Adapted from a previous sermon series at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kansas
and inspired and using ideas and content from the Rev. Chris B. Herring
preached at Westminster Presbyterian Church of Saint Louis. Original citation lost.
Tony works on the East Coast,
and he was sitting in his office one day when the telephone rang.[i]
It was his mother.
She told him that Mrs. Kirkpatrick had died
and that the least he could do, you know, was go to the funeral.
Tony’s mother was big on funerals.
She felt it was of enormous importance to show “respect”
and to honor the deceased with our presence.
And, truth be told, when Tony was growing up,
he attended more funerals than he could remember out of “respect.”
But, in Mrs. Kirkpatrick’s case, it was more than respect that made him say yes.
Mrs. Kirkpatrick was a wonderful lady, and as Tony was growing up
she did many wonderful things for the children of her church.
Tony could always COUNT on her giving him candy at Christmastime.
On one occasion,
she took him to a concert so that he could hear his first symphony play.
Mrs. Kirkpatrick had added so much to his life,
and his mother was right.
Going to her funeral was the least he could do to show respect and appreciation.
Tony arrived at the funeral home at two o’clock,
just as the funeral was scheduled to begin.
He rushed up the steps and hurried by the somber man at the door.
There were several funerals in progress at the time,
and Tony slipped into what he thought was the designated room for
Mrs. Kirkpatrick’s funeral and he quickly took a seat.
He had done this so… hurriedly, that he failed to notice:
other than an elderly woman, two seats away from him,
no one else was in the entire room!
Tony looked over the edge of the casket,
and HE did NOT look like Mrs. Kirkpatrick!
Tony was at the wrong funeral!
He was just about to leave, when the woman reached over
and grabbed him by the arm: “You WERE his friend—weren’t you?”
Now, he didn’t know what to say. What do you say?
Well, Dietrich Bonhoeffer,
the famous German theologian and martyr, once said,
“There comes a time in every man’s life
when he must LIE
with imagination, with vigor, and with enthusiasm!”
I don’t know if you concur with good Mr. Bonhoeffer, but just for the record,
you should know that Tony lied.
What else could he do?
The woman was reaching out for assurance
that SOMEBODY had SOME connection with her husband
and likewise had some concern for her.
What was he to say?
“I’m sorry, I’m at the wrong funeral. Your husband didn’t have any friends.”
She needed to know that there was somebody
to whom her husband meant something.
And so he lied, and he said he knew him,
and that he had always been kind to him.
Tony went through that whole funeral sitting at her side.
Afterward, the two of them went out and got into the lone automobile
that would follow the hearse to the cemetery.
Tony figured that since he had gone THAT far, he might as well go all the way.
They stood at the edge of the grave and said some prayers.
As the casket was lowered into the grave, each of them threw a flower onto it.
Then they got back into the car and returned to the funeral home.
As they arrived there, Tony took the elderly woman’s hand and said to her:
“Mrs. King, I have to tell you something. I really did not know your husband.
I want to be your friend, and I can’t be your friend after today
unless I tell you the truth.
I did not know your husband. I came to the funeral by mistake.”
He waited a long while, wondering how she might respond.
She took his hand,
and she held it for what seemed an interminable moment,
then she answered,
“You’ll never ever, ever know how much your being with me
meant to me today.”
The fruit of the Spirit is Love, Joy, Peace,
Patience, Kindness, Goodness,
That’s what the Apostle Paul says in Galatians.
Today we’re looking at that word Faithfulness.
In his list of Fruit, Paul chooses a rather familiar,
common word in the New Testament: the word pistis.
Now, there are a couple of different meanings for this word.
Quite often, this word pistis refers to belief
that in which we put our trust and our confidence and our hope.
Now, if we’re honest,
we know we have the inclination to put our ultimate faith and trust
in all sorts of things that aren’t in fact God.
–That might be our iphone or our Android phone, right
I’m not going anywhere without my Samsung…
Google search sure seems omniscient, all knowing…
Its really easy to put ultimate faith and trust
and hope in our technology.
–That might be our things, our assets, the wealth we have
and what we know it can be leveraged to do and to mean
the security of our 401k for retirement
all those things tidily wrapped up
in that great biblical word: Mammon, right.
–Or we might put our faith and trust in our own abilities
our learning or our connections or our decision making
self-reliance and self-sufficiency, these too can become little gods.
Those are just a few.
Pistis, Faith, in the bible, asks us what is it we ultimately trust??
one or more of these things,
or is it the God we find through Jesus Christ our Lord?
So, you might recall, such stories in scripture as Jesus’s stilling the waves.
That night, on the rolling sea,
when the disciples are scared out of their gourd
and cry out to the sleeping Jesus for help,
he wakes up and takes stock
and shouts out to calm the waves and help his friends,
but also rebukes them… “o ye of little faith…”
“you should have trusted…..”
That’s one way to look at Pistis in scripture.
And that’s an important sermon, for another day perhaps,
but that’s NOT what Paul has in mind
when he talks about the Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians.
Pistis also means “faithfulness.”
The various Fruit of the Spirit are ETHICAL ideas,
concerned not so much with our belief and trust in God
and what God can do for us,
but with our RELATIONSHIP with other people
our fellow human beings.
Yes, those things are related.
I don’t mean to suggest they aren’t.
But here the word is more about our actions than our theology
a state of character rather than the object of our belief or our hope.
One commentator describes the difference this way:
What pistis means here is not faith but faithfulness:
it is that quality of reliability and trustworthiness,
which makes [a person] one on whom
we can utterly rely
and [one] whose word we can utterly accept…”[ii]
This is what Paul means when he says a Fruit of the Spirit is Faithfulness.
A faithful person is a trustworthy person,
someone who keeps God’s promises,
who does what he or she says they will do,
someone who is RELIABLE.
Now, one can appear to have faith but not have faithfulness.
Its not just any reliability, any trustworthiness that we’re talking about,
but a reliability and trustworthiness that aims for GOOD.
That was our word last week: Goodness. God make me Good for Something.
Faithfulness means one who is faithful—trustworthy, reliable—
–means someone you can trust to ACT
in Love and Care and Concern for another
for the person that is RIGHT THERE in front of you..
If I have all faith, so as to remove mountains,
but do not have love….I am a noisy gong,
and a clanging symbol…
You might have heard that read before.
That’s Paul, again, in another place,
talking about this distinction between faith and faithfulness.
Jesus speaks to this in the Gospel reading this morning.
In this section of Matthew,
he is criticizing the leaders of his time,
RELIGIOUS people of his time,
for a variety of failures.
Jesus protests, in rather strong and salty language, that even though
they are CAREFUL to tithe, right
even though they fulfill ceremonial aspects of the law,
the LETTER of the law
they miss its spirit,
they have missed how the law intends
to God’s weightier demands—justice, mercy and faith.
That’s the phrase Jesus uses:
he called these “Weightier matters of the law:”
Justice, Mercy, Faith (there’s Pistis again)
Justice, Mercy, Faith
as important a part of the law, if not more,
than the outward appearance of being a faithful person
compliant and obedient to the letter
but not to its spirit..
Looking on the outside like you’re a good Christian isn’t enough.
They have shown no real faithfulness, says Jesus
either to God or to their neighbor.
They’ve exhibited no ability, no reason to be trusted.
Do not do as they do,
but instead, Jesus teaches us, find another way to be truly faithful
that is, worrying not about the heavy burdens of legalism
but instead living a life of Justice,
Ok then, Jesus.
Tell us how you really feel.
But note well: all of this is possible for us,
ultimately, because it is a gift of God.
It is what happens when the Spirit of God works in us,
so that we can bear God’s fruit.
So we turn to the second reading for today,
where Paul opens his letter by reminding his readers
of God’s grace,
given them through Jesus Christ,
the infusion of spiritual gifts with which they have been blessed.
We can expect these gifts,
because they are promised to us by God,
and get this: God is trustworthy. God is faithful.
God is Reliable, and if you let it,
God can lead you to be reliable in faith too.
“God is faithful;
by God you were called into the fellowship of…Jesus Christ our Lord.”
God has kept the Holy promises, Paul says. And God will keep on doin’ so.
Rejoice. Live in them. Be empowered by them.
God is trustworthy, faithful, reliable. So can you be….
YOU can be faithful. You can do it. Lets talk about how…
People can trust in you to act reliably for good, and for God.
But what a tall order, especially in our day and age.
That type of life, this Fruit of the Spirit, requires commitment to one another.
And people are more and more loathe
to make this type of commitment,
and when they do, they feel more and more free to break them.
Why is that? Well, we schedule ourselves too thin, and we know it.
We’re worried about taking on that additional task,
Because we don’t WANT to break yet another commitment…
And then there is the fact that we don’t let ourselves know one another very well.
I think we actually do pretty well at this one at The Kirk,
But outside of here, our guard is up pretty high
With our neighbors and those we live our lives with:
Whether at school, or at work.
Its hard to trust, and be trusted by, people we don’t get to know very well…
And then there are the people we don’t know,
of every sort of community and place
of every background and race
that we’re expected to be FAITHFUL towards as well.
And then there’s our busy-busy-busy culture,
that doesn’t support the kind of living, COVENANTED LIVING,
that encourages us to assume responsibility for one another,
for what we say, for what we do…
Well, we desperately need people who are willing to make faithful commitments
and to keep them.
We desperately need people who, filled with God’s spirit,
will stand up to be faithful to the promises they have made to God
and to those folk God has given them to share life with.
Today’s examination of this fruit of the spirit forces us to ask:
are WE going to be people LIKE THAT?
Are we going to be people on whom others can count.
Are we going to live out the covenant that God calls us to,
so that we can make this world a better place?
We’ve got to make the way we relate to God and to others
MORE important than our own needs and moods and desires.
We’ve got to make our FAITHFULNESS to the Gospel’s demands
the most important thing in our life, for our sake,
and for the sake of the world around us.
I think we want to be that kind of person, but its just so easy to let it slip away…
In the rush of our days, we can completely dismiss the graciousness of God.
We can get so wrapped up with ourselves and our needs
and our stress and our desires for the day,
that we miss our deeper spiritual need
to be filled with God’s fruit so that we can harvest it in our world.
So often, its not that we INTEND to be unfaithful,
it just is so much easier to let it slip by…
David Bartlett once wrote a story for a Yale Divinity Alumni magazine.
Bartlett’s story is about a missing Stradivarius violin:
The Violin was owned by UCLA,
and had been placed in the charge of a faculty member
who was also the second violinist in a University string quartet.
The second violinist reported the priceless instrument missing.
Authorities were suspicious that the musician
had stolen the violin: either for his pleasure or for personal gain.
They brought him in for questioning.
However, He said he thought he’d put the violin,
well, on the top of his car
when he was loading the groceries he bought
on the way home from a concert.
Then he got in the car and drove off, simply forgetting the Stradivarius.
Decades later…the hapless violinist’s story was confirmed
when the instrument showed up at a music shop to be tuned.
The present owner said he had bought the violin
from someone who found it lying beside an on-ramp
to a Southern California freeway.
You’d think that if you owned a Stradivarius
you’d guard it day and night,
never let it out of your sight,
certainly NEVER stick it on the top of your VW
in the Safeway parking lot.
But of course we all do get busy,
and life intrudes even on the stewardship of priceless gifts.
We’ve got to eat, and we’ve got to shop,
and it’s easy to put the Strad out of the way just long enough
to get the Wheaties into the trunk, and then—oops!
So it wasn’t greed or treachery,
it was just carelessness that lost the treasure.
Lots of people think there’s a conspiracy abroad
as (other people) try to destroy [community]
for their vile purposes.
I think we’re more in danger from carelessness than from enmity.[iii]
What do you think?
Maybe its about being PRESENT,
about looking at the people who are before us, in the moment
and seeking always to do right by them.
Back to Tony’s story, the funeral guy, which we opened with this morning.
Tony had a lot to do.
He was working in his office when his phone rang.
His mother encouraged him to remember someone
who had been faithful to him,
And to share some of that in return by going to her funeral.
Tony was stressed out that day he rushed to the funeral home,
perhaps a bit too hurriedly.
He was not focused enough to FIND the right room,
but here’s the thing: he was focused enough to LIVE OUT
the promises he had made to be a bearer of God’s grace
to a hungry world.
Just as Mrs. Kirkpatrick and his mother had taught him to do.
He never made it to the right funeral, but even so,
Tony demonstrated such…Faithfulness that day:
to his mother.
to dear Mrs. Kirkpatrick.
to this stranger’s wife…
In writing about it, Tony said:
“I know there will be those who will say I never should have lied
to this woman in the first place.
But then, they weren’t there.
I had a feeling at the end of that day that there was a voice…
speaking to me
and saying ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant!’”[iv]
Tony touched this widow’s life,
this stranger, someone he had never met,
He touched this widow’s life with grace and love
and the truth of God’s love for her.
He was focused on being faithful to what he was called to be:
A disciple of Jesus Christ in the world.
Man, may I be that reliable.
May my faith be that trustworthy.
May God keep US focused on this crazy journey we call life,
So that in the midst of our gadgets and our stress
Our work schedule and our family demands,
We may constantly strive to be those on whom others can trust
To share the grace and the justice and the mercy
and the kindness of God…
May it be so.
[i] Tony Campolo, Let Me Tell You a Story: Life Lessons from Unexpected Places and Unlikely People (Nashville: Word Publishing, 2000), 43-44.
[ii] Quote attributed to William Barkley Flesh and Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976), 107-8.
[iii] Recounted by Joseph Harvard of Durham’s First Presbyterian Church, in Journal for Preachers, Pentecost 1997.
[iv] Tony Campolo, Let Me Tell You a Story. Op. cit.
Image: the good youth from Spirit of Life Presbyterian Church in Apple Valley, Minnesota. The Kirk was fortunate to host them as they drove through town en route to a week long work camp in Garnett, Kansas. Well done, good and faithful kids….