Text: Hebrews 11:1-1, 8-16
Give me your best definition of faith. That was the assignment, they called it a pop quiz, I gave the lectionary group this week. Here are some of their responses:
• Faith – refusal to give up hope; gut-level sense that I am not alone.
• Faith – a willingness to step out into an unknown space, to accept that the consequences of the step are also unknown.
• Faith – acting upon that which cannot be seen.
• Faith – something to lean on…always there to help and guide.
• Faith – belief, trust ????
• Faith – a manner of living with authentic hope that in the long run, the arc of history bends toward social justice.
• Faith – a living hope in what you have yet to fully see.
This morning, I want to address one single question: How does a Jesus-loving, justice-seeking, liberal-leaning, sometimes bible-bashing sometimes bible-thumping, religiously cautious, theologically heretical Christian live by faith in today’s world? How do we, people like us, live by faith – in a time and in a world – when faith is used to condone some of humanity’s worst and most harmful acts? How do we, Christians like us, live by faith – in a time and in a world – where we are confronted daily with enormous suffering at the hands of injustice and living by faith can all too often feel like we are playing Disneyland in a combat zone. How do we, people of faith, live by faith when our nation is rounding up 680 hard-working people – who by the way make it so we can put food on our tables – arresting them as illegals knowing that in doing so they are separating those parents from their young children who are arriving home or awaiting one of those parents to pick them up from their very first day of their new school year. We need to stop right here and call that what it is, SHAMEFUL!!! That ICE raid on that Mississippi chicken plant was a shameful act and one more, in a growing list of very dark moments in the history of America. Shameful!
I don’t know about you but some days I find it hard to live by faith. As that old hymn goes: Some days I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain…” Yes, I want to live by faith that the arc of history is long and bends toward justice; but my friends that arc has been bending for a long time and justice seems a far distance off still. I’ve tried to be one of those people of faith who live by faith trusting that there is a larger plan that I just can see and that we are all in God’s hands.
Living in this world, living in this country specifically, right now I find myself wondering daily how I am to live by faith. What does it mean to live by faith when everywhere you look you see injustice and pain and suffering? Some would implore me: Are these not the very times that call for a deeper faith, a more seasoned faith, a more active faith? And if it is so, then what does that faith look like? How does a Jesus-loving, justice-seeking, liberal-leaning, sometimes bible-bashing sometimes bible-thumping, religiously cautious, theologically heretical Christian live by faith in today’s world? It is a serious question I am asking and I want to share with you my most thoughtful response born out of my own struggle to live by faith.
So I will begin with where I struggle mightily. Living by faith invites me to live in the tension that two opposites can hold truth. I can feel sadness and joy at the same time. It can feel like the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and I can still see the beauty and wonder in people and places. I can believe that God is real and good and still feel a profound absence of God’s presence. Clinton Wright has been my teacher on this one. Just recently, when he was in El Paso protesting at the border he texted me: “Every day the fight gets harder, and more hopeful. It’s a strange dichotomy.”
We have been trained in Western culture in dualistic thinking. It is a sort of “tribal” approach to religion and faith that leads to in-group/out-group thinking. The spiritual and theological guru on non-dualistic thinking, Father Richard Rohr, instructs us on why non-dualistic thinking is so important to living by faith. He writes:
Unfortunately, we create contrary words as necessary for the world we live in – that is, all kinds of comparisons, and competitions, and antagonisms…It becomes our primary way of reading reality. So, since this is the way we naturally think, very soon we tend to think oppositionally. For some dang reason, the ego prefers to make one side better than the other, so we choose. And we decide males are better than females, America is better than Canada, Democrats are better than Republicans. And for most people, once this decision is made, it is amazing the amount of blindness they become capable of. They really don’t see what’s right in front of them – everything has to be understood in opposition to something else.
Once you see this, it’s an amazing breakthrough, and that is the starting place for moving away from dualistic thinking… This is why teachers like Jesus make so much of mercy, and forgiveness, and grace, because these are the things that, if truly experienced, totally break dualism down. Because once you experience being loved when you are unworthy, being forgiven when you did something wrong, that moves you into non-dual thinking. You move from what I call meritocracy, quid pro quo thinking, to the huge ocean of grace, where you stop counting, you stop calculating. That for me is the task of much of the entire spiritual life of a mystic or a saint – they fall deeper and deeper into that ocean of grace, and stop all the dang counting of “how much has been given to me,” “how much I deserve.” It’s reached its real low-point in our own American country, which is almost entirely about counting and deserving and earning — we call it a sense of entitlement. When you’re trapped inside of that mind, you’re going to have the kind of angry country we have today, where you’re just looking for who to blame, who to hate, who to shoot. It’s reaching that level.
We have reached that level. To live by faith we must practice non-dualistic thinking. We must learn that two opposites can hold truth. To live by faith in today’s world, it is necessary to see the suffering and the beauty of this life.
The next lesson I am learning in living by faith is not much easier to practice. Living by faith encourages me to accept uncertainty. Philosopher and theologian Robin Myers makes the point this way. He writes:
“…strangely, we still equate ‘faith’ with certainty, and lack of faith with doubt. We use the word faith to describe an unwavering, unquestioned allegiance to some doctrinal proposition. But certainty is not the flag of faith. Certainty is a symptom of faith’s demise. Certainty eliminates the need for faith by replacing it with absoluteness.”
Living by faith…There are not always answered. There is not always clarity. The best we can do is live with an open heart embracing the uncertainty and with the hope that in doing so we will deepen our commitment to living by faith.
I will be brief with these next two learnings. I have learned that living by faith invites us to live as though our doubts about faith are a window into nurturing an authentic faith; because without doubt, faith is cheap. And I have also experienced that living by faith will at times require us to lean on the faith of our ancestors like Abraham and Sarah and our teachers like Bill Finlator and Mary Ruth Crook and Mahan Siler. In today’s world by faith will make it necessary for us to lean on each other’s faith. When we can’t hold it for ourselves we let others hold the space for us. By faith!
I’m almost done. And this last one is important. Living by faith one needs to keep a good boundary between faith and belief. They are not the same. Belief is about definition. Faith is about experience.
Definitions can fall short of truly expressing what something means. And it seems the writer of Hebrews knew this. So the writer goes on to illustrate faith and not just define it. First with the stories of Abel, Enoch, and Noah; and then through the lives of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob. It was, the writer suggests, by faith that each of these people lived their lives—even and especially in times of great struggle, doubt, and uncertainty. By faith, Abel offered to God an acceptable sacrifice. By faith, Enoch skipped death completely by pleasing God with his devotion to God. By faith, Noah built a ship in the middle of dry land. He was warned about something he couldn’t see and acted on what he was told. By faith, Abraham said yes to God’s call to travel to an unknown place that would become his home. When he left he had no idea where he was going. By an act of faith he lived in the country promised him, lived as a stranger camping in tents. Isaac and Jacob did the same, living under the same promise. And by faith, barren Sarah was able to become pregnant, old woman as she was at the time, because she believed the One who made a promise would fulfill the promise.
But here’s the important part of living by faith that we learn from these stories. Each one of these people of faith died not yet having in hand what was promised, but still faith-ing. How did they do it? They saw it way off in the distance, waved their greeting, and accepted the fact that they were transients – strangers, all of us – in this world. People who live this way make it plain that they are looking for their heart’s home. If they were homesick for the old country, they could have gone back any time they wanted. But they were after a far better country—a promised land. We don’t get to that Promised Land by belief, we get there by faith and by taking risks for our faith; risks that may seem foolish or dangerous or too hard. If we truly desire a better country right now, we have no other option than to live by faith while taking the risk that are necessary to get to a different place. Now is the time!
By faith embraces uncertainty. By faith holds the fight and the hope together. By faith means that we honor and respect our doubts. By faith asks that we hold space for one another when we cannot see hope. By faith requires us to keep a good healthy boundary between faith and belief.
Look at the image on the front of your worship guide. In the end, when all the theologizing is done, living by faith is like being a trapeze artist. You must be willing to let go of the old and grab hold of the new. And here is the reality and scary part of being a faith trapeze artist. The scary part of living by faith is when you let go of the old and are in the process of reaching for the new but haven’t yet gotten you grip on the next handle. That’s were we are my friends. As people of faith trying to live by faith in today’s world as Jesus-loving, justice-seeking, liberal-leaning, sometimes bible-bashing sometimes bible-thumping, religiously cautious, theologically heretical Christians we are in mid-air reaching for that new thing that God is doing.
Sometimes we feel discouraged and think our work’s in vain.
But then the Holy Spirit revives our soul again.
There is a balm in Gilead that makes the wounded whole,
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.