Pulp Fiction & Worldly Faith

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

Do you remember that scene near the end of Pulp Fiction, when Jules and Vincent — the two hit men at the center of Quentin Tarantino’s Academy Award-winning screenplay — argue over how to explain what happened when a drug dealer unloaded his handgun at them at close range but missed them entirely? Vincent — played by John Travolta — believes it’s a freak occurrence. Jules — played by Samuel L. Jackson — considers it a miracle. Jules’ defense of his judgment is intriguing. In response to Vincent’s assertion that what happened didn’t qualify as physically “impossible,” Jules says, “You’re judging this the wrong way. It’s not about what. It could be God stopped the bullets, he changed Coke into Pepsi, he found my…car keys. You don’t judge [stuff] like this based on merit. Whether or not what we experienced was an according-to-Hoyle miracle is insignificant. What is significant is that I felt God’s touch. God got involved.”

Where Jules and Vincent differ is on what counts as evidence, on what can be trusted, on what is real. Vincent wants “reality” to be discerned by science, by reason, by the verifiable expertise that characterizes our “according-to-Hoyle” world. Jules, however, makes room for faith, the ability to perceive God at work in, through, and around the various activities and components of our daily, physical life. And based on his assessment, Jules has decided to give up the life of a hit man and look elsewhere for what God has in store for him.

As unlikely as it may first appear, Jules articulates a vision of faith not far from that offered by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews. Naming a host of biblical characters who responded not just to what they saw, but to what they believed God wanted them to do, the author urges his listeners to live not only by sight but also by faith. It’s the same call we make each and every week, urging our hearers to measure their actions and lives not only by visible, worldly standards of success but by the less visible ones of fidelity to a God that none of us, quite frankly, has seen.

Truth be told, that kind of faith is hard. The author of this letter understands that. “Now faith,” we heard last week, “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith is holding onto something that has only been promised, but not yet fulfilled; trusting that something will happen, even though it hasn’t yet. Faith, understood this way, takes equal measures of imagination and courage — imagination to envision the promise and the courage to act as if it will be kept even as we wait for it.

I think this explains why the author describes the “great cloud of witnesses” in today’s reading — to offer both an example and an encouragement. So I wonder if whether when preaching this passage, we shouldn’t do the same. That is, maybe when preaching this passage from Hebrews, we shouldn’t just talk about faith, but also give examples of it – examples that encourage and inspire; examples, maybe, that identify faith in the first place. Because sometimes we have a hard time imaging ourselves acting in faith, at least the way we imagine the “heroes of the faith” do. Maybe that’s why the author offers such a diverse collection of figures. Abraham, yes, but also Rahab and Barak, Samson and Samuel. Kings, judges, prophets, prostitutes, soldiers, exiles — all are listed here. What would happen if we similarly lifted up all manner of figures — not only in the Bible but also in our own world — as examples of what it means to be faithful? What if we mentioned the grocer, the car salesman, the stay-at-home mom or dad, the student, the person seeking work, as examples of faithful persons working and waiting for what God has promised?

Even more, what would happen if we asked our hearers to go out into the world this week and look for other examples of faith? Really. Think about it — taken as a whole, our hearers are absolutely going to be exposed to more and different kinds of people than each of us could possibly experience in a week. So why not commission them as your eyes and ears, looking for the faithful people and deeds they see and then bringing what they find back to the congregation either by emailing you this week or sharing what they discover at a future worship service. We’re only a few weeks from Labor Day — what a fitting day on which to name the many and varied ways God uses our labor (at home and at work, for pay or volunteer) to care for God’s world. I actually think this is just the kind of “worldly faith” Hebrews is talking about — the kind of faith that dwells in the nitty-gritty experiences of everyday life and is both inspired by, and inspires confidence in, Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.

I know this would be a different kind of sermon, Working Preacher, but maybe one through which all of us might not just learn about faith but be inspired to see and live it.  You see, I’m increasingly convinced that as Christians we need space to practice the skills of Christian living we always (and too often only) talk about — seeing and naming faith, affirming and confirming faith in others, connecting the biblical readings from Sunday to our lives the rest of the week. I think this passage would be a great opportunity to give us a chance for just this kind of practice so that we might better persevere in the race set before us.

Thanks for considering this, Working Preacher, and for all you do to encourage us in the faith.

Yours in Christ,