Since September I’ve been preaching a series on the marks of a 21st century disciple. At times I’ve included the line explicitly, “This and such is a mark of a 21st century disciple.” At times I’ve been slightly less direct, moving around something that defines the life of a disciple, looking at it from different angles, without spelling it out quite so specifically. (Part of that is due to my background as a writer and not wanting to repeat the same sentence or its variant every single Sunday. That would get old.)
On this Sunday our Biblical texts serve up faith, and even those who are not followers of Jesus could probably tell you that it is one of the key characteristics of a disciple. Faith. Or perhaps belief, but not the belief in something as true — “I believe that this church building is made of stone” or “I believe in the law of gravity” — but rather the belief that something will happen in the future, something that has not happened yet— like “I believe the Sox will win the Series this year”—and never losing hope, even when it looks like it won’t take place. In the Greek it’s pistis, and besides faith and believe it also gets translated as assurance, fidelity and trust. Something that is sure and true. Something promised.
Any preacher who begins talking about faith sooner or later pulls out the epistle to the Hebrews, Chapter 11. The writer of that letter—whoever she is—gives a fantastic litany of the faith of our forebears, and begins with this definition. “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Or as Eugene Patterson pens it in the Message Bible, “The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see. The act of faith is what distinguished our ancestors, set them above the crowd.” All of this is a backdrop for this morning.
Paul, in his letter to the Romans, wants to help those followers of Jesus tease out what’s important in being disciples. Is it living by the Jewish Law, the Torah, or is it something else? Do you need to do something to earn God’s love and grace or not? “Let me explain it to you,” Paul tells them, “by looking at Abraham’s life.” He goes deep in the grass—our lectionary committee graciously left out the string of verses where Paul ponders if Abraham received grace before or after his circumcision as an adult—and then gets to his statement in verses 16 and 17. “ For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations’) — in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” Those last two phrases embody the beauty of faith in the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence things that do not exist.”
Where Paul goes next unfortunately gets left on the cutting room floor by our lectionary too. “Hoping against hope, Abraham believed he would become ‘the father of many nations,’ according to what was said, ‘So numerous shall your descendants be.’ He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.” Paul reminds those Roman Christians that good old Abe was really, really old, and really, really old men don’t usually have babies, and certainly not when your wife has also gone way, way past the time of childbearing. Even so, he grew strong in the faith and he was fully convinced that God would one day act. That’s the faith we should be after. The belief that there’s resurrection. That’s there’s life after the dessert and wilderness times.
In her exquisite book A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit explores the impact of the unknown and finding ourselves lost. She follows the stories of a few who are forced in to a community not their own due to losing their way—like Spaniard Alvar Ninez Cabeza de Vaca, an explorer in the 16th century and some of his men who shipwrecked near Galveston, Texas and depended on the Native Americans there who made the men slaves. They lived “‘an unbearable life’ of hard work” and ultimately escape. De Vaca established a career for himself as a trader “of seashells, red ochre, and mesquite beans in the region.” After some tim he ends up becoming a slave again. He walks for days on end for a meal, meets up with other survivors, and they eventually all escape together. They enter another indigenous tribe and are welcomed as healers. Solnit writes, “What is remarkable about this point in his narrative is that he reports that he got lost looking for mesquite bean pods. He had so adapted to his new life he had fallen into that he no longer considered himself lost until he lost track of the tough and his companions in the pathless regions of the mesquites.”
Some time later de Vaca takes up a life with another group of Native Americans and they are discovered by Spanish conquistadors who wanted to enslave him along with the Indians, some ten years after he lost his way. The indigenous folks with him cannot grasp that he and the Spaniards are from the same country. He had completely changed during that decade—learning new languages and skills, changing his clothing, bing transformed. Who he had become in those ten years was drastically different from who he had been when he shipwrecked.
Solnit ends her essay by pondering chrysalises, the cocoons caterpillars concoct before they metamorphosize into butterflies. She writes, “The people thrown into other cultures go through something of the anguish of the butterfly, whose body must disintegrate and reform more than once in its life cycle. In her novel, Regeneration, Pat Barker writes of a doctor ‘who knew too well how often the early stages of change or cure may mimic deterioration. Cut a chrysalis open, and you will find a rotting caterpillar. What you will never find is that mythical creature, half caterpillar, half butterfly…. No the process of transformation consists almost entirely of decay.’” Solnit continues, “We have not much language to appreciate this phase of decay, this withdrawal, this era of ending that must proceed beginning. Nor of the violence of metamorphosis, which is often spoken of as though it were as grateful as a flower blooming.” (81)
In 10 weeks I’m heading out into the wilderness. My sabbatical has me traveling all over North America and even into the Serengeti to experience all that the desert and mountains can teach me in addition to the many texts I’ll be reading along the way that explore the rich history of wilderness spirituality. My interest grew out of my love of the outdoors and God’s penchant for meeting people there, but also out of the pain I’ve experienced in the metaphorical wilderness times in life. The death of my parents. The hard cost of ministry at my previous parish. A serious leg injury. Dealing with loneliness and depression.
Sometimes we might think of Lent and this time in the wilderness with Jesus as if it’s simply the process of a flower blooming. My experience of the those times has been much more traumatic. It’s been decay and death, pain and doubt. It’s been soul crushing. And so when someone uses a trite cliche to make us feel better, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” or “I guess God just needed another angel in heaven,” it makes me want to slug them and hard.
Like the complete decay of the caterpillar, wilderness experiences often bring us to a point of no return. And yet it’s in those same moments that real faith can truly emerge. Not that sacchariney faith of pithy bumperstickers, but deep and abiding faith expressing trust in God even in the midst of everything to the contrary. And it’s never easy—anyone claiming that it is is a fraud.
Abraham believed and trusted in the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence things that do not exist.” None of us wants to experience death or decay. But it is in precisely those times that God works and brings about redemption. In the midst of divorce, the throes of loss, the navigating of a serious illness, the devastation of depression. The times we wander in the desolate wilderness. If a nearly 100 year old man with a wife in her 90s can trust in the promises of God for a newborn, can we too trust God’s promise, by faith? What promise is that, you may be asking? The one we heard this morning: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Because of God’s love, our lives do not ultimately lead to death, but life. Have faith. Trust. Believe. For the one whom we follow calls things into existence that do not currently exist, and raises to new life things that have died. The Almighty One does it even in our lives. Have faith and trust. Amen.