We, of little faith

This sermon was prepared for the Trinity United Church, Montréal’s for Sunday, October 15th, 2017. The scripture reading it is based on is Exodus 32:1-14, Psalm 106:1-6,19-23 (Year A, Proper 23).

This Exodus story always reminds me of Peter, who, on seeing Jesus walking on water jumps out of the boat, rushing towards him.

But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”[i]

Anyone who has felt bold enough to get on an especially steep roller coaster or an especially long zip-line, and then immediately regrets that decision when faced with the drop, knows what I mean.

When everything is going well, it is so easy to have faith. There’s nothing at risk, everything is good. The line looks sturdy enough…the cars will stop at the red light…it’s a safe bet…. We make countless decisions in our life based on the fact that we, more than trust, the outcome—we are darn sure of what it’ll be.

But, it’s an entirely different matter when what’s important to us is at risk.

It’s in those times when we can’t see or feel something secure, where there isn’t anything that seems sturdy enough to rely on when we really have to bring out our faith and see if it’s enough.

I had the privilege of working as a chaplain at the Halifax Infirmary this past summer, and I talked with patients and families about this exact issue. In crisis, we see what our faith is made of, and sometimes it isn’t enough to get us through hard times.

When senseless violence takes place, or an unexpected diagnosis comes our way, our beliefs can get rocked. Because what we’re living doesn’t match up with how we’ve seen the world so far—the story doesn’t fit anymore.

When everything is on the line—what do you have faith in?

The people in Exodus had been very patient. I know they often seem whiney when we read their stories, but we also know how it will all work out in the end. They don’t.

Here they are, in the middle of nowhere, alone and scared. We’ve read how they left an oppressive, but somewhat comfortable place, to follow this crazy man into the wilderness, where they’ll wander around in literal circles with the hope of reaching a “promised land”.

They left behind a life of “certainty”, not a great life but a certain one, for a future based on hope. Where we’re reading today, that hope has yet to be fulfilled. Instead, they got a bunch of rules, at Mount Sinai, and their leader, who wandered up the mountain to talk to this new unfamiliar God and has left them all alone with no more instructions.

So, in the face of uncertainty and discomfort, they revert back to what they know best—they go to the second-in-command, Aaron, and they say, “Look, buddy, Moses left us high and dry, and we need something. Something to believe in.” So, Aaron makes them a god, not unlike other gods they would have come across—something familiar and safe to believe in.

When everything is on the line—what do you have faith in?

I have met people who put their faith in the power of medicine, the hands of doctors, the power of prayer, of nature, and the power of their own minds. Some of these folks are able to articulate this clearly and easily, and others might not have used the language I’m using, but they spoke about hopes and certainties.

I have met people who have regurgitated things they thought they were supposed to have faith in. But, were filled with fear and dread, because those ideas, of the world and of God, weren’t strong enough, or real enough to bring them peace.

When everything is on the line—what do you have faith in?

I would love to tell you, that when I’m faced with crisis I meet it with total confidence in God’s goodness. No doubts, just total unquestioning dependence on God. But that would be a bold-faced lie.

My faith has been tested, and will likely be tested again, by the circumstances of my life. And, I’m not ashamed to say that at times my faith has been found wanting. At other times, there have been parts of it that have held fast—that have held me up. These are what I call my life preservers.

Life preservers are the little snippets of belief that have always stayed with me—the stuff that works. When I’m struggling I try to reflect on who I truly believe God is and what I see God doing in my life. Then, I try to weed out all the stuff that doesn’t mesh with God’s character as I’ve seen it in our scriptures, our communal tradition, and in my own life.

Even if someone has spent my entire life trying to convince me otherwise.

There’s a really fancy word for this type of work, and it’s constructive theology—it’s very “in” right now so you may hear different writers and ministers talking about it. But, it just means you’ve thought about who God is and whether other parts of your belief system align with that. It’s about finding a way of talking about God that is consistent with God’s character as revealed to us.

When everything is on the line—what do you have faith in?

Our faith, is made up of the things that we sincerely believe are important or true. And, it informs the way we live. How we make moral choices. Our personal and work ethics. Our faith sets the stage for how we receive the wonders and tragedies of our lives.

Sometimes we find ourselves repeating lines, like platitudes, even though we might not believe them.

God never gives you more than you can handle.

God must just be testing you.

God just wants to teach you a lesson.

But, are these ideas consistent with the God we know from scripture and personal experience? What has your experience taught you about who God is and isn’t.

All that reflection is the work of theology—you’re all theologians when you reflect on the character of God. And know, doubting and questioning is what we’re built to do. We see countless stories in the Hebrew Scriptures and Christian Testament showing our ancestors in the faith doing just that.

Jesus said to Peter, “Why did you doubt?” I love that question because he’s calling him into self-reflection. He’s asking him about where the fear came from, what about his beliefs wasn’t enough to hold him up.

When you’re in crisis, and your stomach drops, what are those things you struggle to believe in? And, what has your experience taught you about who God is? Is there a disconnect there?

And, what are your life preservers? The ideas that support you in difficult times? What keeps calling you back to God? Do you always come back to God’s love, God’s grace, or God’s compassion?

For me, I always hear a call back to peace. That has been a defining experience in my journey—Christ, for me, will always first and foremost be the Prince of Peace, the nonviolent revolutionary, the God of the Sabbath Day.

I invite you to take a few moments to reflect, for yourself, on who God is. And, do so knowing that God, and Jesus the Anointed, are big enough to handle all of our doubts, all of our questions—waiting, as ever, to reveal their character more fully to us.

Amen.

[i] Matt. 14:30-31, NRSV

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