Dr. Steve Lindsley
(Hebrews 11 and 12) (selected verses)
I have lots of memories growing up in my church as a youth, but in the “Top Ten All-Time church memories” I’d say there’s one that definitely makes it into the top three.
7th grade Sunday school class. A gorgeous spring Sunday morning. The guys sitting at one table, the girls at the other. Over at the guys table, Bill, Wes, Tommy, Jeff and I are plotting mischief, as we had just learned that our regular teacher was not going to be there that day and a young couple, relatively new to the church, would be filling in. Now before I tell you what happened, I want to preface it by saying that I’m neither proud of what we did nor advocating for it. I am only reporting the facts.
I believe it was Bill who came up with the idea. Bill was always the one coming up with ideas, like rappelling down all three stories of the Assembly Inn building at Montreat. Again, not advocating, just reporting! Consensus at the table that day was that it’d be great fun to come up with some silly, clever distraction to simultaneously disrupt class, annoy our teachers, and impress the girls at the table next to ours. The perfect trifecta.
So how would we accomplish this, exactly? Bill explained it: every time the subs would ask a question from their lesson plan, our immediate and collective response would be “Faith.” It didn’t matter what the question was. It didn’t matter how many questions were asked. The only answer we’d give for the entire duration of class would be “Faith.” See, it was religious-sounding, right, so it wasn’t like they couldn’t fault us. That was the genius of it.
You know, it’s hard not to say the word “faith” when talking about religious matters, right? The Christian FAITH, a FAITH-ful people, the Affirmation of FAITH, a household of FAITH.
I grew up in such a household; faith experienced in weekly church attendance. But also, and perhaps more importantly, faith experienced in watching the people around me and how their beliefs became their actions. My Dad’s ten years as clerk of session, along with leadership in the local food bank. My mother’s work with our church’s Stephen Ministry. Both of them serving as youth advisors for the church youth group. And beyond all that, just the way they lived each day. By seeing their faith, I began to form my own.
Faith, in other words, is not just a noun – something to be studied, read about, talked about. It is a verb as well – it is a way of life.
Our Hebrews passage is a perfect depiction of this. By faith, we are told. By faith, we read, over and over and over again. All these saints down through our story’s rich history, this cloud of witnesses as it’s called. Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, and the people, just to name a few. They didn’t just believe something. They allowed those beliefs to become actions in great and powerful ways.
And yet, it wasn’t like it was easy, was it? Just having faith didn’t make faith any easier. In fact, often it made it more complicated.
Back to my 7th grade Sunday school class. We had our plan in place as the subs arrived. Looking all energetic and hopeful. They sat down, introduced themselves, opened their lesson plan. They started teaching. They actually weren’t that bad, and I remember feeling a tinge of guilt as they launched into their questions.
So tell me, the guy asks, why did the disciples decide to follow Jesus? As planned, the boys piped up in unison: FAITH! Startled looks from the teachers, but pleased that their students were engaged. The boys, nonetheless! Boys who were smiling weirdly for some reason. They asked the next question, the woman this time: Why do you think Jesus died on the cross? FAITH!
A look of confusion now. Next question, asked a little hesitantly: If you had lived back then, how would you have followed Jesus? FAITH! And now they sensed something was up. They asked a few more questions, and each time we dutifully and proudly answered back: FAITH! FAITH! FAITH!
That little word can disrupt a whole lot more than a Sunday school class, you know? Faith is not something that can be easily grasped, cataloged, implemented. The writer of Hebrews tells us as much. He says it at the outset: Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Think about that. Assurance of things hoped for. Conviction of things not seen. There is in faith, by design, an inherent elusiveness to the certainty. And each of these women and men recounted in the cloud of witnesses, each of these giants in the Hebrew faith, also had their struggles, their ups-and-downs. As do we.
That’s why there is a counterpart to faith, although we’re not necessarily prone to think of it as such. I’m talking about doubt. Probably the best definition I’ve ever heard of doubt comes from a man near and dear to this congregation, a man who sadly joined that cloud of witnesses himself this past week. Noted writer, Presbyterian pastor and Trinity Montreat speaker and friend Frederick Buechner once described doubt as “the ants in the pants of faith.” I love that! This idea of doubt keeping faith awake and moving, keeping us on our toes; keeping us engaged with God.
Which is quite a different understanding from the one our culture and the religious world tends to have – an understanding of doubt: as a sign of weakness, a byproduct of some spiritual sickness; something we must convince those around us and especially ourselves as people of faith that we never ever have.
But is that really what doubt is all about?
Back to 7th grade – later that afternoon, as I reflected on our shenanigans in Sunday school, I felt unsettled. Certainly some of it was guilt for what we’d done to those poor sub teachers – although in a weird twist of fate those two wound up becoming beloved advisors in our church youth group, go figure. But that afternoon, I felt unsettled; and truth be told it wasn’t just the guilt. I found myself thinking long and hard about those questions and our pad answer – faith – and truth be told, I wasn’t sure that I believed any of it myself. I knew I was supposed to believe, but I had my doubts. So what did that make me, I wonder – did that mean I wasn’t a faithful person?
So this is the part of the sermon, friends, where I want to tell you something really important about faith and doubt, and I want you to hear me when I say this. In my 25 years of ordained ministry, some of the most honest and authentic conversations I’ve had with parishioners have been when someone confides to me that they have a lot of doubts. That there is more uncertainty to what they believe than certainty. They tell me this with great hesitancy, fearful that I as pastor might think differently about them and their doubts – which I most assuredly do not – and assuming that they must be the only one in the church who feels this way – which I assure you is very much not the case. And I watch the relief wash over them as I let them in on a little secret that perhaps should not be such a secret: that they and their doubts are actually in the majority; and that having doubts is not antithetical to faith but in many ways is a sign of it.
And should this really surprise us? That great cloud of witnesses was not great just because of their convictions but also because of their struggles. Moses doubted that God was really calling him to speak to Pharaoh and lead the people. Abraham and Sarah both laughed out loud when they heard God’s promise of a child reiterated in their old age. Jeremiah doubted God was going to have his back for speaking hard truths. Elijah doubted God’s presence after his hollow victory at Carmel. And Thomas, the patron saint of all doubters, the disciple Thomas doubted the risen Jesus until he saw him himself.
You want something a little more contemporary? There’s Martin Luther, father of Protestantism and the reason we are who we are today, and the frenzy of doubts that nearly overwhelmed his life and his work. There’s beloved Mother Teresa, a paragon of a model Christian if there ever was one, who wrote extensively in her journals about what she called her “dark night of the soul” and the deep, deep absence of God she felt throughout her charitable work. And there’s Pope Francis who’s talked extensively about the important role of doubt in faith, saying this:
If one has the answers to all the questions, that is proof that God is not with them. The great leaders of the people of God have always left room for doubt.
How about that – leaving room for doubt! Think about what it would mean to view your doubts not as something to be ashamed of, not as something to get rid of, but rather as an old acquaintance coming back around for a visit. Oh, hi, it’s you again! Think about what it would mean to hang out with that doubt for a little bit, engage in conversation. Not out of fear, but out of curiosity. Being curious with your doubts. Seeing them as an opportunity to learn something new about yourself and your ongoing journey of faith – a journey, by the way, that never goes in a straight line.
I don’t know about you, but for me life feels kind of like a scale sometimes: on one side faith, the other side doubt; and any given day that scale can tip more to one than the other. Some days I truly feel I possess faith that can move mountains. Other days, I feel the mountain is crushing what faith I have. But most days, I feel somewhere in the middle; this constant, balancing act. And I, for one, have learned over the years to accept that for what it is, the ebb and flow of both faith and doubt; and the truth that our job is not to live in absolute certainty of anything or total disbelief in everything.
We are meant to live in a reality where we are assured of things we hope for and convicted of things we cannot see. We are meant to live as members of a community that the writer of Hebrews calls a “cloud of witnesses.” An appropriate metaphor for faith if there ever was one: try capturing a cloud sometime.
Cloud-capturing might be a good way to describe what my 7th-grade brain was experiencing lying in bed that Sunday night; that thin space between awake and sleep, thinking through those questions and our response. And that’s when it hit me:
Why did the disciples follow Jesus? FAITH.
Why did Jesus die on the cross? FAITH.
If you had lived back then, how would you have followed Jesus? By FAITH!
Now I’m not trying to absolve myself for what we did to our teachers that day. I’m just saying that our pad response really wasn’t that bad of an answer, was it?
Try it with me, would you; and you answer:
Why do we return to this sanctuary week after week, to gather together and worship God, when we could be doing any other number of things with our Sunday morning? FAITH.
Why do we dare to do crazy stuff like house the homeless and feed the hungry and advocate for equity and justice for all and work for the reconciliation of the world, even when doing so feels like an uphill climb because it is; what enables us to do these things? FAITH.
How can we ever hope to follow God’s commandment to love – even the unlovable, even the very person who makes it so hard to love and so easy to hate, how can we ever hope to love? FAITH.
How do we have hope at all, when cynicism seems to be ruling the day, when prices keep going up, when the very concept of truth is in question, when pandemics rage and the people affected by them rage, when we don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring, how do we have hope? FAITH.
How do we see the vision that God has for this church, even when our vision of it is clouded? FAITH.
How do we embrace the doubts that will, on some level of the scale, always be with us? FAITH.
See, that’s what I love about faith – that while it is a noun, it is also a verb. Something to be practiced, lived into, together with each other. And that is what I also love about doubt – that we have room and space to sway back and forth on the scale: moments of surety and moments of indecision. Faith and doubt. Moving mountains when others are struggling, and allowing them to move ours when we are less assured.
This is what a community of faith looks like, my friends. Tell me, what’s not to love about that?
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 From A Big Heart Open To God: A Conversation With Pope Francis.