Our Gospel lesson ends with a haunting question,
“When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”//
First, who is this Son of Man?
That’s a profoundly ambiguous title.
Jesus used it to describe himself,
but what does it mean?
If Jesus is using these odd words the way the prophet Daniel did,
the Son of Man is a divine being coming in judgment
at the end of history.
But if Jesus is using the words “Son of Man”
the way most people meant them in his day,
they mean an ordinary person, the man on the street.
That’s how I think of them in this lesson.
I imagine the ordinary person on the street
and wonder if he will find faith on earth.
Here’s what I mean.
Some of you may be old enough to remember
the 1965 John Philips song, California Dreamin’
– or if you’re younger, you may have heard it
in last year’s movie, Fish Tank.
It’s about a guy feeling cold and lonely in New York on a winter day.
He stops into a church to get warm.
In how many movies have you seen someone feeling cold and lost
go into a church, perhaps to pray or just get warm – perhaps spiritually?
I’ve done it myself in real life.
When my daughter was backpacking through Europe,
she was homesick one day so far from home.
But she found an Episcopal Church
where a priest prayed with her
and it was like a shawl wrapped around her soul.
A church building embodies faith in an architectural way.
The priest embodies faith in a human way.
The paintings of Caravaggio and Fra Angelico embody faith in painting.
The sculpture of Michelangelo and Rodin embody faith in stone.
So here’s what the question in our Gospel lesson means to me:
When the cold and lonely John Philips of California Dreamin,
or my daughter in Europe, or any Son of Man
is wandering lost and lonely on life’s mean streets,
will there be a Church with a glowing hearth
where he can warm his soul?
I don’t just mean will there be church buildings around.
I mean: will there be faith in the world when we need it?
Will we find faith on earth?
By faith, I mean something that doesn’t fit a nifty definition.
I mean a deep trust that there is meaning and value to life.
Ultimate meaning and value is at least part of what I mean by God.
Faith is trust in the core of reality,
trust that the mystery will one day be revealed
for what is has always been:
good and true, beautiful and kind.
Faith is trust that there is redemption, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
Without faith, the streets get pretty cold on a winter’s day.
We need faith in order to live a truly human life.
One person clothes his faith in one religion.
Another person clothes his faith in another religion.
But faith cannot live naked in this world.
It’s too cold out there.
Faith needs a medium just like a medicine has to be mixed in a base.
Faith is the spirit inside religion.
Faith needs stories, rituals, art and architecture.
It needs songs and dances, holy days, saints, traditions.
These things are not faith themselves, but faith needs them to survive.
“When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
When we need faith, when our children and grandchildren need faith,
will they find it?
Brothers and sisters, faith is not an accomplishment.
It is a gift from God.
But it is a fragile gift, a precious gift that must be nurtured.
St. Paul called it a treasure held in a fragile clay jar.
It is like a seedling entrusted to us to water, protect, and cherish.
Faith is a gift that lives or dies, flourishes or perishes,
in our hearts and in our culture
depending on how we treat it.
That brings us to our Epistle lesson.
Faith is clothed in religion, mediated to us by religion
-- but the religion only works if we know it.
Notice all the words of learning and knowledge in this text.
“Continue in what you have learned and firmly believed,
knowing from whom you learned it
and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings
that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith. . . .
All Scripture is useful for teaching … (and) training . . . .
Proclaim the message, be persistent whether the time
is favorable or unfavorable . . . .with the utmost patience in teaching.”
To nourish our faith, we have to know our religion.
In my younger days, I was not a believer.
But I at least knew what it was I didn’t believe.
I knew it. I missed it. And when the time was right,
I knew where to look for it.
On a cold winter day, “I stopped in to a church
I passed along the way.”
Thanks be to God and the saints who have gone before us,
the church was there. The faith was there.
Now here’s what worries me.
A recent Pew Forum survey of religious knowledge
showed that most of us don’t know much about religion
– either our own or anyone else’s.
Atheists and agnostics knew almost twice as much
as mainline Protestants.
There’s a lot of Christianity to know.
I don’t know the half of it.
But in my worst times of fear and despair,
the words of Isaiah have carried me.
When I have been falling apart,
the Jesus prayer has held me together.
I was over 50 years old before the Doctrine of the Trinity
opened my eyes to life being more beautiful
than I had ever imagined;
and the Mystery of the Incarnation blew wide open
all my assumptions about who God is
and what it means to be human.
Faith is a precious gift.
We pass it down from generation to generation.
We tend it, shield it, feed and water it.
We tend our faith with prayer and practice,
worship and study.
“Continue in what you have learned and firmly believed,”
the Bible says, “knowing from whom you learned it
and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings
that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith. . . .”
Faith lives between the lines
of the wild story of salvation in our Bible.
It lives in the prayers of the saints
and the imaginations of the artists.
But only if we know these things,
only if we know our religion.
“When the Son of Man comes,
will he find faith on the earth?”
It’s up to us.