In the Epistle reading from First Thessalonians 1:1-10 we hear “We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” I love this exhortation of Paul to his church community – he recognizes their work of faith, labor of love, and steadfastness of hope. These are three enduring tenets of our tradition.
I think we can all agree that a strong, sturdy faith is a good thing. It gives us a sense of resilience when things are difficult. It offers us something to lean into when we are wobbly or unsure. Faith is reassuring in frightening times. Faith sees us through when we are unsure of the future. Faith is like a warm blanket on a cold night, it keeps us feeling comforted and maybe even protected.
I have not always had faith, in fact in my early years I felt distinctly alone and abandoned more than comforted by a loving God. But my mom always had faith. She loved church her whole life, well at least up to the last few years. At the end she just liked to go sit in the church when it was empty and look at the stain glass in silence. She said to me, “I don’t see why God would care if we praised him or not. Could something as unimaginably magnificent as God be so petty as to need our puny praise?”
When my mom was dying her grandsons drove to see her and say goodbye. The last time she was conscious she looked them in the eye and said: “You have to have faith.” Then, “God is love.” And lastly, “Jesus is everything.” She was radiating as she said these words to her beloved grandchildren. She was already halfway to heaven. She longed to instill in them faith. She impressed these words upon them with a deep desire for them to somehow find their faith.
Life without faith can be a rather self-oriented affair. Much of my life I spent pursuing small worldly dreams. Longing for financial success. Striving for my goals to be met. But things did not go as I hoped they would. In fact, I fell short of my dreams. And in my failures, when I felt most distraught, when I was quite literally brought to my knees, is where and how my faith was born. When I could not make things happen my way, I finally gave up and surrendered to a greater power than my own. “Help me.” became the words of my emerging faith.
I have been a prison chaplain for 15 years now. My faith led me to this labor of love. Not surprisingly, it is in prisons that I am most aware of God. It is where I feel the presence of Jesus and see the work of the Holy Spirit. These days It is in the California Men’s Colony where I witness miracles of healing and reconciliation. For many men and women living behind bars faith is a necessary ingredient for survival. It isn’t casual. It is a lifeline.
I want to tell you the story of Myra. I walked with this young woman for 4 years while she was incarcerated waiting for trial. She had been charged with murder and was facing 25 years to life in prison. But Myra had not committed a crime, she had witnessed the murder. She knew that if she spoke up and told the police she and her family would be in grave danger, so she had to do the time to keep them safe.
The night before the trial some of us gathered around her and we sang together this simple song: “Don’t be afraid, only believe, your faith will save you, only believe.” At trial the next day Myra was terrified but as she sat in the courtroom, she remembered the song and sang it to herself. And she felt herself trust – her fear vanished. And then a miracle happened. The man who committed the murder interrupted the proceedings and asked the judge if he could take the stand. The judge agreed and the man went up, swore in, then he told the court that he had committed the murder and he alone. He pointed to Myra and said, “She had nothing to do with it. She is innocent.”
And Myra went home.
Another beautiful nugget in todays scripture is tucked into the passage from Matthew 22 where we hear these words: “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.” Then it goes on about the denarii and Caesar .
These men acknowledged that Jesus teaches in the way of God is to treat all people equally.
We struggle with this don’t we? Don’t we often think that some people deserve greater love and blessings than others? That our lives and actions merit different responses from God? That some lives matter more than others? It is almost impossible not to partake in this kind of thinking. If people are mean or violent then they will not be loved by God as the pure hearted are, right? But the truth is that God’s love and Grace falls on the wicked and the good. It is important to remember this as we witness the sense of entitlement that some use to oppress, harm, or even others. As Christians we must stand for peace, not violence. We stand for life, not death. All of creation is beloved of our Creator.
Do we think that God is micromanaging things from above deciding whose house will be blown down in the tornado and whose will be spared? Don’t people say that God spared them from the car crash or from the flooding? Which of course means that God chose not to spare those who were killed by a drunk driver or who lost their home. Are we making God a god who shows partiality? How could anyone think that God takes sides or cares more for some than for others. This seems like blasphemy.
Today we witness massive amounts of suffering daily. We have front row seats to the horror of wars, the devastation of earthquakes, and the nearly daily toll that climate catastrophes take.
My friend, Jim Finley, one of the most brilliant spiritual teachers of our time, and one who has suffered a great deal in his life, says this about God, “God does not rescue us, in fact God is a presence that protects us from nothing, even as God unexplainably sustains us in all things.”
This is faith. Shit will happen and is happening all around us and God is not preventing it, but God is with us offering us sustaining love. The God I love cries for all who suffer and celebrates all who live with faith, labor for love, and live with steadfast hope.
The Reverend Sister Greta