Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
October 2, 2022
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
2 Timothy 1:1-14
As I have pondered this morning’s gospel passage–in fact, as I’ve looked back over this year of Luke–a disturbing question about Luke’s Jesus has come to mind: Why would anybody follow this guy? If we look just at what he says outloud, we hear a teacher and leader who rarely tells us anything that we want to hear. He doesn’t sooth us with praise or encouragement, making us feel all warm and fuzzy. He also doesn’t appeal to our anger, envy, or resentment. He doesn’t appeal to the emotions that so often move us either to complacency or to thoughtless reaction. In the language of contemporary psychologists, he doesn’t tell us anything that feeds our confirmation bias.
Instead of confirming our pre-existing expectations and prejudices, Jesus delivers a message, usually in parables, that rubs against the grain of our comfort. His message challenges us personally and as a society. Particularly in Luke’s version of Jesus, the parables and sayings call for a world that is a reversal of our conventional, established, taken-for-granted views of ourselves and of our social arrangements–a world that he called the Kingdom of God. In today’s gospel reading, for example, the parable of the worthless servant shows us a world in which our conventional expectations about reward and exchange–the world of the marketplace–are upended. This world of deserving and rewarding may be our world, but it is not God’s world. God’s world is free of what my Buddhist teachers call the “Worldly Dharmas”–the dualisms that send us buzzing back-and-forth in our lives like a bee in a phone booth: gain and loss, pleasure and pain, praise and blame, fame and disrepute. Our preoccupation with these things puts us at the center of our world, judging everything and ourselves by their standards. When Jesus enjoins us to say, We are worthless, I hear him inviting us to recognize that we are not the center of it all.
And notice to whom Jesus is giving this lesson: his apostles. It didn’t matter who the audience might be, Jesus always spoke his truth, as we say these days. He spared no one the discomfort of that truth; and that includes his friends and followers, as well as the Roman and Jewish authorities. Given this, I ask again, why would anybody follow this guy? Clearly he had something that attracted followers. He had charisma. But that kind of begs the question. What was the basis of his charisma?
I’m going to say that the answer is faith–at least that’s what I’m saying this morning. My guess is that the deep faith that Jesus showed in everything he did was what attracted his followers. He didn’t have to say it. It was what we used to call the vibe that he gave off; and it was irresistible. In my own experience, people who show deep faith have a powerful presence. Borrowing from the language of chaos theory, such people are strange attractors. So, this morning I want to riff for a while on the mystery of faith and see where it gets us. I want to emphasize at the outset that faith is, indeed, a mystery. The more I delve into this virtue through study, prayer, and community living, the more real and significant faith becomes in my life, and yet, also, the more it resists straightforward definition and rational understanding. I guess that’s what you might call a mystery. Nonetheless, let’s see what we might be able to learn about faith.
Faith is the connecting thread that runs through our readings this morning. The prophet Habakkuk tells us that the righteous live by their faith. They will keep watch to see what God will say. Notice that it’s about listening not to what they themselves or some human authority will say, but what God will say. This offers a little hint about the nature of faith: it involves listening for God’s word rather than our own. Following God’s will, rather than our own…even when we can’t clearly say just what God’s word and will might be.
The author of the letter to Timothy (some say Paul wrote it, others say not…so it goes with the scholars!)–anyway, the author says I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that…lives in you. Another hint about the nature of faith: faith is alive. Faith lives in us. It is a dynamic thing; sometimes blossoming, sometimes wilting; sometimes dying, sometimes reborn. In our hearts, faith is forever wrestling with doubt; sometimes on top, sometimes on the bottom…but always in motion.
In our gospel reading, the apostles implore Jesus to increase their faith. He seems to chide them, saying, If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to the mulberry tree,’Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey. What I take away from this grandiose statement is that faith is just that: grandiose. Faith lures us beyond ourselves. It urges us toward the impossible. I’m reminded here of the first of the Bodhisattva vows that is made when a person formally joins a Buddhist community: sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them. Those of us who are dedicated to the way of St. Benedict make an equally impossible commitment: to greet and treat everyone as Christ…that means everyone. In God’s world, in God’s community, there are no distinctions, no categories of beings, no in-group or out-group, no servants or masters. And we are called to co-create that world with God, with faith as our engine and rudder.
At this point, a voice in my head is saying, “Well, Preacher David, you’ve been circling around this word ‘faith,’ describing some of its qualities, but you haven’t given a clear definition.” To that inner critic I will say, “You’re right, and I don’t know that I can, or maybe even want to do that.” I take refuge in the view of some of the earliest Christian theologians, who practiced so-called “negative theology.” They argued that the only way we could talk about God was by saying what God is not. Any positive definition of God would limit God; would give the infinite God finite qualities; would conceptually turn God into one being among the multitude of other beings. I’m feeling the same way about faith.
I want to make one negative statement about faith that I think is particularly important: faith is not belief. As the old saying goes, faith is not believing six ridiculous theological propositions before breakfast. It is not saying, “I believe X about God,” or “I believe Y about Jesus.” Indeed, God and Jesus are forever proving wrong any limited, finite idea we have about them. Today’s gospel story is one example of Jesus doing just that. As the embodiment of Holy Wisdom, as the Christ, he cannot be confined by any finite human means; not even a tomb.
And yet, we have those moments in our lives when we experience a sense of certainty and trust in something that we can’t put into words. I’ll make a provisional try and call that “something” a Divine Mystery that infinitely, eternally holds us, sustains us, loves us into being in every moment. And we know this to be true in the depths of our being, regardless of the unpredictable, uncontrollable, impermanent flow of our lives. Jesus is our model in this. Even when the world betrayed him and brought down unwanted suffering upon him, he continued to live in such a way that evinced his unwavering trust that the Divine Mystery he called Abba lived in him as he also lived in that very Mystery. To paraphrase the American poet, Wallace Stevens, faith is belief that is beyond belief. Our faith calls us beyond our finite beliefs, beyond what we think we know, surrendered into the boundless mystery of God.
I once heard the writer and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, tell a story of such faith; a story I have always cherished. Wiesel was a child living in Auschwitz and, in the middle of the night, was roused from sleep by a rabbi who led him to a secret conclave of rabbis. They had decided to conduct a serious, solemn rabbinical trial: a trial of God. In their traditional way, they argued back and forth, quoting from the Torah and the Talmud, trying to decide whether or not God was guilty of abandoning God’s chosen people. After several hours of debate, they arrived at a solemn verdict of guilty. They agreed that God had indeed abandoned them. They closed the trial, sat in silence for a few minutes, and then the head rabbi–the man who had pronounced the final damning verdict–announced that it was time to offer God the morning prayer of praise.
And so we are called by faith to live beyond what we think we know: always and everywhere, as it says in the old offertory. Our faith calls us to surrender to a deeper, more certain unknowing that continually flows through us without our knowing it. As we sang this morning in our opening hymn:
Faith begins by letting go,
Giving up what had seemed sure,
Taking risks and pressing on,
Though the way feels less secure:
Pilgrimage both right and odd,
Trusting all our life to God.