Faith and Fidelity
The rule of summer sermons, especially by non-clergy, should be brevity above all. I will simply remind you of key points embedded in the reading for today. They are mostly about Faith. Religious faith is sometimes a slippery idea because of its striking opposition to the ordinary, secular notion of what it means to believe something. The ordinary notion of belief strongly ties belief to evidence. We don’t (or shouldn’t) believe something that we don’t have good evidence for. We gather evidence and then, we arrive at belief based on the evidence. Additionally, the secular notion of belief is strongly contrasted with truth. No matter how strong our evidence and how confident we are in our belief based on it, we acknowledge that it is always possible for new evidence to emerge that contradicts or even overthrows our belief. Religious Faith seems to be something quite different.
Consider Abram in our reading today from Genesis. The word of the Lord comes to him “in a vision.” This suggests that it was not publicly available to everybody else and makes belief in it in the secular sense unwarranted. Nevertheless, Abram “believed” the Lord. And what did he believe the Lord about? That his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. This is a preposterous prediction given that Abram and Sarah were both quite old and childless. But this reveals a key characteristic of Religious belief. It is a belief not about present fact, but about the future as promised by God. It is more of a Trust, a belief in rather than a belief that.
Why then do we even call our religious faith “Faith” and not “Trust?” I suspect because the notion of trust is too passive. It suggests something that someone else does for us, and that we don’t bear any responsibility for. I trust that my pension check will regularly show up in the mail, which means some other agency (one I worked for in earlier times) will take care of it and I don’t have to pay any attention to getting the check cut or sent out. But as Genesis tells us about Abram “…he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” And “righteousness” is something like moral rectitude. This religious belief is more an act of trust than a simple piece of information that I expect to be true—as when a stranger tells me that there is a gas station about a mile down the road and I have no reason not to believe it. It is more akin to situation like the following. You are trying to take your family to a border crossing to escape the violent chaos of the Syrian civil war. You stop in a gas station on your way out of town and an attendant sizes up your situation and tells you he can give you the best direction out of town to avoid mines and snipers. But after he gives you the directions and goes back inside, a young woman runs up to you and advises you that the man is friendly to the government forces and is sending you into a trap. She gives alternate directions and wishes you good luck. Which advice do you trust? Your choice must be made with all the moral wisdom and intuition you have, based upon many details not given in this bare description. But the trust you exhibit takes on the character of a deliberate and calculated act on your part. If you make the right choice, your advice giver would give you credit for your assessment.
Now you may not think of this as exactly a moral choice because our notion of moral choices is usually based on the model of knowing what is right and wrong and then overcoming our personal desires or pleasures and selecting the option we know is right. But listen to Paul’s characterization of Abraham. “Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out not knowing where he was going.” Not knowing where he was going? This is even worse that the Syrian example, for it is as if someone came up and said, “Don’t worry, I promise you will make it out of town, just go out some way.” You would really have to have remarkable trust in the someone who gave you this directive. And this remarkable trust seems a lot closer to a moral act than to a simple acknowledgement of a piece of information. This notion of a moral act is not a selection of which rule to follow to guide some particular piece of behavior, but rather the gathering up of all that we are in order to follow some path that we sense is our own—the right one for us, though not because we just fancy it more, but because it belongs somehow to us and will lead us to our true selves.
Lastly, all religious Faith seems to have its genesis in an original visitation to a believer in God. And our theology expresses this by telling us that God “gives us” Faith and it is not something that we earn by our good works. Faith in this sense is just the original revelation of God in our hearts that opens first the possibility of that special Trust which is the gathering up of all that we are. Perhaps that is why I like to think of Faith under its cognate term, Fidelity.
The basic meaning of fidelity is “faithfulness to” whether that is to an ideal, to a person, or to God. Fidelity already assumes that what one is faithful to is something which already has an exceptionally strong hold on us. It doesn’t always mean we understand what has that hold with crystal clarity. When the Nazi’s come to the door and ask us if we are hiding Jews in our attic, does it violate our obligation to tell the truth to deny it? We should always do the kind thing, but do we know what the kind thing is all the time? Are we not like Abram, “not knowing where we are going?” but nevertheless going in obedience to what has authority over us and which we betray in peril of betraying our very selves? As T. S. Eliot wrote,
Religious fidelity means submission to what has been revealed to us as having authority over us and responding to it insofar as we understand it and as far as we are able to. This acknowledgement and submission is the most important thing in our lives. As the gospel today tells us, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
But as we are painfully aware, our weak and fallible nature makes us vulnerable to the betrayal of this most important thing. Yet this is where Fidelity shines most brightly for us. Our direction in life is not given to us by someone on a Syrian street corner, but by God who in revelation to us assures us of Divine Fidelity to us. If the Good News is that we are forgiven our sins, that means that God is never going to give up on us. Only because God offers absolute fidelity to us is it possible to respond with fidelity to God, which is at the same time fidelity to ourselves. Today’s gospel reading begins with this good news, “for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” And in spite of the strange comparison of the Son of Man to a thief in the night at the end of the little parable, the lesson is clear—do not abandon your fidelity for a minute, for God never will. God sums up his promise even better I think in the famous passage, “Behold I am with you always, even to the end of time.”