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ELW Quadrennial Convention, 2004

Ezekiel 36:24-28
2 Corinthians 5:6-10
Matthew 4:18-25

Grace to you and peace, from the One who is, the One who was, and the One who is to come. Amen.

We gather tonight to begin to study, pray about and reflect on the theme of this Convention: Walking By Faith. I expect you to talk a lot about how the walk goes, so I would like to preach about the faith part of the theme.

Faith is not the same as wishful thinking. Wishful thinking is hoping you will somehow receive that which you are incapable of acquiring for yourself. It is self-interested. Faith, on the other hand, is a relationship of trust between two people who commit to a journey together whether the circumstances are happy or not. Perhaps the best illustration I can use is that of a marriage vow. One of my favourites is in the form of a dialogue between the groom and the bride.

The groom begins.
There are many things we do not know:
We do not know whether we will be
rich or poor,
sick or in good health;
but I do know that I love you,
and with the help of God
I will love you as long as I live.
Will you accept my love and take me as your husband?

The bride then responds.
I know that the future is hidden from us,
but I trust in your love for me.
I love you too, and with the help of God,
I will love you as long as you live.
Will you accept my love and take me as your wife?

That is the essence of faith: a willingness to take a journey into the unknown with someone in whom you trust. The same is true of friendship. Ruth said to Naomi:

"Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God."

(Ruth 1:16 (NRSV)

Sometimes the unknown is like a hike on a fog-shrouded mountain where the trail can take you to the edge of a perilous cliff. It is dark and murky and you do not know whether the next step will send you plummeting to the canyon below. More often, life is like the logo for this assembly—a maze. The ground you walk on is familiar, but the route from the present to the future is not a straight line.

You buy a house, get your family settled in a neighbourhood and find strong spiritual support in your congregation. Then the pastor leaves, or a couple of negative people hijack the Council, and you find yourself isolated or having to hold an unpopular opinion.

The mortgage you incur and the plans you make for your children's education are based on the income from the jobs you and your spouse hold. Then the plant closes or BSE turns your cattle into a cash drain instead of a source of profit. Your plans hit a dead end.

Every couple knows that romance can grow cold. You find yourself watching other couples, wondering what happened to the two of you. You probably, at some time in that relationship, will meet someone who seems much more exciting and romantic than your spouse. You know what your church and family expect of you, but these feelings are inescapable.

Life is like a maze sometimes. However, God calls us to more than merely adapting to changing conditions Ezekiel asks the people to imagine a future that doesn't even exist at their present time. Is that wishful thinking? Or is it trust in the God who promised:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the LORD your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior….
Do not fear, for I am with you….

(Isaiah 43:1-5 (NRSV)

The promise does not include avoiding the floods and fires, but that you will not be alone in the experience. I think one reason the TV show, Touched by an Angel, is popular, is because it addresses the loneliness people feel when they faces life's crises.

It is not only people in crisis who feel alone. One of my friends is an artist in Edmonton; an abstract painter. He paints every day, consigns his work to a gallery, and waits. He says to the world, "Here's my heart's outpouring." And most of the world says "Who asked you?"

Faith in God is a willingness to go on a journey with someone whose invitation to you is mediated. We hear God's voice through scripture, through prayer, through the sacraments, through the Christian community and through the cries of the world, but it is always mediated. What we hear God saying to us is not the same as what others hear. It can be easy to be made to doubt at times. It can be easy to imagine that you are merely being subjective. Where is the hard proof?

Well, the proof is in the walking. Couples who have been married a long time can tell you about the "dry" periods in their relationships and how they came through them into a renewed sense of each other. They came through because they didn't call a stop to the walk and faith was the outcome.

The disciples of Jesus were well past the events of the cross and the resurrection before they had the "proof" they needed. It was not until they themselves began their ministries and were made to bear their own crosses that they realized how clear the Jesus walk suddenly became.

Not all mazes have an exit. Exiting is not the goal of all mazes. The one I walk at the retreat centre in Nanaimo has a circle in the middle from which you retread the journey back out. Sometimes Christ walks with you into the thick of things, then lets you discover your faith in the debriefing.

It's a little like that dialogue between Tevje and Golde in the musical, Fiddler on the Roof. Tevje has just finished talking to his daughter who is determined to marry a Russian socialist. Tevje cannot comprehend why she would marry outside the faith and outside the culture. She says it is because she loves him. Tevje had never considered love a requirement of marriage. Marriages were arranged by the matchmaker according to very pragmatic considerations. But that night, when Tevje and Golde are in bed, he asks her, "Golde, do you love me?"

"Do I what?" she says. "After 25 years, why ask something like that?" Then she lists all the things she does for Tevje because they are married: washing clothes, bearing his children, milking the cows, and so on. Then she stops, and says, "Do I love you: After 25 years, I guess I do!"

Listen, God is calling!

Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don't know and never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown,
Will you let my name be known,
Will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?

John L. Bell, Renewing Worship Songbook R276


Raymond L. Schultz, National Bishop

This sermon was written for the 2004 ELW Quadrennial Convention.

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