June 1, 2013, 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 4
What is Faith?
The Rev. Christine Reimers, Ph. D.
The gospel reading from Luke today tells of a Roman Centurion, an officer in the occupying army in Jesus’ day. He is described as ‘worthy’ of Jesus’ attention by the local Jewish elders because he had been good to the Jewish people in Capernaum – even responsible for building their synagogue. What’s really interesting about this man is that he has notices that Jesus is one ‘with authority.’ This officer understands the nature of authority as he describes being an officer and ‘when I say to one ‘go’ he goes and to another ‘come and he comes.’ The Centurion goes on to say, via a message from his friends, he is ‘unworthy’ to have Jesus come to him and heal a member of his household who he cares about and is near death. He indicates that Jesus does not need to actually come to his house but that he trusts that if Jesus says it will be done – the healing– then ‘it will be done.’ Jesus is reported to be ‘amazed’ by the faith of this man – saying that ‘not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ I wonder how this sounded to Luke’s congregation – were they insulted, amused, or did they hear it – as I did – as a challenge to act as a person of faith who understand who’s REALLY in authority over my life and even the life of the world?! As in other places in the Gospel, it is the ‘outsider’ – the Gentile — non-Jew and non-Christian (for the hearers of the written Gospel) whose behavior demonstrates a clear faith in Jesus’ power and authority.
I wonder if there is more to what Luke was getting at with the saying from Jesus ‘not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ Perhaps it is more than the issue of ‘inclusion’ of the outsider as an example of faithfulness. Perhaps it points to the question ‘what IS faith?” [PAUSE] This may seem like a pretty basic question. After all, those of us who come to church are assumed to have faith. BUT I’ve asked myself what do we, individually, communally, understand faith to be? I’ve found in my readings of Anglican Studies, as part of my process of seeking Holy Orders in the Episcopal Church, that the ‘nature of faith’ is not a new question and not one easily or simply settled by Anglicans. [As a brief aside there is some really wonderful stuff written by priests who were Oxford Dons teaching theology in the later part of the 19th century when the Darwinian controversy was rocking the modern world — they clearly saw NO conflict between science and religion. Their arguments are still very relevant and helpful and I’d be happy to share more about this after the service – should religion and science be a particular interest of yours!] So, the gist of some of the history of an Anglican understand of faith is that it is not something proved or disproved by the scientific method or scientific discoveries.
Anyway, I, personally find lack of clarity about exactly ‘what is faith’ to be VERY good news! So, let bring this question closer to home. What do we mean when we speak of ‘faith?’ There are plenty of definitions, of course, Biblical, Oxford Dictionary . . . but what I’m really interested in how some of us would describe faith – what are your thoughts? What are synonyms for faith in your personal vocabulary? [Look for folks to share some of their thoughts]. [PAUSE] Responses: trust, a way of being. . .
Looking at well-known expressions, we say that someone may ‘act in good faith,’ or have ‘a crisis of faith,’ or need to ‘make a leap of faith.’ ‘Acting in good faith’ even has legal meaning in terms of persons’ intention to do what is right and truthful in a particular place and time – even if it turns out they are wrong later. It seems that, ‘having faith’ is far from having certainty or feeling able to clearly assent to particular doctrines. Faith may be both a noun and a verb, even! As Father Brent mentioned last Sunday – Trinity Sunday – a doctrine I’m glad I don’t have to try and explain – much about the traditions of the church remain mysterious and the Anglican approach seeks to balance the insights of scripture, tradition, and reason as ways to seek understanding of faith and doctrines. I would argue that, in fact, faith is NOT about doctrines or, as it were, the ‘content’ of our beliefs, what church we attend, what denomination in which we find a spiritual home, or even IF a person has ANY religious affiliation at all.
So what is faith? Scripturally, the author of Hebrews writes that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1). Faith is described by the great spiritual leader Mahatmas Gandi as “not something to grasp, it is a state to grow into.” http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/m/mahatma_gandhi.html Christian spiritual thinker Thomas Merton writes: “You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”
This last week there was a FB posting with an article by a professor of anthropology at Stanford, who has studied the nature of belief in the more Evangelical churches, as well as lived and worshipped in what she describes as the ‘university-liberal churches.’ She indicates that the university liberals tended to “circle round the puzzle of belief’;’ asking questions like Why do people believe in God? What is our evidence that there is an invisible agent who has a real impact on our lives?” These ‘university-liberal’ Christians, which might describe some of us – myself included –assume that more Evangelical folks have clear answers to questions of faith and belief. What she found is that in the modern (or post-modern) world we live in even, those who are assumed to have clear answers also about ask searching questions within the walls of their communities. She quotes a comparative religion scholar who said that when the King James Bible was printed in 1611 . . . “The affirmation ‘I believe in God’ used to mean: ‘Given the reality of God as a fact of the universe, I hereby pledge to Him my heart and soul. I committedly opt to live in loyalty to Him. I offer my life to be judged by Him, trusting His mercy.’ Today the statement may be taken by some as meaning: ‘Given the uncertainty as to whether there be a God or not, as a fact of modern life, I announce that my opinion is yes.’ ”
So, we can comfortably (or sometimes uncomfortably) come here to worship without answers to ‘what do I believe?,’ but simply by coming – by acting in faith– say ‘yes’ to the mystery of faith. We can do ‘good’ in the world — and act in good faith – alongside others who may or may not believe in God. And, I hope we can say, when asked or when those we know are struggling with life crises, that we find it meaningful to participate in a community of faith – the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection. We might even share that it is practicing time honored rituals, utilized for 300 years – in this Prayer Book – but for 2,000 years at this Eucharistic table, that we find comfort and strength. We can walk through those times in our own lives of challenge and crises with a sense that even if we ‘feel alone’ we are not alone; perhaps we can even find God in the midst of suffering and experience the strange beauty of life that is only revealed to us when we are at our most vulnerable. This was the amazing truth I discovered as a hospital chaplain – God is sometimes MOST present and the beauty of faith most powerful when we have no answers to the questions of life and death and are simply open and willing to be ‘held’ and comforted in God’s embrace.
So I’d say that faith is, first and foremost, a gift flowing from God’s boundless grace (before we can ask or think). Then, given free-will, it is our choice to receive God’s gift and to act as persons of faith. Part of that action is to gather and worship, part of that action is to discern our gifts and talents to serve Christ’s church and the world. The hardest part, I believe, is to then to take real action based on that faith (perhaps still very uncertain about any specific doctrines). It is a great challenge to hear God’s call and acknowledge and respond to immense challenges facing us, personally and as a global community – from the fundamental human reality of the death of loved ones and facing our own morality, to the challenge of raising children to be hopeful in a world that is more scary and uncertain than, perhaps, ever before. To act in faith is to speak, vote, perhaps organize in the public square in ways that promote the nature of every person as a Child of God deserving of care – of food and water and a safe place to sleep. To act in response to God’s gift of faith is to be persons who know that the earth is a precious resource and, just maybe, the scriptural view that we are to be ‘good stewards’ means that humanity has been entrusted with care for all of life – and hence global warming and environment destruction ARE not just practical problems but moral ills and a betrayal of not only future generations but the very fabric and source of life itself. These realities are overwhelming at times, but the Good News is that faith is bigger, God’s grace is more immense, human creative potential – working in good faith with God – is more powerful than the threats we face. This does NOT mean anything is easy; it simply means, as the African American saying goes, “God makes a way out of no way.”
[PAUSE] So. . .as scripture says ‘we walk by faith and not by sight’ – our fears are natural and we need each other to walk this walk – particularly when the crises, personal or global are overwhelming.
I’ll close with a poem by Mary Oliver entitled When I Am Among the Trees, that I find provides a model of a way to center ourselves and ground ourselves in the natural world and find hope for our journey of faith.
When I am Among the Trees
By Mary Oliver
When I am among the trees
especially the willows and the honey locust,
especially the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope in myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled,
with light and to shine.”