Sermon for August 7th, 2022
The only interesting thing about religion is God.
That bears repeating.
The only really interesting thing about all of this: the building, the vestments, the rituals, the scriptures, the beliefs, everything that we classify as religion, the only truly interesting thing about all of that is God.
God as a personality that we live in relationship with. That is what makes religion fascinating and compelling. A living God. A mysterious, all powerful being that we encounter, but never fully comprehend. Without God, all of this just becomes a very sad, very tired old play.
Now maybe it seems obvious to you that religion and church should be about God, and that God should be the central focus of all that we are and all that we do. Maybe that seems like a no-brainer. But we get distracted from that central focus all the time, and there are forces that will always want us to be ABOUT something else. Human beings have this amazing ability to constantly lasso the spotlight back onto ourselves, even when we pretend to be talking about God. Somehow we always manage to find ways to make it about us. We start to focus less and less on what God has done and what God is doing, and we focus more and more on what we have done, or what we are doing, or what we should be doing, or what we want to be doing.
Maybe the problem is that we are too embarrassed to admit to our friends that we actually believe in a personal God, so instead we make the focus of our faith things that are less controversial: like doing good works in the world. Even atheists approve of those things. Or maybe the truth is we just like to talk about ourselves and think about ourselves a little too much. Somehow, one way or another, we find a way to make religion more about us than it is about God.
We do it in subtle and innocent ways.
For instance: I imagine that there will be many sermons given this morning on the faith of Abraham and the amazing things that Abraham’s faith led him to do, just like faith led Isaac and Jacob and Moses to do amazing things. Look what faith can do: faith can lead you to do amazing things. Faith can make you a hero.
It is really tempting to go there with that passage from the Book of Hebrews; to talk about what faith can do for us; to talk about the amazing things that people of faith can do. To think about faith as some sort of virtue that comes from within US; something WE have a right to be proud of. I could easily write that kind of a sermon; it’s not entirely wrong, Hebrews does remind us of the amazing things people of faith did. But that’s not the whole story.
The really interesting thing about Abraham is NOT that he had faith. The world was filled with people that had faith. There was a god on every corner and someone to worship him. Simply having faith didn’t make Abraham special. What made Abraham special is WHAT he had faith in, or should I say WHO he had faith in. Abraham didn’t just have some generic faith or non-specific hope for the future. Abraham was not “spiritual but not religious” as so many people are nowadays. Abraham didn’t just have faith in a god; he had faith in THE God and he had faith that THE God, the maker of heaven and earth, the judge of all men, he had faith that that God wanted to have a relationship with him and wanted to bless him and was making everlasting promises to him. That is what makes Abraham special; not the fact that he had faith, but WHAT he had faith in. He had faith that God wanted to bless him. That was the God he believed in: a God that loves and wants to bless. A God who keeps his promises. A God you encounter and live in relationship with. Because Abraham believed in this God, a God who wills good things for him, it is because of that belief that Abraham is able to obey and follow and go where God tells him to go. What Abraham believed about God mattered. It isn’t enough to say that Abraham had faith. We have to remember WHAT he had faith in. We have to remember WHO he had faith in.
Abraham had faith in God. Not a generic higher power, but a specific, personal God. That is what makes Abraham such an interesting character, and that is what leads Abraham to do what he does. That belief is what has led religious people down through the ages to do amazing things. Everything from building the great cathedrals, to founding monasteries, caring for the sick and feeding the poor, creating some of the world’s most beautiful art and writing some of history’s greatest music. These things have been done largely as a response to a BELIEF. Belief matters. What we believe about God matters. What God does matters more than what we do. It is so easy to just focus on human actions that we often forget that human actions are usually guided and directed by human beliefs. What we believe matters. What we have faith in matters.
I am sure that some preacher’s this morning will have a field day with Jesus’s instruction in the gospel to “sell your possessions and give alms,” because in part, some folks just want to the church to be a glorified social service agency. “Let’s justify our existence as an organization by pointing to all the good works we do.” Some people really do see it that way. But is that all that church is about? Is that what gives us our identity and our strength? Is that what saves us? I don’t think it is.
Before Jesus told his disciples to sell their possessions, he said to them: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Do not be afraid, because your father, your God, it is his WILL to bless you. God takes pleasure in giving you his kingdom. Your God is a god who gives. Your God is a god who blesses. NOW, therefore, you go out and do likewise. Now, you give. Now, you go out and bless, because that is the love that your father in heaven has shown to you. It is our faith, our belief, in a God that takes pleasure in giving us the kingdom; it is our faith in that specific God that gives us the power and the strength to live the life that we live. It is that faith that gives us patience and hope in the hard times, and it is that faith that gives us generosity and compassion in the good times. Being a person of faith is great, but what exactly do you have faith in? What you have faith IN matters.
Everyone who steps on their car brake pedal or takes a Tylenol has some kind of faith; everyone who puts their money in the bank or the stock market has some kind of faith. What kind of faith do you have? If you have faith in God, what God or what kind of god do you have faith in?
Do you have faith in a God that has the power to call heaven and earth into existence?
Do you have faith in a God who values, calls, and uses babies and old people to serve him? The rest of the world values, the young, the strong and the virile, but do you have faith in a god who still values the very young and the very old? Because it seems like the God of scripture does.
Do you have faith in a God that loves us enough to become one of us? Do you have faith in a God that still tries to save us even when we can’t or won’t save ourselves? Do you have faith in a God who forgives? Do you have faith in a God who heals? Do you have faith in a God who conquers death? Do you have faith in a God who calls you to follow him into unknown territory?
In just a moment I am going to ask you to stand and affirm our faith in the words of the Nicene Creed. You might think that that is a rather dull part of the service, reciting week after week our beliefs about God using words that were worked out centuries ago, you may think it is boring and unimportant, but you would be wrong. Because before we encounter God in the sacrament, we need to remind ourselves just who exactly it is that we are encountering. It isn’t enough to just say we are people of faith; we need to remind ourselves and proclaim to others what and who we have faith in. We have faith in God. This God. This God who made promises to Abraham. This God who was born and lived among us in our Lord Jesus Christ. This God who raised him from the dead and promises us eternal life and a place in his kingdom. This God. That is the only thing that makes any of this interesting at all.