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What Is Faith?
Mt. 9:35-10:8

From now until the first Sunday in Advent, about six months from today, this season of the church year is called "ordinary time." It is not often, during the Sundays after Pentecost, that the three scripture readings have any relationship to each other. I think it is significant that on this first Sunday in "ordinary time," all three scripture readings focus on the theme of faith. The Gospel of Matthew tells us that Matthew the tax collector agreed to be a disciple because of his faith in Jesus. The woman who had hemorrhages and the leader of the synagogue experienced healings because of their faith. In the epistle lesson, Paul talks about the righteousness of faith demonstrated by Abraham. And, in the Old Testament lesson, we have the story of Abraham's faith. Abraham, Ronald McGregor points out, had no religion. The son of an idol maker, he ran away from home at age seventy-five to live as an alien in the land God had promised him. He had no Bible. He had no church or temple. He had no priest except for a single encounter with Melchizedek. There was, for Abraham, no law of God. There was no church doctrine. There was no Gospel of Jesus Christ. There was only the direct invitation of God to follow. There was only his unqualified trust in God. There was only his dialog with God. Yet, for Jews, Moslems, and Christians, Abraham is the ultimate model of faith. Why? If someone were to ask you, what is faith, how do you know you have it? How would you reply? We all have some faith. Some of us have more than others. The very fact that we go to bed at night expecting to wake up in the morning is faith. When you came to church this morning, you expected the floor to hold you, the pew to seat you, and that the roof would not cave in on you. That is faith.

Why is it so easy to have faith in these things, and so difficult to have faith in God? Ray Stedman says that faith is like love, or being cool, once you try to look at it and analyze it, it disappears. He says: [we] think that if we can understand exactly what faith is, we somehow can produce it. . . . You can't find it anywhere. You can't get your fingers on it. You can't pin it down. . . . The very minute we try to look at it, it isn't there. Several people over the past thirty years have tried to analyze and categorize faith. I think I've told you that when Mom would get totally exasperated with my behavior, Grandma Katydid would say, "Muriel, it's just a stage she's going through." Years later, when I went to college, I discovered that people were getting paid big bucks to define what Grandma already knew. It all started in the late 1800's when a man from France, named Jean Piaget, recorded the orderly growth and development of his children. In the early part of this century, Erik Erikson of Harvard, defined seven stages of human psychological development from infancy to old age. Since then, there have been studies (and books) defining the stages of moral development, intellectual development, faith development, even the stages of death and dying. It seems Grandma Katydid was right. Everyone is going through some kind of stage these days! Old Father Abraham, though, had not the benefit of these scholarly tomes. He had no preacher to tell him what faith was. He had no bible to read about faith. He had no example before him. Yet, he is the model of faith for millions of believers. Why? If someone were to ask you, what is faith, how do you know you have it? How would you reply? Stedman says "faith is simply an awareness that there exist certain invisible realities which we cannot perceive with our five senses, but which we are nevertheless convinced exist by the evidence brought before us." The "evidence" Stedman talks about is what John Wesley called "prevenient grace." It is the grace that goes before grace, the grace that allows us to know that God exists and that God wishes to be in relationship with us. In other words, we have faith in God because God has given us faith in God. Now, most of us never know this. We grow up going to church, in families that encourage our participation in the wider community of faith. We hear the music before we know the words, we know the words before we can read them. The hymns of faith become part of our faith. We hear the rhythm of the words before we can understand them, we learn the patterns before we say them, and we learn the prayers and confessions before we comprehend them. We see the candles, the Christmas lights, the changing colors on the altar, and they become part of our faith's expression. Yet, these alone are not faith. For faith is more than a feeling or an understanding. Faith is also commitment and obedience to the One who has given us faith. Abraham didn't know where he was going, but he went. He didn't know why he was going, but he went. When he got to Canaan, God said "To your offspring I will give this land." So Abraham built an altar to the Lord. Then he traveled on. He didn't stay in Canaan. When he got to the "hill country on the east of Bethel," he built an altar to the Lord. Then he moved on. He didn't stay in the hill country. He moved on in stages toward the Negeb. In all that time, in all those stages, the only thing Abraham had to guide him was his belief in, his faith in God. When he built the altar at Bethel, Abraham "invoked the name of the Lord." In the ancient Middle East, each parcel of land had its own god looking after it. If you went to a new area, you prayed to, sacrificed to, worshiped that particular god. Abraham was a foreigner who had the absolute GALL (we call it faith now! :-) ) to invoke, to "make present" another God, a foreign one whom "everybody knew" had no power in that place! Yet Abraham invoked the name of the Lord. In that place. Abraham was willing to test God, to try God, to use God, to invoke the God he had never seen, never heard of, never been taught about, never sung about, never prayed about in all the seventy-five years of his life. What would happen if we began "invoking" God in places where "everybody knows" God has no power, no place, no relevance? Not just in our gathered congregation on Sunday morning, not just in hospital rooms or funeral homes, but on street corners, over crack houses, in AIDS hostels, in boardrooms, in banks, in government buildings (not to mention government meetings!), etc. What would it mean to invoke the power of God in your family, in your marriage, in your workplace? If someone were to ask you, what is faith, how do you know you have it? How would you reply? I can't tell you what faith is. I can't tell you if you have enough faith, or too much faith. I can only show you the standard – Abraham who had no reason at all to have faith, and because of faith, changed his life. There is one way in which Abraham was different from most of us. Abraham's faith made him take risks. If we talk about a person of great faith, we usually mean someone who attends church regularly, spends time in personal devotion, and serves others. We look to a spiritual leader, a role-model, someone who is quiet, unassuming, willing to serve God and Jesus and not seek credit or personal glory. If we wanted to see a person of faith, we would go to a church. Abraham, though, was a risk-taker. He had no church, he had no community from which he could comfortably exercise his faith. Abraham stepped out. He went to another country, an unknown country. When he got there, he tried to replace their god with his God. No doubt, he was unwelcome. Yet, because of his faith, he took the risk. The woman with hemorrhages risked ridicule, and the wrath of a man, when she reached out to touch Jesus' cloak. And, think about the leader of the synagogue. He asked this rebel rabbi to heal his daughter. Imagine David Ben Gurion asking Pope John the XXIII to baptize him. If he wanted to please the Scribes and Pharisees, a leader of a synagogue would have nothing to do with a rabbi whose preaching and ministry were left of center. Yet, because of their faith, the woman and the synagogue leader, to the risk. Too often, we are afraid to take the risks our faith tell us we should. We are comfortable putting an extra dollar or two in the offering plate for emergency relief, or refugees, or the homeless. Heaven forbid we should actually meet and talk with and minister to those people! We are comfortable with the way things are in our faith community. We would welcome the stranger who seeks us out, yet we are not comfortable seeking out strangers to welcome. We believe in ministry to children, yet we only want the beautiful, well-behaved, smart children in our church. We wish things are the way they used to be. We want the old hymns, the old prayers, the old preachers. We don't want rock music, drama and video in our worship. We are comfortable. We don't want to take risks. Yet, every night when we go to bed, we take the risk that we will get up in the morning. When you came to church this morning, you took the risk that floors would hold you, the pew would seat you, and that the roof would not cave in on you. That is risk. That is faith. You cannot have one without the other. I can't tell you what faith is. I can't tell you if you have enough faith, or too much faith. I can only tell you this, risk and faith are two sides of the same coin. If someone were to ask you, what is faith, how do you know you have it? How would you reply?