Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Sermon: "Faith In Things Not Seen"

The Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
August 11, 2013
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40

“Faith In Things Not Seen”

Once upon a time our world was flat.
A dome of water surrounded the earth above and below, and Heaven was up and Hell was down. Over time we began to recognize that the earth was not flat but round, but we still believed that the sun rose and set by God’s hand and we as God’s creation sat solidly at the center of the universe….until a man named Copernicus looked up the sky and saw it differently.

Through his observations of the seasons and shadows, Copernicus concluded that the sun, and not the earth, belonged at the center.
Perhaps sensing the trouble that this reversal of roles would cause, Copernicus waited until just before his death to publish his findings.
 When he did, Catholics and Protestants were equally perturbed.
The Roman Church claimed that Copernicus held no authority over God, and Martin Luther simply called him a fool.

A half a century later, Galileo peered at the night sky through his homemade telescope and concluded that Copernicus was right.
But unlike Copernicus, Galileo did not scribble in his notebook and tuck it safely away for a later date, instead he ran to the Pope with the news of his discovery, eager to share what God had revealed.
We all know what happened next.
Galileo was summoned before the Inquisition and ordered to renounce his findings.
In his defense, Galileo quoted the words of Cardinal Baronio, who said,
 “The Bible tells us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.”
But Galileo’s inquisitors were not moved.

On June 22, 1633, at the age of 70, Galileo knelt down on a hard marble floor in Rome and read the renunciation that had been written for him:
With sincere heart and unfeigned faith I do damn and detest the said errors and heresies contrary to the Holy Church, and I do swear for the future that I will never again speak or write such things as might bring me under similar suspicion.

Galileo spent the last eight years of his life under house arrest, reading the seven daily psalms of penitence that were a part of his sentence, and sitting by the window with his telescope, watching the heavens move overhead by its own will, ignoring the will of those who wished to shade it in darkness.

Galileo’s story is but one example of how human beings can look at the same night sky and see very different things.
Some look at it through the lens of faith and mystery and see it as an uncharted playground that God has laid out before us to map and explore.
Others look at it through the lens of belief and tradition and declare it as unapproachable and unmovable by our desire to change what has always been.

Faith and belief are unavoidably intertwined, but while we often use the terms interchangeably in can be argued that they are not the same.

In a religious sense, BELIEF can be defined as an intellectual assent to a particular set of theological convictions that guide us and anchor us in tradition, whereas FAITH can be defined as an “unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be.”

Belief tethers us to what has been.
Faith opens us up to the possibility of what might be.

The unknown sermon writer who penned the words to the Hebrews, tells us that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
This is what makes faith much harder to understand and explain, especially for those who feel that they lack faith or say that they have no need for it.
For those of us who claim to have faith, its lack of concrete terminology is what makes it so much harder for us to talk about amongst ourselves.
Often it’s much easier for us to talk about what we believe, and why we believe - rather than talk about how our faith is expressed in our lives – how it informs our actions, how it has changed our life, how it keeps calling us to move outside of our comfort zone to do things that we never in a million years could imagine doing without it.

Faith is the conviction of things not seen, but the results of faith often can be seen.
We see it where the hungry are fed, the sick are cared for, the oppressed are set free, and the ostracized are welcomed with open arms.
In this regard, the expression of faith has very little to do with memorizing scripture verses, reciting creeds, or following a set a rules that we believe will guarantee our entrance into the kingdom of God.
In fact, our gospel reading today assures us that is not belief but faith that will open our eyes to the gifts that God has to offer.

Jesus told his disciples, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
All you have to do is be prepared – and be open to receiving it.

As long as we have faith that the kingdom of God – the reign of God - where all will receive equally from the abundance of God’s creation – is real and attainable by each and every one of us, this is all that we need to see it into existence.

The beliefs that we hold about how we get in and who gets in are of our own creation and ultimately shield us from grasping the true breadth of God.
Expressed in this way, belief can actually be a hindrance to faith.

Conversely, faith that has no connection to belief can be just as hollow.
It’s our belief, the stories that we tell about ourselves - how we got here, and why we’re here - that add meaning to our lives.
But when we focus too much on the details of the stories and insist that they must be true with a small T in order to be true with a capital T – then we’re in danger of missing the point.

According to one Native American creation myth, our entire world rests on the back of a giant turtle.
An ethnologist who was attempting to record the story for a research paper asked a tribal elder what was underneath the turtle, and the elder said, “Another turtle.”
To which the ethnologist replied, “And what’s under that?”
The elder replied, “Another turtle.”
Showing his frustration, the ethnologist, said, “But what’s under that, what’s holding the whole structure up?”
And the elder said, “I assure you, sir, it’s turtles all the way down.”

We may laugh, but the story of the earth existing on the back of an infinite number of turtles is no more ludicrous than our own image of an eternal anthropomorphic God gathering dust into his hands, breathing life into it and creating a world teaming with trees, birds, sea creatures, and human beings.

This is how we make meaning of our world.
In belief we find meaning.
But the danger of weaving our beliefs too tightly with our faith is if we tug on one thread and pull it loose the whole thing is in danger of unraveling.

This is how some of us end up turning our backs on God when we discover that the details of the stories and the “facts” of our tradition may not necessarily be true. We begin to question not just our beliefs, but our faith as well.

But surprisingly, if we look at the stories of our Judeo-Christian tradition, we’ll see that God is rarely open to being hemmed in by our expectations and beliefs.

As the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor puts it:
“The Bible is one long story about how God demolishes human beliefs in order to clear space for faith.”
Abraham and Sara believe that they are too old to bear a child and God sends them Isaac as a surprising gift.
Elijah believes that God’s voice will come thundering out of the heavens and he hears it in the silence instead. Paul believes he’s doing God’s work by dragging Christians into the streets to be killed and God knocks him flat on his back and fills him with the love of Christ.

When we take the stories that God inspired us to create about ourselves and our origins and turn them into irrefutable beliefs then we run the risk of losing the gift of these stories when those beliefs no longer ring true.
It is faith that allows us to hold onto and celebrate these stories of our tradition even if we no longer believe them to be factually true.

In belief we find meaning.
We find meaning in the story of unmarried pregnant teenager who is unshaken by the fact that she is young, poor, female, and powerless. Instead she defies those who dismiss her and says, “Yes” to giving birth to God.

We find meaning in the story of a God who chooses to be born into flesh – into poverty, into pain, into vulnerability, and into a world that was woefully unprepared to hear a message about God’s radically inclusive love and mercy.

We find meaning in the story of a man from Nazareth who turns the other cheek, prays for those who persecute him, loves his neighbor and his enemy as himself, and demands that the last will be first and the first will be last. A man so dangerous to so many that there was no other way for the story to end but with his long and tortured death.

But the story didn’t end there.
And we find meaning in the resurrection, the rising from the earth, the message that fear never, NEVER, conquers Love.

In all this we find meaning.
But this alone is not our faith.
Our faith exists beyond the details of these stories.

From a faith perspective it doesn’t matter if Mary was not really a virgin, or if Jesus never said he was the Messiah, or if God created the world over the course of 4 billion years rather than 6 days. What matters is that Mary loved, Jesus lived, and God created.

Belief is found in the details of the story.
Faith is found in the message of the story.

One compliments the other, and neither should stand on it’s own.

Galileo was forced to recant his revelation on his knees to preserve the beliefs of his time, but his faith in God as one who invites us to see things in new ways never left him, as he continued to point his telescope towards the sky.

Whether the subject is science or religion, if we’re as open to the world as God calls us to be our beliefs can’t help but be challenged by our experience, which begs us to never put a lid on the truth. To never place a period where God has placed a comma, as Gracie Allen was so fond of saying. To remain keenly aware of how we feel threatened or fearful when our beliefs are challenged and to ask ourselves what is more important to us -  preserving the belief, or allowing ourselves to be changed by the presence of God.

Once upon at time our world was flat.
And then we looked up at the sky and realized that it was more then it we ever imagined it to be.
Once upon a time we named God as our Creator.
And we looked at God and each other and realized that we can be more then we ever imagined we could be.
The story of faith, our story, is still being written, and it is so much more than we can ever imagine it to be.
Thanks be to God!


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