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Be Ye Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Only

Pentecost 12 – Year C

Near the end of June I was watching television one evening, flipping channels in that “male” sort of way that drives Melissa crazy, when I came upon this crazy person walking on a tightrope across a gorge of the Grand Canyon. I was immediately mesmerized and couldn’t take my eyes off this disaster just waiting to happen. The tightrope walker was Nik Wallenda, the seventh-generation high wire artist from the famous Flying Wallenda family. Fifteen hundred feet above the canyon floor on a two-inch wire, Nik was about a quarter of the way across by the time I tuned into the show.
What struck me as I watched was not just the feat itself but what Nik was saying as he slowly inched his way across 450 yards of steel cable. Every few steps he would say something like: “Thank you Jesus,” “Praise you Jesus,” “Yes Jesus,” “Help me Jesus,” “Bless me Jesus,” “Jesus, calm the winds,” “Jesus, calm my fears,” and so on for more than twenty minutes. Now, I’m quite comfortable invoking the name of Jesus, I do it all the time (mostly appropriately). In fact, almost every prayer in our Prayer Book is prayed in Jesus’ name. But what Nik was doing made me uncomfortable. It was too much. It seemed to trivialize our Lord, as if the name of Jesus was magic. Moreover, I couldn’t help thinking that if Jesus was standing there he might tell Nik – “Don’t shout at me, you’re the idiot who decided to walk across the Grand Canyon on a wire.”
Yet, if you think about it, faith is always a little bit of a high wire act. When Abraham and Sarah left Ur and ventured out into the wilderness because God told them to, when they left behind all safety and security because God promised to make their family into a great nation, were they any less crazy? Weren’t they stepping out onto their own high wire of sorts? At ninety years old, when they staked their entire future on God’s promise that they would have a son, wasn’t that an irrational risk? When Peter, James and John left their livelihoods and their families to follow a small time itinerant preacher from Nazareth named Jesus, couldn’t you say that was an incredibly foolhardy and risky undertaking? As much as it made me uncomfortable watching Nik Wallenda walk across that gorge, it is analogous to the nature of faith. Because faith means stepping out in trust without any guarantees, and that is a scary thing to do.
Whenever I lead the Pilgrim’s Path class I like teaching about faith because I think it is such a misunderstood term. I always start my lecture by saying – “Faith is not belief! If you don’t hear me say anything else during this class period hear this – faith is not belief. It incorporates belief, belief is important, but faith is not belief.” For some reason in the modern era of Christianity we have gotten faith all tangled up with having the right set of ideas in our heads. We equate faith in Jesus with believing the right things about Jesus. I have faith when I believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he walked on water, that he is the third person of the Trinity, that he ascended into heaven, etc. Now, I do believe all these things but that doesn’t mean I have faith – it just means I believe certain statements to be true. By contrast, if I am someone who struggles with some doctrines, if I am someone for whom doubt is a constant companion in my spiritual life, that does not mean I do not have faith. Doubt is the opposite of belief. Doubt is not the opposite of faith. Doubt is a part of faith. Because faith is first and foremost trust, not belief. I have faith in Jesus when I trust in the promises of Jesus. I have faith when I trust in the way of Jesus and take the risk to mold my life on his life and his teachings. I have faith when I trust in Jesus enough to follow him, when I am willing to stake my life on him. Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms,” It is one thing to believe Jesus when he says this, it is quite another thing to trust him enough to actually let go of our of our fears and the death grip many of us have on our wealth.
Frederick Buechner once said that faith is better understood as a verb than as a noun, as a process than as a possession. It is on-again-off-again rather than once-and-for-all. Faith isn’t something we have but rather something we do. It involves action and risk. Like Abraham and Sarah, faith is not being sure where you’re going but going anyway. It is a journey without maps. For me, faith is the daily, sometimes hourly act of entrusting myself and those I love to God. It is the act of stepping out onto God’s high wire and trusting that when I forgive, when I give, when I sacrifice for others, when I stand up for justice, when I love my enemy it is worth the risk.
Back more than thirty years ago, the Rev. Bryant Wilson shared the following with his congregation about a week before he died. He said: I walk a tightrope . . . I dare not look down . . . I assume (he wrote) that most of you have heard the discouraging word I received from my doctors this past week . . . Despite their best efforts, and mine, and yours, the cancer we would wish away and pray away has returned . . . And now I walk a tightrope . . . As I hang precariously balanced I find keeping balance is not easy to do. On the one side is the reality that all of us die, even men in their early fifties . . . Cancer is no respecter of persons . . . It can take us all . . .The young and the old, the rich and the poor the famous and the infamous those that some think deserve it, and those who don’t. And me . . . Denial is only foolish . . . On the other side is faith . . . The kind of faith that knows miracles can and do happen . . . God can and does intervene . . . Prayers are answered . . . Bodies are healed . . . Cancers are banished and vanish . . . without explanation . . . Unpredictable. Wonderfully. Denial refuses the unseen mystery of life . . . To embrace both realities is difficult . . . It is easy to embrace one and deny the other . . . To accept death and deny hope . . . Or to cling to faith and deny death . . . I live on a tightrope . . . But I know that, were I to fall, it matters not on which side I fall. Faith always wins. Why? Underneath are the Everlasting Arms.
So step out brothers and sisters. Take the risk of faith and live with the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen. Trust that the promises of our God are real and true. Trust that the good you do matters, trust that the love you share matters, trust that following and striving to obey Christ Jesus makes all the difference in your life and in the lives of others. Go ahead step out in faith. Sure it feels a little bit like a high wire act but don’t be afraid the Rev. Wilson is right – faith always wins and our Lord will never let you go. Amen.

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