Jesus brings destructive fire – and the sword of division – not to hurt, not to sow chaos, or grab control – but because the beginning of something new means the end of what was. To go somewhere is to leave somewhere else behind. After the Israelites escaped the horrors of Egyptian slavery, at times they longed for what they had: “at least we had meat and melons and cucumbers to eat back then – not just flakey desert dust.”
There was loss. But think of the gain!
Early Christians might find themselves divided against family members who couldn’t accept the new faith. That was loss – even if they hoped for a reconciliation of awesome proportions.
Is Jesus saying that division and destruction are the inevitable consequences of what he’s doing? Maybe not just consequences – maybe it’s more deliberate: he’s come to burn, and to cut, in some direct way. As the Prince of Peace? Of course as the story goes, Jesus himself– God himself – will be the one to suffer the fire – to undergo the sword, most directly.
Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.
Jesus’ resurrection isn’t just new life out of the ashes. It’s the death of death. It’s life eternal and always new. God’s kingdom come, in a final way.
Our topic these four weeks has been faith. I’ve just gone with whatever scripture readings happen to be assigned on any given Sunday, using the lectionary schedule of readings use by other Lutherans, by Methodists, Catholics and so on. If instead I started with some ideas about faith and then found scripture readings to support those ideas – the messages might be pretty different. Some of you have come up to me and said the topic of how modern people can believe – that it’s one you wrestle with. I wonder if there’s a way for you to bring up those questions, so we can keep struggling together?
Anyway, I’ve found that in these four weeks certain themes have come up more than once – maybe because they’re on my mind, but also because they’re repeated in the scripture. Like disbelief. In Ecclesiastes, a couple weeks ago, we reflected on how faith might inspire us to disbelieve or not buy into everything. Today, also, Jeremiah talks about false prophets who lie. Another theme: faith isn’t just about believing this or that – Faith is about God the Holy Spirit in us, keeping the lights on, so we’re alive and hopeful. Start there, and today, add: this lively hope is the courage to face loss – destruction – the end of the world. Because it’s just the end. There’s still a new beginning!
Remember what Jesus says: “anyone who wants to become my follower must take up her cross – daily. The one who loses his life will find it. Sell all your possessions, give to the poor, then come follow me.
And Paul: “whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as trash, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.”
In a society that praises winners, the faith to be a loser – kind of literally.
Once on a visit with my brother Karl we decided to go to a movie. We paid the admission, walked in and within five minutes it was clear to both of us that we were watching an Indiana Jones knockoff with a really bad script. So we left. As I recall, Karl shared that in an ECON 101 class in college, the teacher had brought up this kind of incident. Because you’ve cleared up your evening and paid your 12 bucks, you kind of want to stay at the movie, give it chance, get your money’s worth. But you shouldn’t. You’ve already lost the money, you can’t change that. So why also give it your time? You don’t have to stay. It takes a kind of hope to say, “oops – that was a loss. But the evening has just begun. There may be better uses of our time.”
That was in the Chapel Hill and Durham area of North Carolina. I’d love to go back some day – I’m sure we could find better ways to spend an evening.
Could faith be like this? Being able to look squarely at the unpleasant truth – and undergo the loss – believing, trusting, that there really is some other future to move forward into? The movie example seems trivial, compared with other circumstances we face, the end of a relationship or maybe a job. I think of what many seniors go through, after 30 years in your house – to come to this realization that it’s time to leave it all behind and squeeze into a small apartment in some senior living facility. Not because you have to: but because the adventure of life continues in this new direction.
Then there’s the church. One congregation felt it was important that as a new pastor, I visit a list of former members, and invite them back. I did, learned a lot and enjoyed it. But not one person came back, even for a visit. The church grew when new people came and were embraced.
Jesus says that faith means loss, and not just of this or that. Faith loses everything. You lose your soul. But then, you find it. Because ours is a God brings life to the dead and calls to existence the things that don’t exist.
But all of this gets us – at last – into that reading from Jeremiah. What’s going on? The world is in tumult. Jeremiah prophesies the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. The people will be exiled to Babylon. Much of the Old Testament is about dealing with this disaster – which was so total as to be unthinkable. Hard to believe.
I won’t go into how our world and politics seem a little on the edge, too. But each of these four weeks I’ve brought up some kind of popular song. I was listening to a podcast about the 50th anniversary of Woodstock – and the word “Jeremiad” came up. Imagine if your name got turned into this definition: “Jeremiad: a lamentation, complaint, prophecy of imminent downfall.” But Jeremiah isn’t all doom and gloom: he prophesied the “New Testament” of forgiveness, God’s words written directly on our hearts.
Anyway, the Jeremiad in question is Jimi Hendrix’s electric guitar version of our national anthem. Hendrix apparently said he wasn’t going for “edgy” so much as “beautiful.” But he makes the guitar shriek in pain. “Bombs bursting in air” doesn’t sound like 4th of July fireworks, but modern warfare. And of course, it’s all blues. You’re mindful of Hendrix being both African American and Native American. His version of our anthem infuriated people. But it also really “spoke” to some who were longing to hear the hard truth.
If you tell me you’ve got a “prophetic message” for me, I don’t want to hear it. It will probably be a self-righteous message. “I’m right, let me tell you that you’re wrong.” But Jeremiah – he isn’t smug or a dynamic speaker. He wouldn’t make a good presidential candidate. Jeremiah says: “My heart is crushed within me, all my bones shake; I have become like a drunkard, like one overcome by wine, because of the Lord and because of God’s holy words.” No thanks, I’ll vote for Biden or Buttigieg.
Now the other prophets – they seem confident, charismatic. The “establishment” Jerusalem prophets. They don’t believe the Jeremiad. Jeremiah calls them false prophets. They’re telling people: “Don’t worry. I know the political situation seems scary. But Jerusalem will be fine. It’s all good.” They had theology to back it up: God promised to dwell in Jerusalem, God promised to support its king. Never mind that God sometimes fulfills promises in surprising ways.
These so-called prophets had a positive message. Isn’t that what you want from your spiritual leaders? To hear something uplifting? Encouraging? The problem – says Jeremiah – is that’s it’s made up. They say “I have a dream!” They speak the “visions of their minds.” From the “deceit in their heart.” Yeah, I feel that. In every sermon I question is: “Is that what I wanted to say? Or what I think you want to hear?” What about God’s message?
What does this have to do with our topic – faith? For the most part, I think of faith as trust in a positive message. Sure, life seems crazy, but God will provide. Everything’s going to be alright. Jerusalem will stand.
Or will it? What if it all might come down, but I don’t need to shield or avert my eyes. God has me, even now. The future is full of light.
Jeremiah sounds like a Southern Baptist preaching to a left-state liberal: “Not your visions and dreams, but God’s word.” The liberal preacher answers: “you call yourself a Christian?” In any case, God’s word isn’t something we possess or control or ‘have’ in any way. Says Jeremiah, God’s word is a fire that burns, a hammer that breaks rocks. Says Isaiah, God’s word is like rain and snow falling from heaven. Says Jesus, God’s word is a mustard seed sown in the ground. Says Paul and others, God’s word is Jesus himself crucified.
Faith isn’t our doing. Faith is about all the ways God speaks to us and is at work in us, shaping us, moving in us, calling us through loss into the future, into healing and new life.
Here’s something wonderful: faith.
I guess that would seem pretty obvious to religious people: but we come to church for so much else: to see friends – to serve – we come for the ritual, for the conversation and the coffee. Are we looking for faith?
Highly educated people in particular mighty say: “The beauty, the music – that’s what I love. The opportunities to help the poor, that’s great. As for the whole faith thing – I don’t know. Do I really need to believe all that?”
I’ve felt this way at times, and I don’t have a fix for it.
Beginning today and continuing for three more weeks, the worship theme will be faith. I want to reflect on how faith might not be a problem to be solved, but a gift: a wonderful gift. Martin Luther said faith is “rivers of living water flowing up to eternal life.”
Some of us have been reading Luther. He says that faith isn’t one gift among many. It’s about God’s present with us and in us. Faith is our personal bedrock. It’s a root that enlivens everything else: our prayer, our church and community life, our efforts to serve can come up empty without it.
Luther says that faith is what can give us reason to get out of bed in the morning and go about our day. So most people must already have faith on some level – even just as the courage to live. I recently hung out with a friend in Los Angeles whose daughter is trying to get acting gigs in Hollywood. It takes a special drive and hope to persist, to keep going to auditions over and over when so few work out.
The question of faith is: what for us is worth our persistence? What energizes us to keep at it? What consoles us? In our reading from Colossians today we are called to continue in what God started: “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.” Our whole life is needed for this project. Like a tree, you’re rooted in Christ to be built up and grow to overflow with thanksgiving.
Today’s theme is faith as persistence. We don’t put faith behind us. It isn’t just for children. It’s true – when you’re a kid, you’re trusting – gullible. When I was a kid my cousins use to try to trick me into believing stuff. Like when one cousin had a cast on his arm and I asked – wide eyed – “what happened?” He said “I got attacked by six ruffians – they broke my arm, but in the end, I won the fight. You should see them.” In reality, I think he just fell down or something.
Kids are naïve. They can also be hopeful. But then you grow up – and everything seems so messed up – you get suspicious, wary. You maybe stop trusting, put faith behind you.
But Jesus says, faith is about persisting. He says – in a passage we’ll hear when we bless backpacks today – Jesus says to adults: “unless you receive the Kingdom of God like a child, you’ll never receive it.”
I have to think of this week – a hard one – with a tragic death of our friend Heather – a parent who also worked in schools and was so important to so many kids. Now we adults want to protect those kids from the trauma, hold them tight so they can get through this. But then, you wonder, can the kids help the adults in some way – help us poor adults get through? Inspire us stay hopeful? With the way they ask questions, stay curious? How they can fully cry one moment and fully laugh the next?
“Unless you receive the Kingdom of God as a child, you will never receive it.” Faith is miraculous. It’s fully sophisticated adults persisting in childlike trust, maybe in spite of ourselves.
It’s not just about beginnings. Maybe some of us remember a beginning, a moment of conversion. You’re born again. Flooded with warmth. You do a 180 degree turn, step away from all that was, into a new direction. The idea being, if that conversion moment is real and powerful enough, it’ll “take.”
Faith isn’t about that moment – it’s about what happens next. Again, persistence. What happens when life gets back to normal, when things are going pretty well? What happens when they’re not? When you’re overwhelmed? When it all starts falling apart?
It’s Jesus who uses the word “persistence” in today’s gospel reading. His topic is prayer – but as one theologian puts it – prayer is faith, actualized. Prayer is what faith does. Prayer is how faith persists. Faith prays.
Maybe, right now, I’m not feeling it. I’m not feeling God’s presence in my life. Maybe I’m not thinking it. I’m so distracted – there’s a lot going on. And it just doesn’t make sense. How could there be a God in this world? How could I believe, at this point?
Jesus gives us three ways for faith to continue in that moment: Ask. Seek. Knock.
Faith asks. I don’t have to just accept the way things are, that they won’t change. I don’t assume, this is all there is, that what you see is what you get. I ask. Of course, Jesus doesn’t say, “ask – and you’ll get an answer.” Jesus says “ask and you shall receive.” It may be that the one thing we do learn and keep learning – is about God’s generosity.
Ask, and Seek. Faith seeks. “Seek” here can mean to desire, scheme after, search for. Maybe just asking God doesn’t go far enough. When we have a question, we ask google, and if we can’t get an answer in 5 seconds, we assume it’s a great mystery and no one knows. But what we’re after is something important. Maybe it’s worth putting things on hold, getting up, going out, reading a book, talking to someone, going on retreat, spending time listening or journaling, leaving home and setting out on a journey.
We’re used to hearing that faith is about “surrender.” Again – acceptance – let go and let God. But it seems like faith can also be about not surrendering. It’s about being alive, searching, going out and getting.
I recently went to an exhibit of mostly Spanish art. One painting showed St Francis – by Zurbaran, who as someone pointed out to me one – has a way of making even clothes look vibrant and full of breath. In the painting, Francis looks powerful, like an athlete in mid-stride ready to take on all comers. But he isn’t shown running, he’s kneeling at prayer – and makes that activity look much more active or even aggressive.
It’s maybe strange that the lyrics of Townes Van Zandt come to mind: “Looking low and looking high, looking far and looking wide, I try to tell myself that I’m fine but it just ain’t true – it just won’t do. I’m still looking for you. Still looking for you. When the curtain tumbles down, I’ll be somewhere hanging round with my heart laid on the ground, still looking for you.”
“Seek and you shall find. Knock and the door will be opened to you.” The curtain will come tumbling down, and not because we gave it a yank. We’re that kid who has the courage to go up to the door, reach up high and give a solid knock. But it’s God who tears down the curtain, God who opens the door. God who comes out to meet us, or invite us in. So maybe – at last – we’ll finally see what we’ve been been wondering out.
We’re persistent. If when we knock the first time there’s no answer, we knock again a little louder, or ring the doorbell. We wait a few minutes.
One final thing about faith as persistence. I think many of us would say that persistence is exactly what’s wrong with faith. Use a different word: religious people are stubborn, obstinate. We’re no longer living in ancient times. We see now, that the world is older than a few thousand years, that there’s evolution and global warming.
Christians don’t even read their own bible with an open mind – it says so much about care for the poor and immigrants – but instead, the Christians stubbornly cling to what their fundamentalist pastors tell them is important. Which all sounds like a kind of faith which already has all the answers – and not a faith that asks – seeks – and knocks. The question is, what are we to believe in? What do we persist in believing? In God, but what about this God do we trust?
It seems like the biblical story does get at this question. It’s in all the readings today – The psalm: “I bow down toward your holy temple and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness … The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O LORD, endures forever.”
There’s a lot we don’t know. Questions, knocks at the door, unanswered. What we do trust in is God’s steadfast, faithful love. We trust that God’s love will find a way for us – for all of us.
Jesus says: “Everyone who asks receives. Everyone who searches finds. For everyone who knocks the door will be opened. If your child asks for a fish, will you give a snake? If your child asks for an egg, will you give a scorpion? If you – who are evil – know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more, how much more will your Heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.”
That last part might be surprising – and it’s only in the version of the story Luke tells – God will give the “Holy Spirit.” I don’t think it’s that instead of giving us what we do ask for – health and a good life – God instead makes us Spirit-filled Pentecosts. It’s more that God doesn’t just give us stuff: In love, God gives God’s self to us. Again, Luther in our Catechism says: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”
Faith is itself the gift. Faith isn’t just that we know God – it’s knowing that we ourselves please God. Faith isn’t our religion opinions – it’s the healing and hope for our hearts and minds that we crave desperately. We want courage. We want to be filled up with light and feel alive. We have so much that’s so amazing – but we want to actually feel gratitude.
In Luke’s gospel, when the Holy Spirit falls on someone – they’re filled with joy, even when they’re suffering. Faith is about persistence. The Holy Spirit is about promise: this sense that this moment and the future doors are and will be opened, the captives freed, debts forgiven, bread to share. Faith isn’t some attitude or piety we bring to God. It’s actually God in us, committed, loving, faithfully bringing us to life and keeping us alive.