What is Faith Anyway?

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Faith cuts both ways: we believe in God because God believes in us. To find our faith, we embrace humility. Doubt is an essential element of our faith. Close-minded certainty is the enemy of faith.

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This Week’s Sermon Was Drawn From the Following Scripture

Luke 17:5-10

The apostles said to Jesus, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’?  Would you not rather say: ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’?  Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”

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Staircase Faith. Cornel West says, “Faith is stepping out on nothing and landing on something.”[1] On your bulletin cover are the words of Dr. King: “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”[2]

About ten years ago, Lou[3] and I traveled across the country with a Berkeley-based choir, Pacific Edge Voices[4], to sing a Meredith Monk concert at Carnegie Hall. During one afternoon of designated free time, Lou and I happened upon some great thrift stores, and we completely lost track of time.

Suddenly Lou asked, “Aren’t you supposed to be rehearsing at Carnegie Hall in about a half hour?” We panicked and tore out with our packages. We asked the person who would look at us how do you get to Carnegie Hall? and he actually answered the question, sending us to a nearby subway stop. The guy who sent us there warned us, “Now, there are a lot of stairs in the station. Will he be okay?” People always ask me about Lou with him standing right there. Blind people can hear you.

“Yes, he can manage stairs,” I answered. But we were not expecting what we discovered: staircases that went down for what looked like a mile from street into toward earth’s very core. I told Lou, “We’re going to have to get the lead out to make it on time Do you trust me?”

“Enough,” he replied. And we were off! We ran down those stairs, with me signaling the top of each set of stairs like a well-trained guide dog, both of us exhibiting the coordination of ballroom dancers. Then, because these things only happen when you’re late for Carnegie Hall, we learned it was a multiple platform station, meaning we had to go upstairs a little more and then downstairs again. “This can’t be right,” we both agreed.

But, at last, we reached our platform and boarded the train just as the doors were closing. Applause erupted. A group of people had followed us from the street, all the way. Did we look like we weren’t going to make it? Were they glad that someone was cutting through the crowd, making a way plain so that other late people could get to their destinations?

Someone remarked, “Now that’s what I call faith!” And then, addressing Lou, she said, “You must have a lot of trust in him.” The truth is, we have an infinite trust in one another. Faith, trust, loyalty— whatever you want to call it— is a reciprocal relationship.

The Journey. This sermon series is called Questions of Faith, and our topics come from you, the Calvary community, in the form of questions, like today’s: “What is faith anyway?” To answer this question would take you exactly one lifetime—your lifetime. For me, I like the metaphor of faith as journey. I journey through this world, sometimes with purpose, sometimes aimlessly, but I have found three things that are serving me well, personal assumptions that inform my faith: 1) We are more than we appear to be. 2) Life is greater than we can imagine. 3) The best is yet to come.  I choose to believe that, yes, in spite of everything, the best is yet to come.

Faith in the Word. Hebrews., chapter 11: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  Indeed, by faith our ancestors testified. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.”

This world that was spoken into existence by God, this is the same world that God called good. Have you noticed this goodness lately, or is everything as the world tells us: just awful? With more police-involved shootings[5] just this weekend, I find myself afraid that I will wind up old and bitter. Anyone else worried about waking up old and bitter? Anyone else have trouble believing in the fundamental goodness of this world? God doesn’t have that problem. “God looked around at everything that had been made, and indeed, it was very good.”[6] Faith is looking for goodness in a world of woe.

Stepping Out on Faith. Poet Maya Angelou describes how her grandmother’s infectious faith shaped her own. Angelou’s words:

One of my earliest memories of Mamma is a glimpse of a tall cinnamon-colored woman with a deep, soft voice, standing thousands of feet up in the air on nothing visible. That incredible vision was a result of what my imagination would do each time Mamma drew herself up to her full six feet, clasped her hands behind her back, looked up into a distant sky, and said, ‘I will step out on the word of God.’ The Depression, which was difficult for everyone, especially for a single black woman in the South tending her disabled son and two grandchildren, caused her to make the statement of faith often. She would look up as if she could will herself into the heavens, and tell her family in particular and the world in general, “I will step out on the word of God.” Immediately, [Maya Angelou recalls] I could see her flung into space, moons at her feet and stars at her head, comets swirling around her. Naturally it wasn’t difficult for me to have faith. I grew up knowing that the word of God has power.[7]

Doubt & Vomit. I remember one of the women who formed my faith, my Aunt Ella Ruth Langley, a Baptist, reading the Bible to me one hot Georgia afternoon, hoping I’d fall asleep. She was reading from the book of Proverbs, “As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly.”[8] “What does that mean?” I asked.

“Dogs… well, they…oh never mind.” She shut the Bible, and we laughed.

“Ella Ruth, do you believe in God?”

I remember her silence. She looked away and swallowed hard, her slight body weighing not much more than her Bible in my estimation. I suppose she was going over the hellfire and brimstone preached regularly at the Baptist church. Even at funerals, the preacher would warn us: “Now it’s too late for Hugh Don. He already knows his just reward, but it’s not too late for you to have faith in Jesus.” And those who came forward to accept Jesus did so around an open casket. I asked her again, “Do you believe?”

“Well,” she confessed. “I guess I’m afraid not to!”  Perhaps the most honest thing an adult ever said to me as a child! Now, I know my Aunt Ella Ruth was a woman of great faith, a woman who gave of herself to her family and her church, her community, someone who didn’t even need a Bible to recite the 23rd Psalm, and yet, that day she unwittingly revealed the superpower of her faith: doubt.  In humility, she confessed her faith and her doubt, inextricably intertwined. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “The faith that stands on authority is not faith.”[9]  My Aunt Ella Ruth’s faith stood on a yearning humility.

The Speck of Faith. In today’s gospel lesson, the disciples implore Jesus, “Increase our faith.” My friend, the late Rev. Kennedy Schultz, used to say that he had enough faith for everybody. “If you don’t have faith, here!” he would say. “Take some of mine. I have enough for the entire world.” Can we lop off some faith and give it as a gift? Maya Angelou seems to think so.

Jesus replies, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to a tree, ‘Uproot yourself and plant yourself in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” Other places, he says that faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains. To interpret this scripture, I had to admit that no one has faith the size of any thing, let alone a mustard seed. Faith is felt, cultivated, worked out by instinct.  Faith hangs in our subconscious and waits for us to use it. Faith, if we could make it physical, like a mustard seed, or even smaller, an atom— if we could observe our faith and measure it, then, says Jesus, we would be rearranging the landscape by now.

Faith & Certainty. If I insisted that my faith was measurable and finite, it would, at once, become something else which is not faith but certainty.  Faith is an infinite journey, a road that leads to eternity. If I’m honest like Aunt Ella Ruth, I must embrace my doubts. Theologian Paul Tillich said that “doubt is not the opposite of faith; [doubt] is an element of faith.”[10]

As a gay man who has been condemned quite harshly by some people of faith, even the PC(USA), in the past, mostly, I have learned that the judgmental certainty that masquerades as Christian piety is not only a mistake. It is anathema to faith, and it is deadly. Am I being too sensitive? Get a load of this.

Cognitive Closure. Social psychologist Arie Kruglanski has interviewed and studied thousands of terrorists. While he finds no typical terrorist profile, Kruglanski discovered that virtually every terrorist shares one important trait: “Looking for certainty in a chaotic world—the scientific term is cognitive closure…the need for certainty, the need to be confident about a topic, to know for sure.”[11]

Emunah. “Emunah” is the Hebrew and Aramaic[12] word for faith and loyalty. It means to nourish, to make strong. As with most things that matter, Emunah indicates action. The faith Jesus talks about is more than an intellectual conviction. In the book of James, the writer, who refers to himself as “a slave of God” says “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”[13] “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.”[14]

Persevering in Faith. Faith is not only to our belief or trust in God but also in God’s loyalty to us. One of our dear Calvary seniors has elected for hospice care. She told me she’s ready, and she has no regrets, except for leaving her family and not seeing her grandchildren grow. Last week, she took my hand and asked, “How do people who don’t have faith get through something like this?” Perhaps some of us are thinking the opposite: ” How do people who go through so much still believe in God?” The words of Rev. Mary Luti: “I have learned this much as a pastor: suffering kills faith as often as it strengthens it. Some suffering people feel uplifted by God. Others succumb under the weight of God. For some, faith confirms. For others, it defrauds.”[15] Whatever faith is for you, make sure that it remains a “a mystery to be respected, not argued into submission. A mystery to be plumbed, not judged deficient. A mystery that deserves the company of your patient, wondering love.”[16]

“So we do not lose heart.” Second Corinthians tell us, “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.”[17] That’s what communion shows us again and again: the best is yet to come.

[1] http://www.azquotes.com/quote/664174

[2] www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/m/martinluth105087.html

[3] Lou is my partner. He has been blind for about 25 years.

[4] Pacific Edge Voices, Lynne Morrow, artistic director http://pacificedgevoices.org

[5] http://www.cbsnews.com/news/deadly-los-angeles-police-shooting-carnell-snell-questions-protest/

[6] Genesis 1:31

[7] http://covnetpres.org/2000/11/homecoming/

[8] Proverbs 26:11, KJV

[9] https://www.quotetab.com/quote/by-ralph-waldo-emerson/the-faith-that-stands-on-authority-is-not-faith#7SqixOcd5uIUjPb6.97

[10] Elizabeth Dickson, Defining Faith: Paul Tillich on Faith and Doubt, accessed online at http://soulofpsychotherapy.com/defining-faith-paul-tillich-faith-doubt/ (September 29, 2016)

[11] 215 Years of Terror, Nova, September 7, 2016 accessed online at <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/military/15-years-terror.html> (September 15, 2016)

[12] My personal thanks to Calvary member Arlene Jech who offers her knowledge of Aramaic and spirituality to me so freely and lovingly.

[13] James 2:17

[14] James 2:26

[15] Mary Luti, “Surely” Stillspeaking Daily Devotional, September 24, 2016, accessed online at http://www.ucc.org/daily_devotional_surely (September 28, 2016)

[16] Luti

[17] 2 Corinthians 4:16-18


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