St. Giles’ Episcopal Church
October 22, 2017 – 20th Sunday After Pentecost
The Rev. Dr. Susan Kraus
This morning I will begin a short sermon series on faith, hope, and love. For centuries these have been known as the Three Theological Virtues. You may be most familiar with them from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, in a passage often read at weddings, though it is about the church and not romantic love: “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).
You may remember – or at least know about – the Encounter or Sensitivity Training Group Movement in the 1970’s and 1980’s. One of the purposes of these groups was for participants to learn more about their feelings and how to express them to others honestly, not bound by the usual constraints of polite behavior. Some of the groups went to extremes and could be destructive to the members. But many were valuable, liberating in a positive way. At any rate, the effect of this movement went far beyond psychotherapy-oriented groups, into such fields as business and education.
In the early 70’s I took a college course on poetry. Since poetry is often about feelings, the professor thought it was appropriate for his students to experiment with some Sensitivity Group exercises. In one of these the class was divided into two groups, each forming a circle around the classroom, an inner circle and an outer circle. Each person in the inner circle stood with his/her back to a partner in the outer circle. Students in the inner circle were supposed to fall backward, trusting that their partners would catch them rather than let them fall to the floor. Though it was extremely unlikely that someone in the outer circle would let a partner fall, it was difficult for me and many of the students to trust that “fact” and let our bodies fall. Of course, learning about trust and our reluctance to trust was the point of the exercise.
And the point of my telling this story is that faith is largely about trust, in a Christian context, about trust in God and in Jesus Christ. Will God “catch” you when you fall? We might look at that in the sense of sin and forgiveness. We say regularly in our worship services that God will forgive us when we return to God after we have strayed from God’s ways. Do you trust that promise, enough to honestly face your shortcomings and then commit yourself to God once again, with trust that God has forgiven you? This may sometimes be difficult for you to do; it is for me.
Paul Tillich, one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century, described God as “the ground of being,” the absolute foundation of our lives. Do you trust God in the sense of God being the foundation of your life? Do you trust that no matter how far down you go – in a free fall of loneliness, despair, sin, illness, even death – that God is there? Again, this may sometimes be difficult for you to do; it is for me.
Faith can also be understood as belief in the traditional doctrines of a particular religion, in our case, Christian religion. When we stand to recite the Nicene Creed or sing the creed as expressed in the words of “I believe in God almighty,” we are professing our faith in or our agreement with certain statements about God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and about the church. In some denominations of the Christian religion its members are expected to agree completely with what the denomination regards as true beliefs. I have generally found a different approach in the Episcopal Church.
We may think of faith not in terms of agreement with traditional beliefs, but rather as a persistent search for the truth which religious beliefs express partially, sometimes perhaps in error. We may think of faith as a continual wrestling with the big questions about God and about life. As Paul Tillich wrote, “doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith.” In other words, to question what we have been taught to believe is a genuine and legitimate part of an ongoing life of faith.
Why? Because faith is faith in God, and God is and remains a mystery beyond human comprehension. No human concept of God can ever be complete. If we define God and worship God only as we define God, then we worship an idol, a human construction of thought, which is as absurd as worshipping a clay figure made by human hands.
One contemporary theologian expresses this very well: “Christians are confronted by mystery in all the central affirmations of their faith: the mystery of the holy love of God manifest in the creation of the world, the mystery of the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ, and the mystery of the renewal and promised transformation of broken human lives and of the entire world by the power of the Holy Spirit. To the eyes of faith, the world is encompassed by the mystery of God” (“Faith Seeking Understanding” by Daniel L. Migliore, page 2).
In addition to facing these mysteries, we are also challenged to relate our faith to what is happening in our lives and in the world. How do we deal with the apparent incongruity of our faith and life? In our personal lives, when we or those we love are ill or suffering or facing death. In the larger world, when we see gross injustice and misuse of power, terrible natural disasters, violence, and hideous poverty. Don’t we join with the psalmists and other writers whose work we find in the Bible and ask: Where are you, God? Why do the wicked prosper? Why is there so much suffering in the world, if what God wants is the health and salvation of all? When will the kingdom of God be established on earth, when there will be justice and peace?
Faith is wrestling with the questions, like Jacob wrestled with God’s angel and walked away blessed but limping (Genesis 32:23-31). There may be times when this questioning is a burden, when we want to say, “The hell with it! I give up!” But faith is coming back to the struggle over and over again. For, after all, God will not let us go.
A final thought about faith. The past can be a great help to our lives of faith, especially when we are struggling. Our own past experience surely includes moments when we have trusted God completely, when we have known the reality and love of God beyond doubt or comprehension, when we have been touched by God. Remember those times and cherish them. Recalling the ancient and central story of God and of Jesus Christ – as we do every Sunday – can also be a great help in the life of faith. That’s one benefit of “faithful” attendance at church. Finally, we have the witness of the faithful lives of countless Christians who have preceded us and whose faith may inspire ours.
Saint Anselm, the 12th century Benedictine monk and philosopher who defined theology as “faith seeking understanding,” wrote this prayer. May we make it our prayer also.
“Lord, you speak in my heart and say, ‘Seek my face.’ Your face, Lord, will I seek; hide not your face from me. Raise me up from myself and draw me to you. Cleanse, heal, quicken, enlighten the eye of my mind that it may look to you. Strengthen my soul that with all the power of my understanding it may strive to know you; for you are life and wisdom, truth and beauty, and everything that is good. Amen.”