Faith! The prophet Habakkuk said, "The righteous shall live by faith." Faith! Jesus said, "If you have faith the size of a mustard seed you will say to this mountain be moved from here to there and it will obey you." Faith. When he healed folk, he told them, "Go your way, your faith has made you well." Faith. The book of Hebrews says, "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." Faith. St. Paul said we are justified, put right with God by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Faith. Faith is the key to living the power of the resurrected life of Jesus in our lives.
Faith is the key. So keep the faith.
The words keep the faith are almost part of the lexicon of preachers and people of faith. But I first heard the phrase in a way that it stayed with me when I was a child.
My father had a record album--though I clearly have dated myself by this story--he had a record album of preaching by the Rev. Dr. Adam Clayton Powell, Pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and Congressman from that district. One of his sermons was entitled "Keep the Faith, Baby."
He was in the midst of a very public, political and personal crisis. I didn't know that at the time. But that crisis would result from him being expelled from the House of Representatives and publicly disgraced. And he preached that sermon--"Keep the Faith."
As a child I didn't grasp the full significance of it, but looking back on the struggles that he was living through at the time, it's clear to me that there was something in that phrase keep the faith that could help us keep going on.
That's what the Book of Hebrews is getting at, I think. The chapter begins, "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." And then it goes on after sort of defining faith. It goes on to give examples of people who lived by faith. When you look at the list, these folk all shared some things in common. Every one of them swam against the current of their time. Everyone of them marched to a different drummer. Everyone of them lived against the odds. And each one made a difference for the kingdom of God.
Enoch walked with God against the odds. Noah built an ark when the sun was still shining. Sarah and Abraham came home and gave birth to nations in their old age. And Moses, Moses. Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt land. And tell ole Pharaoh, let my people go.
Keep the faith. And that faith will keep you because the source of that faith is the Living God.
And then the writer of Hebrews goes on and you can almost feel the writer getting excited.
And what more should I say. And what more can I say? Time would fail me to tell of Gideon and Barak and Samson and Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets--who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection.
All of that by the power of faith. So keep the faith. Now this would be a good point to do an altar call. Have everybody come up. Cause it sounds pretty good. But if you read on in the 11th chapter of Hebrews, faith is not all hunky-dory. The writer says:
"Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented--of whom the world was not worthy." (Hebrews 11:32-38)
And yet by the power of this faith, they endured persecution. They kept on in spite of the odds, against the odds, swimming upstream, and then in a burst of glory in the 12th chapter, the writer says:
"Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, (how do we do that?) looking to Jesus the pioneer, the perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken up at the right hand of the throne of God."
Keep the faith! And that faith will keep you.
But it's not easy. The late Harry Emerson Fosdick, arguably one of the greatest preachers of our time, once said, "The world has two ways of getting rid of Jesus. The first is by crucifying him; the second is by worshiping him without following him." There is a lot of truth in that.
In one sense it's pretty easy to worship Jesus on Sunday, but it is something else to follow Jesus out there in that world on Monday. It's easy to be a member of a church in America. All you basically have to do is show up. Woodie Allen said, "Half of life is just showing up." In America you can be a member of a church by just showing up, filling out the membership card, answering an altar call, visiting the pastor, new member committee. It's not complicated. But discipleship in community is a much more difficult and demanding proposition. Discipleship is about following Jesus, by living his teachings, what he actually taught, and by living in the Spirit of his very life. And that's not easy.
You don't believe me. Think for a moment. It's easy to worship on Sunday, but tough to follow him on Monday. Think for a moment. Think about that week we call Holy. As far as I can tell, all the disciples were present and accounted for on Palm Sunday. It's easy to worship on Sunday. They were all there. It's easy. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. It's easy . Hosanna in the highest. It's easy to just show up in church on Sunday, but on Monday, where were those same disciples? Tuesday? Wednesday? Where was Judas by Wednesday? Thursday? After the dinner in the Garden of Gethsemane. "Father, let this cup pass from me." Where were they? Where were they when he was arrested? Where were they when he was on trial? Where were they when he was lynched and hung on a cross? Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Oh, it's easy to worship, but it's tough to follow.
Membership in the church is easy, but discipleship in community of the church is another matter. 'Cause see, what the world looks down on and considers wretched, Jesus calls blessed. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the meek and the humble. Blessed are the merciful and the compassionate. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst that God's righteous justice might prevail. Blessed are those who make for peace. Blessed are you who are persecuted just because you stood for love, because you showed compassion, because you live for justice, because you walk a different way, blessed are you.
Oh, it's tough to follow Jesus, but following this way of love, of forgiving, of compassion--it is the way of life. But you can't do it without faith.
I grew up in a home where the name of William Wilberforce was sacred and venerated. My father went to Wilberforce University, one of our historically black colleges, founded by the AME Church. It was William Wilberforce who introduced legislation in the British Parliament to end the slave trade. In 1779 when he first introduced the bill, he was shouted down and laughed at. He was ridiculed and ostracized from polite society. But he continued, year after year from 1779 until 1807 when the tide of public opinion had in fact changed. And he continued after that to argue for the end of slavery itself--not just the slave trade, but the end of slavery itself--which happened in the British Empire in 1833, just a few days before his death.
At one point in the midst of the struggle, when the cause seemed to be hopeless, the great John Wesley, the Anglican priest, father of Methodism, sent a letter to William Wilberforce to encourage him. And this is what Wesley said:
"Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them stronger than God? Be not weary in well doing! Go on, go on in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish before it."
Wesley's words were a summons to faith, for faith by its very nature is tough. It's not a guarantee; it's not an insurance policy. It's a radical disposition, a daring act of courage. Paul Tillich in his book The Courage to Be taught us that faith is a daring act of courage. It is the courage to affirm being in spite of the threat of non-being, the courage to affirm life in spite of death, the courage to affirm hope in spite of despair, the courage to stand up and speak up, when everyone else just shuts up. It is not proof. It is not certainty. It's not an insurance policy. But it's got power, power born of a God who gives it. We've come this far by faith, says the song, leaning on the Lord, trusting in his holy word, and he's never failed me yet.
One of my mentors and teachers, the late Verna Dozier, in her book The Dream of God says this about faith:
"Faith implies risk. The faith view of reality is frightening in its openness, so institutions are always trying to control reality with doctrines and laws and creeds. Kingdom of God thinking calls us to risk. We always see through a glass darkly, and that is what faith is about. I will live by the best I can discern today. Tomorrow I may find out that I was wrong. Since I do not live by being right, I am not destroyed by being wrong. The God revealed in Jesus, whom I call the Christ, is a God whose forgiveness goes ahead of me, and whose love sustains me and the whole created world. That God bursts all the definition of our small minds, all the limitations of our tired efforts, all the boundaries of our institutions."
The only way to follow Jesus is by faith. And that's not easy because in a very real sense you know that you do that you got to gamble on God. Gamble on God. I gamble a lot. I don't mean in a casino. I gamble every time I get on an airplane. I don't particularly enjoy flying; I do it because I have to, and I know it's reasonably safe. But the truth is when I get on the plane, I don't usually look in the cockpit to actually see if anybody is in there. I pretty much take it on faith that there's a pilot or two pilots in that cockpit. Sometimes the pilot speaks before you take off, and sometimes they don't. Sometimes you never hear from the pilots at all. And yet we all get on the plane and actually trust that there's a pilot flying that plane and that that pilot is in relatively good shape and should be flying that plane. Have I had any proof that that's the case? Not one iota. Have I had any shred of evidence that that's the case? Not one shred of evidence. And yet I get on a plane and let somebody take me up to 34,000 feet, somebody I have never seen and sometimes somebody I never hear from. And the truth of the matter is you fly on a plane and airplane companies--they go in and out of bankruptcy all the time. Now if I can have faith in Delta, in American, and Continental, and all of our airlines--and I don't really have any evidence in my hands that they know what they're doing--why is it so tough for me to have faith in the Lord God Almighty who is actually giving me the breath that is breathing through my body and the blood that is being pulsated through my body?
My friends, faith is a gamble, but it's not a crazy gamble. It's a gamble on the God who loves us, a gamble on the God who has given us life, a gamble on the God who has shown us the way to live in love and compassion, in decency and kindness. It's a gamble that the God who created us knows how to show us how to live.
O for a faith that will not shrink
Oppressed by many a foe
That will not totter at the brink
Of any earthly woe.
You keep the faith. Keep the faith when you feel like it and keep it when you don't. Keep the faith. Keep the faith when you think you know what you're doing, and keep the faith when you don't. Keep the faith on the mountain top of exaltation, and keep the faith in the valley of humiliation. You keep the faith in the God who has faith in you, who has given you life because he has faith in you. And that faith will keep you.
God bless you. And keep the faith. Amen.