A community of faith

Good morning, Friends! I hope you’re all doing well this week. I hope you all enjoyed a bit of corned beef and cabbage this week, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day!

Every now and then, I ask us to think about what kind of a community we are.

We’re definitely a community of fellowship. Springfield folks love to get together to enjoy good food and conversation. One of the worst things about the COVID epidemic was that we lost all our fellowship events. It felt like part of our heart had been ripped out and shut down for two years.

It’s so good to be able to have these events again. It feels like getting our life back. And we’re so grateful to everyone in the meeting, who has helped to revive our fellowship times again.

But that’s only one way in which we’re a community. This year, we’re remembering that we’re a community with a history and tradition.

We don’t live in the past, but we remember the past. Springfield has a rich history, and a proud history. The people who came before us and worshiped here in this place, have left us an incredible inheritance.

Their stories, their lives, are an inspiration. As you’ve heard me say before, without them, we wouldn’t be here today. I want to encourage you to learn as much as you can this year, about the amazing people who came before us.

These are important ways to understand who we are. But we’re not just a fellowship community. We’re not just a historical community. We’re also a faith community. And we need to understand what that means.

I’ve got a story for you today, about some people who discovered what faith means.

It’s toward the end of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. He could have pushed on. But he stopped. And the life of the person Jesus stopped for, changed forever.

As Jesus approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard the crowd going by, he asked what was happening. They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.”

He called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Those who led the way rebuked the blind man and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Jesus stopped and ordered the man to be brought to him. When he came near, Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?”
“Lord, I want to see,” he replied.

Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus, praising God. When all the people saw it, they also praised God.

Luke 18:35-43

“Faith community” is one of those phrases that get buzzed around a lot. It’s often used as another name for “church”. People think it’s a building, a place.

I was visiting Avis Rees this week. I caught her at a good moment, when she was alert and awake. We had a good visit. She recognized me. She remembered everybody here, and she asked after many of you by name.

But at one moment, Avis got serious. She gripped my hand, and she said, “The church is the people.” She squeezed my hand hard again, and she repeated very clearly, “The church is the people.”

That is so important. I felt like Avis was speaking once again like an elder of our church, like a prophet, when she said that.

We are a church. A body. A people, together. And it’s not just the fellowship and the food. It’s not just the history and tradition. We’re a people, a community of faith.

The Bible talks a lot about faith. According to Jesus, faith is what saves people. In many stories, faith is often what heals people. Faith calms the storm. Faith moves mountains. Faith casts out evil spirits. Faith is what multiplies a lunch box full of food and turns it into a feast for thousands.

Faith allows people to do even greater things than Jesus himself did. According to Paul, faith is what puts people right with God.

What does it mean to be a “faith community,” a community which is based in faith?

Does it mean a group of people who all believe the same things? Does it mean we’ve got an official list of beliefs, and everybody who wants to belong here has to sign off on them?

I grew up in that kind of church. Every Sunday, without exception, we all recited the Apostle’s Creed.

We repeated it exactly the same way, at the same point in the service, every week. We never left out a single word or phrase. There was never any time to ask questions about it. There was no room for faithful doubt, or for honest skepticism.

Part of why I left that church, why at the age of 18 I suddenly found myself churchless, was that I realized I wasn’t being allowed or encouraged to ask if I really believed what we were saying in church every Sunday. It was the church’s creed, but it wasn’t my creed.

I actually believe many of those things in the creed, but maybe not in those exact words. Maybe I needed time to grow into them.

To me, to be forced into saying those words, in church, every week, without question, was the very opposite of faith. It was spiritual coercion.

This morning’s Bible reading points to a very different kind of faith. There’s this guy who’s sitting by the roadside. He’s blind. He doesn’t have any way to live, so he’s a beggar. He’s the Bible version of a street person.

And one day, he hears this big crowd coming down the street, so he asks what’s going on.

The people in the crowd tell him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” Now, somewhere, this blind guy has heard of Jesus. Maybe he had an idea of who Jesus was and what he was teaching. Or maybe all he had was a bunch of rumors and gossip. I sometimes wonder how much we really know.

Anyway, the blind guy starts yelling out, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” And everyone tries to shut him up. But he won’t shut up. He keeps on yelling at the top of his lungs, “Jesus, have mercy on me!”

I sometimes wonder if that’s what prayer is really all about. Most of the time, we think that prayer is a very formal business. We bow our heads and fold our hands.

Prayers are polite. We’re afraid for our prayers to be passionate, or loud, as though prayer really mattered to us. We shout louder at a rock concert, or at a basketball game, than we do when we’re praying.

And we think that when we pray, we’ve got to use special prayer language, or we think it’s got to be at the right time, or we think that only perfect people can pray.

But what if that’s wrong? What if, when we pray, we’re all basically just blind beggars by the roadside, and the only thing that matters is getting it out, and being heard?

Anyway, Jesus hears this guy, and he stops the whole parade. And Jesus tells them to bring the blind guy to him. So the blind guy comes, as fast as he can. He’s stumbling across the road, bumping into people in the crowd, trying to find that mysterious voice that he heard – the voice of Jesus.

And Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?

And the blind guy says, “Lord, I want to see!”

And Jesus says, “Receive your sight; your faith has made you well.

To me, this story is what a faith community is really about. I don’t want to be part of a group with a bunch of automatic answers that people parrot back, about questions we spend our whole lives wrestling with.

I want to be part of a community where people say, “I once was blind, but now I see!”

I want to be part of a community where people find out what they believe, by asking questions, and by finding out the answers directly, for themselves.

A faith community is not a group of people who are all marching in the same direction, in lockstep, counting cadence as they go.

A faith community is a group of people who are stumbling towards the sound of a voice, the voice of someone they hope and trust will help them.

A faith community is made up of people who are blind, but who know they want to be healed. It’s made up of people who go around blinking and squinting, who are still getting used to this new “light of God” that they’ve just been given.

And a faith community includes people who have never forgotten what it once was like for them. They don’t feel scornful or judgmental or superior in any way. Their only feelings are care and compassion.

For people in a faith community, joy isn’t some kind of theoretical word. Joy is reality – it’s the light they really see for themselves, and it’s whatever light any of the other people in their community can see and report on.

Joy in a faith community comes because God shows us, with a blazing new light, what reality truly is.

I had two cataract operations this year. I wasn’t blind, before I had my eyes done. But one eye, my right eye, was so blurry, I couldn’t see to shave any more. I realized one day that I was really driving with just one eye.

After I had my surgery, not only was everything in focus again, but it was so bright and clear. It was almost painful. The colors were amazing. It was like going from a dark, yellow fog, into a clear, sunny day.

I still have to wear glasses for close-up. But I can see clear to the horizon now. I haven’t been able to do that since I was 8 years old. I can’t believe the difference, every day.

So, a faith community is made up of people who are moving, from darkness into light, and from distorted vision into clear vision.

It’s people who are helping each other out, helping each other along in this new light of day.

It’s people who hope and believe that God is going to show them more things, new things, joyful things, every day.

A faith community helps us to live confidently, and humbly, and it throws in a little humor now and then, so we don’t take ourselves too seriously all the time.

If I were to try to describe the kind of faith community that I would like to be a part of, I would look for a group of people who know that God made all things. We thank God for this beautiful earth, and for all the living things in it.

I put my faith in Jesus, who reached out to me a long time ago, and who still reaches out to me every time I fall down.

Like the blind guy in today’s story, I put my faith in Jesus, who called me by name, in the middle of the crowd, and welcomed me.

I put my faith in the kind of life that Jesus talked about – an exciting and demanding kind of life, a life that begins right now, and takes nothing for granted. It’s a life of love and service. And if Jesus is right, it’s a life that never ends.

Things often seems pretty confusing to me. I want to be part of a community that isn’t afraid to turn back, and starts over.

I put my faith in a voice that I don’t always hear very well, and in a light that I don’t always see very clearly.

I put my faith in the joy that I feel, and also I put my faith in the sense of grief that I feel, about what is deeply right and about what is deeply wrong with the world I live in.

I put my faith in God’s willingness to accept whoever comes in the door, in God’s desire to heal the whole world, and in God’s promise to give us a life that never ends.

It doesn’t matter to me what other people look like, or sound like, what their journey has been, or if their experience is different from mine.

Whoever hears that voice, whoever sees that light, whoever stumbles along beside me, whoever holds out their hand, whoever asks for help, whoever has even heard a rumor that Jesus is passing by – we are a community of faith together.

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