Luke 16: 1-13
Once in a while I like to share with you one of the rules I created for myself. So far I have 13 of them. Today, let’s talk about rule number 5: Sometimes you have to choose the less damaging option. I know. It is not very positive or uplifting. It is sounds more like a variation on the concept of catch 22, the proverb “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t” or the myth of Inakalé. Let me explain this last one… of better, since we have the data projector installed in our sanctuary for my presentation about the future of the United Church right after our worship service, let me show it to you. I did my first Master’s degree in African History. My director had a huge collection of popular paintings from central Africa, and one of the recurrent themes in those paintings was the myth of Inakalé. On this painting we can see a man in a very dangerous situation. He is at the top of a tree that is about to fall. On another branch we can see a snake. The man cannot jump on the land because there is a lion waiting him. He cannot either jump into the river because of the crocodile. The man cannot stay put, and every possibility in front of him does not seem to offer a better solution. Sometimes you have to choose the least damaging option.
I taught of this rule after reading today’s text from the Gospel according to Luke. During his ministry, Jesus told many stories we often call parables. The meaning of some of them is quite straightforward while others are a little more obscure. This parable is probably the strangest of the New Testament and it has left a great number of commentators perplexed. Maybe this is why this story has so many different titles. Some Bibles used the subheading ‘the Parable of the Dishonest Manager’. However, in others we can read, ‘the Unjust Steward’, ‘the Clever Manager’, ‘the Shrewd Manager’, ‘the Resourceful Stewart, and ‘the Crafty Manager. The Common English Bible version, probably confused by all of this, prefers the title ‘Faithfulness with Money’.
Let us look back at this story. This parable has two main characters who are the owner and the manager and neither are not necessarily likable. First we have a rich man whose story is unknown beside the fact that many are significantly indebted to him and the owner does not seem to lose much sleep over this situation. Then we have a manager who is charged with squandering the property of the rich man. Without any form of investigation or further questioning, the rich man fires his manager. You’re fired! Facing impeding unemployment, our manager who does not want to work in the field or beg on the streets of the city, decides to do some dealing. He goes to a few of the owner’s clients and settles their debt at much lower conditions. You own 100 of jugs of olive oil? Write down fifty. And you, how many containers of wheat? 100? It’s 80 now. We should remember that the manager is not making deals with his own money. Also he does not have authority to reduce these debts. Nevertheless, he does it because he figures that the clients will be grateful and take care of him in the future. His apparent generosity is highly motivated by his own welfare. Then, the owner shows up and begins to praise his manager for doing exactly what led to the manager’s dismissal, squandering the resources of the owner. The manager who shows no regret, transformation or change of behaviour, moves from scumbag to hero. Everybody seems to be happy. The end.
Many has tried to analyze this parable through the lens of economic justice. As the expression says, money is the root of all evil. The broken relationships in the community and the manager’s arguable behaviour are caused by greed. Since we cannot serve two masters, we ought to choose God over Mammon. This interpretation is interesting if one overlooks the fact that the people’s debts are not completely erased. Others have come to this parable by trying to find God in this story. If God cannot obviously be the questionable manager, God has to be the rich owner… who does nothing to forgive or reduced the debts of the people. Once again we have a problem. The more I look at it, the more I am convinced that this parable has nothing to do with money. It is not about God either. This story is about all of us and our inability sometimes to keep our eyes on the big picture.
Many years ago, when I still had time to watch day time television, I came across an episode of Dr. Phil who was talking with a young couple. The wife was complaining because her husband was absent and never took her out. The man who was working 12 hours a day was saying he was too busy or too tired to find a restaurant, make reservations and plan everything. Dr. Phil suggested to the couple that the wife could choose a day she would like to go out, select two or three restaurants she would like to have dinner and the man would pick up the phone and make the rest of the arrangement. The wife replied that it was not very romantic. Dr. Phil looked at her and said, ‘Do you want to be right or do you want to go out?’ Do you want to be right or do you want to go out? This sentence stayed with me since then. Just ask the staff about the amount of time they heard me saying, ‘Do you want to be right or do you want to win?’ ‘Do we what to hold on to your principles at all costs or do we want to see this project being accomplished?’
Let me give you another illustration. On September 4th, the Roman Catholic church has canonized Mother Teresa, meaning her life should be considered to be an example for all believers. If the wide majority agrees with this statement, some has raised concerns about some of her questionable relationship with some dictators like Haiti’s Jean-Claude Duvalier or Albania’s Enver Hoxha. Others highlighted that Mother Teresa’s order accepted money from the British publisher Robert Maxwell, who stole 450 million pounds from his employees’ pension funds. There is also the case of Charles Keating who donated millions of dollars to Mother Teresa and had lent her his private jet when she visited the United States. Keating was charges with fraud following high-profile business failures. Should have Mother Teresa accepted this tainted money from questionable individuals who were trying to use her for public relations? Was she right to deal with political realities of the time in order to lobby for her causes? And yet, what was the alternative? Doing less work with limited resources? Letting the people die literally in the street of Calcutta in the name of some sort of purity? Which is the less damaging option, getting a bad name or the suffering of vulnerable people?
Of course, in a perfect world, we would not have to choose. Everyone would do the right thing for the right reason. Every project would follow the proper process. Every individual would be generous without being reminded. Every good initiative would receive the appropriate funding. Unfortunately, it is not always the case. Large corporations offer to give money to universities if they name a building after them. Organizations like the Canadian Cancer Society have to sell tickets offering the possibility to win trips and cars in order to raise money. Some people hit the jackpot at the casino and want to share their good future with their church. What should we do? Should we stay pure and adopt a holier than thou attitude? Should we remain on our moral high ground? Most importantly, what would be the cost of our rigidity? Will we have to choose eventually between our organ or our youth ministry? Will we have to decommission this building because the roof is leaking and we are unable to adapt to a new reality? Who will help the vulnerable in this neighbourhood? How important is the sustainability of our congregation?
Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that we have to sell out. I am not saying that everything goes as long as the money comes in. It is just that sometimes we need to be pragmatic. We need to keep our eyes on the big picture. In today’s parable, the manager is a self-interested man. His motivations are less than pure. He forgives the debts of the clients for all the wrong reasons. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, the actions of the manager made a difference. The level of debt of a community was reduced. For some family, maybe it meant being able to buy enough food, helping a sick neighbour or pulling resources together to upgrade local facilities. It would have been great if the manager had a change of heart and give unselfishnessly his own money. But even if it was not the case, something good emerged. Maybe it was a bit messy, but the lives of many were improved. Imperfect actions led to positive outcomes.
Today’s parable featuring an unrighteousness manager helps us, Church people, to remain focus what is really important. Do you want to be right and do everything according to what we consider the proper reason and way, or do we want to build what Jesus called the kingdom of God? In our imperfect world, sometimes we have to choose the less damaging option. Sometimes we have selected the best means to do all the good we can. By all the means we can. In all the ways we can. In all the place we can. To all the people we can. With every imperfect individual we can find. Amen.
1 Timothy 1: 12-17
Today is September the eleventh. Fifteen years ago, almost at this precise time, the United States surely lived its worst tragedy in its history. I know that unless you hid in a cave during last few years, you are all aware of this. It is everywhere in the news these days. The networks are asking people on the street, ‘Where were you when the twin towers felt?’ All sorts of journalists are trying to explain how our world has changed since that day. But despite the extensive coverage this topic received lately, one very crucial question remains under the radar. How have we changed during the last 15 years?
I do not know if you remember, shortly after the attacks President George W. Bush made a public appearance at Washington’s largest Islam centre and acknowledged the incredible valuable contribution that millions of American Muslims made to their country and called for them to be treated with respect. New York mayor, Rudy Giuliani on the 11th went on television not only to urge calm, but to remind New Yorkers not to take out their grief on Muslims. A few days later he held an interfaith prayer service in Yankee Stadium that brought Islamic clerics together with Christians and Jews. Of course there were stupid individuals who attacked everyone slightly looking foreign, but overall most understood that these terrorist attacks had little to do with Muslin faith. People were told that the Quran says in chapter 5, verse 53, “who kills a soul, unless it be for murder or for wreaking corruption in the land, it shall be as if had killed all humankind; and he who saves a life, it shall be as if he has had given life to all humankind”.
Unfortunately, much happened during last 15 years. We went through the most important economic recession since 1929 that hit mostly the traditional white middle class. Every week in popular TV series like 24, NCIS or Homeland, characters are investigating, arresting or stopping Muslims before they kill innocent Americans. Because of few terrorist attacks or close call, we now have to show up at the airport at least 3 hours in advance to go through all the security checks, our parliament has been turned into a fortress and our governments are spying our phones and communications without our consent. We have seen the emergence of a new class of politicians who use fear as an edge. They take rhetoric and ideas from the margin and bring them in the main stream by giving their supporters a megaphone or a box of matches. Maybe the worst part of it is that we let them do it; sometimes we elected them. Lately some of these men and women, both in Canada and the U.S., are asking for extreme vetting of immigrants to select only those who believe in our values, like hard work and the equality between genders – as if it was the case for every citizen living here. In France we still can witness the kerfuffle around the Burkini and the debate about the amount of fabric Muslim women – not men - the amount of fabric women should wear at the beach.
At the end of the Cold War, we have been told we were entering into a new world order in which there would be no more major divisions or conflicts. With the events of 9/11, we cannot say we changed much; we just returned to our old practices and beliefs. We returned to a binary understanding of the world, the good old us against them. You are with us or you are against us. If you want to adopt our values, traditions or religion, you are a good guy, but if you don’t, it means you are one of them. We returned to suspicion and fear of everyone who is different. We returned to xenophobia. One of the main reasons people voted yes for the Brexit was immigration, and let’s be honest; it was not because there were too many French or Spaniards in England. Immigrants, Muslims and strangers are now part of some kind of a blur of suspicious individuals.
Organized religion also took a beating during the last 15 years. For many it was become a synonym for violence, division and the opposite of science and modernity. Because of a few nut cases, more than 4 billion people associated with the major religions of our world are often labelled as backward and outdated. Honestly we did not help much to change this perception. Of course there were a fair number of initiatives here and there to bring people together so we may know each other better. We are delighted when our magazines write about a Mosque in Toronto that welcomes members of the LGBT community. We study among ourselves the multiple paths leading to the same God. And yet, because we are so obsessed about the survival of our institution and congregations, the accuracy of the theology of our clergy, the place we lost in the public life of our country or the secularization of our society, we haven’t offer a real alternative to the main narrative about religion. Our best answer is often, “We are not like them”.
In the first letter to Timothy – I had to come back to the Bible eventually. I am delivering a sermon after all. In the first letter to Timothy we can read the story of a religious man whose past is marked by violence and persecution. The author of this biblical text writes in the voice of the apostle Paul, a fairly common practice in the Ancient world. He or she presents Paul’s faith journey in a form of a testimony. In mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics churches, we tend to get a little uncomfortable when people start testifying to what God has done in their lives. We do not do that. We are not like them. A good intellectual and theological lecture is what we expect, even if studies show us that younger people like Generation X and Millennials respond better to personal and authentic stories about how God is present and active in someone’s life.
From the Book of the Acts of the Apostles and the multiple letters we can find in our bibles we know that Paul travelled the Mediterranean world to plant new churches. We read the story of the transformative experience Paul had on the road to Damascus. We also aware of his past, even if it makes us uncomfortable, even if we sometimes wish we could skip over it. Paul persecuted with zeal the first disciples of Jesus. He used violence against those who professing a different creed. He was a perfect example of what we accuse religious people these days.
And yet, this is the man God chose… and we should not be surprised. Paul saw what it means to create divisions among the population. He witnessed firsthand how the fabric of a community can be broken by intolerance and fear. One day Paul changed. He said enough of this nonsense. Enough of this violence. Enough of this bigotry. He travelled around the Roman Empire. He met different sorts of people from various cultures and origins. He came to the conclusion that there should be no more us against them. There should be no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female for we are all one in Christ. We are all together in this journey we call life. Paul’s radical exclusion was transformed into radical inclusion. In good times and challenging times, love, grace and mercy should be offered to all without exception.
We live in a frantic post-9/11 world. Since these events, our world has changed and at the same time it is the same. We might have opened our doors and borders to some refugees and immigrants, but our society remains afraid of all of those who are different than us. For this reason, it is essential for religious people like us to challenge the language around us. We need to wake up, to get out our defensive mode and to share how God’s mercy and love makes a difference in our lives. We should not be afraid to testify about our stories, because, maybe I am biased here, I am convinced our message is better and more inclusive that we have heard for the last 15 years. Amen.
Luke 12: 49-56
Last week I said that I was trying to refrain from beginning my sermons with Donald Trump. Once again, he did not make it easy for me with latest declarations. Let’s talk about this instead. Maybe some of you have noticed this poster in my office. It was released approximately 10 years ago by the United Church of Canada during the Emerging Spirit / Wondercafe initiative. It is a Bible with yellow Post-It in it (which means agree) and pink ones (disagree). I like this poster because it makes me think of my mother. One day, I was going through her books and I discovered a little New Testament in which she had stroke with a pencil all the parts she did not like or should not be in the Bible. I miss her.
One of the passages heavily crossed out in my mother’s New Testament was today’s text from the Gospel according to Luke. Up to this point in chapter 12, Jesus teaches to the crowd his usual message. We should trust in God. We should not worry about what tomorrow will bring. It is very beautiful. Then, out of nowhere, he seems to switch gear and begins to claim, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” Later, he continues with, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” What? Jesus understood his ministry as bringing fire on earth and division in our families? Yikes! No wonder so many ministers take their holidays during the month of August. Who wants to preach on that?
For most of us, our first inclination after reading this passage is to believe that someone else came up with these words and put them into Jesus’ mouth, because, let’s admit it, these verses make us uncomfortable. When we close our eyes and try to imagine Jesus, we often see a tall charismatic man, surrounded by his friends, welcoming children, preaching a message of peace and forgiveness, and proclaiming to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us. That’s the Jesus we love. He is not supposed to be like some politicians aiming to divide the people of God with inflammatory rhetoric. No. There is enough divisiveness present in society these days, we do not need to hear in our churches word that seemingly encourage more of it. Our Savour, Redeemer and Messiah cannot be someone who keeps packing the powder keg. It makes no sense.
And yet, if we read our bibles we would discover conflicts everywhere. Upon his birth, the prophet Simeon said that Jesus would be a sign of contradiction. When he began to preach, Jesus’ brothers did not believe in him and his family tried to apprehend him as insane. Jesus was rejected by his home town of Nazareth. The people of Capernaum try to throw him in a cliff. A Samaritan village would not even let him enter their town. Virtually all religious leaders of the land opposed him fiercely. And Jesus finished his life executed by the Roman Empire that did not usually crucified people claiming ‘blessed are the peacemakers’. We can try to wiggle out of Jesus’ words as much as we want, it remains that his teachings were profoundly subversive. To preserve our safe and soft version of Jesus, we have to disregard significant chunks of gospel material.
Maybe it is difficult to speak of this side of Jesus in our churches because we have been taught that good Christians avoid strife and conflicts among themselves. Unity is a prime virtue preached from our pulpits. Ut Omnes Unum Sint (That all may be one) appears on our United Church’s crest. We should never be divided in our communities of faith. When someone comes with a potential controversial idea, we often say, Do not open this can of worms. Don’t ruffle feathers. Do not create a riff on our congregation. Some people might leave us. Let us wait for a consensus to emerge. Let us preserve peace in our rank. Be patient and try to tolerate the current situation.
Tolerate. I do not believe there is a worst word in our vocabulary than tolerate. To tolerate is not to embrace, accept or value something or someone. To tolerate is to allow the existence without hindrance; to endure without repugnance. When we tolerate someone, we are saying, ‘I do not like you. You can remain here. I will try to say nothing… in your face, but in my mind…’ Tolerate is the word used by the majority when it tries to overlook the differences of minorities that make them uncomfortable. Tolerate is the word that comes up when we are unable to grant equal rights and protection to the vulnerable in our society. Tolerate is the word we repeat to ourselves when we are told we cannot change our world.
Jesus did not come to teach us how to tolerate one another or preserve peace at all costs. To all of those who told him, and still telling us, to keep our place, to preserve the status quo and to silence our voices for the sake of maintaining unanimity, Jesus answered an unapologetic No. We cannot remain silent in front of institutions based on discrimination. We are called to resist the powerbrokers of our world who abuse their privileges. We are summoned to take a firm stand and even risk our relationships with the people we love to work against injustices and inequities.
Surely, it would have been easier for Dietrich Bonhoeffer to rally the majority of his people and refrain confronting the Nazi regime because they were too dangerous. Many criticized Martin Luther King for his appeal to civil disobedience and public protest because it created chaos. Some supplicate the commissioners of the 38th General Council of the United Church not to open the door to the ordination of gays and lesbians because it could break our denomination. They have been told that it was not the right time and they should wait a little longer. But evil had to be defeated. Systematic racism had to be broken. Homophobia has to be overcome. Like them, we cannot remain silent when what is just and right is denied to our brothers and sisters, even if it means creating divisions in our midst, in our families.
As disciples of Jesus the Christ we are called to follow in his footsteps and to be actively involved in the transformation of our world. We are called to promote peacemaking, mercy and justice even if it leads us to face mockery and rejection. We are called to defend the human rights of our friends and enemies even if it is not popular among our peers. We are called denounce unjust policies of our democratically elected governments even if it means to publicly oppose our leaders. We are called to mend God’s creation even if it requires to turn our back to some industrial sectors of our economy. We are called to work for social justice even if it puts in jeopardy our own comfort and safety. Our voices, our actions and our defiance might not be always understood or accepted by our friends or family. Nevertheless, our faith and beliefs drive us to work for justice and renewal.
Today’s extremely challenging passage from the Gospel according to Luke is one of the numerous calls made by Jesus to subvert our social order. Over and again we have been told to oppose the agenda of those who use wealth, power, religion or family ties to abuse the common good. As Christian we are not called to preserve peace at all costs, tolerate one another or accept blindly everything we have been taught about Jesus or the Bible. We are called to stand on our own two feet and to be strong, courageous and unafraid of potential divisions when we ought to say, no, this is not acceptable anymore. Amen.
Jeremiah 1: 4-10
Ordained ministry could be very good for the personal ego. Each week, ministers like me speak for approximately 15 minutes on a subject of our liking and people come to listen to us. And then, as soon as we are done, people open their wallet and give us money. Are we amazing or what? How many politicians do you think truly envy our position? Everyone in his or her right mind must aspire to have our job. Believe it or not, some individuals, when they are called to this life, are not very willing to accept it. Some people… like me among others. The first few times I heard God’s call, I probably used all the excuses in the book to avoid it: I speak in English with a French accent; I am too young; I do not know all the right theological lingo, like grace, salvation and regeneration; people will throw me tomatoes in the middle of my sermons because of my bad jokes… Like many others, I did not believe that ministry was for me. I doubted that I was called.
To be called… This concept of being called by God has played an important part in the history of the people of God and is still used in Christian circles these days, but sometimes in more or less convincing ways. Ministers often feel called to go to a new church, especially if it is offering better conditions. A congregation could feel this strong call to get rid of their very boring minister. This last week, as we were hosting Camp Awesome, I felt that God was calling me to eat those chocolate chips cookies in the kitchen. I resisted this call, but it was hard.
Maybe I am joking about being called by God because my call was not as spectacular as Jeremiah’s. During a very troubled time in the history of Israel, when the Babylonian army was wiping everyone on their way, God shows up in the life of Jeremiah and without any other sort of introduction says, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” I will notice that there is no discernment committee, academic test, psychological analysis, or even an evaluation of spiritual gifts. Jeremiah is not even asked about his opinion. God commissioned him to be a prophet to all the nations. That’s it.
How do you think Jeremiah reacted to this marching order? ‘Yes, God! Please send me! This is the fulfillment of all my dreams!’ Not really. As many prophets before and after him, Jeremiah is not particularly keen to become the messenger of God in a word plagued by violence, corruption, injustice, and inequities. Furthermore, we are told a few verses before today’s reading that Jeremiah grew up in a priestly family from the town of Anathoth. This means he knows exactly the kind of life he had been called. He knows that throughout the history of the people of God, prophets suffered hardship at the hands of their own people. He knows that they have been criticized, opposed and rejected by virtually everyone. He knows their message led them often to be persecuted and even imprisoned. Who in his or her right mind want to have this job?
As you can guess, Jeremiah’s first reaction was to try to reject God’s unilateral appointment. He also used all the excuses in the book. He reminds God that he did not know how to speak; he is too young; he does not have any qualifications or credentials to fulfil this task and the people will not listen to him. Here, Jeremiah does not try to be cute or humble in front of God. He is just deeply convinced that ministry is not for him. God must have made a mistake. There are some who might be good at this, but people like him cannot be called to be a messenger of God’s words.
In our Protestant churches, we tend to like the concept popularized by Martin Luther of the universal priesthood or the priesthood of all believers. We appreciate the idea that clergy is not necessarily better than lay people. Some congregation even write in their bulletin: ministers – all of us. However, when push comes to shove, how many times have we heard that only ministers or priests are really called by God to do serious and important ministry? How many times have we believed that some are made to follow this path and we are not among these people? We say, ‘I could not do that. I do not have the proper training. I do not have much to give. I am too old. I am too young. I am too busy. I value too much my own freedom. I understand we all are supposed to be ministers to one another. I also know there are many different kinds of ministries. But, surely there is a mistake. I am not the one you are looking for God. Talk to the guy at the front of the church instead.’
To all our excuses to avoid being involved in God’s church, to all the reasons Jeremiah used to avoid being a prophet, God, like a good parent, replies, I hear your worries, your concerns and your doubts. And yet, “Do not be afraid for I am with you”. God reassures and empowers us because God knows who we are and what we are capable of doing. God has known Jeremiah since his first moment of existence. For this reason, God is not scared to set him apart and to dedicate him for a specific ministry to his people. Jeremiah is simply invited to trust God, go wherever and to whomsoever he is told, to proclaim God’s good news to the nations, and to remember that God will always be with him.
Despite what we might believe, we are all called to be involved in the life of the Church. We have been chosen to take part in a myriad of ministries, like preaching, playing music, teaching children, empowering youth, visiting seniors, listening to those who are grieving, raising money to support overseas and local missions and so on. Yes, some of those ministries might be more spectacular. People tend to notice more those who are reading scripture on Sunday mornings than others who maintain our property during the week. Nevertheless, all of these ministries are important. They are all valuable. We are called to use the gifts we received from God for the good of the people of God.
This brings us to Benjamin and Elizabeth. During their baptism, we have affirmed that they belong to the great family of God, the communion of saints, the people of God. We haven’t said they will be welcomed in this church when they are old enough to remain silent and still during a full sermon, when they are able to recite the right prayers at the right moment, when they have memorized everything the history of the United Church or when they finally take our place on a committee of our congregation. We have said that today, despite the fact they might find this service way too long or keep asking when they will be able to eat cake, they have the same right to be in this sanctuary than all of us. They are now an important part of the church. Since God already knows them, they can grow up with you the role they are called to accomplish in our world without being afraid because will always be there with you.
The story of Jeremiah’s call speaks to our call as Christians. While we might not be called to be a powerful and famous prophet like Jeremiah, we are still all called by God to make a difference in our world. Even if we are afraid and feel that we are not up to the task, we can be reassured by the fact that God knows who we are and the ministries we can fulfil. No matter how many reasonable or unreasonable excuses we may offer, God is there watching out for us, waiting patiently for our answer and even inspiring us in the words we say and the actions we accomplish for the benefit of all. A
Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16
I have to tell you, this morning that I was very tempted to begin my sermon with Donald Trump and all the controversies he drawn to himself during the last few days. And then I said to myself that you probably already have enough of this nonsense, racism and attacks against… everyone… even babies. Instead, let us begin on a more positive note with a clip from the movie “Despicable Me”. For those who do not have children or grandchildren in your lives, it is the film that gave us the Minions. Basically, it is the story of Mr. Gru who is plotting the biggest heist in the history of the world. He wants to steal the moon. To achieve his plan, he uses three little orphan girls as pawns and, after he is done, he sends then back to the orphanage. Later, the evil Viktor kidnaps the girls and Gru realizes he made a mistake.
By the way this is the best movie about adoption ever made. We have heard often the expression a leap of faith. This is Pixar’s version of it. The girls are confronted by a difficult decision. Can they trust a man who let them down? Without any new data, they have to choose between relying on past experiences or believing this time Mr. Gru really means what he says. Interestingly Gru also has to take a leap of faith. He has to put his life in jeopardy by walking on a wire and jumping to catch Margo, literally without a safety net. Both are saved by Minions who also put their lives on the line. This is not how the rescue operation was planned. Still, it worked because everyone decided to trust each other. Despite all the odds and evidences at their disposal, they chose to have faith in one another.
This morning’s passage from the letter to the Hebrews addresses the question of faith. Some of us struggle with this concept because of the ways it is repeatedly used in our churches. Too often, faith is presented as a synonym of orthodoxy. The faithful (meaning the good Christians) are those who do not question the existence of God, dogma, the Bible or even the minister. For them, faith is following the party line and accepting what they are told. Period. If I may, I believe they are wrong, because this is not faith. Faith is different from theology which is the attempt to organize, structure and reason a belief system, like the New Creed we said a few minutes ago. Faith is also different from religion which is about rituals, sacraments, prayers and hymns. I am not saying that one is better than the other. All serve their purposes. It is just that faith is something else, something a little more messy, chaotic, intermittent and sometimes full of surprises.
The 11th chapter of the letter to the Hebrews tries to tackle this eluding concept by presenting a long list of biblical characters who can be considered great examples of faith. The most prominent member of this Hall of Fame is Abraham who one day left behind his extended family, his home and his security to set out for a land which God promised to his descendants. Abraham had no idea what awaited him. He had no guarantees regarding the multiple challenges he would face. Yet, despite all appearances, lack of certainties and anything else telling him to run in the other direction, Abraham believed in God’s promise. He accepted to jump into this adventure that defied common sense because somehow deep down he knew that God would not leave nor fail him.
This sort of gut feeling is hard to define for most of us. We often prefer to use examples and share stories of real people who had an influence on us. We might think of those who helped us in the past to become more than we believed we were. We might think of parents, grandparents or other role models who loved and challenged us at the same time. We might think of all of those who worked hard to be the people of God and invested time and energy so the next generations could continue their endeavours after they would be gone. All those individuals are the embodiment of what we call faith.
Even if it is difficult, the author of the letter to the Hebrews attempts to define faith. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Faith is not knowing, touching or analyzing the results of a scientific experiment. Faith is a hunch. Faith is a maybe. Faith is a journey that has no beginning or end. Faith is the absence of assurance, poofs or certitude. In the words of Mark Twain, “faith is believin’ what you know ain’t so.” It is believing there is something greater than us. It is believing that promises not yet fulfilled are still meaningful.
But faith is not easy. It requires a considerable amount courage, determination and risk taking. I am sure it is easier to be cynical, to trust only in self or accepting only what can be touched and seen. Sometimes faith requires to rely on someone who could deceive us. Sometimes faith requires to let go of our desire to control everything around us and to trust in the decision of others. Sometimes faith requires to strive for the best in the worst of times. Sometimes faith requires to believe that God’s blessings will outnumber the stars in the sky. Most of us struggle to remain faithful when we are really confronted with difficult situations. Yet, with faith, we can remain confident that eventually everything will be okay.
Maybe the greatest manifestation of faith in our life is having children. I am serious. When we think rationally about it, no one with an ounce of sanity would do it. It is estimated that it cost $200,000 to bring a child to the age of 18… and you have two of them now. This is on top of all those hours of sleep that you will never see again, the endless hours of arguments on the most trivial topics or all the time spent running from one activity to another. It does not make sense and yet we do have children. We love them deeply. We hope they will grow up, develop all sorts of gifts and abilities, and become great people. We have faith that despite all the problems ahead of us, we will manage and it will be okay. And as you brought your child to be baptized this morning, our congregation also takes a leap of faith. Like I said a few minutes ago, no obligations are put on you or Mia-Lee to come back here ever. There will be no coercion, shaming or reproaches. We just made promises to each other and we will hope that Mia-Lee will find her own path and remember what has been done this morning. We will all live in faith.
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. It is what helps us to see the truth hidden sometimes beneath appearances. Faith is going beyond what we may know in order to discover new possibilities. Faith is the ultimate promise made to all of us. This morning Mia-Lee might not have understood a word we have said, but nevertheless she receives the assurance that God loves her unconditionally and in the most difficult moments God will be there to tell, ‘You can take a step further. Hold my hand. We will take this leap together. You can have faith in me because I will never abandon you’. Amen.