Benediction Online

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Faith and Faithfulness

I expect that most of you have read CS Lewis’s The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe or seen one of the TV or film versions. If you have not, then I strongly recommend the book which is an easy read. Four children find themselves in Narnia, an alternative world where the White Witch is pitted against the lion Aslan. The White Witch is a dangerous creature who turns anyone who dares to oppose her into a frozen statue and keeps the land in a permanent state of winter. Aslan, on the other hand, is a powerful and fearsome beast who is also deeply loving, and in turn is loved by the creatures of the forest.

This morning I’m going to talk about faith and faithfulness.

Faith is one of those words which has several different, somewhat confusing, uses. So first of all I’m going to talk about a definition that reminds me of the White Witch then with that out of the way we’ll talk about the faith that Aslan represents.

We often use ‘faith’ to mean a system of belief and ritual, for example when we say the ‘Abrahamic faiths’ or the ‘Christian faith’. Used like this ‘faith’ suggests two things – firstly that the Christian faith consists primarily of a specific belief system, and secondly that the Christian faith is something one joins or participates in by believing those specific things. When we use ‘faith’ in this way we are essentially using it to mean the same thing as religion.

Wilfred Cantwell Smith, who was a Canadian scholar of comparative religion, argued that those who are involved in living out a particular faith path – people like us - don’t see it as a system of beliefs and rituals – but as a fundamental life-giving orientation. He argued that those who first studied ‘religion’ took something that was fluid and meaningful to its practitioners and made it static and systematically defined by outsiders.

I agree with Wilfred Cantwell Smith – when we define Christianity as a set of beliefs or even a set of belief and rituals, it becomes lifeless and rigid. It’s as though the White Witch has cast a spell on faith, making it cold and static, lifeless and even rather boring. It becomes a list of things to believe, many of which require a suspension of disbelief, and a list of rules to follow.

That kind of White Witch faith does not interest me at all. And I don’t think it’s very Biblical. In fact I think that Jesus specifically preached against a cold winter faith which required keeping a set of rules and believing three or more impossible things before breakfast.

In today’s readings we hear that Abraham obeyed God because of his faith. This is a very different use of the word ‘faith’. Abraham did not obey God because he held a set of beliefs or had been taught specific rules about behavior. His faith was different - more like the faith we mean when we say that someone ‘kept faith’. Aslan kept faith with the creatures of Narnia when he came back to take their side against the White Witch. Abraham kept faith when he left Ur and set out into Palestine, not knowing where he was going. Yahweh kept faith when Abraham and Sarah finally had a son.

One of the significant themes of the Old Testament is that of the covenant between God and man, and God’s faithfulness to the covenant. God made a covenant with Noah that God would not again flood the entire earth, and the rainbow was the sign of this covenant. God made a covenant with Abraham that his descendents would be as many as the stars and that he would receive the land as an inheritance.

The writer to the Hebrews in today’s New Testament lesson has an interesting interpretation of this promise. He (or she) says that Abraham only lived in that land as a transient ‘for he looked forward to a city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God’. And at the end of the passage the writer says that ‘they’, ie the patriarchs and matriarchs, ‘desired a better country, that is, a heavenly one.’ Apparently the writer to the Hebrews didn’t take the promise of the land as literally as most interpreters but saw it as a promise of the future in a heavenly country.

However the important thing for our discussion this morning is the idea of Abraham’s faith. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval.” Because their faith was a trust in God’s faithfulness to the covenant. Their faith was their trust that God would be faithful, that God would keep faith.

We are always having faith in, or trusting things that we can’t see or touch. I trust my spleen. I’ve never seen it. I’ve never touched it. I’m not even sure where it is. I’ve never had an x-ray to make sure it’s there, where it’s supposed to be. But I trust that its there and go about my everyday life in the faith that it is and I know that if it ever stops working I’ll notice the difference.

That’s like the faith that we have in God. We don’t see God, we don’t know where God is, but we trust that God is active in our lives and we see the difference.

But on the other hand, that isn’t like the faith we have in God because it’s very passive. I don’t actively and intentionally engage with my spleen. We are called to keep faith with God in an active relationship.

Aslan the lion is a warm-blooded, active being who is deeply relational. The creatures of the Narnian forest talk about him and look forward to his coming. Our faith in God is similarly relational. It isn’t keeping to a religious system but having a relationship with the divine. Our faith is a response to God’s faithfulness. God is faithful in good times and in bad. But our faith is often weak in response.

There are many ways we can work to increase our faith, to increase our responsiveness to God’s love and the movement of God’s spirit in our lives. Developing holy habits is the most fundamental. By turning to God everyday in prayer, by spiritual reading, by keeping Sabbath and by tithing, we show our faithful response to God. Sometimes we don’t feel like doing it, sometimes prayer seems empty and shallow, but our faithfulness is found in showing up and doing it anyway.

“Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Do not be afraid little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give alms.’” Do not be afraid… for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. It takes tremendous courage then and now to give up our attachment to things, to busyness and to money in the bank.

When we take the risk to tithe, when we take the risk to allow a full day of Sabbath rest, when we take the risk to pray and turn our lives over to God… when we take the risk to trust in God’s faithfulness… we get to experience the kingdom of God in a whole new way.

Keeping faith with God is watching for the signs of God’s spirit moving and being ready to play your part in bringing God’s kingdom on earth. It’s more than trusting that there is a God, just as I trust I have a spleen. It is actively turning our attention away from the world and towards God.

We may not, like Abram, be called to leave life as we know it behind to go on a great journey. We may not be sent to serve God in deepest Africa. But we are called everyday to leave life as the world knows it behind and to put our focus, our trust in the living God. We are called to refuse the cold breath of the White Witch and to work for the return of Aslan with a faith that is vibrant, warm and earthy.

It may not be glamorous. We may not amount to much in the eyes of the world, but as Sister Teresa said, We are not called to be successful, just faithful’. May God help us all to be faithful to Spirit’s call.


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