Text: Psalm 146:5-9
Have you ever been in a relationship with someone who is morally superior to you? You know, someone who always says or does the right thing, but more importantly, never says or does the wrong thing? Many of you have a sibling that fits this description, and if you come from a big family and can’t figure out who the morally superior one is in the group, I hate to tell you but it’s you. And everyone in the family talks about you behind your back, because that’s what morally inferior people do in their spare time.
I have told you many stories about my childhood friend, Tim Kilgore. In no way, shape or form was Tim morally superior to anyone. Spending an evening with him meant you had a 50/50 chance of committing a Class C misdemeanor. Three doors down from Tim, however, lived Tatum Moore. If Tim was James Dean in a child’s body always looking to break societal rules just because he could, then Tatum Moore was Mother Teresa in a child’s body always looking to do good just because he could. He was kind, polite, smarter than anyone I knew, and a terrific athlete. Tatum grew up to be a professional tennis player, then a lawyer, and is now a psychologist. And though his adult life is just as complicated as all of ours, anyone who grows up to be all of those things is bound to have been an unusually gifted child. He was, and it made me admire him, and envy him, and hate him just a little. Actually, I loved Tatum the way you love someone for their innate goodness, even if it seems foreign to you. But as kids we talked about him behind his back, because, as I said, that’s what morally inferior people do in their spare time.
Our scripture reading from Psalm 146 reminds us that it isn’t just siblings and childhood friends who are morally superior to us. The God we worship and serve is described in a way that reminds us we are just a smidge short of this standard. The text says God executes justice for the oppressed, feeds the hungry, sets prisoners free, gives sight to the blind, lifts up the bowed down, watches over strangers, and takes care of orphans and widows. We applaud these virtues and find them far more appealing than the nationalistic god who says support your government no matter how many wars it starts, or the materialistic god who says true faith will make you wealthy, or the partisan god who says how you vote will determine your eternal fate. Yes, give us the God who takes care of the orphans and widows over these other options.
The truth is, though, it is no easy thing being from a religious tradition where God is this good. We are constantly aware of how far we fall short of the standard set before us. Praying to such a God can feel like talking to your thin doctor about your struggles to lose weight. The doctor may look sympathetic and smile, but deep down you figure she has little understanding of how hard it is to resist Oreo cookies. And the guilt one has in knowing you don’t care nearly enough about orphans and widows, and don’t lift up the lowly that much, well it is all enough to make you feel like the world’s worst Christian.
This is the emotional backdrop to the church’s call for us to grow in faith. Now don’t get me wrong. We like the idea of growing in faith. Something tells us this is what spiritual devotion is supposed to be about. If faith means believing in something enough to act on it, then we all want more faith. We would like to believe so much in the teachings of Jesus, and the virtues of this God we have just described, that our actions start to line up with this picture. But when we fall short of the widow/orphan standard of living, which we often do, it makes the notion of growing in faith seem ludicrous. In fact, we spend a lot of time wondering if we have any faith at all.
But here is one of the best things about reading the Bible. You can come across a text like Psalm 146 where God is described in such a wonderful way that it actually makes you feel bad, and faithless, but buried in the middle of all of it is a thought that changes everything. That’s what happened to me in reading this passage. I came across a line that reminded me how often I miss the big picture and get everything backwards. What was the line? The text says God is the One who “keeps faith forever.”
When was the last time you heard God described as the “keeper of the faith”? Maybe never. Faith is our part of the deal, right? We have faith in God, we grow in faith towards God, and we are the ones who lapse in faith. If we know anything about this faith business it is that our spiritual lives depend on how much we believe. But this Psalm suggests something different. It suggests that faith is something God also has.
If faith is believing in something or someone enough to act upon it, just what is it that God believes in so much that God “keeps faith forever”? The biblical record is unequivocal in this regard. God’s faith is in the creation. This is almost funny if you think about it. The first couple of chapters of the Bible describe creation in a good light, but after that it all goes downhill. Most of Genesis is the story of the world’s most dysfunctional family that God has the misfortune of casting lots with. Then you get the whole mess with Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness, the world’s most ungrateful chosen people, which leads to the twelve tribes of Israel and their continuous desire to chase after other gods. And don’t even get me started on the New Testament. Jesus is unlucky enough to choose twelve guys who can’t quite get anything right, who run off at the nearest sign of trouble, and who spend his last days fighting about which one is his favorite. Then you get the story of the early church and it is as much a tragic comedy as an inspiring narrative about our tradition’s origins. These are the creatures God keeps faith with forever. In other words, people a lot like you and me. People who want to do well, but sometimes don’t do well. People who want to be generous and loving, but sometimes are stingy and cruel. People who try to give the best they can, but sometimes have nothing left to give. We are the ones who God keeps faith with forever. And I am profoundly grateful for it.
The truth is, I understand this divine trait more readily than many of the others mentioned in Psalm 146. I know what it is like to have faith in people far beyond their knowing or understanding. I have a faith in my children that has nothing to do with how good or bad they have been on a certain day. I simply love them and believe in them, and nothing will ever change that. I don’t have to work at that, it’s just in the DNA of parenting. And there are others in my life in whom I will always believe. A dear friend of mine suffered a lot of abuse in his earlier life, and because of that, he has a hard time believing there is anything good in him at all. But when I look at this friend, I see reservoirs of goodness and light. He is wise and generous and funny and one of the most loving individuals I have ever met. Only he doesn’t believe any of this, so I keep telling him. And every time I tell him he ducks his eyes and acts like I have just told the world’s greatest lie. But I know he needs to hear it, because we all need to hear it; we all need to know that others see the goodness and potential in us that we have such a hard time seeing in ourselves.
This church was the place I learned what a difference it makes when you believe in someone far more than he believes in himself. When you called me as pastor I wasn’t old enough to be president, and I probably wasn’t old enough to be pastor of Pullen Church. The list of things I didn’t know was so long that I look back and laugh at the ridiculousness of my following in the footsteps of Poteat, Finlator, and Siler. It never would have worked out except so many of you kept saying things to me that indicated you saw more in me than I saw in myself. You said affirming and thoughtful things enough that I began to wonder if some of it might be true. Then I finally decided I didn’t care if it was true in some ontological sense; if it was true for you than why should I try and talk you out of it. It was your faith in me that let me step into this pulpit and trust that something good might come of it. It was your faith in me that gave me the courage to say and do things that I knew would be a tad controversial. It is your faith in me that makes it excruciatingly difficult to leave this church.
So, yes, I get why the description of God as the One who keeps faith forever is so important. And while some of God’s virtuous ways make me feel a long way off from the divine standard, this virtue is different. It doesn’t feel impossible for me to keep faith in others, especially when so many have shown faith in me. In fact, keeping faith in God’s good creation doesn’t feel like work at all. It feels like the gift we offer one another just because we can.
Those great American theologians, The Dixie Chicks, offer these lines of wisdom in their song Lullaby:
How long do you want to be loved
Is forever enough, is forever enough
How long do you want to be loved
Is forever enough
Cause I’m never, never giving you up
The God we worship and serve keeps faith in us forever. Even when we lose our way, God keeps faith forever. Even when we feel cut off from all that is good and real, God keeps faith forever. Even when we lose all our faith, God keeps faith forever. Is forever enough? Yes, God’s eternal love and faith in us is enough.