A sermon preached at St John’s Cathedral, Jacksonville FL
My Brother and I would like to express our thanks for your invitation to us to be with you this weekend, and for the warm and gracious welcome we have received. We’re delighted to be here.
Every year several thousand people come through our Monastery—some as guests who stay in our guesthouse; some who join in our worship; some who just drop by to enjoy the stillness of our chapel. The great majority of these people seek out the Monastery because they are hungry for a deeper connection with God in their lives. They would identify with the prayer of the disciples in today’s gospel lesson: “[Lord], increase our faith.”
Doubtless many of you have made your way to this cathedral this morning for the same reason: you are seeking God, you want to know God’s presence and recognize God’s activity in your life and in the world, you are hungry for a faith that will support you, empower you, and offer meaning, direction, and a sense of purpose to your life. You too can identify with the disciples’ longing: “[Lord], increase our faith.”
What is it that we are asking for when we ask God to increase our faith? What exactly is faith and what would it mean to experience an increase in faith?
In his book, The Heart of Christianity, theologian Marcus Borg helps us answer this question by contrasting two types of faith: faith that comes from the head, and faith that is rooted in the heart.
“Faith that comes from the head” Borg calls “faith as belief.” It understands faith as giving mental assent to a series of propositions; believing certain claims or statements (about God, or about Christ, or about the human condition) to be true. The emphasis here is on what we believe. “Faith as belief” is more a matter of the head than of the heart.
We sometimes hear people say that they have “lost their faith.” Often, what they mean is that they no longer believe the things they used to believe about God or Christ or the Bible. This is not necessarily a bad thing; if our understanding of these things did not change over time we would not be alive and growing as Christians. But it goes to show how deeply rooted this understanding of faith as “belief” is in our contemporary culture.
In actuality, “faith as belief” is a relatively recent phenomenon. It was unknown to Christians of the first 15 centuries of the Church’s life, and came into being as a direct result of two factors: the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment of the 17th century. But it is by far the predominant understanding today, for Christians and non-Christians alike.
Borg makes two important points about this understanding of faith, which is so wide-spread today that for many it is difficult to imagine that faith could mean anything else. He points out, first of all, how odd it is to suggest that “what God really cares about is the beliefs in our heads—as if ‘believing the right things’ is what God is most looking for, as if having ‘correct beliefs’ is what will save us. Secondly, he points out how powerless ‘faith as belief’ is to effect change in our lives. “You can believe all the right things and still be in bondage,…still be miserable, …still be relatively unchanged,” says Borg, “Believing a set of claims to be true has very little transforming power” (p.30).
In contrast to “faith as belief” which comes from the head, Borg describes three qualities of faith that is rooted in the heart rather than in the head.
First, “faith that comes from the heart” is characterized by trust. To have faith implies a radical trust in God, a willingness to rely on God as “our support and foundation and ground, as our safe place” (p.31).
Second, “faith that comes from the heart” is characterized by fidelity, or faithfulness. It’s similar to what we mean when we say we have faith in a spouse or partner or friend; we believe that person will be faithful in their relationship to us. “Faith as fidelity or faithfulness” means “loyalty, allegiance, the commitment of one’s self at the deepest level” (p.32).
Third, “faith that is rooted in the heart” is characterized by a positive vision of the world and of reality. When we possess this quality of faith, we tend to see reality as life-giving and nourishing, rather than as hostile or threatening. To live in faith requires “a radical centering (of our lives) in God that leads to a deepening trust that transforms the way we see and live our lives” (p.32).
Faith, then, can be seen either as a matter of the head (believing claims or statements about God to be true) or of the heart (trusting God, remaining faithful in our relationship with God, seeing life as God-given and as gracious).
In a few moments we will recite one of the ancient Christian creeds. Both the Apostles’ and the Nicene creeds begin with the Latin word credo, which means I believe. Most modern people understand “I believe” as “I give my assent to.” But credo does not mean “I hereby agree to the literal-factual truth of the following statements.” Rather, it means “I give my heart to,” “I commit my loyalty to,” “I commit my allegiance to.” When we say credo—“I believe”—at the beginning of the creed, we are saying “I give my heart to God” (p.39,40)
And who is that? Who is the God to whom we commit our loyalty and allegiance? The rest of the creed tells the story of the one to whom we give our hearts: God as the maker of heaven and earth, God as known in Jesus, God as present in the Spirit. The object of the words “I believe” is a person, not a set of statements (p.40).
What does this ‘faith that is rooted in the heart’ look like?
Two examples come to mind, one drawn from the writings of psychologist Robert Coles and the other from the New Testament.
In the early 1960’s, Harvard psychologist Robert Coles spent time with four black six-year-old girls who initiated school desegregation in New Orleans. He had become fascinated with the “stoic courage” with which these girls faced the ordeal of walking to school under the protection of federal marshals, as crowds of angry protesters hurled obscenities and threats at them.
Coles says he became especially interested in the relationship between Tessie, one of the six-year-old girls, and her grandmother Martha, whom he describes as “a tall, handsome woman, carefully groomed,” with a “big laugh that shook her ample body and was sometimes punctuated by a clap or two of her hands and a two-word exclamation: ‘Lord Almighty!’”i
One day, he reports, Tessie suggested over breakfast that perhaps, for the first time, she would stay home from school. Coles was present at the breakfast table, and witnessed and recorded Martha’s response:
“‘It’s no picnic, child—I know that, Tessie—going to that school. Lord Almighty, if I could just go with you, and stop there in front of that building, and call all those people to my side, and read to them from the Bible, and tell them, remind them, that He’s up there, Jesus, watching over all of us—it don’t matter who you are and what your skin color is. But I stay here, and you go… So I’m not the one to tell you that you should go, because here I am, and I’ll be watching television and eating or cleaning things up while you’re walking by those folks. But I’ll tell you, you’re doing them a great favor; you’re doing them a service, a big service.’
Coles then reports, “She stopped briefly to pick up a fly swatter and go after a bee that had noisily appeared in the kitchen. She hit it and watched it fall to the floor, then she plucked a tissue from a box on a counter, picked up the bee, still alive, and took it outside, where it flew off. I was surprised; I’d expected her to kill the bee and puts its remains in the wastebasket. She resumed speaking and, again to my surprise, connected her rescue of the bee to what she had started to say.
“‘You see, my child, you have to help the good Lord with His world! He puts us here—and He calls us to help Him out. That bee doesn’t belong here; it belongs out there. You belong in that McDonough School, and there will be a day when everyone knows that, even those poor folks—Lord, I pray for them!—those poor, poor folks out there shouting their heads off at you. You’re one of the Lord’s people; He’s put His Hand on you. He’s given a call to you, a call to service—in His name! There’s all those people, scared out of their minds, and by the time you’re ready to leave the McDonough School they’ll be all calmed down, and they won’t be paying you no mind at all, child, and I’ll guarantee you, that’s how it will be!’
“As she was speaking, Tessie finished her breakfast, marched confidently to the sink with her dishes, put them in a neat pile, and went to get her raincoat and empty lunch pail from her room—all without saying a world. She was going to school…”ii
Friends, that is what faith rooted in the heart looks like. Faith is not first of all believing that certain claims or statements about God are true. Genuine faith presumes a relationship with God. It implies a radical trust in God, faithfulness in one’s relationship with God, and a way of seeing the world as life-giving and nourishing rather than as hostile and threatening. That is the faith that shines so clearly in the life of Martha; that allows her to be loving, joyful and free even in the midst of life’s sufferings. She trusts in God completely, she is deeply faithful to this relationship, and as a result of it she is able to view life with hope and courage, even when faced with hostility. That is the faith she is passing on to Tessie, a faith that will enable her to meet even the most difficult challenges of her life with hope and trust and love. That is the faith that transforms us, that empowers us, that gives meaning and purpose to our lives.
St. Paul possessed this kind of faith. One of my favorite images of Paul is found in the 16th chapter of the book of Acts, where we find Paul and Silas in prison and bound by chains, after they have been arrested and beaten for preaching and healing in the name of Jesus. We read these amazing words, “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them” (Acts 16:25).
What kind of faith enables men to sing and praise God in such conditions? It must be a faith that is rooted in a radical trust in God, a faith that is able to remain faithful to God because it sees the world as God’s world, and trusts God to work out God’s purposes in every circumstance of life, no matter how difficult. It is a faith that believes that there is nothing in heaven or on earth that can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ. “I am convinced,” Paul writes to the Christians in Rome, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38,39).
This is the faith that Paul recognizes in Timothy, a faith that has been passed on to him by his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois, in much the same way that Martha was passing on her faith to Tessie. “I am not ashamed [of my sufferings for the sake of the gospel],” Paul writes to Timothy, “for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him” (II Timothy 1:12).
Faith like this can move mountains. It can transform lives. Nothing in all the world can overcome this faith—no fear or anxiety or worry, no hatred or evil, no suffering or failure or loss. This faith transforms us, empowers us, lifts us. It teaches us that love is stronger than hate, that good is stronger than evil, that hope is stronger than despair. It entrusts all to God, and with it we can live in hope and freedom, joy and peace.
To paraphrase the words of Jesus in our gospel lesson: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could uproot any worry or anxiety, any trouble or misery, any obstacle to love, any hatred or fear, and cast them all into the sea.” All things are possible to those who live in faith.
To this we say, “Lord, increase our faith!”
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