Read and Hear Martha’s Sermon from March 4, 2012
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St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church
March 4, 2012
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Ps. 22:22-30; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38
“Are you a believer?”
If you’re over 50 the death of Davy Jones this past week may have brought back some teen memories. I remember having a class dance in 6th grade where we did “the pony” to the song “I’m a Believer,” one of the Monkees’ big hits. “I thought love was only true in fairy tales, meant for someone else but not for me. … then I saw her face. Now I’m a believer. Not a trace of doubt in my mind. I’m in love, I’m a believer!”
“I’m a believer!” In another context, we might recognize it as an answer to the question “are you a believer?” Which commonly is understood to mean, not “are you in love?” but “are you a Christian?” Neil Diamond takes the conviction of religious zeal and it becomes a testament to passionate love. To believe is to love. Maybe he was onto something.
Because for many Christians, believing is not about feeling, it is all about what one thinks. “Faith as belief” means that we hold certain doctrines, certain suppositions about God, as true and right. This is so common we almost take it for granted: belief is accepting a certain set of claims to be true.
This turns Christianity as a head thing, a set of ideas that we decide to accept. But this is new (new in the religious sense, meaning it’s only a couple of hundred years old). There are older senses of what it means to be Christian, what it means to be faithful, that are not so much about accepting certain religious tenets.
Because it is not belief that is at the heart of Christianity, it is faith. We see this in today’s epistle to the Romans, which is all about Abraham’s faith, the faith of a lived life. Marcus Borg, in his book The Heart of Christianity1 argues that faith has meanings other than modern notions of belief in certain ideas about God. For most of Christianity’s history, faith to Christians, and indeed faith to Jews, faith to Paul, faith to Jesus, was about something more, or indeed, even something else that needs to be reclaimed: faith as a heart thing, faith as a way of life.
A few weeks ago I talked about the way of the heart, the heart not as the home of our emotions (the ancients located the emotions in the gut or even the bowels!). I’m talking about the heart as the place of spiritual resonance, the deep place inside ourselves where we know God, where God dwells. Christian faith is a journey of the heart.2 And we are all in different points along that journey.
What are these other notions of faith, faith as a journey of the heart? Borg helps us with that too. He sets forth four meanings of faith, the first one being faith as “belief,” what he calls faith by assent. This is faith as conviction, often when reason and evidence would suggest the opposite. It often means accepting things as true that to “nonbelievers” would be decidedly iffy. The opposite of this understanding of faith is doubt, or disbelief or non-belief.
The other three meanings of faith all understand faith as a matter of the heart. These three are all relational. There is “faith as trust,” faith as radical trust in God, not in the truth of statements about God. Soren Kierkegaard described this kind of faith as being like floating in a deep ocean; if you tense up or thrash about, you will sink.3 Faith is trusting that God is holding you up. This is God who is our support, our rock. The opposite of this kind of faith is not doubt, but worry and anxiety. This is the faith of the psalmist when he says “be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe, for you are my crag and my stronghold. In you O Lord, I put my trust.” Or the prophet Isaiah when he says “surely it is God who saves me. I will trust in him, and I will not be afraid.”
I think Abraham had huge amounts of faith as trust. Abraham made all sorts of mistakes, but he left everything and went where God commanded him, having no idea what lay in front of him. He had only God’s promise. God’s promise that must have truly sounded ridiculous, that he and his wife Sarah, who was now well into her seventies, would have children. I think this was also the kind of faith that Mary had when she was told that she would bear a son by the Holy Spirit. She trusted God’s unfailing providence.
A third meaning of faith is faith as fidelity to God. The opposite of this kind of faith, in scripture, is idolatry, another word for which is adultery, putting faith in something other than God, such as in money, power, status, comforts. Faith here means being loyal to God and not the many would-be gods that present themselves to us.4 Like fidelity in human relationships, it means more than not straying, it means being attentive, living in intentionality to the health of that relationship. We do this in faith through daily practices of prayer, and worship, in listening to God, in the daily choices we make. Fidelity to God means striving to love as God loves, loving our neighbor as ourselves, it means living with compassion and justice. This is the faith that Peter challenges in today’s gospel. Moments before, Peter has proclaimed Jesus as the messiah. But Peter’s Messiah, in the orthodoxy of his day, is not a suffering Messiah. And Jesus rebukes him, calling him Satan, the great divider of loyalties. Faith here is fidelity to God’s purposes, even when they seem inexplicable, even when we think we have a better idea.
The fourth meaning of faith is faith as vision, faith as a way of seeing. This is truly a lived faith, because how we see the world affects everything, especially the way we live in the world, how we respond to life. With this kind of faith we know that God, the creator, is bringing all things to God’s good ends. We talked about this kind of faith during our creation series, when we asked ourselves how does God see creation, and where is our place in creation? How are we called to live in the world? The opposite of this kind of faith would be to see the world as purposeless or hostile. As Christians we see our lives as having purpose that is larger than we are, and that we are called to participate, to join with others, toward God’s desire for all life.
So we have faith as assent, faith as trust, faith as fidelity, and faith as vision. If this is too abstract, try thinking of it this way. Faith as what we think, faith as how we feel, faith as what we do, and faith as how we see the world. How much richer this is than simply accepting a set of doctrines! These are not exclusive; they work together. Of course we hold some ideas that are central to our faith. We affirm the reality of God, the divinity of Jesus, the centrality of Scripture. And, we hold these as true in loving and radical trust, without the human tendency for certainty and precision, because they ultimately are mysteries that can’t be contained in human rational ways of knowing. They can only be felt in our hearts and lived, assented to because we have been grabbed by God’s radical vision for the world. And it is God’s dream for the earth that shapes our vision of life.
All this is to say — to believe is to love. Which gets me to the cross. We just heard these words from the Gospel, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” It occurs to me that we often think of crosses as external burdens, setbacks, and difficulties. But the cross I think this passage is talking about is interior, those parts of ourselves we’d just as soon hide, deny and leave behind. Our woundedness, our mistakes, our foibles, those things that drive the people who love us up the wall. Think about what it’s like to fall in love, that heady, ecstatic, intoxicating feeling that you and the other person are totally fascinating. For a while we are taken out of ourselves; it feels like maybe all those ugly parts of ourselves are gone. And then, usually after a few months, the bubble bursts and we land with a thud. Oh yeah, it’s me again. We realize that those truths about ourselves are not only still there, there is a renewed urgency to be honest about them. We discover that a truly loving relationship is one where we are accepted for who we are and where each other’s continued growth, and the ability of each person to live into the fullness of his or her life as God desires for them, is at the heart of the relationship. A colleague of mine has said “God loves each of us just as we are. And, God doesn’t want any of us to stay that way.” A loving relationship helps us grow to be the person that God is calling us to be. Jesus wants that too. Jesus wants all of us.
So we pick up our crosses, our whole selves, and follow Jesus. What Jesus is saying here is that if we want to become his followers, we need to bring our whole selves, warts, woundedness, and all. Because this is where we understand what it means to be human, this is where we understand our need for God and each other. This is a great act of trust in God, to open our diverse and conflicted inner selves and trust that God will heal us along the way.
I’d like to close by talking briefly about the Creed, which we are about to recite as we do every Sunday. These words with the modern understanding of belief can be a real stumbling block for people. The Latin word credo has been translated “I believe” and then taken to mean “I give my assent to the literal truth of each statement in the creed.” But credo does not mean this. It is not about mental assent, but about the giving of one’s heart, one’s trust. It is a commitment of fidelity, not to an idea of God or suppositions about God, but to God. The rest of the creed tells the story of the one to whom we give our hearts, God the creator of heaven and earth, God as known in Jesus, God as present in the Spirit. Credo means to hold dear, to be faithful to, to trust, to live by. To believe is to love.
So, I invite you now to turn to page 326 of the prayer book, to the Nicene Creed. And everywhere you see the words “we believe in” I invite you to say instead “we give our hearts to….”
We give our hearts to one God, …
1 (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003, 2004).
2 Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus.
3 Borg, 31.
4 Borg, 33.