It's All About Faith

February 25, 2018

Series: February 2018

Category: Lent

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Romans 4:13-25

13For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.

16For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, 17as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”) — the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. 18Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” 19He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. 20No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.” 23Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, 24but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, 25who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification. THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD. THANKS BE TO GOD.

It's All About Faith

          What if I told you I could snap my fingers and in an instant you would all have faith?  Would you take me up on it?  What if I could do that for your children or grandchildren?  A lot of people come to me in angst about their children or grandchildren, wishing they would have faith.  For Paul, faith is everything.  His praise of Abraham is a praise of his faith.  The promise given Abraham and Sarah about their descendants inheriting the world came not through the law, “but through the righteousness of faith” (Rom. 4:13).  So, do you have faith?

          Don’t answer that yet…particularly if the answer doesn’t come easily.  I fear we have been talking about faith in an unhelpful way in the church for a long time. 

When someone says, “faith” many hear, “belief.” Christians are called “believers.”  Even many who don’t like the creeds know they carry many lines beginning with the two words “I believe.” 

          Well, it’s funny we mention creeds.  One of the things I learned in the research I’ve been doing over the past couple years is that “I believe” may not be the best choice of words.  Indeed, Paul speaks about faith in terms of trust as much as he does belief.  New Testament scholar Marcus Borg reminds us the Latin credo, which is usually translated as “I believe” means more literally, “I give my heart to.”[1] Now, let that sink in for a moment.  What if our faith was defined not by what we believed, but by what we gave our hearts to?  Does that shift anything for anyone?  In other words, what if the goal of all of this was not to believe a certain set of things about Jesus, but rather to practice giving our heart to the kinds of things to which Jesus gave his heart? 

Experience tells me this brings it all closer for people, makes faith more attainable. I know many people who struggle to believe various tenets of the faith, yet they are the first to wrap their hearts around people and causes that exemplify a Christlike way of being.  I think of Ruth, a woman in her 90s I met while I was interning at a church in seminary.  Ruth spent much of her life organizing factory workers and farm workers for decent pay and working conditions, while rejecting lines of the Apostles’ Creed.  Was she faithful? 

Borg says it is not about what you believe, so much as it is what you belove. He writes, “The Christian life is about beloving God and all that God beloves.  Faith is our love for God.  Faith is the way of the heart.”[2]  We use our heads, but our heart leads. 

For some, this realization is like unlocking a door that never seemed as if it would come open. “So, you’re telling me I don’t have to believe…” No, just try and love what God loves, how God loves.  If you are wondering what that looks like, just look to Jesus.  He is the one who shows us how God’s love looks in flesh and blood.  Isn’t that how we understand Jesus?  Adyashanti, a spiritual teacher from the Bay Area, in his book, Resurrecting Jesus describes Jesus as “enlightenment in action.”[3]  I love that description.  Jesus is what God’s love looks like come to life, enlightenment in action. 

          Enlightenment.  It’s often thought of as an Eastern term. Adyashanti, who was born Stephen Gray, as you might guess, has a background in Zen Buddhism, though he doesn’t necessarily teach out of any formal tradition anymore.  Like someone with a good Eastern training, Adyashanti is versed in the nearness, the presence, the accessibility of God, or “Divine Being” as he puts it.  Jesus, too, was always talking about the kingdom or reign of God being near or at hand.  This is what the East is good at noticing, while the West is more oriented toward God’s grandeur, transcendence, otherness.  Both have a place.  Balance is what’s preferable.

          The problem with an exclusively Western way of seeing Jesus is that tends to place him at an unapproachable distance, on a pedestal, and as a result we miss that he shows us how we could become like him, infused with God.  We, too, can be enlightenment in action.  Jesus himself said that his followers could do even greater things than he (Jn. 14:12).  The prerequisite according to John’s gospel is faith, and thus it is a matter of the heart.  Enlightenment is for the open hearted. 

Adyashanti tells a story of his own heart was open and then filled. It was several years into his Zen training, and he was on a retreat, as he had been many times before.  Suddenly, he was overcome with restlessness.  He said he felt like a caged animal, so much so that he decided to leave the retreat, which was something one never does without first talking to the teacher, but Adyashanti simply couldn’t stand it, so he left a note on the teacher’s door and drove home.

          On the way home, he wondered if his spiritual journey was over.  He had no idea what was next or what to do next.  When he arrived home, he heard a voice inside saying to walk right through his house, out the back door and into his meditation hut.  He heard and heeded the voice, a sign of an opening heart.  He sat there totally unknowing of what was next, and that’s when it happened.  He experienced this onrush of energy.  It was like his heart was exploding and he was overcome with this sense of profound peace and grounding, compassion, oneness. 

          That night he received a call from the teacher who asked, “Why did you leave?”  He answered honestly, “I don’t know.”  True open-heartedness isn’t threatened by transparency.  The teacher said, “You should come back,” and he responded, “Okay.”  Open-heartedness needs few words sometimes.  The next morning he drove back.  When he arrived at the retreat center, another monk greeted him and said, “You should not have left, and you should not have come back.” 

          Adyashanti said it was the best thing he ever could have said to him because it changed nothing in him.  That’s when he knew that what had been placed inside him was immovable.  He said, “I could have kissed him.”  Enlightenment—the orientation of the heart toward openness to God and total compassion toward the other and the self for that matter, for if Adyashanti had not been willing to sit with his own discomfort, just sit with it for a bit without judgment or condemnation, the opening would have been too narrow. 

          Enlightenment in action.  Jesus teaches us to take the orientation of our heart and let it guide our hands and feet, along with our words and thoughts.  Jesus’ faith is an engaged faith.  As in touch as he was with God he was equally in touch with what was going on in the world around him.  Thankfully, this has been one of the better parts of the tradition of the church, including this congregation which has stepped out in faith to address wrongs and to stand with the wronged.  The church hasn’t always gotten it right; various wings of it certainly haven’t always agreed, and yet it is virtually impossible to make a case that the church should not be active in a Christlike way in the world. Even monasticism is engaged in the world in its own way.

          The world is inviting engagement right now, maybe it always is, but not feels like a particularly crucial time, when things feel so on edge.  The question is not only will we show up—I think I know the answer to that one—but how we will show up, for the moment demands us to show up as our best selves, our most enlightened selves.  This is true whether we are showing up for the poor who are lagging farther behind; the oppressed or bullied who suffer daily under fear; the hurting world itself, showing seemingly new stresses every day of the unsustainable way of life we have carved out for ourselves; showing up for peace where there is preventable violence; or simple showing up for a friend or stranger who is hurting, maybe even showing up to an uncomfortable place in ourselves.  How we show up, and in particular whether we can show up without aggression, will make all the difference.  Referring back to a book I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, teacher and author Pema Chodron reminds us that no matter how good our cause, “Nothing will ever change through aggression.” [4]  She acknowledges that nothing might change through non-aggression either, but non-aggression at least does no harm, which is a great first step, and it “benefits the earth profoundly.”[5]

          It can be so hard to show up to something you care deeply about non-aggressively, because a sense of threat drives us to that place, but I’m increasingly convinced this is essential.  Aggression is part of that toxic masculinity we have mentioned in here before, which confuses aggression with power.  This is not just Buddhism talking, or new age spirituality; this is deeply Christian.  When Peter shows up to protect Jesus—what more noble cause could there be—Jesus says to Peter and thus to the church that is built upon him for all time, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt. 26:52).

          I resisted last week saying much about the school shooting in Florida and I resisted it this week.  I wrote four partial sermons before finally starting over and writing this one, because that situation makes me want to show up with my sword.  That’s action.  It’s not enlightenment in action.  It’s not, by definition, the faith of Abraham and Sarah that inherits the world.  It does not belove what God beloves, who Jesus beloves, who is my neighbor and even my enemy.  I am to love them as I love myself.  Maybe our aggression stems from our inability to love ourselves.

          So, there I was sitting there at my computer with all that bewilderment and uncertainty about the future, and then it happened.  What rushed in, but the images of those young people walking out, leaving their schools, consequences to come, saying “Enough.”  “It isn’t like this elsewhere; it doesn’t have to be like this here.”  “We deserve better.”  And, how they have shown up has mattered, not, at least as I have seen, getting hooked or distracted by lies being propagated about them, deterred by conspiracies concocted to discredit them, or corrupted by the cynicism that plagues so many of us. 

Now, who says they don’t have faith?

Look at what their hearts belove.

          Just like that (Snap), we can have it to.  Amen.

[1] Marcus J. Borg, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003), 40.

 [2] Ibid., 41.

[3] Adyashanti, Resurrecting Jesus: Embodying the Spirit of a Revolutionary Mystic.  Audiobook.

[4] Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times.  Audiobook. 

[5] Ibid.