monday, September 17, 2012

Pentecost 16B Balancing Faith and Works

Todays lessons remind us that for the last 2000 years we’ve been part of an ongoing, sometimes quite noisy and occasionally rather rude conversation about what Jesus and our tradition really mean when we talk about the ways that faith is related to works. 

It’s a conversation found throughout the Bible: in today’s Gospel lesson Peter talks of faith, but is not yet willing or able to go where faith will take him. You can say that he’s willing to talk the talk without walking the walk: Peter hasn’t worked that part out yet. Elsewhere in the Gospels Jesus says that those who get to heaven are not necessarily those who call him Lord, but those who do the will of his father;  clothing the naked, visiting the lonely, feeding the hungry, finding the lost and those in need, doing faithful works. 

But we need to remember it’s not just all about works. In another part of scripture, Jesus tells the story of the Pharisee praying out loud, touting up his good deeds, justifying himself nicely; but, according to Jesus, still not doing as well as a tax collector who’s towards the back of the room asking God to have mercy upon him; for the second is a sinner whose faithful call for mercy is heard, honored by God. So maybe there’s some kind of balancing act between faith and works.  

For St. Paul, on one hand, would say that it is all in having faith that God loves you, that God is reaching out a hand and  all we have to do is accept that love and we’re home free, for we are justified by faith. But St. James sees another side in todays Epistle, writing that your faith has to be evident in good work. So how do we balance these two viewpoints, how do we work out our faith? 

I want to talk about that balancing with a kind of mind map with four corners and two words in each corner (four words I've used in other places to define how a spiritual life might work, and four other words that Marcus Borg uses to define “faith”); and see if these eight words can open up some new ideas and insights  on how faith and work can balance out in our corporate lives and our common ministry.

One word Borg uses for faith is “Fiducia,” related to fiduciary, a place we can trust. He uses a wonderful image here, saying we must learn to trust in God in order to live in God just like a young child must trust in the water before they learn to swim: you have to relax into the possibility that the water, that God, will carry you.  

This relates to what I call “Formation” - taking the chance that we are formed in the image of God;  and that God’s heart, God’s hand, moves to create and recreate, redeem; encourage and sanctify us in all that we are and all that we do. that our dream of God is God’s dream for us: In formation we come to believe, in the heart of our hearts and deep down in the heart of everything, that the God of the Universe, the God we see in Christ, doesn’t build junk. 

Borg’s second word for faith is “Accensus,” related to what we assent to: how we formulate and figure out our faith; and my second word is “Education.” We learn who we are in our formation and then we have to work, to study, to find out where we come from, who we’re with, where we’re going,  and why there’s all this traveling; and that takes time and effort. 

I joke that no one would go to the gym for an hour and a half a week and expect to get fit (although I do just that!); but, in the same way no one would go to church for an hour and a half a week and expect to know much about the deepest wisdom, ethical, prophetic, political, poetic, compassionate, tradition that Western civilization has ever produced. Just like my infrequent visits to the YMCA won’t pay off until I crank up the discipline, so our understanding of God’s wisdom, God’s truth, God’s desire for us and our world,  remains immature until we find an ongoing educational path to see and search the deep wisdom of the tradition in which we stand.

Now remember the old one-liner that says, “Those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach,!” My ministry in this system is mainly teaching, so I guess that lets you know where I might be. But I do find that, as I learn in order to teach, I get more and more excited about who we are and what we can do together. The more I realize I’m part of the company that offers such good news, works for mercy and justice, carries healing and compassion, brings the captives home, and has for over 2000 years, the more I find the faith to share it.

Both Accensus and education build our faith; and with all the new technologies --from audiotapes to DVDs, from photocopying to email and the internet -- there are so many riches of the Christian tradition freely available, so many resources to inform and enlighten our faith. 

The third word I use in my four cornered model is “Celebration.” In Jesus Christ, God comes to keep us company, and that’s good news, especially in times when life turns corners, takes us on a new road, when we get lonely and need company, for, to quote one playwright:

In a world  in a world where so many are alone it would be an unforgivable sin to be lonely by yourself 

This church, every church, stands as a sign that no one is alone. Jesus sees the lonely crowds and is moved by compassion: we, as his people, do the same.  The word for our worship ceremony today, We come together today to celebrate the Eucharist, that is how and where pray, that is what we do. But we come together to celebrate when a baby is born, when a couple marries, when life comes to an end: we set the space and fix the meals and tell the stories and gather the community in tragedy and triumph, in good times and bad, we honor the dignity of every human person, and we celebrate the gift of God in keeping faith, in celebrating and sharing that good news to all humankind.

The word Borg uses for this kind of faith is “Fidelitas,” like a faithful relationship with a partner, with family and friends, with strangers who need us -- and maybe everybody needs what we have to celebrate. I never forget one church’s slogan: “God is love, we deliver!”

Borg’s fourth and final word for faith is “Visio,’ related to Vision. How do we see, envision a way to live into this new possibility over time? I know this, that it comes as a gift, is taken up in hope and love, and leads us to a faith that works and changes.

So the fourth word I use is “transformation.”  When we realize how deeply God forms and calls us, when our ongoing education open us to see what a large company of faith wisdom and practice accompanies us, when we understand more and more how we are called to participate in, and celebrate God’s kingdom coming and God’s will being done; then we come to realize in doing our daily deeds and sharing our daily bread, that we’re slowly but surely changing the world.

This takes time and work and company and God’s good Grace; but we have more than enough!  One theologian says that our whole Christian life is “a marinade rather than a glaze; we are being transformed by being soaked in the gospel!” But over time, and by letting God’s love, God’s home ground, God’s faith, soak into our hearts and lives, we come to see the world the way God sees it, soaked in Christ’s Gospel, as we come to participate in God’s love for the world, God’s dream for creation. 

So, Formation and Fiducio,  Education and Assensus,  Celebration and Fidelitas,  Transformation and Visio.  all big concepts, all big words (and keep remembering those who can do, and those who can’t teach). But I do believe that this is the heart of our tradition, at the heart of our tradition is the heart of God’s love for the world, and this can give us great hope..

We are turning a funny corner in the church. Our ages are up, our numbers are down, we’re not sure what the future will hold. But we’ve turned these corners in past, God will not leave the world comfortless. For over two thousand years the church has been constantly resurrected beyond our expectations and this time is no different.

But it is a time when we might be called to take up our ministry in a new  way,  in a new world. To do a careful preparation for harvest we might not live to see. For that is how faith works.


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