“It takes two to Tango.”
That’s true on the dance floor, it’s true in a committed relationship, and it’s also true in the United States Congress. There are some things that just don’t work very well when one party is willing and the other party is not, or when one party tries to lead and the other declines to follow. It takes two to Tango. And I believe that short statement also captures something very profound about the way God chooses to interact with human beings.
Our gospel text for today is mostly about being persistent in prayer. Jesus told his followers a very simple story. You know, sometimes Jesus’ parables can be very confusing to our modern ears, but this one is about as straightforward as you can get. It was about a widow who was looking for justice. She kept asking a judge to give her some help, but he didn’t give two hoots about her or anybody else. He was preoccupied with enjoying the benefits of his public office, and he didn’t feel any obligation to exercise the basic responsibilities of his job. Does that sound familiar?
So what did the poor woman do? She kept bugging that official. She pestered him so much that not only did he get tired of her, he started to be concerned she might actually physically harm him. And he didn’t have a Capitol Police Department to protect him from irate citizens. So in the end, entirely out of his own personal sense of self-preservation, that government official decided to give the widow the justice that she had been demanding.
(And I must confess—there’s a part of me that wishes that there had been a few hundred thousand women like that to march on the U.S. Capitol Building a few weeks ago. They might have been able to save a lot of people a lot of unnecessary trouble.)
But back to our gospel text. So Jesus had made the point to his followers that in their prayers to God, they should take heart and not give up. God is not like a worthless public servant who doesn’t want to do his job—God really does want to do the right thing for us and will gladly hear us when we pray.
But then, right at the end of the story, there is a phrase that seems to drop out of nowhere. Jesus suddenly asked his disciples a rather strange question: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
I think most of you know that, in the Gospels, the term ‘Son of Man’ is just a code phrase for the Jewish Messiah. The Messiah was expected to come at any moment and free the Jewish nation from the power of the Roman Empire and the Roman army. There had been many, many self-proclaimed messiahs in their recent past, and every one of them had been rooted out and mercilessly killed by the Romans. Pontius Pilate was particularly well-known for being brutally effective at that sort of thing. If you were a rabbi or a teacher, like Jesus, you were wise not to stand around the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and use the word ‘Messiah’. Roman soldiers were regularly being knifed in the streets of that city by Jewish Zealots, and the Romans had built a very large, stone tower right next to the Temple Mount, looking down, right on top of the places where Jewish crowds were most likely to gather during the festival days. They knew what to watch for. And there were always plenty of battle-hardened soldiers up in that tower who would be all over you in a moment if they heard talk about messiahs. So in the Gospels, when we hear the phrase ‘Son of Man’, we can just switch that out for ‘Messiah’. And that means that in today’s gospel text, if we were to put Jesus’ question into slightly more understandable terms, it might go something like this:
When God’s Messiah comes, will he find people of faith?
Of course it’s a rhetorical question, something that we can’t really answer. But it’s being asked for a reason, and we should think about it.
When God’s Messiah comes, will he find people of faith?
I think the key to this question is try to figure out what Jesus was meaning when he said the word ‘faith.’ What is faith, anyway? Well, in our time, the first and most natural meaning is that faith is belief in the truth of something that we probably can’t see or prove. In this sense, we tend to see faith as being the opposite of doubt.
Here at St. Thomas’ parish, when we talk about doubt, we commemorate one of Jesus’ first followers, our namesake Thomas the Doubter. For a long time, Thomas had a bad reputation in the Christian church, because he didn’t take it at face value that Jesus had really risen from the dead. But now, in the 21st century, we live in the Age of Doubt, and a lot of us identify very closely with St. Thomas and his sensibilities. We keep this banner of him in the front of our worship space to remind us that this is St. Thomas’ Parish, and also to remind us that doubt is a key dimension to our Christian faith as we experience it today. We can see ourselves in Thomas, and he has become a thoroughly modern figure for us.
And being the modern—or perhaps postmodern—people that we are, we have good reasons for doubting many of the things that have been handed down to us in our religious tradition. In this age of science and information, there is nothing to be ashamed of in having intellectual doubts about the Christian faith. And–just in case we get too complacent about our inherited, religious view of the world–there are plenty of voices outside the Church who are more than happy to shock us out of our comfort zone.
One of my favorite critics of the Christian faith was the 20th-century philosopher, atheist, and freethinker Bertrand Russell. For years I have owned a collection of his essays, which was originally published about the time I was born. The collection is titled, Why I am Not a Christian, which is also the name of one of Russell’s most famous popular essays. Here are three brief quotations from that book. Russell wrote:
I think all the great religions of the world [to be] both untrue and harmful. It is evident as a matter of logic that, since they disagree, not more than one of them can be true. With very few exceptions, the religion which a man accepts is that of the community in which he lives, which makes it obvious that the influence of environment is what has led him to accept the religion in question.…
The whole conception of God is a conception derived from the ancient Oriental despotisms. It is a conception quite unworthy of free men. When you hear people in church debasing themselves and saying that they are miserable sinners, and all the rest of it, it seems contemptible and not worthy of self-respecting human beings. We ought to stand up and look the world frankly in the face.…
I should wish to see a world in which education [is] aimed at mental freedom rather than imprisoning the minds of the young in a rigid armor of dogma calculated to protect them through life against the shafts of impartial evidence.…
Hearing all that makes me want to say, aw, come on, Bertrand—tell us what you really think.
Yes, it’s true, for centuries now, Christians have really been on the defensive when it comes to the intellectual content of our faith. And now, here we are in the early 21st century, and on top of all that we now have the Christian Far Right and the Tea Party added to the mix. The cacophony of voices claiming to speak in the name of Jesus and the God of the Bible is so loud and so annoying to many of us that many younger Americans, in particular, are simply fed up and ready to leave behind whatever religious upbringing they may have had—at least for a while—because their experience with Christian evangelists on television and in person and on the streets, and in Christian churches has been either too weird, too embarrassing, or personally just too painful.
So, as we think about the Christian faith, I can ask:
Are there intellectual challenges involved with the Christian message?
Of course, big ones.
Are there reasons to doubt the validity of many of things in our faith tradition, from a modern, scientific perspective?
Sure, good reasons.
Are we 21st-century Christians sometimes our own worst enemies when it comes to communicating the good news of Joshua of Nazareth, son of Joseph, whom we believe to be God’s messiah?
Yes we are.
All of these concerns are important. And although I am about to skip past them today, I don’t mean to belittle them, not one bit. But today, in this morning’s scripture texts, there is actually something else, even more important, about faith that I think needs to be said. It’s the sense that, from a biblical perspective, the question isn’t so much whether the Messiah will return and find people of faith, but whether there will be any faithful people. For the biblical writers, it’s not so much about faith as some kind of mental experience, it’s much more about the idea of faithfulness, and about single-mindedness, about not being torn between two different masters.
This theme of faithfulness shows up over and over again in early Christian writings—the Apostolic Fathers, who followed after the Apostles. Just a couple of short examples from that era:
“I now minister faithfully to students of the truth.”
“[the Lord] talked without reserve to the disciples; and because they were reckoned faithful by Him, they came to know the mysteries of God. ”
“There are two different coinages, so to speak, in circulation, God’s and the world’s, each with its own distinctive marking. Unbelievers carry the stamp of the world; while the faithful in love bear the stamp of God the Father, through Jesus Christ.”
“In your single–minded innocence you harbored no resentments….”
Single-mindedness was a great virtue in the early church. It was the opposite of being double-minded, of not being able to focus on one thing. And actually, I think a better translation of “double-minded” would be a phrase that is very familiar to people today, when someone, often a male adult, is told that he has “commitment issues.” From a biblical perspective, the opposite of faith is not necessarily doubt; the opposite of faith is to have commitment issues with God.
You see, for the biblical writers, and especially in the Hebrew Bible, what God is really looking for from human beings is to be in a type of intimate relationship—a committed and trusting intimate relationship.
We can see this clearly in today’s text from Jeremiah, where God wanted to establish a “new covenant” with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. To be blunt about it, God was incredibly pissed off at his longtime partner, the chosen people of Israel and of Judah. While God thought that a “deep connection” had been made, and that there seemed to be a “real relationship” going—the object of God’s affections kept running off after foreign gods. The Hebrew Bible says in no uncertain terms that God’s people were repeatedly “prostituting themselves” when they ran after foreign gods. This was very personal for God. The Lord of Hosts, that mysterious divine presence whom Moses had encountered on Mt. Sinai–the one whose name was “I AM WHO I AM” —this God complained over and over again, and very bitterly, about having a people who was a faithless lover.
Our text from Jeremiah has God saying basically, “Hey, wait a minute, why did you do this to me?” And then literally, God says (she says, he says) I was your husband.…!”
But Jeremiah does not stop with God’s lament over God’s lost partner. There is also a promise of something better: The Lord said, “I will put my law—or Torah–within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.'”
And it”s important to note that the Hebrew verb Jeremiah and many other biblical writers use for ‘knowing’ God is the very same Hebrew verb that also means being sexually intimate with one’s partner. And God’s solution for the continuing unfaithfulness of God’s partner, the chosen people, was to find a way to break through that people’s stubbornness and somehow change their hearts–their deepest, innermost beings, so that they would want to return and be reconciled with their lover.
From a biblical perspective, what faith in God really means, most of all, is to live together with God and walk together with God in a committed, intimate relationship. And whenever our body language—or the language of our lives—begins to signal something back to God that says, “You know, I’m getting a little tired of you–I think we should both start seeing other people,” that’s really not what God is hoping for.
God’s desire is to be intimate with God’s people–to become completely and 100% wrapped up the details of our daily lives. God isn’t satisfied by being our weekend fling. God always welcomes us back, but is not satisfied being just a re-bounder for us when life has jilted us. God wants to be our committed, faithful, loving partner, in our life, in our death, and in our life to come.
Yes, it takes two to Tango.
Can we hear the voice of God, our God, calling to us, with a pursuing, relentless, and empowering love? Calling to us and saying: “Keep on praying, and don’t lose heart. I am with you—I am in love with you—and I will always be in love with you.”
When we are faithless, God is faithful. When we feel hopeless, discouraged, and alone, God will be there. And where two or three of us are gathered in Jesus’ name, God promises to be here with us.
Here, in this community that gathers in Jesus’ name, we invite you to join us at this table, and to be part of Christ’s body, God’s new community. We invite you to take the bread, and drink the wine, and remember the risen Lord, the one who is indeed our loving, faithful, and forgiving partner, in this life and in the life to come.