Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Perils of a Recycled Faith

Who do you say that I am? (Proper 19, Yr. B: Mark 8: 27-38)

+In the Name of the Father, & of the Son, & of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I once worked with a woman who told of a story occurring during the Great Depression in Oregon. It seems that two hobos were in the habit of visiting a particularly generous farm for a free lunch. After a while, the farmer’s wife began feel these visitors where taking advantage of her generosity. The hobos were not able to take her various subtle hints about this, and it was some time until she figured out a course of action. Once again, the two men appeared looking for a meal. She invited them in, prepared lunch for them, and bade them sit down. When they were about to get up after lunch, she asked them to stay for a cup of coffee. As they sipped their java, the farmer’s wife took the lunch plates, put them on the floor and allowed the dogs to lick them clean; whereupon she put them unwashed back into the cupboard. The two hobos looked at each other in disgust and left in haste. They had standards; they never returned.

We often hear today about the importance of recycling. It is counted as a moral duty to recycle used things for new purposes. This is, on the whole, a very good practice and a rejection of wastefulness in a “throw-away society.” Yet, what is a virtue in one arena can be a tremendous vice in another. As the story about the hobos illustrates, there are some things that should not be recycled “as is.”

One such thing is our faith. Notice my wording: it is very careful. I did not say “The Faith,” as in the “The Faith Once Delivered to the Saints,” or “the Faith of our Fathers,” or “The Christian Faith.” That kind of faith is eternal and, while undergoing clarifications and new applications in changed times, essentially unvarying in its core.

No, what is at issue is our faith. When our own faith is really just a collection of recycled bits and pieces of other people’s faith, then we get into difficulty and some real danger. Our faith is to be forged in our own wrestlings, our own struggles, our own response to the call of the One God who is made known in The Faith found in the Holy Gospel.

It is in today’s Gospel reading that this becomes extremely clear. Jesus, in the midst of His preaching, teaching, and healing tour, suddenly turns to those disciples closest to Him and requires that they answer this question: “Who do you say that I am?” They have already responded to His question about the matter of opinion: “who do others say I am?” They have reported what they heard. But now it is time to move from opinion to personal experience. And for a time, they are silent. This silence is a good thing and should teach us much. When the words we use and the attitudes we hold in faith are only the scraps of others’ experience, not bought at any personal price or by our own labors, that faith is cheap, flimsy, and likely to snap when most needed. Such a faith is unworthy of God and should not be spoken. It is better in such cases to remain silent, even in the face of Christ.

But St. Peter could speak. For he had done more than form opinions or collect insights. He had experiences which formed an indelible impression, unique to himself and yet universal in truth and significance. His faith, though we know it to have been imperfect, impetuous, and fragile, was real. It was his faith; not another’s. Out of that personal faith he could speak the glorious, true, eternal words: “You are the Messiah.” For this he is uniquely blessed and honored.

Yet in so saying, St. Peter did not cease to be like us. Almost in the next breath, he attempted to dissuade Jesus from His mission, His faith, if you like. He sought to recycle others’ ideas about what the Messiah “must do” on Jesus; for doing this, Peter is likened by Jesus to Satan, that master-recycler of lies. It is a painful but essential moment in the Gospel story.

To make this perfectly clear, Jesus tells all those who are present in the gathered crowd (how humiliating to the disciples!) what following Him means. It is to take up our cross and go on an adventure into uncharted territory. No pride of being a “cradle Episcopalian,” no recycled faith or credentials (“I’ve been a member of this parish for years” or “I pledge generously” or “I’m ordained”) here: only the raw experience of day-by-day, step-by-step faith. We in the Church sometimes shy away from this, pretending that we will be entitled to heaven by recycling someone else’s faith, someone else’s struggles; but today we are told once again that this is not so. We are granted the opportunity for the Kingdom of God by receiving the gift of the saving Faith of Christ through His victorious struggle on the Cross, but we still must answer the question Jesus asks us today and every day: “By your words, by your priorities, by your choices, by your actions – who do you say I am?” Amen.

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