I was talking this morning about Faith — how it is always about choices, but more importantly, about how those choices are specific.
For Jesus, for the first disciples and for all the brave souls throughout the ages, faith is and was a courageous choice for God. Today that’s us. We are the brave souls of our own age. Faith changes our lives, and our changed lives make all the difference.
I would be lying to myself and to you if I didn't say up front, transformation hurts. Some choices will limit our movement and require dying to self. As much as we may fight this notion: Faith was never intended to be easy or casual.
Our retreat this year comes on the heels of Easter. Something truly “magical and revolutionary” happened that first day. It transformed maybe what? At the most, say 100 lives. Then those believers told others, and pretty soon… a movement began. That movement sent evangelists to the far reaches and that produced a wonderful array of gospels, letters and stories.
Now it also produced a steady and tragic stream of power struggles, scheming bishops, beheadings and burnings, The Inquisition, heresy trials, European history marked by warfare and torture, and now, today in our own time, church wars for our right to declare other people wrong. For many denominations, even ours I’m afraid, Religious Content is what we fight about. God didn't call us to be consumers of religious content. And even though Mt. Angel has a lovely gift shop full of wonderful things, Christianity isn't about consuming religious products. And Christianity is especially not about consuming content that someone else created.
Christianity is about transformation of our lives. It’s about sitting with a blank screen of your own life and creating something, as best you can, and offering that something to God. It is about dreaming and imagining, working and worrying, serving and loving – making a difference with life.
Faith isn't something we can download to watch or to play. Faith is something we have the audacity to embrace, knowing it will compel us to become a “new creation.”
So as we come to the end of the Easter Octave we must remember: Easter Christianity is about people submitting their lives to the love and will of God. It is about receiving and giving mercy. It is about putting down weapons, or tethers, winning each day some small victory over greed, learning fresh each day to love our enemies, (and if we have no enemies at hand, to love those who annoy us.) It’s about showing up each day to join God's never-ending push for justice and peace.
Easter Christianity takes courage.
Courage, like love, is a decision, an act of the will. It’s not the absence of fear… no, Courage sees all the reasons to be afraid — from bad numbers in our checkbook and our parish enrollments, to bad leaders to bad enemies to bad luck. Courage is not the absence of fear, but the mastery of it — courage decides to "walk through the storm with our head held high."
John’s Gospel says: The Word was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. (John 1.10-11)
We can choose to be like that… not to accept him. But rather than reject Jesus’ radical call, I think we want to go deeper. We want to know the Word that has come into our world. We want to accept him. We want to know why Jesus came for us and what it is, if anything, we should be doing about it.
We want to submit to God — first by discovering what those words mean.
I like to think of myself as an open-minded, change-affirming believer, and yet I sense that the Word is way more radical and disturbing than I allow for, not to mention more enlivening and focusing.
In Luke it talks about John the Baptist’s willingness to submit his own agenda to God’s:
John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. " (Luke 3.16)
Life is filled with sadness. We don’t admit that to each other very often. Beginnings require endings. Within the joy and zest of life is always the salt of tears. The stories about John the Baptist speak of a fundamental truth:
Much had to pass away for Jesus to emerge. His coming brought watershed moments to a battered yet proud nation, to a religious establishment that probably was a lot like ours today, to people in one village after another, to a group of followers and family, and to himself.
For Jesus to emerge, much had to end, and those endings were difficult. John's situation epitomizes the trauma: think of it: he had the brass ring almost, people from all walks of life responded eagerly to his hard work, some even hoped he was the messiah… and now he must step aside for another.
Can any of us really know who or what died in us yesterday in order for today to arrive? Or the joy that we haven't yet fully accepted, for fear of the watershed it signals?
We think of faith as a supplement to life, something new and wonderful that we add to what has gone before.
But in fact, faith is a watershed.
(Watershed: an important point of division or transition between two phases, conditions)
It is an ending. It is a time of things passing away. It is roads diverging and our having to decide. While that choice might bring great joy, it also brings much sadness. Our willingness to accept that sadness says something very real about our faith.
It’s difficult to be a Christian.
John said Yes in his watershed moment. Many say No. (Not only no, but hell no.) No more watersheds, no more change, no more pain of loss, no more sadness.
Still, the watersheds keep appearing. For there is no other way onward. Life always requires death.