I am at the Van Cortlandtville Community Church in Cortlandt Manor, NY this Sunday (location of church). The Scriptures for this Sunday, the 11th Sunday after Pentecost (8 August 2010), are Isaiah 1: 1, 10 – 20; Hebrews 11: 1 – 3, 8 – 16; and Luke 12: 32 – 40. The service is at 10:30 and you are welcome to attend.
Belief in Christ is, I believe is a private moment with a public sharing. How we come to believe in Christ is very much an individual and private occurrence. Our purpose this morning is to share in those moments and the commonality of that moment. Yet, whether we care to admit it or not, there are other moments, unique to each one of us, that we share with others.
At some point in our lives, there has been a moment when we have doubted our faith, questioned our religious beliefs, and wondered perhaps if we have not made a mistake in choosing the path that we would walk through life. And while such questions are private, for no one wants to admit that they have doubts about the church in today’s society, it is how we seek the answers that determine the path that we will walk through life.
I have known some who are unable to articulate the questions that cause them so much pain and doubt and cannot find the answers; they lead lives that one would characterize as lost in the wilderness. Others I know have answers to their questions which have led them to lives in faith outside the one in which they were born and raised. Still others struggle to find the answers in this world and are convinced that such answers can be found in a strictly constructed world. They invite others with similar struggles into their world but often dictate the outcomes of such lives.
I know that when I was either a junior or senior in high school (around 1967) I began to question my faith and my beliefs. I began, mostly out of curiosity, to explore other paths. But it was a time when the struggle for civil rights was on-going and not simply words in a history book; it was a time when the Viet Nam war was becoming more and more a part of our daily life. And it was a time when the message in the pulpit and the lessons taught in Sunday school were often in stark contrast to what was transpiring across this nation and around the world.
And as I was pushed academically and intellectually I also found myself internally questioning my denominational beliefs, my religious choices, and perhaps the very core values of my faith. How could a country which so loudly and proudly proclaimed that all men were equal say that such equality was based on one’s race, gender, and economic status? How could a country which proclaimed that it was the land of opportunity and plenty say that the opportunity was limited to a select few and that though there was plenty for all, people lived in hunger every day?
And how could we sing in Sunday school and church that Jesus loved the little children of the world no matter what color they were and stay silent when others to set dogs on children and blow up churches? And how could pastors preach a message that bordered on hate when Jesus welcomed everyone?
It would take me a few years to find the answers to my questions and perhaps I am still seeking the answers. I was lucky; I found some pastors and other individuals who offered help and showed me where the answers could be found. But I know many who, forty years ago, asked the same questions that I did and walked away from the church. Some did not have the support that I had; others found individuals willing to help but who could not or would not help them find the answers.
And as I look around today, I see many of the same questions being asked by another generation. It strikes me as ironic that even some forty years after I struggled with such questions, today’s generation struggles as well. It is almost as if this struggle to identify who we are is a necessary part of finding one’s faith in a complex and complicated world.
But this generation of seekers is faced with an even greater task. First, the number of individuals, whose journeys may mirror the journeys of the seekers, are fewer in number than years past. Second, for whatever reason, the desire to seek new knowledge, to ask questions and wonder about things unseen and unknown doesn’t seem to be there. We have created a world where information is gathered instantaneously but we have no tools for understanding what the information means. Many individuals have decided to let others determine what the information should be known, what the information means and what to do with it.
And if you should decide that perhaps you want to do that yourself, you are quickly labeled as an outsider, a radical, or a malcontent. In this world, one who questions faith is quickly called a heretic and just as quickly cast out of the church. If your decisions about faith do not match the prevailing theory you are ridiculed and dismissed as a non-believer.
But what is faith? Does faith truly move mountains and cause the ground to shake and the sky to rumble and flash? Or is it a quiet moment in one’s life that alters and changes the path they will take?
For the writer of Hebrews, faith is something that does happen but often times in ways that the world around us does not see. The writer of Hebrews tells us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” This author writes of those who, like Abraham, made a quiet decision to do something even when the outcome of their decision was unknown or seemingly impossible to attain. The faith that is in the Bible is in this world but not of this world.
The world expects decisions of faith to be rash, bold and heroic; that somehow change the world and everything in the world from that moment on. In a world of the sound-bite and fast food, faith is supposed to have an immediate outcome.
But faith is the vehicle that accompanies the struggle for justice; it was the faith of those who marched for civil rights that enabled the victory to take place, even when the marchers were beaten and sometimes killed. Faith is that vehicle that allows one to deal with a chronic or long-term illness, to fight the pain because they have been given the reassurance of ultimate peace, no matter if it is in this world or the next. And while others around them may say that such pain comes because of something they have done, their faith reminds them that such suffering is not a punishment for something they did long ago.
It is this quiet, unyielding faith that changes lives in ways no one can foresee. Dr. Francis Collins, present head of the National Institutes of Health, can tell you about that faith for he saw it countless times as a third-year medical student. He will also tell you that he did not understand what he was seeing.
As he describes in The Language of God, he was the son of free-thinkers. And as he grew up in this environment and later went to school, he found no need for any sort of higher being in his life. But during that third year of medical school, he could only begin to question that part of his life.
Faith was not the psychological crutch that others today claim it to be. If it were a crutch, it was a powerful one. Nor could faith simply be the veneer of some cultural tradition because if it were, why were these individuals not shaking their fists at God and demanding that their friends and family stop talking about a loving and benevolent supernatural power?
The singular moment in Dr. Collins’ life came when an older woman, suffering daily from severe untreatable angina, asked if he believed in Christ. She had shared with him her beliefs and now she was asking if he believed. And all he could say was that he wasn’t sure. As he describes it, he came away from that moment completely terrified. How could he justify all that he had done before; would he now have to take responsibility for actions that he would have preferred to keep unscrutinized; was he now answerable to someone other than himself? (Adapted from Language of God by Francis Collins)
Faith is something that is lived by people, often times “foreigners and strangers” to their own people, people who don’t fit into the prevailing cultural groove, people who are on an entirely different journey. And our society and our culture have become quite effective at making people an insider or an outsider, rewarding those who fit their standards and ignoring or shunning those who don’t.
It is really interesting to read what Dr. Collins writes about his journey in faith. For when it was announced that he was to be the head of the NIH, those on the left of the spiritual spectrum wondered if it was possible for someone who openly professed to being a Christian to direct such a major scientific organization such as the NIH. And those on the right of the spiritual spectrum wondered about the validity of his faith because of his education (he is an M. D. and also holds a Ph. D.)
But the witness of the Bible is that God calls those who society casts as an outsider as one of His own and makes them the ultimate insider. God is not playing society’s game against itself; in fact, God is refusing to play that game.
The game is not to have the right worship service with the right music at the right time. It is not about the clothes that one wears to church, nor is it about the place where the service is held. It is about the attitude that one brings to the church service. What was God saying through Isaiah in the Old Testament reading today?
God said that He was fed up with the people and the way that they worshipped Him. They tried to cover up their indifference to God by elaborate and fancy worship services, with elaborate and multiple sacrifices. God is telling the people that He will not have anything to do with them unless and until they make a commitment to change and then actually start changing.
And what is it that God wants the people to do? “Stop doing the wicked things. Learn to do what is good. Seek justice. Rescue those who are being treated unjustly. Decide cases in favor of the orphans and make sure that widows are treated right. When you have done this, then we shall have a dialog.”
I don’t think that God is saying that we should stop holding worship services but that our worship services should be a part of our lives and that our lives should reflect what it is that is the basis for our faith.
And Jesus said the same thing. He pointed out that our heart lies where our treasures are and if that means that we value material wealth more than spiritual wealth we are in trouble. If we put ourselves before others, we have a problem. It is hard to read the story in Luke, in part because we do not understand the customs of society two thousand years ago. But we also have a problem with a call that says that the master should feed the servants or even help them with their tasks. And yet that is exactly what Jesus is saying.
Now, I cannot answer the questions that you may have where it concerns faith and the path that you should walk. I am, as I said at the beginning, still trying to find that path myself. But I know this. The answers are there if you but ask the question. And there are those who are going to turn to you for the help in answering their own questions.
When Francis Collins found that the answers he had worked so long to find were not the right answers he turned to a neighbor for help. And that neighbor was a United Methodist minister.
There are going to be those who seek answers and come to this place because something inside them tells them that this is the place where the answers can be found. They will find those who speak out against the injustice and cruelty in the world; they will also find those who will go to Bolivia or Haiti or Biloxi to work.
In a world where love is just another four-letter world, they will see in some the love of Christ, a love which has grown over the years and seems to be growing even today. They see a person who serves the people of the church and the community, not because it is their turn to do so or because it is the “right” thing to do but because it is what Jesus commanded us to do.
They will see someone who will go out of their way to help someone, not expecting anything in return. They will see someone who will bake a cake to celebrate any occasion.
There are a lot of questions in this world; most of them start with “why?” And many of them can be answered by the way we respond to the world. The question to be asked at this time is “are you prepared to do God’s work in this world?” I leave the answer to that question to you.