25 September – Threads in a Tapestry of Faith

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Pentecost 16

2 Timothy 1:1-14
Psalm 137
Luke 17:5-10

Sermon preached by Matt Julius

God, may my words be loving and true; and may those who listen discern what is not.

Sometimes the world shakes … our world shakes. It is, of course, different for each of us. Tragedy, loss, and disappointment always find new ways to manifest — in large and small ways.

On the 11th of March 2021 an email was sent to the pool of candidates for ordained ministry in our Synod informing them that I had resigned as one of those candidates. It was a decision I in no way regret, and yet it has led me to reconfigure my understanding of myself, and my faith, and my place in the Church. It was only in a recent conversation with a mentor that I realised how deep the work of reconfiguring my faith still has to go. With the discussion of faith and loss in our readings for today it is difficult for me to disentangle my own life and experience from these texts.

All encounters with texts, particularly those of scripture, draw us into the life of the text, and the text into our lives. Through the assumptions we bring to, our mood and state of mind, the ways the text makes us feel — or not feel — the new ideas they generate in us, the context in which they are read: we encounter ourselves in encountering the texts of scripture. And when we hear these words in a time of worship or prayer we hope, above all, that through this encounter we do not simply find ourselves, but find God.

The question posed by our Psalm is, in one sense, the perennial question posed by our encounters with scripture: how can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? Because we are always, in one sense, in a foreign land. We are never situated in the place where these texts were first heard.

Indeed, we scarcely know where these texts originally spoke from or to. Our Psalm speaks of the experience of the exile by Babylon — likely the clearest reference to exile in the Psalter. But the challenge of the Psalm is not to imagine ourselves among the artisans, landowners, and elites who were taken away into exile in the 6th century BCE. The challenge is to us today: how can we sing the Lord’s song in this new land?

Here, for those of us whose whakapapa — that is, heritage and history — is not rooted in this land what we hear in our Psalm is not a simple echo of ourselves, but a stark reminder of our distance from the Psalmist. We are not in exile. Indeed, we are the beneficiaries of a legacy of dispossession in this land. How then do we remain faithful to the question of the Psalmist: to sing the Lord’s song in this land?

The lesson here is what it means to remain faithful to the call of scripture. We remain faithful not by reconstructing the often-lost histories of ancient texts, as if our lives should be seen as a simple echo of lost days. Or as if the past could ever be a simple rubric applied directly to the present. Rather, we remain faithful by facing up to the kinds of questions, the kinds of challenges, that the writers of Scripture faced.

What we receive in these texts is that call: to open ourselves in honesty, naming the uncomfortable parts of our life with God, allowing ourselves to feel the frustration and disappointment that we do indeed feel. The call of scripture is, I want to suggest, to be honest before God; and not the imposition of a holy veneer, where everything is neatly filed away. The Psalmist — though not in the exact version we used today — even expresses the desire for violent vengeance against the children of their captors.

And so it is that through our honesty before God we remain faithful to God.

This is the word of grace we receive from Second Timothy. — a text we must read on face value, given the significant contest over where and from whom this text actually comes. Second Timothy reminds us that the faith and power of God is not something we must strive for, but something we receive. And we receive the gift of faith more fully when we are more fully open to receive it: more fully honest to receive it.

Faith is a gift, a spark, to be rekindled. A fire which we have received from those who love us. And, ultimately, from the one who loves us above and beyond all: God; in the fullness of life which pulsates through the world.

It is telling that Second Timothy does not settle with abstractions here. The text gets down into the dirt: naming the ones from whom faith has been received. This too is our task: honesty before God must mean giving an honest account of those from whom we have received our faith. Faith binds us together, it is something that lives in others, and then in us, like a subterranean root system feeding a network of new shoots. Like germinating life that falls from old growth and reseeds every generation.

I have to name the simple faith of my mother, the generous service of my father, my wife’s prophetic voice, my brother’s resilient heart, my many teachers — Craig not the least of them.

I confess in my current period of reconfiguration I have felt caught in these various shadows. Not quite clear how I can “make good” on what I have received from those who love me.

And yet, and yet … in traversing the distance and closeness of my relationship to scripture I am beginning to find again my closeness to God.

All of the past has conspired to gather us here. And yes we are each but a single thread in the tapestry of faith. Perhaps only able to conjure an honest word of anger, or disappointment, or loss. But there is love gathered at your back, pressing you onward. here are names of saints who have blessed you — and it is your task that their names not be lost.

Be honest before God, because God loves you. Be open to receive, because you will receive Sun and not shadow. Be patient in the sufferings of life, because the work of reconfiguration is hard and rewarding — I hope.

Hear then this good news:

Jesus has already invited you to a seat at the table. You are already included in the love that has rung throughout the world since before all ages. You are already part of the tapestry of faith which bears the burdens of others. You are already redeemed and restored. You are already the recipient of a gift: Jesus Christ who abolished death and brought life and light.

Be of good heart and do not despair. There are questions to be faced, challenges to undertake, and God to be found.