It’s hard NOT to hear the reports about Ebola. Driving here and there with the radio on, grief and horror overcomes me as I contemplate the isolation and alienation of the sick and dying. Imagine being so ill and not being able to hug and hold your loved ones. Imagine being cared for by people dressed in HAZMAT suits. George Mason, pastor of Wiltshire Baptist Church in Dallas, wrote a piece entitled “When Ebola Comes to Church.” It turns out that Thomas Eric Duncan, the man who came down with Ebola in Dallas, was engaged to Louise Troh, a Liberian immigrant and a member of Mason’s congregation.
After the congregation learned that Eric was connected to Louise and that Louise and her family were being placed in quarantine because Eric had fallen ill in her apartment, Pastor Mason’s first question was, “Can I visit her?” He writes: “We encountered Ebola because one of our members came face-to-face with it.” And to echo the words of the Apostle Paul, when one member of the body hurts, the entire body feels pain. Apparently, this is an image that is shocking for much of America to see and hear. Few people expected a predominantly Anglo congregation in an affluent section of Dallas to stand by a Liberian immigrant forced to live in quarantine. But as those inside our congregation know, this is what we do. This is what it means to be a church.
Near the end of his reflection, Pastor Mason quotes a song by Rodgers and Hammerstein:
You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear.
You’ve got to be taught from year to year.
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear.
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
He concludes: “What we’ve learned in recent weeks is that there’s a flip side to this truth as well: When we’re carefully taught to love rather than hate, when we’re carefully taught to care rather than shun, it shows up in our actions. And in times of crisis—like when Ebola comes to church—what we’ve been taught pops into full view.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/george-mason/)
Paul, in his letter to the Thessalonians, makes a similar point: a life of faith does not come naturally to us. He praises the church in Thessalonica for their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope.” In other words, faith is not a passive thing. It is a sustained effort. Faith is something we must learn not only to have, but also to do through the instruction and example of others. Paul praised the Thessalonians because they became “imitators” of their human teachers and of Jesus himself. The imitation of faith means more than mimicking good deeds or virtuous morals.
The posture of Jesus, and those who imitate Jesus, is one of dying and rising, surrendering and being held. We die to an old life of sin; that is, separation from God—alienation from the divine in ourselves, our neighbors, the universe. We die to the greed, hate, and violence that harms our relationships and destroys our world. We die, and then rise to a new life both personal and communal. We rise to God’s vision of shalom (wholeness and peace) for ourselves and for all creation. Paul writes to the Thessalonians: “And you became imitators of us and of the Lord for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit.” The change, the rebirth, in us may bring persecution from a world that does not understand it. But it also brings powerful joy and inspiration.
Baptism is a deep symbol of the Christ-like posture of dying and rising. Baptism is not so much a gentle sprinkling in sandy shallows as it is a crashing cannonball dive into a deep, dark lake. We plunge into the waters of life, and death, and then we break the surface refreshed renewed, and reoriented. Born again. At the heart of the Christian faith is this motion of body, mind and spirit. This dying and rising is the faith we imitate.
I’m thinking of little William, who, at the tender age of two and a half months, has already made many appearances at First Church. Not that I’m taking attendance or anything! Amanda, a few weeks ago you posted a little video on Facebook of yourself singing vocal warm ups to William. He’s bright-eyed and smiling, clearly delighted, even as he also appears a bit baffled. As your voice moved through its disciplined patterns, he got in a few grunts, squeals and giggles of his own, just as, every once in a while, he raises his voice in this sanctuary. William doesn’t understand much about life yet, or the world around him, but he has already begun to learn through imitation. Held in his mother’s arms, or rocked with her foot in his car seat as she sings with the choir, he knows what it feels like to be immersed in worship.
As Paul points out, we learn from each other to be more like Jesus. The Thessalonians imitated Paul, Silvanus and Timothy, and the Thessalonian community, in turn, became a model for the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. The teaching of Christian faith does not happen according to a hierarchy. It is a matter of profound mutuality. I imitate you and you imitate me. Parents teach children and children teach parents. The young learn from their elders, and the elders from the young. From one another, we learn to imitate the faith of Jesus, the dying and rising, the letting go and being held.
In recent years, the notion of “faith practices” has become the “in” thing. Beliefs, doctrines and creeds matter less than they used to. What matters is what we practice, what we do. Even when we don’t share the same ideas about Jesus, we can come together to live in the way of Jesus, to walk the Jesus path. “Practicing our faith” is a bit like practicing the violin or practicing pitching. We practice faith because we’re not yet fluent in it, because we have so much more to learn, and because without constant practice, we will lose the ability to do it at all. Prayer, Sabbath, Bible Study, Service, Justice, Hospitality, Generosity … through these “faith practices” we are shaped into followers of Jesus.
I was taken by Pastor Mason’s comment that his first instinct when he learned of Louise Troh’s loss of her fiancé and her quarantine was to go and visit. That was his instinct, but the truth is, it is also what he was carefully taught, what was drummed into his head. I suspect he didn’t first learn to visit the sick and shunned in seminary. He learned it, from his infancy, from his teachers within the church. He learned by imitating those who imitated Jesus.
Next Sunday, we will dedicate our financial pledges for First Church for 2015. If you are a member or friend or regular attender of First Church, you should have received one of these pledge cards in the mail. If you didn’t, you can pick one up today on your way out. Please spend a bit of time in thought, and prayer, with this card this week. Why do you support First Church with your talent, time and treasure? What portion of your resources are you called to offer to nourish this way of life in which we teach one another to imitate the dying and rising faith of Jesus—a faith which chooses love instead of hate, which reaches out rather than withdrawing, which sings for joy even in the midst of persecution, and which risks imagining a world shaped by God’s vision. Let us practice this faith together until it becomes the instinct by which we act.