Preaching on Luke 12:32-40 and Hebrews 11:1-16
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Abba’s good pleasure to give you the kin-dom” So begins the gospel reading for this coming Sunday. But I am afraid and my fear is not about the the thief who this text insists may break into my house or that the HUMAN ONE is coming at some unexpected hour. No, my fear is wrapped up in my desire to pay little or no attention to the second reading prescribed for this Sunday from the letter to the Hebrews: “Faith is the reality of all that is hoped for; faith is the proof of all that is unseen. Because of faith, our ancestors were approved b God. By faith, we understand the world was created by the word from God, and that what is visible came into being through the invisible…..”
Do I have faith? Do any of us have faith? For that matter: What is faith? According to Hebrews faith “is the reality of all that is hoped for; faith is the proof of all that is unseen.” Faith is the stuff that makes it possible for us to hear Jesus words: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Abba’s good pleasure to give you the kin-dom.” Faith is the stuff that makes it possible for us to believe. So I wonder: Do I have faith? Do I have the faith that makes it possible for me to believe? Do you? Do any of us?
I write this as one who finds it difficult and sometimes even impossible to believe much of anything. I am a doubter by nature. Doubting is part of who I am. I know that there are those who are more inclined to believe and I am envious of believers. I envy those who are sure and are able to find comfort in the Scriptures. For a very long time I was ashamed of my inability to believe. I often sat in church and wondered if I might just be a hypocrite. I wondered if someone who had as many doubts as I have belongs in the church. So, I tried to conquer my doubts by studying the Scriptures.
Over and over again I would read the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection trying to believe it all. There is much in the gospels that I can believe. I can believe Jesus. Jesus a person of rare integrity who displayed courage in the face of injustice, Jesus who seemed to know how to be present to others, Jesus who reached out to people ad challenged the values by which human beings judge one another, Jesus who stood with the poor and the oppressed and pointed towards a reign of God that includes justice and peace for all. Jesus I can believe. Jesus I can try to follow. As for the rest, like so many who have gone before me, I choose to live my life as if it were all true, even though I have my doubts.
For years, I remained in the church because I loved Jesus; because I yearned for the reign of God that Jesus pointed to. I was willing to follow Jesus on a grand quest for love and justice, and so I kept my doubts to myself.
I suspect that my decision to embark upon a process that lead me to ordained ministry had a great deal to do with my desire to deal with my doubts once and for all. I studied the religions of the world in a secular university trusting that when Jesus said that we should, “love God with all our hearts and with all our souls, and with all our minds,” that he was serious about keeping our minds as part of the equation!
With my mind fully engaged, I began a process of inquiry that I hoped in my heart of hearts would drive away my doubts, once and for all. The only problem was, the more I learned, the more reasons I came up with to doubt. The more I learned the more difficult my questions became. On the day I received a diploma in Religious Studies, I remember laughing to myself because all that had really happened was that I now had even more doubts than when I started.
When I first arrived at seminary to pursue a Master of Divinity degree, I was convinced that the best course of action was to keep my doubts to myself. During my first few weeks at seminary, I walked through the halls expecting a big hook to come out and grab me. I imagined that I would be hauled into the dean’s office and told that someone who was having as much difficulty believing as I was, didn’t really belong in the church, much less in seminary.
Despite my fears of being labelled an unbeliever, I was unable to keep my mouth shut. It didn’t take long before I began to express some of my doubts. What surprised me was that I also began to hear other peoples’ doubts and not just the doubts of my classmates, but the doubts that have always existed in the Christian tradition. I began to develop an affinity for those theologians who had the courage to express their doubts. I began to understand that I am not alone. There are a great many doubters who have found a home in the church.
I have come to understand that doubt is one of the foundations of faith. It’s not surprising that one of my favourite doubters is Martin Luther. When I read accounts of Luther’s life, I am struck by the magnitude of Luther’s doubts. Yet, it was through his doubts that Luther was able to come to an understanding of grace. I find comfort in Luther’s plea, “I believe, help my unbelief.” One of the reasons I became a Lutheran in the first place was (believe it or not) Luther’s response to the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed. (I know, for someone who disdains the use of creeds in worship, it is ironic to find solace in Luther’s interaction with a creed!) The Third Article says: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” To the questions, “What does this mean?” Luther responds: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel.”
These days, I have learned from scholars like Marcus Borg and Harvey Cox that faith is not about believing. Indeed Borg teaches that a better translation of the verb we translate as “to believe” is “to be love”. In “The Future of Faith,” Harvey Cox argues that “faith” is “more closely related to awe, love, and wonder” and that faith is not about believing but rather means, “hope and assurance in the dawning of a new era of freedom, healing, and compassion that Jesus had demonstrated.”
Where once I feared my doubts, I have come to an understanding of the power of my doubts to drive me toward a deeper faith. The process of openly expressing my doubts has surprised me. There are those who would have me express my faith only in terms of what I believe. Over the years, some find it unbecoming for a member of the clergy to freely express doubt. While I can understand and even sympathize with their discomfort, I have discovered that there are a great many people in the church who have struggled silently with their own doubts; afraid to express the inexpressible they have struggled to hold on to their faith. Often in the process of openly expressing my own doubts, I have encountered others who have struggled in silence. My expressed doubts have acted like a flood-gate for their doubts and together we have been able to come to a deeper understanding of our faith – and by our faith I mean our love.
All too often, we in the church have been guilty of trying to suppress doubts with answers. Jesus is not the answer to every question! We have forgotten that “I don’t know” is, in and of itself, an answer and we have failed to dwell in our questions long enough to find better questions. We have all heard far too many trite answers to really difficult questions of life and death, of justice and injustice and of existence and non-existence, and of big bangs and dark matter. The church would be in better shape today if we were more willing to admit that we do not have all the answers. Indeed, we would be better off following Jesus’ example of answering a question with a question. Perhaps then, the answers that we do have might find a wider audience.
I have often said that I am not a believer. I have described myself as a doubter who has occasional moments of belief to which I cling to for dear life. While it is true that it is my doubt which drives my faith, I am also a believer. The lines between belief and unbelief are not clear, nor are they solid. It is our basic human nature to both believe and to be unable to believe and there are a wide range of people in the church; from those whose primary impulse is to believe to those of us whose primary impulse is to doubt and who have only occasional moments of belief. However, the church tends to favour the believers over the doubters. As a result many of the doubters have felt that we do not belong in the church. Sadly, many have left. Often it is the believers who speak and the doubters who remain silent. Now don’t get me wrong, I would not want to belong to a church full of doubters. I am grateful for all you believers out there. However, I am troubled that doubters are often made to feel as though we do not belong. The church needs her doubters every bit as much as she needs her believers. Each of us have a role to play in our ongoing struggle to follow Jesus’ ways of loving the DIVINE MYSTERY that we call God, with all our hearts, souls, minds and strength to usher in the LOVE that Is God’s reign of justice and peace. Let our faith not be about believing. Let our faith be about our be-loving.