(Hebrews 11 & 12 – selected verses; Matthew 17: 14-20)
So we continue today in our November sermon series, as Grace and I share some stories of our lives and talk about some of the things that we love. Two weeks ago I told you why I love church. Last week, Grace shared with us what she loves about the Holy Spirit. Today, my friends, I want to tell you what it is I love about faith.
And I’ll admit, it’s kind of hard to pinpoint what you love about something when it’s been part of your life for as long as you can remember. “Faith,” in all the nuances that word can conjure, has in some form or fashion been an ever-present backdrop of my life. Growing up, there was never a time I can recall when I didn’t have some sense of God, of Jesus, of the Christian story.
Still, to be surrounded by faith and to have faith are two very different things. I became keenly aware of that at the age of thirteen in, of all things, a Sunday School class.
See, we had heard that our regular Sunday school teachers were out that morning, and this very young married couple, relatively new to the church, would be filling in. In other words, red meat! I’m not saying I’m proud of this now; I’m just telling you what happened!
So Bill, Wes, Tommy, Jeff and I huddled around the table as we waited for our subs to arrive. And we pondered: what silly, clever distraction could we implement in the next hour to simultaneously disrupt class, terrorize our teachers, and impress the girls table next to ours?
I think it was Bill who came up with our plan. He was always thinking of good ideas, like the time we rappelled down the three stories of Assembly Inn at Montreat one year. Again, not advocating, just saying! It was Bill who suggested that we should do this: every time the subs asked a question from their lesson plan, our immediate and collective answer would be “Faith.” Just “Faith.” It did not matter what the question was or how many questions they asked. Our one and only response would always be “Faith.” See, it sounded religious, so they couldn’t technically fault us. That was the genius! Disrupt class, terrorize teachers, impress the girls. Yes!
Faith. Faith. Faith!
You know, it’s hard not to say the word “faith” when talking about religious stuff, right? The Christian FAITH, this family of FAITH, a FAITH-ful people, a household of FAITH.
I grew up in such a household; faith experienced through weekly church attendance for sure. But also – faith experienced in watching the people around me and how their beliefs became their actions. My mother and father, most notably. My Dad’s involvement with the local food bank, my mother’s work with our church’s Stephen Ministry. And 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 too – it is a way of life.
Our Hebrews passage is a perfect example 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. Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, and the people, just to name a few. They didn’t just believe, they acted on what they believed and lived out their faith in great and powerful ways, this cloud of witnesses!
And yet – and yet, it wasn’t always easy for them, was it? No. And it’s not always easy for us, either.
Back to my 7th grade Sunday school class. We had our plan in place as the subs walked in. Looking all energetic and hopeful. They had no idea. 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 asked, why did the disciples decide to follow Jesus? And so as planned, the boys table piped up in unison: FAITH! Startled looks from the teachers, but pleased that their students were so engaged. The boys, nonetheless! So they asked the next question, the woman this time: Why do you think Jesus died on the cross? Us boys: FAITH!
A look of confusion now. Next question, asked a little hesitantly: If you had lived back then, how would you have followed Jesus? The cry came: 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. It’s not something that can be easily grasped, cataloged, implemented. The writer of Hebrews tells us: 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, almost by design, this elusiveness to faith. Each of those giants recounted in Hebrews’ faith-ful litany, even they had their struggles, their ups-and-downs. As do we.
That’s why, weird as it is to say, because I love faith, I also love doubt too. Doubt. What Buechner calls the “ants in the pants of faith.” (1) Doubt keeps faith awake and things moving, he says. Keeps us on our toes; keeps us engaged with God. Which is quite different than how our culture – and the religious world – tends to perceive doubt: a sign of weakness, a symptom of some deeper sickness, something we must convince those around us and especially ourselves that we never ever have. We read stories like the one in Matthew today and interpret Jesus’ response in a belittling sort of way: silly inferior-faith disciples, if only you had faith of a tiny mustard seed, which you don’t…. Implying, of course that their faith was something even smaller than that.
If I’m honest with myself and with you, life seems to me like a scale sometimes: one side faith, the other 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 little faith I have. But most days, I feel somewhere in the middle of the two; this constant, daily 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 are we assured of things hoped for, and convicted of things we just 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 doing lying in bed that Sunday evening; that thin space between awake and sleep when the haze of a day almost done begins to lift and for a moment clarity takes its place. Thinking back on what my friends and I had done to those poor teachers in our Sunday school class; the tinge of guilt now more pronounced. So much to process at the tender age of thirteen: what we had done, what we said over and over again, just to be stupid, just to be silly…..
And that’s when the light in my head came on, like phosphorescence:
Their questions, and our silly answers:
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? FAITH!
How about that, I thought to myself, thinking through all those questions asked: that even as we were trying our hardest to steer things off course, we actually were closer to the truth of it all. For those questions and many others:
Why do we fill this sanctuary Sunday after Sunday when we could be doing any other number of things on a November morning? FAITH.
Why do we dare to do crazy stuff like house the homeless and feed the hungry and speak out against injustice and work for the reconciliation of the world, even when so much is working against us? FAITH.
How can we ever hope to fill God’s commandment to love – even the unlovable, even the very person who makes it so hard to love and so easy to hate? FAITH.
How do we have hope, even when cynicism seems to rule the day, even when stock markets crash, even when terrorists terrorize cities with bombs and guns, even when the color of coffee cups hijacks our social media? FAITH.
How do we negotiate through and even embrace the doubts that will, on some level of the scale, always be there? FAITH.
This is what I love about faith – and doubt. That we are all part of this ethereal but certain cloud of witnesses, figuring it out together; hopeful in our assurances and straining to see with conviction. That faith is a noun, but perhaps more importantly, faith is a verb. Something to be practiced, lived into, together with each other. 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 Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 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.
(1) http://www.frederickbuechner.com/page-group/buechner-themes/faith-despite-doubt, visited on 11.11.2015.