Sunday, March 5, 2017

Functional Faith

Functional Faith from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

Matthew 4:1-11
1Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread." 4But he answered, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'"

5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'"

7Jesus said to him, "Again it is written, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"

8Again the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me." 10Jesus said to him, "Away with you, Satan! For it is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'"

11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

James 1:19-27
19You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20For your anger does not produce God's righteousness. 21Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

22But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror 24for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act - they will be blessed in their doing.

26If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27Religion that is pure and undefiled is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

The rhythm of our weekly worship is predictable. We hit the same beats week after week, and as we open the portion of worship focused on the reading and proclamation of God's word, the same pattern repeats almost every service.

Our scripture reading comes from...You can find it on...

Hear now the Word of the LORD.

And then the preacher (usually me) or our liturgist reads from the Bible and says "This is the Word of the LORD." And we all respond.

We identify the passage as the Word of the LORD, we read it, then we remind ourselves that this is the Word of the LORD.

We all know that Word of the LORD is something we, as Christians, are to listen for. We're supposed to use for instruction, for correction, and to grow closer to God.

But there are parts of scripture that I don't like very much.

See I've got this theology, this way of describing God, embedded deep in who I am. I learned it from my mother, from my father, from my Sunday School teachers and youth leaders, from professors in college and seminary.

My theology addresses some deep concerns of mine, and helps me to grasp God during times of trial. It tells me that God is in charge, and that God's gracious love reaches far beyond my sin, and redeems me. I want my salvation to be entirely in God's hands because my experience has shown me that my hands cannot bear that burden.

But the epistle of James does not easily fit within my embedded theology. The easiest thing to do, of course, is to not read it very much. To keep reading the parts of the bible that support what I already believe.

But the easiest thing to do and the faithful thing to do are not always the same thing. It’s tempting to choose the easier path, but that’s not who we are. That’s not the action that emerges from the implanted word.

But it’s the action that we choose, even though we know better.

There are two kinds of faith. Professed faith, which is what we say we believe, and Functional faith, which is what we act like we believe. “…Functional faith is about how we actually behave in our everyday life and in our relationships.” As sinners, there will always be a distance between what we say we believe and what our actions show.

A person may say that they believe in the resurrection of the dead, and yet work so hard to try and extend their lives as long as possible.

A person may say that they believe that God is in control, and yet try and micromanage every aspect of their lives.

A person may say they believe that God loves and forgives them no matter what, and yet struggle with shame over what they've done in the past.

James is much more concerned with Functional Faith than Professed Faith. He doesn't much care how your theology sounds. He cares about how your looks. What does it look like to believe that God is the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth? What does it look like to believe that Jesus Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead? What does it look like to believe that the Holy Spirit gives us the community of the saints and the forgiveness of sins?

In our Matthew passage today, Jesus has the opportunity to put his faith into action. After forty days and nights fasting in the wilderness, the tempter comes to offer him the easy way. Hungry? “Command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Want to show people God’s power? “Throw yourself down…” God will protect you. Want to inherit all of creation? “All of these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

We know the story. Jesus was tempted in all of the same ways that we are, and yet is without sin. He chooses the faithful, difficult route, putting his faith in God, and putting his faith to work in the world.

That story takes place right after his baptism. It happens right before he calls his disciples. The next chapter begins the sermon on the mount, where he tells the crowds how to profess the coming kingdom of heaven by the way they related to one another and to the world.

But during Lent, we’re still with him in the wilderness. We join our Lord in temptation so that by the end of these forty days our faith might reflect Jesus a little more than it did before.

I think Lent is a time when we can intentionally close the gap between what we say we believe, and what we act like we believe. Usually that means acting a little differently to bring our practice in line with our proclamation. Sometimes though, it means our words need to change, because we cannot live our faith, so our faith needs to develop into something livable.

For me, this Lent means preaching my way through the book of James, even though I’m not a huge fan, because only through wrestling with these texts which challenge me can I put what I profess into practice. This is how I’m choosing to spend this time making my faith more functional.

Douglas Adams, a British comedian and writer, observed that this is the problem of our planet:

"...most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

And so the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable..."

Adams wittily observes that we act like the movement of money is the key to our own happiness. That's surely not what we say we believe. But most of the suggested solutions to our collective unhappiness does involve moving money in some way.

But we Christians have heard the Word of the LORD, thanks be to God. We profess, over and over again, that it’s not the small green pieces of paper that bring us wholeness, that end misery. We proclaim in our worship that the gospel of Jesus Christ “is the perfect law, the law of liberty.” It gives us the strength to persevere through the many dangers toils and snares we face.

Yet we frail sinners still fall into the trap of acting like what we have received and learned doesn’t matter. We study the word, but we don’t always give faith a place to function. "Doctrine is not an affair of the tongue, but of the life; is not apprehended by the intellect and memory merely, like other branches of learning; but is received only when it possesses the whole soul, and finds its seat and habitation in the inmost recesses of the heart” The gospel is the implanted word that has the power to save your soul. Study helps us profess better, but James challenges us to not stop with profession, but to continue into a functional faith.

Lent is a time when we can take our faith off the bookshelf and verb it. Do Faith. Don't respond to God's word only with muttered, joyless thanks. Respond to the Word of the LORD with action. Show me, show your church, show the world that the faith we profess will also function.

That function may make things difficult in the short run. There will be tempters aplenty who will tell us to go back to the way things were, when we talked about Jesus but didn’t act like him. There will be innumerable opportunities to take the easy road at the cost of what’s important.

But we have a functional faith and a community that will help one another maintain it. God is uniting our hands and hearts in ministry so that our varied gifts may glorify his holy name. God has given us each other so that we can support one another until our faith functions in word and deed to proclaim God’s unending love.

The rhythm of our weekly worship is predictable. We hit the same beats week after week. Our worship is centered around the reading and proclamation of God Word. We all hear it together.

But during this season of Lent, as together we work our way though one of my less-loved books of the New Testament, perhaps we will not stop at hearing the Word of the LORD. Perhaps this Lent, we will Do the Word of the LORD. This Lent, let’s take the opportunity to practice putting our faith into action. Let’s get our faith off of the bulletin and put it into our lives together.

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