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February 20, 2005 (Lent II)

Intern Pastor Katy Grindberg

Gen 12:1-4a; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17

Brothers and sisters, grace and peace to you from God our loving creator and from Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. Amen.

We find in Paul's letter to the Romans contains the foundation of Lutheran theology--justification by grace through faith. In today's reading we get a portion from the fourth chapter of Romans where Paul traces the Christian's faith history to Abraham. Abraham, the father of the Jewish faith and through Christianity's ties to Judaism, the father of the Christian faith as well. The promise to Abraham, that we heard in the first reading, was that he would participate in the divine purpose, that he would have many descendants. Paul tells us that this promise came to Abraham through faith. In fact, he points out, it came before the law, it came before his promised descendants; so, the argument goes, faith alone is needed to receive God's promised gifts. As descendants of Abraham, we inherit this gift of God's grace through faith.

But that's where things get kind of tricky. What is faith, after all? It is a hard thing to nail down. It is difficult to define, theologians don't even agree on what "faith" is. It is also difficult to explain, as you know if you have ever tried to describe to someone else what your personal faith is. In The Heart of Christianity, by Marcus Borg he traces different meanings of the word "faith" throughout history. One of these meanings is one that you are likely very familiar with--Faith as belief. Our modern way of thinking about faith has become about believing as an intellectual exercise.

I used to have a friend that said that he believed in God because of ice--not the drug, the cold stuff. According to him, ice is the only solid state that is able to float in its liquid state. This aberration of physics has helped him "believe." Because there is not a scientific explanation, God must be real. For him, faith is very much an intellectual exercise.

We have phrases that speak to this understanding: "Crisis of faith" or "My faith was shaken." Many of you have gone through it. Something happens--an event, or just part of the natural developmental process--we come to the point where we announce, "I just can't believe this stuff anymore." We can't reconcile what we learned in Sunday School with the world around us and our faith is shaken. Many of you have your own stories around those kinds of experiences, I'm sure. The first one I can recall happened when I was in fourth grade. We must have been studying Genesis in Sunday School, and earth science in school, because I could not make the two mesh. They were not compatible in my mind, and I clearly remember my asking my mother about this. And she just looked at me and said, "Have you ever thought that Genesis may not be talking about 24 hour days." I don't remember any more of our conversation, but as our response often depends on the reaction of those we tell, I was given a tool to walk into a new way of thinking about "belief."

Oddly, or many not so oddly, this happens a lot at seminary. Especially when learning about historical / literary aspects of the Bible, if something new is introduced that challenges a student's way of thinking about things up to that point, it can easily shake a person's faith. Because of many of us, faith is intellectual, it is about saying yes, giving your assent to something that you can understand. It is largely about intellect.

Another of Borg's categories is faith as a radical trust in God. At my first reading this explanation seemed better. It doesn't involve intellectual principles, it is relational. But then I started to think about it and I started to wonder, because like most people I haven't always had positive experiences with trust. There have been personal betrayals of my trust by friends or family; times when I have broken trust with myself, or when I have broken the trust of others. There are also institutional betrayals. Do you remember the first time you discovered that the world wasn't fair?

And as a society we've learned to be suspicious of those who trust, to devalue trusting others. Reality TV shows are a big business. Many of these shows entertain by showing people perverting the trust of others. In the language of Survivor, there often is a building up of alliances and then one person subverts the trust of others, stabs other people in the back, to advance his or her own interest. And millions of us tune in each week, waiting with glee to wait for this to happen. Many of us have learned to accept the fact that we can't trust our government leaders. We have had a string of presidents that have admitted that they lied, and it doesn't even shock us any more. We maybe have come to expect it. Many of us lack trust in the media. You may say to yourself, "the parent company of this news agency is extremely conservative or liberal," and you are unable to trust what they report. As a society, we approach our leaders, our media and sometimes each other with a great deal of suspicion and cynicism.

And so, no, maybe the idea of faith as trust isn't such a good concept after all. But trusting God is different, you may say. But, if like me, you have lost trust in God, you are not alone. The Bible is full of stories about people who lost trust, and let their fear rule their relationship with God. This often brought about a "crisis of faith" and a turning away from God's call on their lives

Trust in God IS different from trusting other people, or even ourselves. Borg compares this difference to water. When you learned to swim, or when you learned to swim yourself, the first thing you do is float. As once you learn to float, you usually don't give conscious thought to the water. The water is just there, holding you up and supporting you. And so, Borg says, radical trust in God is "trusting in the buoyancy of God." Like the water, God is with and under you, a constant companion, supporting and enveloping you.

Let's return to faith as believing for a moment. Borg goes on to talk about the pre-17th century meaning of the word "believe" as "love." And so, rather that belief as something that is intellectual, faith as believing is about loving God. And, as Christians, we come to know God through Christ. Through Jesus you meet God, you know who God is and what God's fullest wish for you. As the gospel lesson for today reminds us, in one of the most familiar Bible verses, maybe the first you ever memorized: "For God so loved the world, that God's gave God's beloved son so that whoever believe in him--whoever loves, and trusts him--may have eternal life."

You know God through Jesus and you meet Jesus in the bread and wine of communion, and as you gather as a community to worship, pray, sing and fellowship. As members of the Body of Christ in the world Christ moves among you, and you bring Christ into the lives of others as you live out your life in the world.

You met Jesus in the water of your baptism--and you continue to meet him there any time you recall the promises of your baptism. And through that same water you are reminded of the buoyancy of God, and God's promise to always be there with you, whether you perceive God's presence or not.

May the Lord of peace himself, Jesus Christ give you peace today and every day. Amen.

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