Saturday, August 10, 2019

Good Faith

Faith. If only I had more.

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?

Marc Chagall, Abraham and Sarah
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.
Icon of Jesus Healing the Epileptic Boy

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. 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 precautions.  (How could it be the Bible and there not be?) We must know that if we willfully persist in ego-driven behavior after having received knowledge of the truth, we will effectively be acting contrary to the indwelling God. 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? It’s to get his Christian audience to take heart! He wants 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.
Sojourner Truth

But that’s not the only thing that faith is. Not, at least, according to the Bible, which is something of a textbook on faith and faithfulness. Faith is not essentially about believing a set of doctrines or teachings, though it has come to mean that for a great many people. To have faith means to put your trust in somebody. It is essentially about 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.

John Chapman,
known as Johnny Appleseed
Are you still sure that you want some faith? Or more of it? 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 get what it is all about. Faith is about as appealing to you as a root canal. The truth of the matter is that we can’t live very well without faith. By that I do not mean we need to live a particularly “religious” lifestyle. 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.

St. Seraphim of Sarov
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 Zarov, to the wandering Johnny Appleseed, from the cloistered Julian of Norwich to the activist Dorothy Day to the courageous mystic Sojourner Truth. Whoever you are, you can be faithful.

Are you one of the many people who have stopped believing that? Have you been jerked around by the Church to the point you have spiritual whiplash, and only want it to stop? Do you find yourself wandering away from faith, convinced that the requirement of being faithful means to forfeit your intellect or in some cases your sense of common decency like many who set themselves up as paragons of right and do nothing to stop this cruel rampage against humanity now picking up steam? Some of us are slow to wake up and realize that there is more to life than conforming to social expectations (be they set by your parents or 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.

Dorothy Day
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. We are facing issues and battles today of unprecedented proportions. We live in a society where there are now more guns than people, where those who could do something about it choose weak-kneed responses and cynically offer their thoughts and prayers as if consolation of victims were a way to stop violence. It is just a matter of time before the next catastrophic environmental disaster like poisoned water or a gigantic oil spill will be the news for a day or two. The planet heats up and people either refuse to believe it, or believe it and refuse to alter their behavior. 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 so-called leaders 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.

Martin Luther King, Jr.
The real enemy of faith is fear. The question confronting us is, “So what are you afraid of?” Whatever may be holding you back from running a risk or taking a stand or making a witness is just something that puts you in the category with every other human being. We can either shrink back, dither, or take heart. Martin Luther King once said, “This faith transforms the whirlwind of despair into a warm and reviving breeze of hope. The words of a motto which a generation ago were commonly found on the wall in the homes of devout persons need to be etched on our hearts: ‘Fear knocked at the door. Faith answered. No one was there.’”

A sermon preached on Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2010

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