Monday, October 29, 2012

October 28, 2012 - Think Again: Which Kingdom?

Mark 12:13-17

Which Kingdom?

How many UK fans do we have here today?

How many U of L fans?  The U of L fans are much more excited this morning!  If you are a UK fan just forget about football season and think about basketball season.

How many West Virginia fans do we have?  A few, actually.  Thank you to those few who root for my Mountaineers.

How many fans of the Buffaloes are here this morning?  Almost everyone is wondering, who?  It’s my alma mater – the Milligan Buffaloes.  Milligan such a small school they don’t have a football team.  I'm pleased that Lora could actually find a picture of them for our slides this morning.

What if I said we don’t have much choice in the teams we root for?  Would you believe me?  If you grew up in Alabama you would probably be an Auburn or Alabama fan.  Chris is an Auburn fan – can you believe it?  He even has an Auburn tag on the front of his car!  If you grew up in California, you would probably be a fan of USC or UCLA.  If you grew up in West Virginia you would be a fan of West Virginia University or Marshall.  If you grew up in North Carolina, well, you still would know better than to be a fan of Duke or North Carolina!

We aren’t as independent in our thinking as we believe, which is the basic assumption I’m making in a new series of sermons that begin today.  The series is called Think Again, and it will take us through historical events that shape how we think and even what we believe, especially in relation to our faith.

Our thinking is shaped by many factors.  Tanya’s grandmother lived through the Great Depression.  I remember her picking the mold off of bread rather than throwing it away.  She would chide us for being wasteful, and she was correct.  She lived in a time when no one could afford to be wasteful; I grew up in a generation that had so much we didn’t think twice about throwing things away.  My mom disliked the decade of the 60’s.  She didn’t like the protests and the upheaval in society.  To me, it was normal.  Our historical setting, along with many other factors, shape our thinking, even about God.

This morning we begin with a message titled Which Kingdom?

It comes from an event that took place 1,700 years ago today.  Constantine, one of the rivals for the leadership of the Roman Empire, was camped with his army outside the city of Rome.  The night before what has become known as The Battle of the Milvian Bridge Constantine had a vision, and in the vision he sees the cross and the words in this sign conquer. 

Constantine was not a Christian, but believed the vision to be a sign from Christ.  He commanded that his army emblazon their shields with the Chi Rho symbol, which are the first two letters from the Greek word for Christ.  Constantine and his army defeat Maxentius and he eventually becomes the Roman Emperor.  Because he sees his victory as provided by God, Constantine converts to Christianity.

Upon his conversion, the course of Christianity was radically altered. In fact, this event so changed the course of Christian history I would venture to say that Constantine’s conversion is the most significant event in Christian history since the conversion of Paul, and it affects how we think today.  It affects how we view our world, how we view the role of the church, and even how we view the upcoming election.

Constantine’s conversion certainly had some positive results.  Prior to his reign, Christians were heavily persecuted by the Romans and were put to death in some of the most heinous ways imaginable.  Constantine not only declared Christianity to be legal, he showered the faith with money, prestige, and power.  Churches that had been destroyed were rebuilt, personal property of the faithful that had been confiscated was returned, and the emperor worked to bring unity to the Christian faith.

There were, though, some negative effects.  Christianity, once the victim of the sword, now wielded the power of the sword through the emperor.  Wars were now waged in the name of God, and wars become holy endeavors, such as the Crusades.  One of the most powerful accusations skeptics make about Christianity is the amount of violence that has been done in the name of Christ.  Before Constantine, that wasn’t possible.  Constantine gave the church military power and we struggle today with the consequences of how that power has been used over the centuries.  His conversion also brought about an entangling of church and state that remains with us to this day.  Before Constantine, it was counter-cultural to be a Christian.  After Constantine, being a Christian was a way to get ahead in government and business.  Being a Christian became the thing to do.  Before Constantine, becoming a Christian would end a political career; after Constantine, being Christian was a benefit to one’s political career (and it still it).  Though Americans have always recognized the importance of the separation of church and state, the two are still very much tangled together in complicated ways.  People of faith differ, for instance, as to whether the government is a tool to carry out the mission and purpose of the church, which is a question that did not face the church prior to Constantine.  People now seek to understand the best way to bring their faith to bear on the political system, which could never happen before Constantine.

Today’s Scripture lesson, when read in light of its time rather than ours, gives us a much different perspective.  When we read this passage we do so through the lens of a post-Constantine world.  To us, we hear Jesus saying there is a comfortable relationship between faith and the government.  Give to God what belongs to God, and give the government what belongs to the government.  A closer reading of the passage shows us this is not at all what Jesus was saying.

Jesus is actually presenting us with a choice – choose which kingdom will have dominion over your life.  He does this through the question of whether or not the Jewish people should pay the tax owed to the emperor.   Those who asked Jesus the question saw it as an opportunity to trap him – if he said they should pay the tax he would lose credibility with his own people.  To support the tax would be seen as an act of accommodation with the Romans, whose occupation of their country was deeply despised.  If Jesus said they should not pay the tax, he would be arrested for sedition.  Either way he answered, it appeared he was trapped.

In answering the question, Jesus first proves his brilliance in a couple of ways.  First, his answer allows him to avoid the trap they had set, while at the same time exposing their hypocrisy, as noted by Mark.  But Jesus’ answer also has a much deeper and important meaning:  his answer is actually setting up the greater question of where we will give our loyalty – to God or to an earthly kingdom?  As the Emperor claimed to be God, it was a choice between which God one would serve.  The truth is, both God and the emperor demand complete allegiance.  The emperor controlled every facet of people’s lives.  He owned the land – as evidence by his troops – he owned the economy, and he owned the people.  God made the same claim – all belonged to him.  It wasn’t a matter of giving part of their lives to God and another part to the emperor; it was a matter of choosing which would receive their ultimate allegiance; only one could be chosen, not both.  As Dorothy Day said, If we rendered unto God all the things that belong to God, there would be nothing left for Caesar (  And, I would add, Caesar would be very unhappy about that.

I think this leaves us to ask what it means for us today.  What does it mean for we who live in a democracy – what are we to do with the question of rendering unto Caesar and rendering unto God?
I have just a few points to make about what this passage means in our day and age.

First, I think we should be grateful to live in freedom, and not under persecution, as did so many of our forbearers and as many of our brothers and sisters around the world still do.  I bristle when I hear suggestions that we are persecuted for our faith in this country.  I’m not saying our faith doesn’t present us with some dilemmas – it should – but when we think of the persecution of the early followers of Jesus we don’t really know persecution.  They were used as human torches to light the garden of the Emperor, they were victims of the gladiators in the Coliseum, and faced death in many other horrific ways.

Second, we can disagree on political issues.  Did you know the early Christians were considered to be atheists and unpatriotic?  They were considered so because they did not support the belief that the Emperor was divine and they did not worship the Roman gods.  In today’s political arena either of those names would be a harsh charge, but some use those names if they disagree.  Jesus lived in a day when disagreement with the government got you nailed to a cross.  We can do so freely.  It’s part of who we are, and it’s a great blessing that we can agree or disagree.  We should give thanks for the privilege of being allowed to disagree, and we should never claim that someone with a different point of view is less spiritual or less serious about their faith.  The disciples had differing points of view.  One of them was a Zealot, a person who was dedicated to the overthrow of Rome by any means necessary.  Another worked for the Romans.  Paul used his Roman citizenship as an aid to his ministry at various times, but Peter would have nothing to do with the Roman authorities.

Third, our faith may lead us to different political positions, and both sides can have a legitimate point.  I really tire of the reuse of the question What Would Jesus Do to How Would Jesus Vote and other slogans.  Maybe the more important question is What would Jesus have me do? (Rev. Peter J. Gomes, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About the Good News, New York: HarperCollins, 2007, 69).  The gospel can never be adequately expressed by boundaries of politics and positions, and when we seek to tie it to our own views we reduce it down to something far less than God intended it to be.  There are people on all sides of the political aisle who are very serious about their faith, but no one side is always entirely correct.

Fourth, the church becomes less powerful when it depends upon earthly power to further its purposes.  I agree with what Chuck Colson once said – the early church had very little power but tremendous influence; the modern church has tremendous power but very little influence.  I believe that the reason that some of our world has largely abandoned the Christian faith is because of the abuse of earthly power on the part of the church, especially in Europe.  I believe you should vote – and vote your conscience – but if we think we will usher in God’s kingdom through the ballot box we are greatly mistaken. 

Fifth, we are called to be about the work of God’s kingdom.  The question that comes from Constantine is this – did the empire become more Christian or did Christianity become more like the empire?  We live in an earthly kingdom, and the issues in that kingdom are important, but as people of God we are about God’s kingdom, which is more righteous, more just, and more free than any earthly kingdom.  

God’s kingdom has outlasted many great empires and many great powers, and will continue.  The kingdom of God is greater than a vote, greater than a ballot box, greater than any weapon, greater than an army that has ruled the earth, and greater than any kingdom the earth has witnessed.  The kingdom of God will not rise or fall based on laws that are passed, the kingdom of God will not rise or fall based on who wins – or loses an election, and the kingdom of God will prevail regardless of how difficult or challenging thing appear to be.  If we believe differently, we need to think again.

October 21, 2012 - Spiritual Gifts - The Three R's: Giving

Luke 12:13-21

In 1980 I was living in Dothan, Alabama, and taking a break from seminary.  I found a job and put together a budget.  It turned out that after paying my weekly expenses I had a weekly surplus of about $10.  That’s not much of a safety net, so I worked overtime whenever I could.  Every penny that was over my budget amount went into savings, which allowed me to eventually move to Louisville and finish seminary.  It’s hard to anticipate how much money we need for the future, and I had no idea how much money I might need to help me get settled and to pay my expenses until I could find a job.  But I learned this basic principle – life always costs more than you anticipate.  I have never found anything to cost less than I anticipate.  My hope was that my savings would get me through most of the first year, if necessary, or at least the first semester.  It was all gone in several weeks, and my seminary years were full of great anxiety about having enough money to pay my bills and school expenses.  During those years I would often comfort myself by thinking that a day will come when I won’t have to worry so much about money – I’m still waiting on that day!

Today we conclude our series of messages on spiritual gifts.  This morning we come to the final gift – giving.  Did you know giving is a spiritual gift?

Messages about giving generally cause one of several reactions – a rolling of the eyes, groaning, guilt, the desire to get up and leave, or fidgeting in your seat.  Please don’t feel that way.  You have probably noticed by now that I don’t say a lot about money.  I don’t like to, to be honest.  There are times that it is necessary, but I don’t like to be hounded about money and I don’t like to hound people about money.  This church is blessed with good and faithful giving, and I appreciate that very much.

I have a list of things I want to say about giving this morning, some of which take only a sentence or two.

First, I don’t believe in guilt when it comes to giving.  Some people feel guilty about their giving.  Don’t feel guilty.  Guilt is a destructive emotion, and does not lead to healthy attitudes.  I would never use guilt as a way to try to get anyone to give (or do anything else for that matter). 

Second, I have no idea what anyone in this church gives and I don’t want to know.  I do not have access to the giving records and I don’t want access.  The only way I would know what anyone gives is for someone to tell me, but please don’t tell me; I would rather not know.  That is between you and God and isn’t any of my business.  I was sitting in a minister’s meeting some years ago and the topic of conversation drifted to giving.  One of the ministers said he went through the giving records of his congregation and confronted those he believed were not giving as much as they should.  I couldn’t help asking him how’s that working out?  His answer still amuses me – for some reason, it’s not really working out very well.  People seem to dislike it.  Talk about clueless.

Third, if you are able to tithe, the choice of tithing on your net or gross is up to you.  If you can tithe on either – great!  Not everyone is in the position of being able to tithe.  Don’t feel guilty if you can’t tithe.

Fourth, giving encompasses more than just money.  You may be in a season of life when you don’t have any money to give.  Give of your time and your talents.  And if you can give, money doesn’t replace your time and your talents.

Fifth, Scripture teaches us to be generous.  The man in our Scripture reading this morning, interestingly, never thought about being generous with his wealth.  His first thought was about himself – here’s what I can do for myself.  Well, we need to take care of our families, but this man gave no evidence of thinking about how he could be generous with others.  He certainly could have been!  Not only was he not generous, he was wasteful.  Instead of simply adding more barns for storage, he decided to tear down his barns and build bigger ones – why not just build more barns if you need the space?  Tearing down barns and building bigger ones wasted a lot of resources that could have benefitted others. There is nothing wrong with enjoying the fruit of your labor.  The problem with this guy was that he had so much fruit he could have been very generous, but there is no sign that he was.  The human view is accumulation and protecting; the divine view is stewardship and generosity.  He could have shared some of what he had, but he didn’t.  He could have fed some hungry people, but he didn’t.  Instead, he was wasteful in tearing down his barns to build bigger ones instead of just building a few more.  Enjoy life, but don’t make the mantra of your life eat, drink, and be merry.  Use what has been given, share what has been stored.  God is always seeking to move us to the mindset of generosity.

When I was entering my last year of seminary I was worried about the expense of the final year.  I was managing, but just barely, and one more year of school expense was very worrisome to me.  My car was always breaking down and unexpected expenses kept popping up.  I was serving part-time in a church and someone in the church, very generously, gave money and asked that it pay for my schooling.  That was such a huge help to me. 

I think about the generosity of this congregation and the community with the Van for Glenn fund.  Isn’t it amazing?  Over $33,000.00 has been raised, and in a relatively short period of time.  People want to be generous, I believe.  People want to give of their time and their money to make a difference to others. 

Sixth, we begin our fall stewardship campaign next week.  That means we will make pledge cards available.  Not everyone feels comfortable with pledging.  That’s okay.  We encourage pledging because it helps us plan the next year’s budget.   If you do pledge, that information is kept confidential, just like your weekly giving.

Seventh, God never measures a person by the size of their gift.  In fact, Jesus praises the very small monetary gift of a widow.  In Mark 12:41-44 we read Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” (Also found in Luke 21:1-4)

Eighth, the Bible does not say that the root of all evil is money.  Over the years I’ve heard countless times that the Bible says that money is the root of all evil.  What the Bible says is this – for the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil (I Timothy 6:10).  Money causes a lot of problems, as does the lack of money, but money does a lot of good as well.  Some people are very gifted with the ability to make money, and the gift of making money allows them to be very generous.

Nine, avoid debt as much as possible.  I know that is very difficult to do these days.  Life is expensive, and sometimes there isn’t enough money to get us through the week or month, but be careful with debt.  A pile of debt adds a lot of stress to life, and it adds tremendous stress to relationships.  The primary cause of conflict in marriages is money, and most of that comes from the stress of debt.  There are some good programs out there to help reduce debt, and if you struggle in this area I would encourage you to look into one.

Ten, the other side of debt is saving, which is hard to do these days, but some savings becomes essential.

Eleven, generosity is the way of Jesus.  I was sitting in a meeting recently, and a friend told me about their recent trip to Nicaragua.  He had traveled there to work with some churches about setting up a partnership.  The churches he visited there were small – anywhere from 30 to 50 people, and they had very small buildings and very little resources.  One of the churches, in spite of their limited resources, fed almost 200 children every day.  For most of those children, it would be the only meal they would receive.  Almost 200 children, every day.  Another church, also of limited resources, was feeding almost double that amount, every day.  As he neared the end of his trip he sat down with the leaders of these churches.  Their topic of conversation was how the churches here, and there, could help one another.  He assumed they would ask for money, but they didn’t.  Their question was this – how can we help your churches discover what God wants them to do for their communities?  Wow.  Isn’t that powerful?  They have next to nothing, but what they offered is a powerful vision of being called to serve our community.

What can we give to others, and to God?

Monday, October 15, 2012

October 14, 2012 - Spiritual Gifts - The Three R's: Miracles

John 6:25-35

A friend of mine was the minister at a church that ran an unusual ad in the local newspaper each week.  The ad contained all the usual information – service times, phone number, etc.  But it also included this piece of information – Healing Service – Thursdays at 7:00 p.m.  I asked him one day, if I need healing, I have to wait until a Thursday evening at 7:00 p.m.?  I wasn’t making fun of the idea; it just seemed odd to me to schedule a miraculous healing. 

This morning, as we draw near to the end of our series of messages about spiritual gifts, we come to the gift of miracles.

What is a miracle?  Is this phone a miracle?  I read a review the other day that said the new iPhone was truly a miracle.  This phone would absolutely be a miracle to someone who lived a hundred years ago, or even forty years ago. We often talk about the miracle of technology.  There are days, I’ll confess, when I want to throw mine in a lake and be free of it, but most of the time I’m happy to have it.  As a parent, it’s really nice to know where my kids are and if they are okay.  Parents, isn’t it nice to be able to call you kids and make sure they are okay?  When I was that age, I was very grateful my parents couldn’t call me to find out where I was and what I was doing! 

People toss the word miracle around quite a bit. Do you remember the Miracle on the Hudson?  In January of 2009, Captain “Sully” Sullenberger managed to safely land an airliner in the Hudson River, saving all 155 people on board. 

Two years ago this month, 33 miners in the nation of Chile were rescued after 69 days trapped underground. 

When the first miner stepped out of the narrow capsule that transported him to the surface one of his relatives proclaimed this is a miracle of God!  When someone is found alive in the rubble of an earthquake it is often proclaimed to be a miracle. In December of 1972 the Pittsburgh Steelers won their first ever playoff game against the Oakland Raiders.  Anybody remember that game?  I sure do.  I was watching it on TV and will never forget the game.  I grew up just down the river from Pittsburgh so I’ve been a life-long Steeler fan.  In what is often referred to as the greatest play in the history of the NFL, Franco Harris caught a deflected pass on the last play of the game to score the winning touchdown for the Steelers.  Curt Gowdy, one of the announcers, called it a Christmas miracle – the miracle of all miracles.  I think that’s quite an overstatement, especially when you think about Christmas miracles.  Do you remember the miracle on ice, when the American hockey team, at the Winter Olympics in February of 1980, defeated the hockey team of the Soviet Union?

But what is a miracle?  There are a lot of miracles in the Scriptures.  The Gospels, in particular, are full of miracles.  Jesus gained great renown because of the miracles he performed.

On more than one occasion I’ve been in a hospital and heard a doctor tell a family that healing that came to a loved one could only be described as a miracle.  Of course, those kinds of occurrences make us wonder why miracles don’t happen to everyone.

In our Scripture reading for this morning Jesus is asked what miraculous sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you?  What will you do? (verse 30).  Jesus performed a lot of miracles in the gospels, but never on demand.  Every time someone asked Jesus to perform a miracle because they wanted proof, Jesus declined.  They really tried to pressure Jesus – Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written:  “He gave them bread from heaven to eat (verse 31).  This is really brazen – it’s a challenge to Jesus to prove himself.

God doesn’t work that way, and it’s partly because some people won’t acknowledge a miracle, even when they see one right before their eyes.  We can also ask, if it takes a miracle to bring faith, is it really faith.  Part of the lesson about the disciple Thomas (John 20:24-29) is that faith does not need a miraculous confirmation.  The point of faith is that faith exists without an overwhelming proof.

This is one of the important truths about miracles – often, they are a matter of perspective.  Not everyone realized, or acknowledged the miracles of Jesus.  The disciples didn’t believe the women when they told of the resurrection.  Thomas didn’t believe Jesus had risen.  When Jesus raised Lazarus that was when the religious leaders made the decision to have him put to death.  Jesus certainly understood that a miracle doesn’t make any difference to some people, because their hearts, their eyes, and their minds are closed to the miraculous, even when it is right in front of them.

I’ve told you about the class I teach in Louisville.  I have a student in my class named Burke.  He’s missed almost every day of school this year, but it’s okay; we are excited when he manages to come to class.  I was glad to have him for the first time Friday.  He’s in the 9th grade, and he has had a very tough road.  Last year, at the beginning of the school, Burke learned he had a brain tumor.  He had several surgeries and spent almost the entire school year in a hospital.  He comes to school occasionally now, and he is a really brave young man.  He is in a large wheelchair pushed by his mom or his dad.  He has a rather large desktop attached to the front of his wheelchair so he can have his books and papers spread out in front of him.

I tried not to make it obvious during class that I was keeping my eye on him, in case he was getting too tired or had a seizure.  We have instructions of what to do in the event of his going into a seizure.  Out of the corner of my eye I could see him struggle with the outline I gave him, because his hands don’t work very well.

As I was packing up my papers and books after class I watched as the students were hurrying to gather up their things to get to their next class.  One of the other students left his things on his desk to come over and talk to him.  Conversations aren’t easy because he still struggles to get the words out, but the other student was very patient, standing there, patting Burke on the shoulder, and telling him how happy he was to see him and telling him what the class had been doing.  It was very touching to see that kindness.

Burke is a young man who just wants to come to school.  He just wants to carry his own books.  He just wants to walk down the hall.  He just wants to pick up a pen or a pencil and take a quiz or a test.  He just wants to talk with his friends and classmates.  A 9th grade young man should be able to do those things, but Burke can’t.

Here is a piece of a blog post his mother recently wrote – I don't know if Burke will be able to walk again unassisted-- I've read about kids with ependymoma tumors that always have balance problems because of the brain injuries from surgery. That doesn't mean I don't believe in my kid – I just know that this world has physical limits. But I know that if anyone in Burke's physical condition can re-learn how to walk, he can. And he wants to try. We have always been honest with him, when he asks, that we don't know what he'll get back, but that his effort in rehab can get back as much as possible. While I can't be certain of what will happen for Burke physically, I know his heart and spirit are strong, and his faith is boundless.

It’s easy to think about how unfair it is that Burke has had to endure such a struggle, and how much he needs a miracle, but I would also have to say is that he is a miracle.  He doesn’t appear to let the struggle get him down.  Here is a 14-year-old young man, with an incredibly tough situation life has handed him, but he is such a fighter and an incredible inspiration, and his faith is boundless.  There’s a miracle!

The reality is that miracles surround us every day – every day – but they often go unnoticed.  The people who came time after time to ask Jesus to perform a miracle totally missed the point.  They missed the point because miracles don’t always bring faith – there were plenty of miracles performed by Jesus that didn’t always bring about faith in people.  Miracles don’t always bring about faith, but faith enables us to see the miracles that surround us every day.

Back in the mid 90’s I received a call late one evening that a member of the congregation I was serving at the time had suffered a very serious stroke.  I met the family at the hospital and we sat there all night, and all night the family hoped and prayed for a miracle. 

He never regained consciousness and passed away two days later.  The night was waited at the hospital, and for a long time after, his wife was very troubled because there were things she wanted to say to him that she did not get a chance to say.  For a long time she struggled with the lack of closure that she so desired.  Some years after her husband passed away, another member of the congregation was in the hospital here in town.  His condition began to deteriorate and one day his heart stopped and he died, but was resuscitated.  He had a near-death experience when his heart stopped.  A few days after the experience he asked to see the widow of the other man.  They were acquaintances, but not close friends.  He had a message for her from her deceased husband.  She went to the hospital to see him, and he gave her the message. 

The difference that came over her was amazing.  You could see the burden lifted from her.  There was a lightness about her that had long been missing. 

I officiated at her funeral a few years ago.  After the service there was a lunch and I was seated at a table with two of her four daughters.  I never knew the message this other man gave to her, but was always curious.  That day at lunch, I asked her daughters about it, and they had certainly been curious as well, but their mother never spoke to them about it.  But one of the daughters said, whatever it was, it was a miracle for her.

There are plenty of people who would say it was all a hallucination.  When someone has a near-death experience, they will say, their brain will play tricks on them, or medication will cause them to hallucinate, or there will be another reason to doubt what they experience.  I’ve known a number of people who have had near-death experiences, and they are certainly very real to them.  And on this occasion, it brought a miracle to the life of another person.

So, again, it comes down to a matter of perspective.  When you look at life, what do you see?  Do you see the miraculous that God is working around us every day?  Do you see the miraculous in events that may not be noticed by others.  I said last week that the gift of faith allows us to be able to see, and it certainly enables us to see the miracles of God that come to us every day.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

October 7, 2012 - Spiritual Gifts - The Three R's: Faith

Hebrews 11:1-3

I have a brother-in-law – one of Tanya’s brothers – who is a member of the Air Force.  Mike has been in the Air Force for close to thirty years, and has been a pilot for even longer.  Mike learned to fly as teenager, and quickly moved from one type of license to another.  I vividly remember when he was preparing for his test to earn his instrument license.  To earn an instrument license means you have to be able to fly an airplane – from take-off to landing – solely by the instrument panel.  When he took his test the windows of the plane were covered so he was unable to see anything outside of the cockpit.  That is literally flying blind. 

Could you do that?  I don’t think I could.  It’s hard to go where you cannot see.  But in a sense, isn’t that what faith asks us to do?  To go where we cannot see?  Isn’t one of the difficulties of faith that we are asked to trust God as he leads us where we cannot see?

As we draw near the end of our series on spiritual gifts, this morning we come to the gift of faith.  Perhaps it’s odd to think of faith as a gift, but in our increasingly skeptical, scientific age, I think it is a gift to be able to live on faith.

Is faith still relevant in our modern world?  Has the idea of faith – and God – become obsolete because of advanced scientific knowledge and technological progress?  No.  Well, you didn’t really think I was going to say yes did you?

In spite of the challenges to faith, I cannot imagine living without it.  There have been times when I have struggled with the idea of faith, and there is nothing wrong with that struggle, because I believe that struggle deepens our faith.  We should never fear challenges to faith, because the challenges ultimately strengthen faith.

The difficulty of approaching faith as a topic is trying to narrow it down to the time frame we have today.  Everything we say and do in worship and in church in general, is founded upon faith, so how do we narrow it down to a few minutes of discussion?  This morning, I want to make just a few points about faith, and it is certainly not an exhaustive list of points.

Faith is a way of seeing.
Some years ago I read a story about a man named John Turner.  John Turner grew up very, very poor, and as a young man he developed an interesting practice.  Based on Hebrews 11:1 – faith is…the evidence of things not seen he created what he called an evidence jar.  His evidence jar was a way or reminding himself to see life in a different way.  It was a way of knowing that just because you couldn’t see something didn’t mean it couldn’t become a reality.  Although he saw no possible way to have a better life, into that evidence jar went as much money as he managed to save.  He eventually saved enough money to work toward a new and a better life.  After marrying and starting a family, he continued the idea of seeing what life could be, but in a different way.  Each time he and his wife welcomed a new child into their family he would place two empty frames on the wall – one for their high school diploma and one for their college diploma.  At one point there were 13 blank frames on their wall.  Isn’t that an fascinating way to think about the future?

People sometimes talk about blind faith, but faith is not blind.  Faith is the ability to see life, and the world around us, in a different way.  It is the ability to look at our world and see that we are not here by accident, but by divine design.  It is the ability to think about life and understand that life is not meaningless, but has a purpose.  It is the ability to consider the future and understand that however difficult, uncertain, or even frightening the future might be, that God will bear us into that future.

Some people say that seeing is believing, demanding some kind of evidence-based reality, but faith says that believing is seeing.  What we believe will dictate what we see.  If the lens of my life is skepticism, that will have a profound affect on how I see my own life, the lives of others, the world and the way it should work.  If my lens of seeing the world is one of faith, that dramatically affects how I will interact with other people and even how I treat other people.  So faith gives us the ability to see.

Faith gives us the ability to go where we would not go, and do what we would not do.
When Nick and Tyler were younger we visited the zoo in Louisville on a regular basis, and other zoos as we traveled.  I love going to zoos.  I love to look at the animals – except the snakes, I never really enjoyed the reptile houses – and learning interesting facts about each animal. 

The African impala, a member of the antelope family, is an animal that can teach us a great lesson about faith.  National Geographic says the impala can leap as far as 33 feet in a single forward leap.  Can you picture 33 feet?  From the front of this platform, where I am standing, 33 feet reaches to almost the back row of chairs.  That means that if I had the ability to leap like an impala I could leap out and wake up the back row and leap back up here before you knew what happened.  The impala can also leap upwards, in a single leap, as high as 10 feet.  We all know how far 10 feet is – that’s the height of a basketball goal.  But in many zoos they live in enclosures with walls no higher than three feet tall, because there is another interesting characteristic of an impala – it will not leap where it cannot see.

I am not an adventurous person.  If I were a member of the animal kingdom I would not be an impala.  Not because of any leaping ability – my vertical leap is about two inches – but because I prefer to know where I am going, what is going to happen, and any other detail I can discover.

We might feel led by the Spirit to step out into some kind of ministry to which we are suited, but we can’t see far enough to know all the details and answer all our questions, so we fail to take the leap of faith.  We might see a situation where we might minister to another, but we feel we aren’t qualified, so we fail to take the leap of faith.  We want to mend a relationship but we fear we might not be well received, so we fail to take the leap of faith.  We want to step across the chasm of separation that keeps us from building a relationship with someone who is different, but we feel uncomfortable, so we fail to take the leap of faith.  We have within us the potential to be an impala of faith, but because we cannot always know every detail and see everything that is ahead of us, we stay behind a safe wall rather than taking the leap of faith.

In II Corinthians 5:7 Paul describes faith by writing we walk by faith, not by sight.  The writer of Hebrews, as you continue reading through chapter 11, gives a long list of characters who walked by faith – who went where they would not have gone and did what they would not have done had it not been for faith.  Abraham, who very literally walked by faith, leaving his home for a place God had yet to show him.  Moses, leading the Hebrew people on a journey that was less about sight and a great deal about faith.  As the writer of Hebrews continues we find added to the list those who are nameless to history but continue to serve as great examples of living by faith, going where they would not have gone and doing what they would not have done, except for faith.

Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, relates a story of an encounter as he traveled the subway in New York City.  People were sitting quietly, reading their newspapers or resting, when a man and his children entered the subway car.  The man sat down next to Covey and closed his eyes.  His children were loud and obnoxious, and the father seemed completely oblivious to the situation.  They were yelling back and forth, throwing things, and even grabbing people’s papers.  As disturbing as it was, the father kept his eyes closed and did nothing.  Covey became irritated, as did the others in the car.  How could this father allow his children to become so loud and engage in such a way?

Finally, Covey could not remain silent.  He turned to the man and said, Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people.  I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little more.  The man raised up as if he had been completely unaware of what was going on and quietly said, Oh, you’re right.  I guess I should do something about it.  We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago.  I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either. 
Covey was stunned.  At that moment, everything shifted in how he viewed the situation.  He said, Suddenly I saw things differently, and because I saw differently, I thought differently, I felt differently, I behaved differently.  My irritation vanished.  My heart was filled with the man’s pain.  Feelings of sympathy and compassion flowed freely.  “Your wife just died?  I’m so sorry.  Can you tell me about it?  What can I do to help.”  Everything changed in an instant.
(Living the Questions:  The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity, David M. Felten and Jeff Procter-Murphy, pp 208-209)

How will life make you think differently?  Act differently?  Treat others differently?  Live differently?  Where will it take you that you would not have gone?  What will it lead you to do that you would not have done?