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Verlee A. Copeland, Preaching

Texts: Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 and Ephesians 2:1-10

                                        Now Faith

Once upon a time, there was a Selfish Man. He liked everything to be his own. He could not share his belongings with anyone, not even his friends or the poor. One day, the man lost thirty gold coins. He went to his friend's house and told him how he lost his gold coins. His friend was a kind man and listened to him.

As his friend's daughter was coming from an errand she found thirty gold coins. When she arrived home, she told her father what she had found. The girl's father told her that the gold coins belong to his friend and he sent for him. When the selfish man arrived, the father told him how his daughter had found his thirty gold coins and handed then to him. After counting the gold coins the man said that ten of them was missing and had been taken by the girl as he had forty gold coins. He further commented that he wanted to recover the remaining amount from the girl's father. But the father refused.

The man left the gold coins and went to the court and informed the judge there about what had taken place between him and the girl's father. The judge sent for the girl and her father, and when they arrived asked the girl how many gold coins she found. She replied thirty gold coins. The Judge asked the selfish man how many gold coins he lost and he answered forty gold coins.

The judge then told the man that the gold coins clearly did not belong to him because the girl found thirty and not forty as he claimed to have lost. Then the judge told the girl to take the gold coins and said that if anybody was looking for them he would send for the girl.

The judge told the man that if anybody reports that they have found forty gold coins he will send for him. It was then that the man

Confessed that he lied and that he lost thirty gold coins but the judge did not listen to him.

  (From the book “I Am Saved By His Grace”

         The judge in this story offers the selfish man grace, unmerited love, by offering him the opportunity to tell the truth about the coins and thus receive them in return. The man refuses the judge’s grace, lying about the coins to achieve personal gain. The judge then offers the man mercy. Instead of throwing the man in jail, he mercifully allows him to come clean with his selfish ways and to stop lying, yet in the judge’s mercy he also allowed the man to experience the consequences of his behavior, which included the loss of the thirty coins.

         When we rely on our own devices alone to give us life, our lesson today from Ephesians tells us that we are like a dead person because of our offences against God. But God gives us a path to life. Through Christ God gives us every opportunity to trust God instead of grabbing what we think we need for ourselves. Through God’s grace, God sent Jesus into the world to show us the way. Through God’s mercy, God allows us to experience the consequences of not fully trusting God.

Faith requires radical trust in God. When we don’t trust God, we plot and scheme and connive and manipulate a world of our own making. We open clenched hands that we thought we could fill with gold by our own means only to find them empty.

Today’s teaching by Paul to the community at Ephesus, and also to us, reveals to us a more excellent way to live. Paul wrote, “God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things that we did wrong. He did this because of the great love that he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace!....You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.”

That’s really interesting isn’t it? What saves us from ourselves, saves us from being utterly lost, is our action, or rather our capacity to act. This radical act of trust we call faith. Let’s think about this for a minute. It’s been a long time since some of us diagrammed sentences in the eighth grade with subject and predicate, noun and verb. We might say that the word “trust” is both noun and verb. When we say of someone special in our life, “I trust you”, then the word trust is a verb. By way of contrast, if I leave money to my children in a certain kind of account, then trust becomes a noun. I’ve placed their inheritance in a “trust”. The definition of faith is radically embodied trust. If we say we trust God, we faith God. Faith in this sense is active, dynamic, moving toward God in response to action on God’s part towards us.

We more often think of faith as a noun. In the book many of us are studying in our Wednesday night discipleship group, “The Underground Church”, author Robin Meyers challenges our understanding of faith as noun in this way.

He teaches us that in the New Testament, trustworthy action (pistos in Greek) is a verb, but in the church, we have long held that trust is a noun, taken to mean certainty, strength of conviction or belief. We talk about getting faith, keeping the faith, or losing the faith as if it were an object to be obtained and held.

         Imagine this conversation.

         “Do you know Joe?”

         “Yes, Joe teaches Sunday school, and he is a deacon. He is a man of strong faith.”

         “What do you mean by strong faith?”

         “Well, Joe has no doubts whatsoever when it comes to the fundamentals. The virgin birth, the miracles…the bodily resurrection, the Second Coming of Christ, the infallibility of scripture – you name it, he is absolutely certain about all of it. I am sometimes a bit of a Doubting Thomas myself, but not Joe. Joe is a man of very strong faith.”

         “How odd that the word faith and the word certainty should be joined when absolute certainty eliminates the need for faith. Absolute certainty, by definition, is orphaned from grace. It needs nothing beyond itself…Certainty turns truth into dogma and goes through life in search of question marks that can be turned into periods – or better yet, exclamation points. When a person knows something without doubt or reservation, they need no faith whatsoever.”

         In the United Church of Christ, we invite one another to faith, that is, to enact trust. We say, “Don’t put a period where God has placed a comma. God is still speaking.” Other churches might say, “God has spoken, period.” Which expression of faith makes room for God’s grace and mercy, for the mystery of God’s ways, for God to be God? Is there more faith in trusting that God is still speaking, comma, or in believing that God has already and finally spoken, period? In the face of certainty, there is neither room for, nor need of God.

“Faith, in contrast, is an orientation toward the mystery of God, best understood by many as unconditional love. Faith is not a list of claims that one can know with certainty. Faith cannot be a concrete list of claims that we know what mystery is or what God wants…Faith, oddly enough, requires faith. It is a form of trust, the ultimate form of trust in fact. Because we trust in spite of what we cannot know, faith shares more in common with trusting that it does with believing.”

Moving from trust as noun to trust as verb, imagine that as followers of Christ we become God’s verb. As God invites us to wholly trust in God, God in like manner comes to trust wholly in us. We become embodied, enacted faith.  As Christ became God’s word made flesh, God’s spoken word, what if we too become, as Paul has said, God’s accomplishing presence at work in the world, not through what we can think up, but what God chooses to do through us.

In God’s grace and through God’s mercy, we develop the capacity through Christ to be used as God’s verb. Not “I have faith”, but “I faith”, as we might say “I sing”, or “I teach children”, or “I fix things”. When I say “I faith God” I mean, “I trust God.” In like manner if God were to say “I faith you”, it might mean that God trusts you to be open and available to be used by God. When we live in radical trust with God, dependent on God’s mercy and God’s grace, it is like living “on call.” We live ready to shine as God’s light in the darkness with whatever gifts God has given.

One evening this week I was listening to an interview with movie star Sean Penn, often remembered for the temper tantrums of his youth with his leading ladies on screen. In the end though, what we will likely remember about Sean Penn is not his temper or his success on the silver screen but his work on behalf of the people of Haiti, aiding their recovery after the earthquakes that decimated the country. When asked what moved him to act on their behalf, he remarked that while most of us have known relative comfort for much of our lives, the average person in Haiti has never experienced any comfort at all. When he visited there, he was moved to act with compassion on behalf of those who could not do so for themselves.

I’ve been thinking about how God asks us to use the resources entrusted to us for another reason. This past week I visited my parents in Nebraska, and my father wanted to talk about how he wants to be remembered. My husband and I ordered a plaque in his honor for the Heroes Walk of Remembrance in his hometown, honoring those who served in World War II. My father wants the US Army Corp of Engineers emblem added to his tombstone, as he served his country in such a way as this all of his life. My mother cannot say how she wants to be remembered. She rarely speaks. So advanced is her dementia that I would not even have known the entire visit whether she recognized me or not, expect that she looked at me blankly one night and spoke my name. That was all. In the end it will matter little how any of us want to be remembered. Others will stand and speak for us when that day comes. I will surely rise one day and speak my mother’s name aloud, and tell the small gathering that my mother had a remarkable capacity to be present, to listen, to be a friend.

What will be said on your behalf when that day comes? Will others say of you that you were kind and generous or quick to judge and assuming the worst of others? Will it be said of you that you trusted God, that you were humble, that you were kind or generous or forgiving? Will you be remembered as a cranky curmudgeon, or someone who used others, or insisted on your own way? The One who matters most is the only one true God, with whom we live in an active dynamic relationship, trusting God to be God, God trusting us to be ready and available. The words all of us most long to hear will be these, “Well done good and faithful servant. Receive your reward.”

When you lean toward God in trust, God burns through ordinary and marvelous you as light. You don’t have to be a movie star or millionaire to be useful for God’s purposes. Author Annie Dillard created a stark image of God’s trust in us to burn brightly for God’s glory in a story from her work “Holy the Firm”. One night as Annie Dillard read a book by candlelight, she described a story of faith transformation as she witnessed the death of a moth. Attracted to the light it flew into the flame, was caught there, and died. Sparing the details of its death, I will share the conclusion of her story.

“When it was all over, her head was, so far as I could determine, gone, gone the long way of her wings and legs. Had she been new, or old? Had she mated and laid her eggs, had she done her work? All that was left was the glowing horn shell of her abdomen and thorax—a fraying, partially collapsed gold tube jammed upright in the candle’s round pool.

And then this moth essence, this spectacular skeleton, began to act as a wick. She kept burning. The wax rose in the moth’s body from her soaking abdomen to her thorax to the jagged hole where her head should be, and widened into flame, a saffron-yellow flame that robed her to the ground like any… monk. That candle had two wicks, two flames of identical height, side by side. The moth’s head was fire. She burned for two hours, until I blew her out.”

I don’t think God cares so much what we believe but whether we trust. And then in God’s surprising ways, God trusts us in return. It seems to me that God gives us Jesus to show us as he said, the greatness of God’s grace, and then God creates us and lights us for good, to use us up, burnt, burnished, made new and shining for the glory of God.

We are God’s holy and beloved in just such a way as this, that out of God’s love for us, we become God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things.

May it be so. Amen