Faith Alone

Faith Alone: A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St. Paul’s Church Bantam, Connecticut, on October 24, 2010.

Let me tell you a story (Jesus’ story, actually, not mine): Two men went to the synagogue to pray. One of these men was a Pharisee, and the Pharisees were a Jewish sect  whose members studied and worked to keep God’s law  as perfectly as possible. The other was a tax collector – and if you think that’s unpopular today, you should have known them then. Today, after all, they work for a government we elect and they collect our money for purposes our representatives choose whether it be subsidizing tobacco farmers or subsidizing the medical care that people who use tobacco need. But that’s not fair; I’ve been watching too many political ads on television and you would think all taxes are evil. They’re not; they’re a necessity of civilized life. It’s our taxes that provide a police force and school system and food for the hungry and training programs for the unemployed and social security for those of us who are retired and most of the medical care we all need sometimes. And we can differ about how much or little we want to do with our taxes but we get to choose.  Back then it was different: taxes went to support the government of a foreign power and pay the Roman soldiers occupying the land.  And there were no public schools or roads and there was no health care or social security. Maybe some Tea Party folks would like it that way, but I have my doubts. And the tax collectors in those days were authorized  to collect whatever they could and keep whatever was extra.

So the Pharisees, by and large, were the best people in town and the tax collectors the worst. But most clergy I know would be glad to have a dozen or so Pharisees in their congregation. Imagine: fasting twice a week and giving the church ten percent of everything. If we had a few of those, imagine what we could do! But Jesus tells us this model citizen, this outstanding member of the congregation, was wasting his time and the hated tax collector whose whole way of life was a violation of the commandments – that man is the model to copy. So, let’s not tithe or fast, let’s not contribute or obey the commandments, let’s just do what we want and show up at Easter saying, “Have mercy!” Right? Is that really what Jesus meant?

But you know, we had another story only two weeks ago, the story of Dives and Lazarus, in which Lazarus was rewarded and Dives punished not for their behavior, not for their ethics or their religion, but simply to balance the books. And now we have a story in which commendation and condemnation are handed out solely because the good man takes pride in his goodness and the bad man regrets his way of life.

Is there a common theme in this?  There is. Both stories are based on the same underlying understanding: that you cannot earn God’s favor. It’s the simplest – and hardest – lesson in the New Testament. It’s the simplest – and hardest – teaching of the Christian faith: We cannot earn God’s gifts. We cannot work our way into heaven. We cannot ever deserve God’s love. Cannot. Cannot. Cannot. And that’s bad news if that’s what you hope to do but good news if you are willing simply to accept a priceless gift without a price.

Do you remember the story of the rich young man who came to Jesus and asked “What must I do to be saved?” Jesus’ answer was: “Give away all you have and come follow me.” In one form or another, I think that’s the basic human question: “What do I need to do to make my life complete, to give it purpose and meaning?” What must I do?” Jesus’ answer is simple: “Follow me.”
But, Jesus, don’t you want me to work really hard at something, say three Hail Marys and six Our Fathers? Shouldn’t I give ten per cent; shouldn’t I fast on Fridays and read the Bible every day and obey the Ten Commandments and make up a list of things to do or not do? Shouldn’t there be some way I can demonstrate how much I love God or how much I want to get into heaven – or both?” The answer is, “No.” No, you can’t.

I mean, even logically: if someone gives you a billion dollars and you give them back a tenth as a thank you do you really think that you can come back the next day and say “If I give you another tenth will you give me a billion more? And another billion for another ten percent? Can you really expect to get back ten times what you put in? Or, to reverse it again:  can you set aside ten per cent of the maple leaves on a Connecticut hillside in autumn and ten per cent of the sun shine, ten per cent of the clouds, ten per cent of the air you breath or ten per cent of the joy and ten percent of the sorrow – and somehow give it back? If life is a gift to be paid for, can you ever really pay what is due?

Oh, we try; we do try. The history of religion is the history of human efforts to pay God back: human sacrifice, animal sacrifice, self-sacrifice, grain offerings, rituals, prayers, meditation, works of charity, going to church, serving on committees, baking cookies for food sales – all of it, at some level, comes from that deep, deep human need to try to balance the books, to pay God back, and none of them, none of them, none of them can even begin to do it. Because God is so much more and God’s gift of love is so much greater.

Martin Luther in the 16th century looked around and saw Christians trying to buy their way into heaven by their offerings and by their prayers and by their going to Mass and making pilgrimages and he stumbled on words in the Epistle to the Romans where Paul had written, “By faith you are saved through grace.” And Luther added the word “alone” –  “By faith alone” and kindled the Reformation. Very recently a group of Lutheran and Roman Catholic theologians sat down and agreed that in fact Luther had been right, but I don’t think we believe it yet.  450 years later, whether you go to a funeral in a Protestant church or a Roman Catholic Church you will probably hear a eulogy  that tells you and tells God all the good that anyone can think to say about the one who has died – as if that made any difference. It’s as if Luther had never lived and Paul had never written. We still have that terrible need, in a world where every effect has a cause, where nothing happens without a reason, to give God a cause and a reason to be good to us and we never can.
Knowing that is the fundamental basis of a true and living faith: “By faith you are saved, through grace . . .”

Do you believe God loves you?  Do you believe Jesus died for you?  Do you trust in that belief and that alone?  Is that the basis on which your life is built?  Then God asks nothing more.  But if we start from there, if really do know the love of God, is it any wonder that we would want to tithe and pray and fast and make cookies for bake sales and serve on committees and teach church school and help our neighbor and give endlessly to others and never ask anything for ourselves because we already have more than we could ever earn, more than we could ever deserve, and therefore we want to respond and need to respond with all we are and all we have.

But do you see the difference?  The point is not to earn but to respond. The age-old debate between faith and works never needs to happen. It’s not either/or but both/and, but first comes faith.  First comes faith – and then the response of all we can give and do.

Next Sunday I think we have another story about a tax collector –  why all this emphasis on tax collectors tight before the election? – but this time it’s a real one, not one in a parable, a real tax collector named Zacchaeus.  Zacchaeus lived in Jericho and when Jesus came by on the way to Jerusalem Zacchaeus climbed a tree in order to see him better. And Jesus looked up and saw him and said, “Come down; I will eat in your house today.” And Zacchaeus said, “Half of all my goods I give to the poor and whatever I have defrauded, I will restore four fold:”  Do you see what happens where the free and gracious love of God is known? Even a tax collector’s heart melts.

There is no way to measure what we have received or what we will try to give. God reaches out, God pours out love. We can never do enough in return. Nor does God ask us to. God asks only that we have faith and let our faith shape our lives.

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