Monday, August 12, 2013

Saints and Ain'ts: What is Faith?

What is Faith?
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
August 11, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
1 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2 Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. 3 By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.
8 By faith 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. 9 By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. 12 Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, "as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore." 13 All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, 14 for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

Sometimes the news headlines cooperate so beautifully with sermon preparation that it seems like God must be laughing uproariously. On Thursday, while I was writing this sermon, I heard an odd little headline on the radio. Here’s the story from the St. Paul, Minnesota, Tribune:

The St. Paul Saints plan to change their name for a game sponsored by atheist groups. The American Association minor league club will call itself the "Mr. Paul Aints" when they host the Amarillo Sox on Aug. 10. The Minnesota Atheists and American Atheists suggested the promotion to tie in with a regional atheist conference in town that weekend. The game's billing is "a night of unbelievable fun." The letter "s" will be covered up on Saints signs in the ballpark. Player jerseys will be auctioned for charity. Saints executive Derek Sharrer says the club has "no intention of mocking or making fun of anyone's faith." He says several faith-based organizations have sponsored games before and that the Saints felt it would be "hypocritical" to tell the atheists no.[1]

Not the Saints, but the Aints. Because, I guess, they ain’t got no faith. If you had to define faith, what would you say? You might say, like the writer of Hebrews, that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. When you ask an atheist for a definition of faith, you are likely to get the same answer, though it might be in a different tone. Or you could get an answer more like this: “Gnostic means knowing, agnostic means not knowing, faith means ignorance.”[2]

It is very easy to find this sort of answer on the Internet, where some people surf websites in order to ridicule what others write. These folks, and there are many varieties of them, are called trolls. The general feeling is that trolls may disguise themselves as earnest conversation partners, but that ultimately their goal is to bait others into anger or insults, thereby justifying their own uncivil remarks and insults. My experience with trolls is mostly limited to the anti-religious types, those who seem to believe it is their duty to attack every remark that sounds even vaguely Christian, usually with some very nasty assumptions often based on their own bad experiences with religion or Christians. Sometimes those comments are justified. Sometimes, those comments are downright cruel.

When someone posts on a Christian Facebook page a request for prayer, and then posts a follow-up about the answer to that prayer, there always seems to be an atheist troll who will comment something like: “You are stupid and ignorant and you might as well believe in unicorns.” Or – “faith is believing in baby-murdering book myth gods.” And those are the generous comments. At bottom, the atheist troll isn’t interested in dialogue, but ridicule. Their goal is not to understand, but to verbally demolish. This is not true of every atheist – just the trolls.

Sadly, too many Christians rise to the bait, and they do it poorly, without knowledge or awareness of the long historic trajectory of philosophical and theological arguments. In other words, when it comes to faith, many Christians don’t seem to know what they are talking about. So we pass on stories of public school classrooms, where some clever child trounces a Godless teacher:

The teacher says the Bible can’t be true, because it is physically impossible for a whale to swallow a human. The little girl says that Jonah was swallowed by a whale. The irritated teacher repeats that this is impossible. The little girl answers, “When I get to heaven I will ask Jonah.”  The teacher sneers, “What if Jonah went to hell?”
The little girl answers, “Then you can ask him.”
We find that funny – the unbeliever finds it stupid.

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
But there must be more to it than that.

Let’s talk first about doubt, which many people believe to be the opposite of faith. The equation is that faith equals belief, and doubt equals unbelief, or a lack of faith. In fact, the opposite of faith is certainty – the absolute conviction that you are absolutely right, in possession of the absolute Truth with a capital T, based on a rational argument that has absolute intellectual integrity.

Some Christians think that certainty is necessary, and get tangled up in apologetics, defending their certainty to someone who is equally certain of the opposing point of view.
It is almost guaranteed that such conversation will devolve into mud-slinging, and trading insults, with no end in sight. A wiser woman than me has said: “Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.”[3] And, I would add, faith is also believing that even amid the mess, the light is there, and it will return.

Pretty much every person now regarded as an example of faith has at one point or another experienced serious doubt. The scripture mentions Abraham and Sarah, and their son Isaac, and his son Jacob. Moses struggled with faith and doubt. Even Jesus had moments of uncertainty –  not doubt, I think, in the way we would doubt, but uncertainty nonetheless. All the disciples, not just Thomas, and St. Paul himself – struggled with faith and doubt and uncertainty. Martin Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa – every one of them had times in which they questioned their own faith.

And therein lies the crux of the text – we all struggle with our own ideas, our own thoughts, our own beliefs, our own reasoning. We catch these brief and fleeting glimpses of the transcendent, and we wave them away with rational explanations or by simply forgetting about them. We often do the same with our doubts, trying to push them aside, or pretend they don’t exist. Sometimes we get angry about them, and start saying things like “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.” But that still makes the whole business of faith all about us.

Hebrews 11 tells the story differently. This text reminds us that faith is a gift from God, and that through faith, we see that which we might not otherwise believe. Rarely do people come to belief through a reasoned and intellectual argument. Most of the time we know faith through a whole confluence of experiences, of stories, of actions and conversations; in short, we come to know faith through the living of it. We begin to live in faith through our relationships. That’s why baptism, and worship, and participation are so important.

You can’t whomp up faith by reading about it, and you can’t truly experience faith in isolation, and you can’t create love by just concentrating on it. We learn faith through the love and nurture of our faith communities. And in the times when we cannot believe, when we have doubts, or our jury is out, the community believes for us, has faith on our behalf.

We Presbyterians don’t have a list of doctrines in which we all must have faith. We say we believe in the “essential tenets of the Reformed Tradition” but if we ever made a list of those essential tenets, we wouldn’t really be Presbyterian and reformed!

So we, like Sarah and Abraham, live and walk and trust in faith, the faith that comes from God. And we trace that faith to the journey that began before time, in eternity, when God began to prepare a homeland for us, a place where we can rest, and trust in goodness and grace and mercy, and not in our own understanding. God began calling people away from certainty, from all that they knew as undeniably true. God called them to a new country,
to a place that God would show them.

And then God took on human form and came to live among us so that our experience of faith would be more than our intellects could encompass. God did the irrational, the illogical, and moved into our lives in ways that even now we have not entirely understood.

In Christ, God broke into the world and turned upside down our philosophies and our reasoning, and invited us to a new way of living, a way that transcends our petty arguments and invites us to a better country, to the kingdom of God where justice restores the broken, where the hungry are fed and the needy are cared for, where our best thoughts are God’s thoughts, and our hearts, which were restless with disputes and yearnings, can rest in the one who gives us faith that our lives mean something, and that whatever our final home,
we are standing on the shoulders of the giants of faith, and their faith is not based on logic or reason or argumentation but on love and trust and grace – the love of God, trust in God’s benevolence, and the grace we know in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

God’s grace does not depend on our faith, but our faith depends on God’s grace.
That’s what makes us Saints, and not Ain’ts.


[3] Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith

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