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The Story of My Faith

Sermon | Comments Off on The Story of My Faith

January 14, 2018

Pr. Bea Chun

Mark 1:4-11

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Today we heard we the story of the Baptism of Jesus. We hear this story every year in the season of Epiphany. Often we take this story as an inspiration to remember our own baptism and to give thanks for our baptism. So, as I give thanks for my baptism today, I want to use this occasion to tell you a little bit about my faith, and what my faith means to me.

To begin with, there is the question of why am I even religious. That is the question I am sometimes asked by my friends. Why be religious? Religion is for the weak, they say, for people who need a crutch. One friend in particular likes to quote Karl Marx: Religion is the opium of the people.

Have you heard that before? Religion is the opium of the people. Actually, I find myself thinking about this quite a bit, and so, if you don’t mind, I want to say a few words about this “opium of the people”, and then I will go on with my faith story.

Let me begin with the whole quote which goes like this:

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. (From: Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right)

Isn’t this a beautiful line, and very poetic?

… the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the spirit of a spiritless situation…

What did Karl Marx mean by that? Karl Marx claimed that religion is like a drug, a painkiller. It reduces the suffering of the people, but then it paralyzes them, and hey act like people who are drugged up, and they cannot take any measures against the true cause of their pain. Which means that this critique is not just a critique of religion, but even more so a critique of society, a society in which people have become so oppressed, a world which has become such a heartless world, and a situation which has become such a spiritless situation, that people cry in pain.

Naturally, when people suffer they look for relief, for escape and for distraction. When people suffer, they want to forget their suffering. And yes, religion can function like such a relief. But so can watching television, and over-consumption of food and alcohol, and shopping, and actual drugs which people take. So, yes, religion can be an escape.

But it can also be a protest, a protest against all that is unfair and distressing. It can be a source for liberation the way it was for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and countless others. It is this other side of religion, religion as protest and source of liberation which balances the scales for me. Since tomorrow is the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, I will say more about religion as protest in a moment.

But first, as promised, I will tell you something about my faith story. When it comes to faith, I feel not so much that I have faith, but rather that faith has me. I have found time and again that I cannot escape from faith, just as I cannot escape from God,

In Psalm 139 we read:

Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence? 
If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. 
If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. (Psalm 139:7-10)

Yes, that has been my experience exactly! I find that God is all around me. But I can, of course, close my heart. I can shut myself off. I can shut God out. But even then, even then, sooner or later God will find a way to break down my defenses. And when I turn to God I find that God is like a well, gushing forth always bringing forth life, grace, goodness, joy, forgiveness; a well that never stops. It always flows and flows and flows.

In times of great pain, my experience of God is an experience of being held and contained and comforted like a child in her mother’s arms. I feel very lucky and blessed that these three deep experiences are so available to me:

– the experience of the inescapable God who will follow me to the farthest limits of the sea,

– the experience of God as an inexhaustible well,

– and the experience of God as the arms of a loving mother.

There have been a few times when all was dark, when I prayed and it seemed like no one was listening, What helped me in those times was to remember a poem by T.S. Eliot:

I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you,

Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theater,

The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed

With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,

And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama

And the bold imposing facade are all being rolled away—

            (T. S. Eliot: “East Coker,” from The Four Quartets)

That idea, that my darkness is a momentary darkness, like in a theater, when the stage is changed, that idea really helped.

But why Christian? Why not Buddhist or some general spiritual practice? Here I have to give a lot of credit to my family. I grew up in a house with four generations, my parents, and my siblings, my grandmother and my great grand-father. It was a busy household, and people didn’t always have time for me, except for my great grand-father. He would tell me stories and play games with me for hours. He was a master carpenter and had a big work bench with many tools, and he made some tiny little tools for me – a tiny hammer, and a little lathe – so I could pretend I worked alongside him.

He loved to work in the garden, and he also provided me with tiny gardening tools so I could work alongside him. He always had time for me. He loved to read his newspaper, but when I came he would put his newspaper aside. He always had time for me, except when he opened his Bible, which he did every morning, right after breakfast. It was a big heavy Bible, with many worn pages that had been repaired multiple times. When this Bible was open, I had no claim on him. The Bible was that important. So, that left a very big impression on me.

And parents were active in the local congregation. My mother who is now 81 years old still serves as a supply organist. They taught me a faith that was solid and compassionate with strong moral principles but also with much singing and music in the home. In this way they gave me a path that I could travel. It was a path that worked for me. But I have now come to believe there are many paths that lead to God.

Yet, I often struggle with the dark side of Christianity, and especially with the institution of the church and the history of the church which is so full of violence, cruelty, abuse of power. Sometimes I wake up at night and think it’s crazy to be part of the church – it’s crazy!

At the same time, Christianity has also inspired some real good in the world. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is one example, whom we remember today. He was a Baptist minister. It was his Christian faith which led him to become a leader in the civil rights movement. His voice was not just a voice of justice, it was also a Christian voice – the voice of a true prophet.

Finally, there is you. When it comes to faith, I find that it is not something that I can own and possess and put in my pocket like a piece of jewelry. My faith has to be renewed again and again. This renewing happens for me through hearing the Word of God and through the sacraments, but especially through the experience of Christian community.

Sunday after Sunday I look at this congregation. I am so often moved by your faithfulness. In some cases I know a little bit of your struggles, challenges that come from ill health, or difficult circumstances, or a painful life story, or a great grief, or a grievous injustice. You bear it bravely, courageously. You are here, in some cases Sunday after Sunday. I see lives lived with courage, with compassion, and mercy. I know of your faith, and in many cases I see the evidence of it. Your faith strengthens my faith.

Then we all come to the altar and receive the bread and wine together. Together we say once again that we will live in forgiveness and claim our wholeness and go in peace. Even though I am the one who says the words, I am also hearing them spoken to me through you. And my faith is renewed.

So, today, on the day of Jesus’ baptism, I give thanks for my own baptism. I give thanks to my parents and teachers who have started me in the faith. I give thanks for fellow Christians who helped me continue in the faith. I give thanks to you, who renew my faith Sunday after Sunday. And I give thanks to God who is at work mysteriously among us all.