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Faith: Being Ready to be Surprised: The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, August 11, 2019:
Genesis 15:1-6; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40

“[People] with faith can face martyrdom while [those] without it feel stricken when they are not invited to dinner.” So said journalist Walter Lippmann in the 1940s. That vote of approval might puff us up a little bit, though we might find his dinner invitation comment a bit harsh and finger-pointy.

Lippman’s view seemed to prevail in the optimistic years after the Second World War, as people moved out to the growing suburbs and started families, and got involved with whatever church popped up in their neighbourhood. I get a little glimpse of this when my in-laws talk about their growing church down in South Carolina; though gently reminding them that the Bible belt is a whole different context from much of the rest of the continent.

In recent years the life of faith has come under scrutiny and criticism. Right at the doorstep of our century were the September 11 attacks, which still have reverberations around the world. Author Diana Butler Bass has written about what she calls “The Terrible Decade” that, along with the terrorist attacks, saw a growing awareness of sexual abuse in churches, and subsequent cover-ups; death threats and other terrible reactions to the consecration of Gene Robinson in the American Episcopal Church, which presented the world with a view of churchgoers as overwhelmingly nasty and hateful toward the LGBTQ community; and the polarizing election and re-election of George W. Bush, with 87% of evangelical Christians voting for Bush in the 2004 election.* And now we live in a situation where thoughtful dialogue is often rendered impossible, because opposing sides are caricatured and demonized, and a host of issues reduced to one or two ‘litmus tests.’

So after this, fewer people find themselves able to sign on to Lippman’s rosy assessment of faith. “People of faith can face martyrdom,” he said. But he probably wouldn’t have predicted that in our day, many live in fear because of some people of faith who seek out martyrdom in the context of the committing of mass murder. This is all background to the negativity of scholars and writers who have been dubbed ‘The New Atheists’ and the laws in some places that restrict the displaying of religious symbols by public officials. In this situation being a person of faith can be seen as outdated on one end of the spectrum, or outright dangerous on the other. The Abraham of our readings today would be judged by the new wave of atheists as either delusional in his trust in God and God’s promise of descendants, or as someone at risk of being radicalized; whose faith is a doorway to potentially anti-social behaviour.

So ours will sometimes be an uphill battle, as we seek to reclaim faith from both religious and secularist extremists. We might start by realizing that having faith as part of your everyday life isn’t as ridiculous as some might make it sound. It need not be viewed as the opposite of valuing our use of reason, and evaluating evidence. It’s just that some truths, some realities, that can’t be approached by evidence.

[Francis Spufford, in a dialogue with an atheist writer notes that] lots of things belong to the realm of “truths to which we have no access. We can’t say for sure what the world looks like through other people’s eyes. (For that matter, we can’t say with absolute certainty whether or not this world is real, or merely an illusion created by robot overlords.) We’ll never know for sure how our words will be understood and interpreted by others. We don’t know for sure how society should be organized, who the best candidate is, or how we should act in certain situations. We don’t know for sure “what colour we should paint the spare room.”** We might be able to act decisively in a situation of two colours: beige and watermelon pink. But things are less clear in a choice between beige and every colour and every shade imaginable.

These are not nonsense questions. And acting by faith in these situations isn’t foolish. It also doesn’t mean that you’re cutting yourself off from available evidence. It’s just that some truths, some realities, lie beyond easy evidence. And so, whether asking what colour to paint a room, or how our words will be heard by someone else, or if that car is going to, in fact, stop for us as we cross the road, or, how to act in a difficult situation, let alone what God wants for our life, we act in faith with thoughtfulness and care, and proceed humbly in these scenarios in which we see “through a glass darkly.”

Today, in our readings, the life of faith seems primarily to be oriented toward the future. Or we might say, living in the present, in the here-and-now, trusting in God’s future. This comes through in the story of Abraham and Sarah, who “from a distance they saw and greeted the promises of God.” Not looking back at the land they left behind, “but desir[ing] a better country, that is, a heavenly one.”

This future-oriented faith, it has to do with hope. ‘Hope,’ as in a trusting in God’s goodness. A waiting with expectation. A readiness for action. This seems to be what Jesus is highlighting in the first tiny parable: “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.” The life of faith, or we might say, the life of faithfulness to Jesus, is to be “dressed for action.” Not to dismiss proofs or turn off our brains. Not to separate ourselves from those who live or think differently from us. But to be “dressed for action.” Like the characters in the parable staying up waiting for their master to return, living in faith is to be living with eyes open in the present moment, though doing so with a spirit of expectation toward the future. Being ready to encounter Jesus, the Master in the parable. Getting to know the character of our Master through the stories and doctrines and practices of our faith. But this is not, like some of the New Atheists and cultured despisers think it, a way of living in the past, and denying the present and future; Rather, it’s equipping ourselves to live in the reality of the moment, and ever-ready to encounter Jesus who could show up at any moment. And where does Jesus show up? Here in our liturgy, yes, but also all around us when we move out into the world.

And as the parable suggests, our Master is one who catches us by surprise. The Crucified God, the Master of the Eucharist who serves the servants is a surprising God. Not every coming of Jesus will be accompanied by the blasts of trumpets and throngs of angels. But hidden in our encounter with the stranger; with our neighbour; with our enemy; with the sick and imprisoned and perplexed.

Faith, seen through the lens of our readings today, seems to be not a matter of beliefs that take us out of the realm of the ordinary world, but beliefs that stretch and grow us so that we can see the surprising truths and the surprising God who comes into our ordinary world. It is perhaps harder to believe in this God who comes to us in our lived reality, and loves, and serves here, than it is to believe in the far off God who judges from a distance. It was Gandhi who said: “Faith is nothing but a living, wide-awake consciousness of God within.” We might add today: a God within who wakes us up to the God without. Amen.

© 2019 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* See her book Christianity After Religion (HarperOne, 2013)

** See True Stories & Other Essays (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2017), 206.