Saturday, August 07, 2010

Good Faith

A sermon preached in The Church of St. Stephen and the Incarnation, Episcopal, Washington, DC, August 8, 2010

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

Faith. If only I had it.

Have you ever heard yourself saying that? Or somebody else saying it?

Let me ask you something. If you had more faith (assuming you want more), what would you do with it? What would it do for you?

Once upon a time, according to Luke, though not in today’s gospel, the disciples asked Jesus: “Lord, increase our faith.” And he answered them, “If you had the faith of a mustard seed you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘be uprooted and planted in the middle of the sea,’ and it would obey you.” Another version of that story appears in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus is provoked at his disciples for having so little faith. They have tried unsuccessfully to perform an exorcism. After Jesus upbraids them and takes over the project himself, the disciples ask Jesus why they weren’t able to cast the demon out. “Because of your little faith,” he said. “For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.’”

So is that what we want if we want more faith? To be able to do the impossible? Or is faith something else?

The writer to the Hebrews clearly had some idea of faith, and I am not sure that his was exactly what Luke’s Jesus had in mind. That writer (whose identity we do not know and can only speculate about, but who was most certainly not St. Paul) wrote out a long, sustained argument, the longest in the whole Bible. He set out to demonstrate conclusively that Jesus on the cross had performed once and for all the sufficient sacrifice that had never been done and could never be done in the Jerusalem Temple. The writer with good reason takes his time in recounting what might be called the “faith history” of Israel.

We do not have to guess what was in his mind. He tells us. Christ is the great High Priest who has made atonement, unlike any “high priest” that there ever had been. By a single offering Christ has reconciled humanity and God. Sins are forgiven. There is no need for any more sacrificial offerings for sin. Incidentally—and this is totally parenthetical to this sermon—that is an extremely good piece of news, even if you don’t understand or buy into the Hebrews theology of sacrifice. What he is saying is that Christ’s sacrifice is full, sufficient, complete, unsurpassed, perfect. This should relieve quite a bit of anxiety about how we stand with God. That a great many people remain anxious, or that some are totally uninterested, does not detract from the goodness of the news.

Christ’s sacrifice is thoroughly effective. “Therefore,” states the writer, we have confidence to enter the sanctuary (that is, the presence and life of God) by the blood of Jesus. And we can approach with a “true heart in full assurance of faith," simply because all the barriers to our being with God and living in God have been removed by Jesus. But there are some cautions. (How could it be the Bible and there not be?) We must know that if we willfully persist in sin after having received knowledge of the truth, we bring judgment on ourselves. Still, the author calls his audience to remember the struggles they have been through, the abuse, the persecution. He exhorts them not to shrink back, but to live in full confidence that the loss of nothing is nearly as great as what God has promised. This, he says, is how the righteous live and have always lived: by faith. He begins calling the roll of those who in the holy history have been examples of faith: Abel, Noah, Abraham, Sarah. “All of these,” he says, “died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.” They were, he says, like foreigners on earth. They knew that they belonged to a different land, a different reality. They could have looked behind and moaned sentimentally about all that they had lost and left behind, and could even have returned. But they kept pressing on towards a better country, a future with God, a heavenly country. And indeed God had prepared a city for them.

What is his point in all this? To get his Christian audience to take heart! To inspire them to keep on moving, going, growing; not to give up; to follow the examples of their forebears, not to mention the example of the pioneer and perfecter of their faith, Jesus, who pressed on through cross and shame and suffering to be seated at God’s right hand in glory. “You can do it!” he says. “Lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet….” Faith is the quality, very closely related to hope, that keeps people from giving up.

But that is not the only thing that faith is. Not, at least, according to the Bible, which is something of a textbook on faith and faithfulness. Let’s consider faith a verb, first. To have faith can mean to believe in something, to be convinced of something. It can also mean to give credence to a proposition, an account, a possibility, or someone’s story. More than that, to have faith frequently means to put one’s trust in somebody. Are you beginning to get the picture? It is beginning to dawn on me that maybe we don’t really know what faith is. When we say we want or we need it or we have it, might it be that we are talking about just a sliver of this rather complex thing called “faith”?

Press on. Think of faith as a noun, a something, a quality. Faith can be a solemn oath, a promise, a proof, a pledge. It can mean trust, confidence, especially in God. It can mean giving your heart to somebody, even at the risk of having it trampled and trashed. Faith can be believing something that you have no evidence for, only a hunch about, or less, or more. Faith can be practicing piety like saying your prayers and going to church, or it can mean the things you believe or the persons you follow, whether they are religious or not. Faith can be virtuous or it can be pig-headed. It can make life sweet when it works like a charm, and it can be a bitter disappointment when faith turns out to have been sadly misplaced.

Are you still sure that you want some faith? Or more of it? Or are you totally turned off by the whole idea? Some of you will tell me that you have all the faith you need and that what you have works perfectly fine for you. I’m sure you do, and I rejoice that it works well. Others may say that you don’t see what it is all about. Faith is about as appealing to you a root canal. The truth of the matter is that we can’t live very well without faith. By that I do not mean a particular set of beliefs, let alone a specific body of dogma. I am talking about faith as a matter of trust. I am thinking even more specifically about faith as a quality of taking risks, like Abraham and Sarah, the practice of striking out occasionally into the unknown, for which you have no guarantees, and in which you have no charts or road maps. It is true that a great many people—you may be one of them—have an aversion to taking risks, and who can convincingly argue that they do very well staying on the safe side of things. I’d be lying if I didn’t say to such folk that I’d like to rattle their cages a bit! But this gospel we proclaim is not one that we can use to slam the timid and retiring—or anyone else—suggesting that somehow they count less than the brave-hearted. Yet, the writer to Hebrews has a point. People did not get to be models of faith by hedging their bets and pulling punches. The way of God demands some element of cutting loose and letting fly, for God’s sake! No one in the entire roster of faithful people gets to be in the Bible because he or she sat musing on the possibilities of adventure, vacillating about whether or not to join the innumerable caravan moving into the future with determination, analyzing to death the pluses and minuses of getting balled up in the hard stuff that comes from a challenging God.

If we, two thousand years later, were to add to Hebrew’s gallery of faithful heroes and heroines, we would quickly see that faithfulness is not a matter of particular content, nor of a particular vocation. We would find all sorts of people who have lived faithfully, from the hermit, St. Seraphim of Sarov, to the wandering Johnny Appleseed, from the cloistered Julian of Norwich to the activist Dorothy Day. So the problem is not that Hebrews, or I, or the Church, or the Bible, is setting up some kind of high bar of special performance or personality characteristics that assures only those who reach it can be in some kind of exclusive club. The idea is that whoever you are, you can be faithful. You can be a person of faith.

A great many people have stopped believing that. Some have been jerked around by the religious establishment to the point that the have spiritual whiplash, and only want it to stop. Others have wandered away from the faith, convinced that the requirement of being faithful means to tax their brains with credulity (the readiness to believe about anything without much or any evidence) and their consciences with confessing falsehoods. Still others only slowly wake up to the realization that there is more to life than conforming to social expectations (be they set by gangs in the ghetto or Vogue magazine or Oprah), totally unaware that life is a many-layered thing, and that some of the best layers are invisible to the naked eye, known to make the heart quiver, and the spirit do a somersault. It is just this kind of insight that nearly everyone on the Hebrews all-star line-up exhibits. Our author says that they knew their true native land was somewhere besides the front porch. They listened to a Voice that called them away from the familiar towards another country, a heavenly one.

My own take on most of the people on the Hebrews list is that they were not in fact motivated by a dream of an afterlife. Most of them did not know what that was, including Abraham, the prototype of faithfulness. But they did have a notion of “heaven,” if by “heaven” we mean where God is and if heaven and therefore God is everywhere including as close to you as your nose or your forehead or your buttocks. Being faithful is not dreaming of some airy fairy world. When it comes right down to it, being faithful is taking the presence of God in your own life quite seriously.

We need people of faith, real faith, as never before. I say that quite deliberately and literally. We are facing issues and battles today of unprecedented proportions. This dreadful oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a mere harbinger of what is going to happen if we continue to rape the natural world. The arguments that are flying back and forth about the economy ignore some very difficult truths that the entire planet is still perilously near economic trauma. Given the way things in this country are currently structured, General Eisenhower’s warning about a military-industrial complex is hauntingly observable, as even would-be Peacemakers find it practically impossible to extricate us from never-ending war. The planet heats up and people either refuse to believe it, or believe it and refuse to alter their attitudes. Meanwhile we let the religious crazies, at home and abroad, hijack our faith traditions and dictate the terms on which we decide to be faithful or not. We are looking at every bit as dangerous a time as Hebrews ever saw: a slow collapse of social institutions, a debasing of education, the triumph of anti-intellectualism, a fickle electorate that is run largely by fear, cynical people who lie big enough and long enough and steadily enough that hosts of people find it easier to believe the lie than to pull up stakes, like Abraham, and hit the road for the One who is True.

What will you do? Turn aside and fiddle? Turn back and regress? Turn and follow the one who has gone before you and opened up a sanctuary that is no longer the province of the professionals, but one where you can boldly enter yourself, and be yourself, and find in so doing that God is not ashamed to be your God?

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2010