Living Substantially

Luke 12:32-40

I know I’ve only been here a week, but let’s be honest with each other. How many of you buy a lottery ticket every now and then? I’m not going to ask how many of you promise God that you will tithe to the church if you win, because I am certain ALL of you already tithe. 😉

We probably would be generous if we won the lottery, but how many of us honestly believe we WILL win? Lots of hope in the room, but not a lot of faith.

The truth is the odds of getting struck by lightning are greater than the odds of winning the lottery. Few of us go out every day trusting that lightning will strike us. In fact, we hope it won’t.

A pastor saw a very poor member of their church buying a lottery ticket one day. She asked him, “Do you really believe you are going to win?”

The old fellow answered, “No, but a dollar is a pretty cheap price for a couple of days of hope.”

The writer of the book of Hebrews understood there was a potent connection between hope and faith. They also understood that there was an important difference, so they wrote:

Faith is the substance of things hoped for;
the evidence of things not seen.

Or as the New International Bible translates it:

Faith is the confidence of what we hope will actually happen;
it gives us assurance about things we cannot see.

Faith and hope. That connection is important because all too often what we really want is certainty that the things we hope for will come to pass. That isn’t faith; it is magical thinking.

Some of us believe that we struggle to have faith. I suggest that is not true. I mean, how many of you have ever ridden in a New York City taxi? That takes a lot of faith. We eat in restaurants where we’ve never seen the kitchen or met the cook. We eat dishes with no idea about what the ingredients are. It takes faith to eat in an NYC hole-in-the-wall.

We type our credit card into a website or stick our entire paycheck into a slot in a machine. We put a pill in our mouth with faith that the doctor and pharmacist knew what they were doing. We have faith that this medicine whose name we can’t pronounce will heal us.

What are other ways you can think of that we exercise faith every day?

I’ve always thought of love as a muscle we need to exercise. Now, one look at me and you know that I’m the last person on the planet who should be talking about muscles and exercise.

My idea of exercise is taking a warm bath, pulling the plug, and fighting the current. I’ve learned that, any time I get the urge to exercise, chocolate is the cure. Still, I think faith is a spiritual muscle that needs exercise to be effective and coordinated.

Upon returning to New York City after a year in Connecticut, where we drove everywhere in an air-conditioned car, my feet and legs were shocked by how much responsibility they have for getting me around my once-again new hometown. They are finally getting in shape and rarely punish me for exercising them too much.

If you expect your faith to carry you spiritually, you must learn to exercise it. Otherwise we become like the woman in the hospital whose pastor came to visit. After listening to her list of ailments, the pastor said, “Well, let’s pray, shall we?”

Whereupon the patient replied, “Oh my, has it come to that?”

If faith is our last resort, then it should not surprise us that it lets us down just when we need it most.

Given all that is going on in our country, I’d say we need it a great deal right now. It is altogether too easy to let anger, or fear, or cynicism dominate out days.

This week was the fifth anniversary of the killing of Michael Brown. Reports are that, under the current administration, things in Ferguson may be even worse today than then. What has happened to the “Black Lives Matter” movement? Did they go the way of “Occupy Wall Street”? Truthfully, anger can be sustained only for so long before it morphs into cynicism.

Only by faith can our anger be channeled into meaningful and sustained change. While anger can lead us to attack injustice, faith strengthens us to replace injustice. Darkness cannot cast out darkness, but even a little bit of light can do the job.

Notice Jesus never talked about mountains of faith. Fortunately, he didn’t call us to exercise our faith until we became spiritual muscle builders; rather, he spoke of the power of faith as small as a mustard seed. That is the faith that can give substance to the things we hope for.

The key is we must place our faith in something or someone more powerful than ourselves.

As many of you know, I was pastor of a church in Dallas that grew into a mega-church with 2,500 people in attendance and another 65,000 people worshiping on television and the Internet. I thought we were doing pretty good, especially because we were a progressive, inclusive church in Texas.

There is a church in Houston, south of that congregation, where more than 25,000 people gather for worship and millions more watch on TV. As a professor of church growth, I’ve tried to listen to Brother Joel Osteen to figure out why so many show up each week.

His message is joyful and faith-filled. He challenges people to think positive thoughts, especially about themselves and their circumstances. The trouble is it seems to be all about them.

I’ve never heard him challenge his congregation to take their faith into the world to move the mountains of racism, or economic inequality, or sexism. As I discovered in Texas, challenging things like capital punishment, or the gun culture, or the environmental racism of the oil industry can reduce your congregation of 25,000 to 2,500 pretty quickly.

If “faith is the substance of things hoped for,” I suppose it pretty much comes down to what it is you hope for. Do you hope only for a better life for yourself, or do you hope for a better world for everyone?

In the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus said that it was God’s good pleasure to give us the Kingdom/Dominion of God. As I read that, I thought, “If that is true, then why do so few us experience the Reign of God on earth as it is in heaven?” Why are we still praying for it to come 2,000 years later?

Perhaps God’s reign in our lives and our world isn’t really what most of us hope for. Maybe we prefer Joel Osteen’s idea that, by faith, we can get rich, have a good marriage, and never get sick.

Jesus tried to teach us to hope for more and exercise our faith to make this world more like God’s reign on earth where there is room at the table for everyone.

Tonight, I want to ask you to join me and exercise your faith in three specific areas. I’m asking you to deliberately resist the negative, put aside your doubts, and embrace the possibilities.

  1. First, I ask you to have faith in your new pastor. It has been a while since you had a new pastor, and I believe you called me here to renew the church. I also believe God has prepared me all my life for this moment and called me here to help this congregation to reclaim the powerful ministry that is our history and legacy. No, we aren’t likely to attract 4,000 people every Sunday again, but, if we can create a progressive spiritual center for empowering lives to change the world, we might have 4,000 people worshiping with us online. We also might discover new ways to be a church-without-walls.

  2. The second place you need to have faith is in you. You need to believe that, just as God has called me here for such a time as this, so, too, God has called you here. Faith isn’t about believing in ourselves; it is about believing in God and discovering a meaningful life of divine purpose. I’m asking you to believe with me that the Living God is not finished with you or with this church.

  3. Finally, I call on you to trust in the goodness and grace of God. I know that’s hard when the news is bad. Too often our faith is like “Pascal’s Wager.” We believe in God just in case there is a God. We’re hedging our bets, but that isn’t really faith. Faith is trust, and you can only really trust someone you love and who you believe loves you. I believe it is time for progressive Christians to fall in love again.

Too much of our faith is by head alone. Okay, I believe you are smart. Hopefully, you believe I am, too, at least as smart as someone with this accent can be.

What we need now is to get out of our heads and into our hearts. We need to have a new love affair with God because only then will we find our icy cynicism melting and watering the mustard seeds of faith that will move mountains.

AMEN.