What's FAITH Got to Do with It???

NOTE: Here are the sermon notes for April 19th 2009. I am writing from New York State where we went in anticipation of my mother-in-law's death after two strokes on Easter Sunday. But she is a tough old bird with an incredible will to live; and on Monday she began to come out of the coma, on Tuesday was laughing and speaking and today had them take out the feeding tube so she could get ready for rehab. Truly amazing. Both Dianne and I are grateful for your prayers. We also give thanks that Shirley is recovering so well. We will be back in Pittsfield at the end of the week and ready to go for church on Sunday. So, if you are in the area... please join us.

MORE NOTES: This is the first in a series of 8 messages inspired by Brian McLaren's "Everything Must Change" series. I am also using many of the insights of Marcus Borg and Peter Rollins. A film series on Monday nights is a part of the mix, too. We begin with "The Third Miracle" on the 20th at 7 pm.

Once about a hundred years ago – in what has got to be one of the most perplexing and frustrating pastoral visits in almost 30 years of ministry – I found myself being grilled theologically and challenged intellectually by a local scientist and his spouse to defend my Christian faith. “We think you are a closest fundamentalist” she said with a totally straight face. “All this talk about Jesus and the Bible – spiritual commitment and God’s grace – what do you really believe anyway?”

To say that I was shocked and stunned would be an understatement: I was a Christian minister serving a local church for God’s sake – a person of faith in a mainstream denomination – not a Buddhist monk, Jewish rabbi or Muslim imam. And as much as I value and celebrate the wisdom and integrity of other faith traditions – and learn a great deal about God and all of creation through them – as the old hymn says, “I have decided to follow Jesus” and walk and teach and serve in his footsteps.

This was turning out to be one of the weirdest pastoral visits ever when they laid this question on me that I will never forget: “Do you believe and affirm all the ideas and insights of the historic Christian creeds as true?” “This is turning into a mini-inquisition” I thought to myself and I am likely to be skewered one way or another no matter what I say. Because, you see, while I DO affirm the blessings of the historic creeds as a collection of beautiful albeit incomplete notions that point us towards God’s grace, I don’t treat them as literal facts or even tests of faith.

+ And way back when I didn’t have the language or experience to talk about this distinction. I didn’t know how to describe the Apostle’s Creed as a poem or the Nicene Creed as a collection of metaphors about God in Christ Jesus or even how to spell simulacrum.

+ And I certainly wasn’t wise enough to say to my provocative so-called hosts: “You know ‘credo’ does not mean I hereby agree to the literal-factual truth of the following statements. Rather, its Latin roots combine to mean ‘I give my heart… and allegiance to’ these poetic insights about God.” (Borg, p. 40) I hadn’t yet read or reflected upon the work of Marcus Borg, Karen Armstrong, Brian McLaren or Peter Rollins. So I didn’t know how to say that when I confess out loud during worship that:

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ who, for each of us and our salvation, came down from heaven, was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, made man… crucified for us under Pontius Pilate; suffered and was buried; and the third day rose again, according to the Scriptures; who ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

… what I am really saying is that I give my heart and allegiance – credo – to the God who is the Creator of all creation… the one I have met in Jesus, who has become the Christ for me and shows me a spiritual path that includes the life, death, suffering and resurrection of Jesus. That is, as Marcus Borg so rightly observes, “belief – faith – credo – is about beloving God and all that God beloves… faith is about our love for God and is the way of the heart.” So I stumbled through more and more of their interrogation - and eventually they left the church because I could not respond in a way that made sense to them.

And that is what we’re going to explore for a bit this morning: what faith and belief might mean for us beyond literal facts and harsh tests of doctrine. To paraphrase that great old Tina Turner song of the 80’s, I want to playfully but reverently ask, “What’s faith got to do with it… got to do with it?”

Because, you see, for far too long we’ve been taught a very narrow way of understanding faith – and it has out lived its usefulness. Specifically, this morning I want to:

+ First share with you four different historic understandings of the meaning of faith so that you might see the breadth and depth available.

+ And second encourage you to embrace these insights in what some are calling a “generous orthodoxy” or what others describe as a deep but loose commitment to the way of Christ. This is the way of the heart to me… and I will say more about it as I wrap things up, ok?

And now, before we go any deeper, let’s take moment to quietly center ourselves in God’s gracious presence…

It should be clear to everyone here that faith is central to what we do as a community, yes?

+ For 500 years our tradition has affirmed that we are “saved” – that is, reconnected to God’s love – by faith not by what we do or think or say.

+ For two thousand years we have celebrated a way of walking with God that is grounded in the words of Jesus, “Your faith has made you well.”

+ And even just last year – as we discerned our new statement of mission and ministry – we stated that: “In community with God and each other we gather to worship, to reflect on our Christian faith, to do justice and to share compassion.”

But what do we really mean by that word – faith – and why does it continue to be so important to us? I have found one very helpful answer in a book called The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg – it will be one of the resources for this series on change – and I commend it to you highly because it is so clear-headed, respectful of tradition and boldly creative. You see, Borg has very carefully observed a trend that Newsweek Magazine reported on again just last week: the decline of American participation in organized religion. Like Thomas in this morning’s text, more and more Americans are realizing that the old answers no longer work and the former truths have given way to questions and doubt.

+ In 1963, for example, almost 65% of Americans believed that the Bible was the literal word of God; in 2001 this figure had dropped to 27%. (Borg, p. 4)

+ In 2008, New England – the very home of Christianity in the Americas – became the region with the greatest growth of people who have abandoned any religious affiliation. Twenty years ago that was the Pacific Northwest but now it is in the cradle of Congregationalism. (Newsweek, April 4, 2009)

What’s more, fewer and fewer Americans are interested in a religion that is primarily about rules, regulations, requirements and rewards. We want a spirituality that connects us to God’s love, shapes our ethics with compassion and justice while guiding our families and communities into practices that sustain life and foster integrity. We are clearly less interested in heaven and more concerned about earth. We want less literalism and more truth. And we are increasingly attracted to faith traditions that help us bring the sacred words to life – they have to become flesh for our generation – sacramental, visible and gracious.

+ No wonder Brian McLaren, in his book Generous Orthodoxy, included this subtitle: Why I am a missional, evangelical, post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic, contemplative, fundamentalist/calvinist, Anabaptist anglican, methodist, catholic, green, incarnational, depressed-yet-hopeful, emergent, unfinished Christian.

+ Like my man, Bob Dylan, said so many years ago: the times they are a’changing! Theologians call it a paradigm shift and it is bold, real and on the move.

So let’s talk about what faith’s got to do with it in this new 21st century mode. For just like those at the dinner table with our old friend Doubting Thomas had different understandings and experiences of faith in Christ Jesus, so do we – and it is high time we embraced them. Borg suggests that there are essentially four different categories of faith.

First there is faith as assensus – the Latin word for intellectual assent to certain facts – which is not the oldest tradition but has become the dominant understanding of faith over the past 500 years. This notion of faith – that Christianity is primarily about agreeing with or to certain key facts – renders the way of Jesus “a head matter.” It is primarily about ideas – especially the right or correct ideas – and the goal of this type of faith has to do with correct thinking or “right belief.”

Now Borg makes two important observations about limiting our faith to certain facts or literal truths: first it defines all doubt as inferior or even sinful; and second “it suggests that what God is most looking for is the beliefs in our heads – as if having the right things” is what motivates God’s love. (Borg, p. 30) Where is the healing power in that type of faith? Isn’t it possible to believe – and know – “all the right things inside and still be relatively unchanged? Where’s the transforming power there?”

Our first reading this morning from I John actually challenges such an abstract notion of faith – and the embracing of Thomas’ doubts takes it even deeper – making it clear that faith is greater than ideas:

Here's how we can be sure that we know God in the right way: Keep his commandments. If someone claims, "I know him well!" but doesn't keep his commandments, he's obviously a liar. His life doesn't match his words. But the one who keeps God's word is the person in whom we see God's mature love. This is the only way to be sure we're in God. Anyone who claims to be intimate with God ought to live the same kind of life Jesus lived!

Faith is about living – living and walking in the way of Jesus – so let’s just say the time has come to restore wholeness and depth to our faith. It includes assent and deep thinking, to be sure, but like today’s psalm tells us there is more: How good and pleasant it is when sisters and brothers dwell in unity – when head and heart embrace – when earth and heaven are all wrapped up together, ok?

So first there is faith as assent. Second there is faith as fiducia which is the Latin word for trust. Jesus regularly spoke of faith in this way: consider the birds of the air… the lilies of the field… fear not… be not anxious… trust in the Lord always. This type of faith goes well beyond ideas and starts to make a difference in our lives. It can free us from our fears, release us from our anxieties and set us on the path to hope filled power. Do you grasp the difference – and potential – in faith as trust?

Assent – trust – then faith as fidelitas – the Latin for fidelity. This way of being faithful has to do with commitment and might best be understood by considering its opposite: adultery – or even idolatry. When we live in fidelity to God we seek out God’s way – like the prophet Micah said so long ago: you already know the way of the Lord and what the Lord requires: do justice, share compassion and walk in humility with God and one another. To embrace a faith of fidelity is to do what the Lord requires. It is to love your neighbor as yourself. It is to love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and strength. “It is paying attention to our relationship with God… remaining attentive in worship, prayer, practice and a life of compassion.” Theologians speak of this type of faith as ethics.

Are you still with me? First there is faith as intellectual assent and ideas, second there is trust, third there is fidelity and fourth there is faith as visio – from the Latin word for vision – particularly seeing the whole picture. Some people just see part of God’s whole, right? The pessimists and cynics see the sadness and pain. The Pollyannas and idealists just see the sweetness and light. But the soul with vision – faith in God’s vision – sees the whole picture: light and darkness, sadness and celebration, night and day, life, death and resurrection. Remember the words from Ecclesiastes? “To everything there is a season… a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to sow… a time to war and a time for peace and a time for love and hatred, too.”

When we see the fullness of God’s love by faith – when we see the blessings and presence of the Lord in all things – our response is grace: we don’t have to push and fight to get our way because God’s vision is shaping our action. We don’t need to worry or fret because we know that God is in control – even if we can’t find the evidence. And we don’t have to argue and sweat the small stuff because… most of what we waste our time on in church and beyond is really trivial.

Embracing these new/old – time tested but often forgotten - dimensions of faith is one way to enter into a 21st century spirituality that embraces the best of our tradition while recognizing that our context has changed radically over 2,000 years. It encourages us to be generous with our orthodoxy so that we promote understanding rather than harsh religious judgment.

And it invites us to be playful and humble – going always deeper without ever claiming to have a complete monopoly upon the truth – for we have seen and experienced how dangerous it is when religious commitment becomes hate-filled.

To be faithful, to believe, is to love: humanly, imperfectly and inspired by God’s grace. Faith is thoughtful – it is also filled with commitment, loyalty, compassion and trust. Our God is big enough for our doubts and bold enough for sisters and brothers to embrace in unity. So, too, our faith – our relationship with this still speaking, always loving God – who calls us towards our best selves.

Those who claim to be intimate with God by faith ought to live the same kind of life that Jesus lived!


Anonymous said…
Excellent blog. Amen to it all. Thank you for your words.

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