Stories of Faith

The Rev. Susan S. Payne
St. James, Magnolia, Ark.
August 21, 2011
10th Sunday After Pentecost
Year A, Proper 16

A parishioner told me this story last week: “My husband and I were having dinner with our children and grandchildren a few weeks ago,” she said. “The topic turned, inevitably these days, to the economy. We were surprised when one said and all agreed (as if they had discussed it), ‘We want you to spend everything you have on yourselves. Do not do save a penny to leave to us if there is anything you need or want something for yourself.'”

Did her children know living off their inheritance would not necessarily make them healthy, wealthy, and wise. An inheritance may not even sustain us temporarily. The story of the Prodigal Son comes to mind.

Living off the faith we’ve inherited may not sustain us spiritually over the course of our lives. The faith we inherited serves us well for a while and then something happens: unexpected success, a death or sickness, or maybe we just realize we feel empty or agitated for no reason we can put our finger on.

My Daddy was so thankful to get home after World War II that he and I never missed Sunday School and church again. I was only 4 years old. I heard all the Bible stories, and learned the hymns and “Jesus Loves Me.” We loved “Onward Christian Soldiers”—after all, our fathers were soldiers. I inherited the faith handed down in the church and in my family for many generations.

My friends and I were shocked when we moved into the junior high Sunday School class. Our new teacher spoke to us like we were adults. He encouraged us to think and to ask questions. (Maybe I need to remind you, those were the days when children were to be seen and not heard. We were empty containers to be filled; our minds were blank slates to be written on.) No one had ever before asked any of us who we thought Jesus was. Questions had not been nearly as welcome as silence, before we met this teacher.

One morning one of the boys asked, “Why are there three blocks of wood under that cross?” What an odd question, I thought, but the next thing I knew we were puzzling about the Trinity. We had begun to explore our faith.

In his book Will our Children Have Faith? John Westerhoff describes three stages of faith: inherited faith, explored faith, and owned faith. Do you remember your first question about faith? Or the first time someone asked a question like, Who do you think Jesus is? Did some experience bring you up short and cause you to ask Where is God in all this—9/11 maybe?

These days children are not shy about exploring questions like, Who is Jesus? Is there really a devil? Will you go to hell if you do certain things? or, What does this parable mean? In Bread for the Journey, our family Christian formation at St. James, we wonder how the Bible stories and parables connect with our stories. Even if we think someone’s idea about a story is a little off, we don’t say so. We know they’ll figure it out for themselves, and then it will be what Westerhoff calls “owned faith”—their understanding, not ours.

Children teach us. They often have different and stunning insights when they hear a parable. Remember the story of the wicked sharecroppers who kept killing the owner’s representatives and son who came to collect the harvest? A child might say (their minds unburdened by commerce and psychology), “Wasn’t that like what happened to Jesus?”

When we identify which Bible stories resonate with us, we begin to understand who we say Jesus is. Exploring our faith is not a straight-lined journey. It’s more like marriage—the more difficulties you overcome, the more you grow in understanding. At first you’re in what Barry and I called “glowcoma.” After a while, faith, like relationships, ebbs and flows, peaks and sometimes even takes a nosedive.

Look at Peter in today’s gospel. His understanding of Jesus soars. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Peter says. In Thomas Long’s commentary on Matthew, Long says, and I paraphrase: Peter is so attuned to Jesus that he recognizes that Jesus is the savior, the one who rescues a world in peril—the one Israel hoped would bring peace, wisdom, righteousness, and prosperity. ‘You are the Messiah (which means Christ in the Greek),’ Peter said, and, ‘you are the Son of the living God.’ You are human and your union with God is so intimate that you participate in the very nature of God. You are Son.

You are Son of the living God, who is the source of all life, who confers life on all creatures, and the creator who summons the winds and scatters light across the sky, the God who sustains and nourishes the world, and whose own image has been imparted to us, human beings—living God, not to be confused with the lifeless, inanimate, spiritless, and defunct gods who were represented in the temples all around where Jesus and the disciples were having this conversation, and not to be confused with the lifeless, inanimate, spiritless idols that tempt us from time to time.

Peter was no genius; he was attuned to Jesus at that moment. Peter was not perfect and anyone looking for perfection—of course God is not—would not point to Peter. Peter is like us: one minute our faith soars, the next minute confusion or doubt creeps in. How could this happen if Jesus is the savior of a world in peril? Today Peter expresses his amazing confession of faith, but tune in next week when Jesus says to him, “Get behind me, Satan!”

No matter, at our strongest and at our weakest, individually and as a church, we are able to proclaim Jesus’ good news: Jesus is the Christ and he is the Son of the Living God. We have keys of the kingdom: stories of strong and weak disciples and of Jesus who is always with us.

Have you seen the movie The Help or read the book? The first week it was released, you had to buy your tickets early or you couldn’t get into a theater in Little Rock. Of the top 20 highest box office receipt grossing movies in the United States and Canada, it was number two last weekend. People want to hear real life stories. The Help is a collection of personal stories telling what it was like to be a black maid in the racist south in Jackson, Miss. It was set in the ’60s, when Medgar Evers was shot and killed for wanting to earn a law degree in his home state university and for saying things like, “Don’t buy gas where you can’t use the restrooms.”

For me it was riveting, and very sad, to see what it was like when I was child. Malvern, Ark., was not Jackson, Miss.—no Junior League, no country club—but it was segregated. I’m sorry to say segregation was such a way of life, the only aspect of it that registered with me was the “colored” balcony at the movie theater. I remember wondering if white people could sit up there. I was so naïve, I didn’t know why they could sit up there, but we probably couldn’t. It seemed like a special place to me. It wasn’t Jackson, but in my blindness, these stories are part of my history.

Most people like a good story and the Bible is full of good stories of faith and fear, comfort and healing, challenge, success, and failure. The stories we choose to tell, tell a lot about who we are and what we believe. Do you think of Jesus as a John the Baptist—preacher and teacher of a new way of life who turned the social order upside down? Or as a teacher who gathered disciples and then left them in charge of his ministry?

One of my favorite stories about Jesus is the one about the man whose friends were so certain Jesus could heal him they cut a hole in the ceiling of the crowded house to get him to Jesus. They were not disappointed. I wonder, was the householder more angry about his damaged roof or glad someone was healed right there in his living room? He had a story to tell. When I asked Barry his favorite story, he said Jesus teaching the elders in the Temple. The thread of each story leads us, through our eyes of faith, to Jesus, the Christ, Son of the Living God.

What is your favorite story about Jesus? Is it from the Bible or did you have an experience of Jesus in your own life? Whichever it is, someone is eager to hear it. Someone needs to hear it and you need to tell it. In the telling you will learn something about Jesus and yourself. The good news beats gossip every time and the peculiar quality of a Bible story is that it gets better and better with each telling.