Sunday, February 21, 2016

Courage in the Face of Doubt-Tinged Faith (not to mention that old fox)

Sermon for February 21, 2016 (Lent 2)

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
Psalm 27:1-5, 13-14

Philippians 3:17--4:1
Luke 13:31-35

Go and tell that fox for me,
'Listen, I am casting out demons
and performing cures today and tomorrow…’

Jesus isn’t dealing with the mayor of Lake Crystal here; not even the governor of our state. Herod was the crazy king who killed John the Baptist—had his head chopped off! Jesus, however, isn’t intimidated in the least.

The Pharisees are.

I wonder if the Pharisees, deep down, think of Herod as being like a rabid dog—and who knows who might be next if Herod, after killing John the Baptizer, kills Jesus too—who of them in the Jewish community might be next once Herod has acquired the taste of blood?

So the Pharisees warn Jesus; and Jesus responded without flinching—indeed, Jesus taunts Herod, calling him an old fox, insinuating, to quote Daniel Plasman, “…insinuating that the one who threatens him is deceitful, untrustworthy, and a predator with animalistic instincts.” Jesus speaks Truth to Power and states clearly and without hesitation, I’m not going to be distracted or diverted from my mission.

Jesus won’t be swayed from his path—the path God has called him to—and no earthly ruler—no matter how annoyed, how bombastic, how powerful—no earthly ruler will force him to change his course. That course will eventually take him to Jerusalem and his death. Jesus knows this, and continues on that very road anyway.

So the first thing I’d like you consider today:

Might Jesus’ in-your-face response to Herod
give us Confidence and Courage
in our everyday lives
and in our communal life
as the New Community of Christ? 


It’s not easy to be confident and courageous.

It seems that Abram, to whom God had promised many descendants, a great nation, was anxious about how this could ever happen. “You made me this promise, God, but I’m not feeling it right now. It just doesn’t seem to be happening—and time’s a-wasting. I’m not getting any younger here, God.”

So like you and me, our spiritual forefather experienced worry and stress and doubt.

And God says
Do not be afraid, Abram,
I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.

We hear a promise like that and it often doesn’t really sink in. It didn’t—not right away—with Abram. I imagine Abram thinking, “Yeah, you’re my shield; yeah, there will be great rewards; yeah, I hear all that, God, but it shields and rewards don’t seem very concrete or down-to-earth. Like I’ve been saying, God, what about that very specific promise we’ve talked about… yeah, what about the great nation and the land, all that?”

And God smiles down and says, “Well, then, Abram, let’s go out to the front porch and talk about that. But first let’s just sit in quietness… Now, look up at the stars. Beautiful—even breathtaking, aren’t they? One of my best things—stars, that is.  Now, count them if you can—Ha! No, no you can’t count ‘em all, right? So listen carefully:  Like the stars, like infinity, so shall your descendants be.”

And Abram believed God and God chalked up Abram’s trust as one and the same with righteousness. And things were good between God and Abram again.

And yet, even after this, Abram isn’t totally convinced. Can this be? That Abram’s faith—credited as righteousness—might include a doubt or two?

Can grasp how significant this is? One of the Reformation’s “top ten” scriptures—“Abram believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness”—a passage cutting right to the idea of “faith alone”—and so often we take that passage and say, “yes, we must have faith but if it’s really going to be chalked up as righteousness it had better be a really big faith, a rock-solid faith, a faith without doubt…” But that’s not what this story tells us.

Even this faith of Abram was a doubt-tinged faith.

“OK, I hear you,” says Abram. “But how can I KNOW for sure?”


Sacraments, we often say, are visible signs that we can see and touch and taste—signs and seals of a great spiritual truth. So the sacrifice God directs Abram to prepare is sacramental. Usually the sacrifices were burned, but evidently God doesn’t give the go-ahead for that part of the rite. Abram is left to shoo away the vultures. And then, tired and maybe discouraged and stressed again and still not convinced or whatever is going through his heart and mind—poor Abram is unable to keep his eyes open, sleeps deeply…

And then, and then a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.

Now that sounds a lot like depression. Deep darkness. Terrifying darkness. A darkness that just comes, seemingly out of nowhere. It just descends.  

So my second thought to take home and mull over during this season of Lent—and it’s not that new or original of a thought but it’s good to be reiterated:

It is often during those times of deep, even terrifying darkness that we discover God’s covenant, God’s promises, God’s purposes, presence, and power in a new way.

This was true for Abram—it was during his deep and frightening dark night of the soul that the smoking fire pot and flaming torch pass through the sacrifices and they become burnt offerings, and God’s makes a covenant, a sure-to-come-true promise to Abram, “To your descendants I give this land…” God shows up in a real and tangible way. When? In the midst of the darkness!

 “Wait for the LORD,” sings the psalmist,
“Be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!”
“Stand firm in the Lord,” says the Apostle Paul.


And yet…

How can we not be sad or anxious when we think about the sad state of much of today’s political rhetoric? Just as Herod was a fox, feeding on the chicks (and, remember, Jesus longed to gather the people of Jerusalem together like a mother hen gathers her chicks)—but just as Herod was a scheming, tricky, lying, ravenous fox… Well, sometimes I wonder…  What does it say when a professing Christian immediately sides with Donald Trump over Pope Francis on an issue intrinsically tied to racism, care and concern for the oppressed, and basic human values (by, for example, posting a meme questioning the Vatican's open door policy and its walls)?

I am convinced it means one of two things: You are either careless or unintelligent and you’re simply reposting something a friend posted, or you are just as racist, sexist, and xenophobic as Trump. And possibly both.

Pope Francis is spot on:  "A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel.”

The book of James in the NT teaches, "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress..." (James 1:27). The OT scriptures consistently demand fairness and compassion towards the poor, oppressed, and potentially oppressed--specifically the stranger (alien, immigrant). Even the gift of Sabbath is extended to “the stranger within your gates.” The prophet Malachi wrote, "I will draw near to you for judgment... against those who cheat the day laborers out of their wages as well as oppress the widow and the orphan, and against those who brush aside the foreigner and do not revere me, says the Lord of heavenly forces."

The prophet Malachi makes a direct connection between how we treat the last and the least and our devotion to God. Jesus’ first sermon made the same connection, proclaiming, “Good News to the Poor.” If we preach a “gospel” that isn’t good new to the poor then it’s not the Gospel. Father James Martin reminds us to remember, “After the controversy fades, the pundits have had their say and the water cooler conversations have moved on to another topic, remember Pope Francis's simple but subversive message about migrants and refugees. They are our brothers and sisters. They are beloved children of God.”

The bottom-line is clear:  Your devotion to God cannot be disconnected from your solidarity with immigrants, persons of color, woman, wage-earners... in short, your solidarity with any of the last and the least. If you "brush aside the foreigner," you do not love God!


Speaking Truth to Power takes courage and courage means taking the risk of being vulnerable. Taking that risk is hard. It’s almost if we’re chicks afraid of the mother hen, too frazzled to allow ourselves to come home to the place of refuge.

One commentator, Daniel Plasman—I quoted him before—he says, “From Genesis to Revelation, the notes of the refrain repeats… ‘The Lord loves, the Beloved spurns that love.’” The Lord sends prophets with good news, but the Pharisees won’t listen. The Lord sends good news to the poor, the Lord sends love, and we refuse it in countless and varied ways.

And yet, in all of this, there is hope because the God who loves us to the uttermost really cares, and sent Jesus to live with us, to demonstrate and teach God’s love, to put love in action by never deviating from the path to the cross—which not only saves us for “forever” but rescues us today.

Let Abram's doubt-tinged faith be an encouragement--don't beat yourself up when you feel your faith is too weak or small. Let Abram's dark night of the soul be a light assuring you of God's presence. No. Matter. What. Let Jesus’ willingness to speak Truth to Power transform you to be more courageous and confident. And let Jesus’ compassion and yearning bring you comfort and calm assurance: Without a doubt, Jesus feels what you feel and is walking with you through whatever you’re going through—temptations, sufferings, depression, even wrestling with God, even the deepest grief imaginable.

Divine pathos runs deep. God isn’t a stranger to grief. The God who creates and saves is not an unmovable deity. God feels. Rejections of heaven’s love move God to tears.  (Daniel Plasman from Jesus, a Life: Daily Reflections on the Gospel of Luke.)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Jesus, a Life: Daily Reflections on the Gospel of Luke

1 comment:

Dian said...

This is excellent, Randy+. I was lector this morning at St. Mark's, and so I was familiar with the readings. I appreciate the perspective you brought in this work.