Monday, June 14, 2004

Finding Faith

Here's my sermon!

I didn’t every really go looking for God. For most of my life I didn’t need to. When I was a kid, a family down the street always took my sisters and me to Vacation Bible School. As I got older I would go to church with friends, usually because it was a prerequisite for doing something fun later. In high school I attended the youth group at a mega-church in Boring. What attracted me to the youth group was the presence of a few key members of the opposite sex and the opportunity to play basketball after the worship service was over.

When I first started attending my friends witnessed to me vigorously. After it became apparent I wasn’t going to give in easily, they more or less gave up on me. The main reason I wouldn’t pray the sinner’s prayer with them and accept Jesus as my savior was that it seemed to me that their desire to witness to me and others was rooted more in concern for their soul than it was for mine. I felt like converts were nothing more than notches on their Bible, so to speak. I didn’t think they really cared that much about me as a person.

Eventually after striking out with the aforementioned girls, the basketball wasn’t enough to keep me there. My next major experience with Christians and Christianity was during my junior year of high school. In the fall of 1992, Oregonians were voting on Ballot Measure 9. It was the first of several anti-homosexual measures sponsored by the Oregon Citizen’s Alliance. Growing up in Sandy, which is a pretty small town, I didn’t have any particularly strong feelings on the issue. However, many of friends were very strongly opposed to the ballot measure. They were harassed relentlessly in the name of Jesus Christ by many of the conservative Christians I had grown up with. In my limited experience, I began to believe that Christian was synonymous with “hateful bigot.” At that point, I was done with religion.

After high school I went to Willamette University. As many of you may know, Willamette has a historical affiliation with the Methodist church. That affiliation is so cleverly disguised now that I didn’t pick up on it until I’d been there for several months. At Willamette I got to know some Methodists. And because of several people that cared about me I got involved in the First United Methodist Church in Salem. There I realized a couple of really important things: First, a faith community can be a safe place to ask questions. Second, Christians are not all of one mind. “Hateful bigot” is no more descriptive of Christians as a group than it is any other group.

It was in this place that I began to think about faith and to develop a relationship with God. I hadn’t realized that I even wanted a relationship. That was one of the reasons that I wasn’t successfully converted in high school – I felt like a whole person. Despite the repeated message that I was wretched sinner and empty without God, I didn’t feel that way. I guess I can blame my parents for that – I was raised with the idea that self-esteem is a good thing.

Though even after I started regularly attending First Church in Salem I still had trouble shaking the messages I’d heard growing up. There were two issues I’d been struggling with. The first is what does it mean to have faith?
Growing up I’d heard over and over that faith is belief. Belief in Jesus is the only route to salvation. And that’s the second issue – what does it mean to be saved? I’d always understood the Christian notion of salvation as heaven. If you believe the right things you’ll go to heaven when you die. If you don’t believe the right things, well we best not think about that.

Now some of you may be thinking, “what’s the problem here?” Is this guy crazy? What was Beth thinking? These are seemingly pretty basic Christian doctrines. Except that for a lot of people, they aren’t. What I’ve come to understand is that how we see salvation greatly influences how we see faith. In the traditional view (for lack of a better term), salvation is spending eternity in heaven as a result of our belief in Christ. Thus the essential characteristic of faith is belief. Belief is that which is necessary to assure our salvation.

But there’s another idea out there. It’s not necessarily a better idea, or the right idea, but rather a very different way to experience the risen Christ that is rooted firmly in Scripture. Let’s go back to the reading for today. Remember that Paul is concerned that the churches he established are going to go back to teaching the Mosaic law and reject his teaching – in this case justification by faith.

Galatians 2:20 (MSG)
Indeed, I have been crucified with Christ. My ego is no longer central. It is no longer important that I appear righteous before you or have your good opinion, and I am no longer driven to impress God. Christ lives in me. The life you see me living is not "mine," but it is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Paul is writing here about dying and being “born again.” This is most famously found in the gospel of John.

John 3:3-8 (MSG)
3Jesus said, "You're absolutely right. Take it from me: Unless a person is born from above, it's not possible to see what I'm pointing to--to God's kingdom."
4"How can anyone," said Nicodemus, "be born who has already been born and grown up? You can't re-enter your mother's womb and be born again. What are you saying with this "born-from-above' talk?"
5Jesus said, "You're not listening. Let me say it again. Unless a person submits to this original creation--the "wind hovering over the water' creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life--it's not possible to enter God's kingdom. 6When you look at a baby, it's just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within is formed by something you can't see and touch--the Spirit--and becomes a living spirit.
7"So don't be so surprised when I tell you that you have to be "born from above'--out of this world, so to speak. 8You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it's headed next. That's the way it is with everyone "born from above' by the wind of God, the Spirit of God."

What I think here is that by being born again or “born from above” we are transformed. Through Christ we are changed. Marcus Borg, a professor at Oregon state and internationally renowned Jesus scholar, has this to say about Paul’s vision of a “new life” in Christ.

It is marked by freedom, joy, peace, and love, four of his favorite words: freedom from the voices of all the would-be lords of our lives; the joy of the exuberant life; the peace of reconnection to the what is, the peace that passes all understanding; and love – the love of God for us and the love of God in us.

One of the problems I had with the theology I heard when I was growing up was that it didn’t make sense to me. I regularly heard this argument for becoming a Christian: “If you accept Jesus into your heart, and it turns out we’re wrong, what you have lost? If we’re right, and you don’t accept Jesus, you’ll be sorry.” I couldn’t articulate it then, but the problem for me with that argument is the belief that you can become a Christian and have absolutely nothing change. That welcoming Christ into your life can have absolutely no impact on who you are and what you do.

Through being born again in Christ, God can transform our lives and our communities. As followers of Christ our lives can and should be marked by freedom, joy, peace and love. That is what salvation is – it is being redeemed through the grace of God and transformed as followers of Christ. I think where we go when we die is less important than the lives we lead while we’re here. Jesus wants more out of us than just believing the right things – Jesus wants us to radically alter our relationships with God and the world.

But even as began to understand salvation, I was still struggling with what faith means. How does this vision of salvation affect how we see our faith? Again, I’m going to turn to Marcus Borg.

Borg argues that there are four meanings of faith. The first is faith as belief. This is the idea of faith that I grew up with. Next is faith as trust. Borg describes it as a radical trust in God. The third meaning is faith as faithfulness. This is about “loyalty, allegiance, the commitment of the self at its deepest level, the commitment of the ‘heart.’” Faithfulness is connected to his idea of spirituality, which he describes as “becoming conscious of and intentional about a deepening relationship with God.” The final meaning is faith as vision. This is about how we see God and the world. We can see God as hostile and angry, indifferent, or life giving and nourishing. When we recognize the glory and wonder of God’s creation and also rejoice in our creation, we are led to radical trust. We can accept the power of God’s amazing grace.

Borg believes that ultimately faith is about our love for God. Jay Voorhees, a United Methodist minister in Nashville, puts it this way:

Christian community is not built on belief, but on love; it's not built on knowledge but in the embrace of one another as creatures of God's making.
What makes a community live and breathe, I believe, is not discerning the answers, but 1) the willingness to stand beside one another in the midst of our questions; and 2) the ability to have faith for another person who isn't able to make that jump yet. "Bear one another's burdens (questions, doubts, etc)," Paul wrote, "and this is the way you live out Christ's teachings."

So what’s the connection here? When we trust in God and work intentionally to deepen our relationship, our lives can be transformed. But does it stop there? Are we just, as Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners Magazine said, “self-help Methodists?” Wallis says “God is always personal, but never private.” Wallis also wonders, “What happened to the biblical imperatives for social justice, the God who lifts up the poor, and the Jesus who says he will judge us, and the nations, by how we care for "the least of these"?”
That should be a very serious question for all of us who call ourselves Christians. Our faith needs to be about more than just improving our lives.

Christians and the church need to be powerful and prophetic voices for the radical grace of God. We need to believe and act like we have the ability to make our communities into places of freedom, joy, peace and love.
And so that’s where I’m at. I didn’t go looking for faith, but I found it anyway. I’m worrying less about answers, thinking more about the questions, trying to be intentional about my relationship with God, and letting God work in me and through me. I’ve realized a couple of things. Everyone has their big questions and ultimately they need to answer them or not answer them in a way that is meaningful to them. And at its best, church is a place where that can happen. As for me, I’m not sure right now where God is going to take me – but I do know this: I’ve placed my trust in God and my faithfulness is the result of that trust.




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