Sermon for 10 Pentecost, Year C
Based on Heb. 11:1-3, 8 & Lk. 12:33-34
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
“A Risky Faith”
Faith… That’s a very loaded word. There are likely as many different ways of understanding faith, as there are different kinds of people. There are also likely as many ways of practicing faith, as there are different personalities and backgrounds. What, then, is faith? That’s not an easy question to answer—since everyone does not have the same experiences in life. Nor does everyone have exactly the same kind of thought processes or the same theological or linguistic ways or methods of speaking about what faith is.
A lot of people today seem to understand and practice their faith by placing their trust in their bank accounts; their investments in bonds or stocks; their insurance policies; their RRSPs; their land; their pension plans and so on. The message our world is giving us is that one must spend a lifetime carefully planning—preferable with a professional financial planner—for your security and retirement.
In this life-long pursuit, people attempt to take minimum risks in order to obtain maximum profits from their investments. But, alas, even when people are over-cautious, their investments have been lost—along with the security of their future, which they so carefully planned. What kind of faith is this? Even those “worldly-wise” people who have “made it”—are they really happy or content with their lives? Do they really have security? Do they really have faith? Likely, but in what or whom? Consider the following people who put their faith in worldly security; who became rich and famous by worldly standards.
Charles Schwab was the president of a steel company, (he) died penniless. Richard Whitney was the president of the New York Stock Exchange, (he) spent the rest of his life serving a sentence in Sing Sing Prison. Arthur Cutton, (once a) great wheat speculator, became insolvent. Albert Fall was a presidential cabinet member, (and) a very wealthy man—(he) was pardoned from a federal prison so he might die at home. Leon Fraser was president of the International Bank of Settlements. He committed suicide. Jesse Livermore was the greatest bear on Wall Street in his generation. He committed suicide. Ivan Krueger (was the head of a large monopoly). He committed suicide. Seven of those eight great big money magnates had lives that were disasters before they left planet earth. 1
What good was faith in worldly security for these men? If faith is not trust in worldly security, then what is it? Some people today—and in other centuries too—have defined faith as the acceptance of right beliefs. For example, belief in a systematic presentation of doctrines or belief in the creeds.
We cannot have trust without some belief, but we may unhappily have belief without any trust. Now a (person) who believes the doctrines (and creeds) that underly the Christian life but who does not vitally trust the Person whom those doctrines (and creeds) present, has missed the heart out of faith’s meaning. He (or she) is like one who cherishes a letter of introduction to a great personality, but has never used it; he (or she) has the formal credentials, but not the transforming experience. 2
The tragedy of defining faith as right belief is that people have claimed propositional truths, orthodox doctrines; and have confessed the creeds without living in a relationship with Jesus Christ. People have trusted in propositional truths, doctrines and creeds more than they have trusted in Jesus. This certainly was one of the grave errors of the Church during the period of the Inquisition.
Another problem with defining faith as right belief is that it so easily leads people into a holier-than-thou, self-righteous attitude towards others who do not believe what you do. For example, if X is dying of cancer, it is because they do not have enough faith—they do not believe strong enough that God can heal them and wants to heal them. Y tells X that they once had cancer too, but because they believed so strongly in God, they were healed.
This is very poor theology. One cannot turn one’s belief off and on like a switch. Belief is not our own doing or willing, it is a gift from God. It is therefore wrong to tell X that enough faith will heal them. It is not our believing, but rather God’s power, love, and choice which heals us. Furthermore, it may well be God’s will and purpose not to heal X—at least physically—of their cancer. In which case it shall be very important for X to deal with that reality—to come to terms with death, accept the fact that they are indeed dying, prepare for it; and realize that God is with them in that process.
In both our second lesson and gospel today, we see another kind of faith. Faith as it is described in our passages both emphasize a radical trust. A trust in God that is dangerous, risky; a leap into the great unknown. Faith is a journey, which we cannot always predict or be in control of. It is a willingness to change and abandon what is safe and secure. Jesus tells us it involves selling possessions, not gaining more—most people in the Western world do the opposite! It involves giving to the poor, not hording wealth or possessions for ourselves—again most people in the Western world do the reverse. One Christian who may be a model of faith for us concerning this practice and teaching of Jesus is John Wesley.
John Wesley’s rule of life was to save all he could and give all he could. When he was at Oxford he had an income of 30 pounds a year. He lived on 28 pounds and gave 2 pounds away. When his income increased to 60 pounds, 90 pounds and 120 pounds a year, he still lived on 28 pounds and gave the balance away. The Accountant-General for Household Plate demanded a return from him. His reply was, “I have two silver spoons at London and two at Bristol. This is all the plate which I have at present; and I shall not buy any more, while so many around me want bread.” 3
On another occasion Wesley made the following observation—which has indeed proven to be more-or-less correct of the Church historically—and gave the following advice, which is very much in line with the proposed teaching and practice of Jesus in today’s gospel.
I fear, wherever riches have increased (exceeding few are the exceptions), the essence of religion, the mind that was in Christ has decreased in the same proportion. Therefore I do not see how it is possible, in the nature of things, for any revival of true religion to continue long. For religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality; and these cannot but produce riches. (Sounds a bit like the Protestant Work Ethic, doesn’t it?) But as riches increase, so will pride, anger, and love of the world in all its branches.
What way then can we take that our money may not sink us to the nethermost hell? There is one way, and there is no other under heaven. If those who “gain all they can,” and “save all they can,” will likewise “give all they can,” then the more they gain, the more they will grow in grace and the more treasure they will lay up in heaven. 4
How generous, risky and adventurous is our faith? After all, we know that nothing ventured is also nothing gained. The core of our second lesson and gospel today, as well as John Wesley instruct us all to practice a risky faith by being servants of justice and mercy, motivated by the love and grace of God.
Who is our God—money, materialism, mammon or the One True God of heaven and earth? “Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
1 Cited from: James S. Hewett, Illustrations Unlimited (Wheaten, ILL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1988), p. 340.
2 Cited from: Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Meaning of Faith (New York: International Committee of YMCAs: Association Press, 1945), pp. 93-94.
3 Wm. Barclay, The Gospel of Luke (Burlington, ON: G.R. Welch Co. Ltd., 1975), p. 164.