What is faith?

©Suzanne Grimmett

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Isaiah 1.1, 1.10-20 

Psalm 50.1-8, 50.23-24

Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16

Luke 12.32-30

When you die, I wonder if someone will write on your tombstone, “A person of faith”?

Does such a question make you anxious? Or would you even want to be remembered in such a way?

How you react to that proposal will reveal a lot about your interpretation of that little and powerful word, “faith.”

I was asked by someone in Scotland who heard I was a priest if my priesthood was religious or humanist? To me that was a question of where I placed my faith- in God or humanity alone. Actually it turned out to be a simpler question of whether I was a civil celebrant or a clergy person from a church, but to an extent it was still about the heart of my practice of faith.

The reading from the letter to the Hebrews that we have heard today presents a catalogue of faith and the faithful to remind those who had found themselves at odds with the surrounding culture to remain steadfast and persevere in the way. Faith, declares the unknown writer of Hebrews, is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

I trust that these were encouraging words for the letter’s intended audience, but I confess that they have for me provided little solace. Tending to be associated with a “pie in the sky” type religion, hope for what is yet to come in terms of heaven can seem to have little to say to the struggles of our earthly lives. Faith in terms of hope needs to offer more than the promise of heavenly escapism from our problems.

Hope in terms of our desires can also prove a poor comforter. Indeed, hope can become the same as fear- wanting something, but fearful that we will never attain it and haunted by the absence or lack of the object of our desire. Such a state of being surely can have little to do with the life of faith as witnessed to by those in the foundational stories of scripture.

So, if faith is not about hanging out in hope for everything we want, what is it?

The text in Hebrews does not make clear that the heavenly city is our destination after death, but it does point to our hope found in being at home in a world where God is the architect. It also underlines the truth that feeling as strangers can be the consequence of living in a way that is not mirrored or supported by the surrounding culture. After all, Jesus told many stories of small seeds and yeast in dough that can remind us that following Christ was not so much a mass popular social movement as a subversively transformative one. Our Gospel reading today points again, as it did last week, to the complete incompatibility of the Christian way with a life centred around the accumulation of wealth, security, and possessions. In this alone, the path to which we are called is out of step with the mainstream culture.

Sometimes faith becomes mixed up with the idea of cognitive assent to a set of propositions- or believing the right things. I rather like the definition of novelist Doris Betts that faith is ‘not synonymous with certainty… [but] is the decision to keep your eyes open.’ While it does not cover everything contained in this little word, it does point to faith as an orientation and commitment to a way of perceiving and being in the world. To keep our eyes open is surely to be ready to see what may be hidden to the casual onlooker or the rushed traveller on this earth who has no time to slow down and take in the presence of the holy. To keep our eyes open could be to discern the presence in our life of the kind of power that would be drawing us to not conform easily with the mainstream but to place our feet day by day on the way of love and peace.

What if hope is found not in a destination, but a way?

 The wonder of this way is that wherever we find it, it will be less like obedient religious conformity and more like remaining at home in ourselves in that divinely built house of belonging…a home on earth, as it is in heaven.

The letter tells us that it was by faith that Abraham obeyed and set out for a strange land, and that it was by faith that Jacob remained where he was, feeling an alien in a strange land. I wonder where your life journeys have taken you and if the destinations and experiences of your days are anything like you would have imagined? There is a sense in this litany of faithfulness that we read in Hebrews, of lives taken completely off course by the disruptive presence of the divine, and a sense that even if the ways were foreign and the longed-for destinations not seen within the lifetime of these saints, there was nevertheless an experience of belonging already to their homeland. There are possibilities within us that sometimes we can only understand in hindsight, and yet we must live forwards to that which we cannot yet see. Sometimes our story of faith stands out with clarity only as we look back on the history of the surprising ways we have travelled or the places or situations where we have unexpectedly found a home.

I wonder where in your life journey you have felt most at home, and where you have felt called into a new way of being and becoming?

If you have ever had that experience of travelling a convoluted road to becoming yourself, then you would be able to relate to the metaphor of the life of faith as ‘seeking the homeland’. You would also sense that this seeking has little to do with a once-off conversion experience and a lot to do with the everyday recommitment required and the eyes wide open, best lived forward and understood backwards quality of the life of faith.

Archbishop Justin Welby in his second address at the current Lambeth conference made his central point that we need to be a church who lives by what we believe, where the purpose is not that we have been converted but that we are being converted. This to me sums up well what the life of faith is all about. It is also a clarion call to our faith communities to ensure that we are creating dwellings with a divine architecture and not simply sustaining and preserving structures to serve ourselves. Conversion for our communities is also not something achieved in the past and now just a matter of maintenance but is the choice each day to reorient our communal lives and mission around the fresh purposes of God.

 Faith then, is about becoming who we most truly are: creatures made in the image of God and called away from self-centred lives in pursuit of money or power or privilege and into the work of love, peace and reconciliation, set free from all that would separate us from one another. Drawn away from the culture of individualism and self-interest, our sphere of concern extends beyond the architecture of our own lives to creating dwellings of peace for all. The heavenly city is created everywhere amongst those who follow the way of the crucified and risen one and live beyond rivalry, hatred and violence.

To be a person of faith is not to be someone free of doubts. Neither is it about the number of days you attended church nor the piety of your lifestyle. Faith is to entrust all the moments of our lives to the God whose way is forgiveness and whose rule is love. It is to be converted not once, but every day, by divine grace, our eyes wide open to the presence of God in the ordinary moments of our days.

Surrendering to the divine mercy that transforms hearts and minds releases joy, but also provides the courage to be about our work of justice and peace.  As a community of faith, we are not to be afraid, but dressed for action with our lamps lit, working together for the realisation of that kingdom which is a homecoming for everyone… the holy city on earth, as it is in heaven.

+Amen

2 thoughts on “What is faith?”

  1. A great sermon ! Starts well with interesting “hooks” to get our interest, then just keeps getting better as it goes along. I love that we are “being converted” every day. Last two paragraphs are a great climax to the message, thankyou !

    Reply
  2. I enjoyed reading this sermon about faith. I confess to being a ‘non-practicing Christian’ in that I was raised in a Christian environment (going to Sunday school, church every Sunday) but really I was like the seed that fell among thorns – I heard the message but the worries and troubles of life (and my own desires) quickly consumed me.
    My great hero is Eric Liddell, the chief protagonist of the film ‘Chariots of Fire’. He would have endorsed your message about faith. Possibly adding that to live a life of faith takes “concentration of will, and discipline”. That sounds demanding and a bit daunting yet research of Eric’s life would reveal a life of joy, albeit a life cut short. A great sermon.

    Reply

Leave a comment