Avent Grace

1 Thessalonians 3:10

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To mend your faith, the apostle wrote, to mend, to mend faith…

 

A noun and a verb, faith and mend.

 

Faith is our personal reliance on God.

 

Faith is our willingness, both in doubt and in trust, to live each day.  You honor life by living it.  You find faith by receiving it.  Faith is the state of being grasped by the Spirit, of being grasped by the Holy Spirit in love and justice and truth.  Any real faith has got some doubt in it, to keep it honest.   Faith is the experience of being fully alive, of living with courage, of being willing to risk, to fail, and to start again. Faith is where and who you are when you are your own-most self.  Faith is freedom, real freedom.  Of course we seek the ultimate, the infinite, the divine!  Of course we do!  Whatever else is life for?  This is why I tend to think that everybody, or very nearly so, has some kind of faith.  You may not have it dressed up in fancy linguistic garments.  That’s all right.  You don’t have to be Paul Tillich to have the courage to be.  You don’t have to read his Dynamics of Faith to have faith.

 

And, you have grown up so you know what faith is not.  Not blind trust.  Not knowledge of all mysteries.  Not exception from the laws of nature, physics, gravity, motion.  Not obedience to authority for the sake of obedience to authority, religious or otherwise.  Not capture by false ultimacies like success or nation or even religion. Not protection from calamity. Born, we are old enough to die. Rain falls on the just and unjust.  This is what the cross is all about—the measure and correction of false faith, what faith is not.  Real religious faith is unsparingly self critical.

 

But your faith gives you the courage to withstand what you cannot understand.  Your faith lives in the courage to be, over against all the frightful existential anxieties of sin, of death, of meaninglessness.  On the street, right on the street, where you live. You may be at a point to hear this word, after a week of rending, of tearing, of cuts and bruises and untimely death.

 

Jesus has taught us that we are children of God, heirs of life eternal.  Jesus has made us children of God.  In word and sacrament, today, you are reminded and mended.  Mended.

 

The gospel in this word illumines and inspires.  You will have heard and read our phrase from last week’s lesson, ‘mend your faith’, before.   In a way you heard it again, moments ago, in Luke and Philippians.   The gospel, down under, down in the valley, expects a filling up to come, a kind of geological mending, mountains and hills lowered, crooked ways straightened, rough places smoothed out.  A mending of the earth, of nature, and a right beautiful reading.  The letter, composed in the slammer (add your favorite prison term—pokey, calaboose, hoosegow, grey bar hotel, municipal motel, stir, up the river, the joint), expects a freedom from behind bars, and more, a partnership of the gospel.  A mending of the yoke of bondage,  of history, wherein love abounds, and knowledge too, and discernment too, and excellence and glory! And praise!, and a right beautiful reading. You heard it here, this morning.

 

But you heard it last Sunday, in a sliver of a silver line.  Paul said he hoped to be with his favorite congregation, ‘to complete was is lacking in your faith’.  That at least is what you heard last week, from the NRSV.   A while back, a generation ago, from the RSV, you would have heard, ‘supply what is lacking in your faith’.  And at the building of Marsh Chapel, in the KJV, you would have heard ‘perfect what is lacking in your faith’.   Complete sounds like a final exam.  Supply sounds like an economic theory.  Perfect sounds cold to the bone.  Paul yearns to make things right, and the rendering of his yearning is carried to us in these translations.  Every person of faith, you and he and all, and certainly every minister of the gospel, at our best, yearns to complete, to supply, to perfect.  Because we are so unfinished! Because we are so famished!  Because we are so fragmented!  But there is a better way to render the original verb, better than complete or supply or perfect.  Happily, the concordance and references closely define the word, KATARTISAI, as ‘mend’.

 

Last Sunday before worship some of us sat quietly to read the lessons of the day.  One student quietly read 1 Thess. 3:10.  But he read—not from NRSV or RSV or KJV—but from NEB, another translation.  ‘To mend your faith”, his version read.   The slight change is a sliver of a silver lining.   Our faith needs mending.  Every one’s faith needs some stitching up, now and then.

 

Betrayal tears at the fabric of faith.   Faith needs mending. The former governor of California sat for years over many meals across a shared table, without mentioning that one of the caretaker’s sons was his.   After that, faith needs mending.  The former assistant to John Edwards, who testified energetically against him for his betrayal, knew early about betrayal.  His father, had been the Dean of Duke Chapel, but a sometime visitor at  a nearby Red Roof Inn, in the company of a non-spouse.  That early betrayal cut deeply into the fabric of later life.  Both his dad and his boss had been false.  Sometimes, come Sunday, faith needs mending.  A current leader learns the hard way that no email is ever private, ever.  Put anything you want in email as long as you are glad to have it on your tombstone, or on the front page of the Times.  But the public cacophony is pale, by comparison with the rending of the garment of faith for the loved ones.  Faith for sure, to be sure, will need a stitch or two.

 

And what about the bigger betrayals, when nature and history let us deeply down?  Some mending required.  When violence between middle eastern nations goes on endlessly, generation to generation.  Mending required.  When a good nation somehow quietly slides into  unexamined drone warfare, wherein a man in a blue shirt drives from Manlius to North Syracuse, to sit in a screen room, and push buttons, with deadly consequence, a world away.  And then to stop at Wegmans on the way home, to pick up Cheerios and an extra Christmas ornament—a quiet evening in the suburbs.  Some mending required.  Or, harder and more immediate, when the specter of untimely death descends upon a commonwealth on commonwealth avenue, and an early, unfair, unjust and tragic loss evokes a piercing question: “ Where was God?  I thought God loved us?”  Or, in the nature of things, when a formal and false accusation, untrue but lastingly cutting, maims one we love, we know about needing a needle and a thread and a stitch and a little tuck, a little mending, of our faith.

 

The route to Bethlehem goes through the river Jordan, the icy, cold, real, existential river Jordan.

As my student fellow student of the Bible remembered, Paul was a tentmaker.  He knew about canvass and holes and leaks and cuts and could mend as well as make.  That is what makes the NEB translation so mendingly meaningful.

 

Our son had a stuffed animal for many years.  The animal was a raccoon.  His name was Rooster.  Rooster raccoon.  I have no idea how such a name came to be his but his it was.  Rooster raccoon went with us on vacation.  Rooster—the raccoon I mean—went with us on boat rides, on tobogan rides, on car rides.  Rooster had his own seat in the way back of the van.  He swam at Marconi beach.  He rode over the Mercier bridge into Montreal.  He learned to swim, the hard way, by falling overboard.   He slept outside in a snow fort.   He was the first one up in the morning, and the last one to bed at night.  Sometimes the dog would take him by the collar and run around.  We sometimes asked him to say the grace at dinner.   He would offer a resonant, silent prayer.  After a few years he looked like he was about finished.  For stuffed raccoons, one human year is the same as 14.  By accident, near Christmas, one evening, rooster raccoon found himself seated a little to close to the macaroni and cheese on the stove, and up he went in smoke.  Or at least in part he went up in smoke.  He was left missing the left part of his left part.   I see the child’s hand holding up the smoldering dog eared raccoon, with no words, only tears, and an unspoken question.  ‘Can’t you do something?’  And then a quick, confident maternal murmur:  “Just let me have him.  You wait and see.  He will be good as new.  We can mend it.  We can mend it.”  And she did.  And rooster raccoon was and is the best looking stuffed raccoon, without a left side, that you could ever want.  He is the most oddly named, and now most oddly shaped, stuffed raccoon, this side of the Mississippi.

 

Now you will rightly say that some things cannot be mended.  At least not perfectly, not completely, not with full supply.  ‘Dean Hill, some things cannot be mended’ you will say.  And I will reply:  ‘Don’t I know it’.  The damage is done.   Once the toothpaste is out of the tube, it is hard to get it back in.  But the longing to mend?  That never ends.  The desire to mend?  That is everlasting.  The willingness to sew and trim and patch and weave and make it do or do without?  That urge to mend the tears in your loved ones’ faith?  That goes from heaven to earth.  And there is something in that wanting, to mend, that, like the Eucharist, brings heaven here.

 

Faith is our willingness, both in doubt and in trust, to live each day.  You honor life by living it.  You find faith by receiving it.  Faith is the state of being grasped by the Spirit, of being grasped by the Holy Spirit in love and justice and truth.  Any real faith has got some doubt in it, to keep it honest.   Faith is the experience of being fully alive, of living with courage, of being willing to risk, to fail, and to start again. Faith is where and who you are when you are your own-most self.  Faith is freedom, real freedom. Your faith gives you the courage to withstand what you cannot understand.  Your faith lives in the courage to be, over against all the frightful existential anxieties of sin, of death, of meaninglessness.

 

“We pray most earnestly night and day to be allowed to see you again and to mend your faith where it falls short” (1 Thess. 3:10)

 

~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

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