We like the big moments; the emotional highs that take our breath way and make us forget our problems. A brother and sister reunited after 35 years. The small-town basketball team that squeaks out a win over the big city giants in the last seconds of the game. Climbers near death on a mountain saved by a daring rescue.
The prophet Elijah is used to stunning displays of God’s power, which help him defeat the enemies of ancient Israel. In the most recent battle, Elijah himself had killed all of the evil prophets of the God Baal himself with his sword. Queen Jezebel, unhappy that all of her spiritual advisors have been wiped out, vows to get even with Elijah. To save his skin, Elijah flees to the wilderness. He wants to end his life because he has stooped to the level of his enemies in his cold-blooded violence. He is wracked with failure.
He falls asleep and when he awakes, he finds water and food provided by an angel who is caring for him. The food is “a cake baked on hot stones” (could it be an angel food cake?).
Fortified with water and cake, Elijah goes to Mount Horeb and is instructed to go out and stand on the mountain for the Lord will pass by. But God is not in the great wind, earthquake or fire, but is discerned later only “in the sound of sheer silence“ that follows. And God tells Elijah, “Go, return on your way to Damascus.” In other words, I have more work for you to do.
One of the greatest of Jewish prophets – Elijah – gets no big sign, no miracle, and can only discern God’s voice in the silence. Notice that he is not rebuked by God for his weakness, for his lack of faith or for his fear; he is cared for and then told to return to his mission. Here, God seems to care more about faithfulness then faith.
Similarly, in the lesson from Luke, we read that the man cured of the demons “begs to stay with Jesus but Jesus sends him away, saying ‘Return to your home, and declare now how much God has done for you,”
So what does it look like to live a faithful life?
I think it means worship which is a way to formalize our gratitude for the blessings in your life; examine our lies and ask an receive forgiveness; keeps our Scripture stories alive; and brings us into a community which can believe and act for us when we can’t. I can’t tell you how many post-surgery steps have been taken on my behalf in the last month when I couldn’t take them myself.
Living a faithful life also means living a thoughtful life. The pioneering journalist E.B, White observed, “When I get up in the morning, I am torn between wanting to enjoy the world or improve the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” A thoughtful life means noticing things. In the novel The Color Purple, Celie says, “I think it piss God off when folks walks by the color purple and don’t say nothing”
Living faithfully means not swerving from the engagements God offers us, those that are offered to no other at a given moment, that are only within own our sphere of attention and influence. Sometimes we couch faithfulness as working in the soup kitchen and in a front-line kind of activism that isn’t at all realistic for us. But Simone Weill wrote that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
Living a faithful life is what we strive for yet, still, the concepts of faith and belief are arresting. Which of us would not like more of the comfort, direction, and hope that religious faith seems to afford people?
Many Christian denominations stake personal salvation on faith and belief. You must “believe in” Jesus as your savior to get into heaven. I grew up in one of these and have often spoken about my frustration in trying to pin down the requirements: how much faith gets in you into heaven—how much doubt keeps you out. Will God know if you’re faking?
Besides the importance of living a faithful life, the most important point I have for you today is this: You have more faith than you think you do. You don’t know this because you don’t talk about it. You don’t say it aloud, even to yourself. When Jesus says, “Go and declare what God has done for you,” it may not be as difficult as we think. I was amazed at the truth of this statement by the poet and theologian Christian Wimans: ’’There is something about speaking about faith that releases it.”
This is pretty frightening isn’t it? To think you would speak about your faith? We don’t do that here at St. John’s very much if at all. We introverts freeze up at the thought; we Minnesotans shrink from putting something so personal and well, vague, out on the table. And to describe something as the work of God in your life, well, isn’t that presumptuous? We could have imagined it; it could be coincidence and not God. Our rational minds kick in and we become almost embarrassed because we can’t prove anything. I know. The clergy have tried to drag it out of you on more than one occasion.
Christian Wimans is the talk of the theological world right now with his book My Bright Abyss in which he talks about the difficult years before and after a bone marrow transplant for a rare and incurable kind of cancer. Not a Christian at the beginning – despite his name – he labors his way to a form of Christianity that is responsive not only to modern thought and science but also to religious tradition. I think these words speak to many of us here—he says:
“When I assented to the faith that was latent within me—and I phrase it carefully, deliberately, for there was no white light no ministering or avenging angel that tore my life in two; rather it seemed as if the tiniest seed of belief had finally flowered in me, or more accurately as if I had happened upon some rare flower deep in the desert, and had known though I was just then discovering it that it had been blooming impossibly year after parched year in me, surviving the seasons of my unbelief.”
Might there be faith that is latent within you and what would happened if you assented to it—said yes to it? What if you found that it had been there blooming impossibly year after year despite all the seasons of your unbelief?
It took me a while to assent to the faith that was latent within me. I had a love-hate relationship with the conservative Lutheran church in which I grew up. Loved the ritual and the community; hated the theology. Left at eighteen.
In my early thirties, guilt prevailed and I found a local church (it happened to be Episcopal) to get my kids baptized to get my mother off my back.
And what kept me there was the Holy Spirit (in retrospect – it couldn’t be clearer now) but also my questions and arguments attacking the theology I’d grown up with and the fact that a brilliant priest was there who could answer them and accept me.
It was not until shortly afterwards when I was in discernment to be ordained (God knows why – really) that I was forced to put it on the line. I found I wasn’t even comfortable saying out loud that I was a Christian and I had to painstakingly work my way through spiritual direction and writing and brutal honesty to confront the questions. I had a standard for faith that was so high it was unattainable. Wimans says, “Perhaps it is never disbelief which at least is act e and conscious that destroys a person but unacknowledged belief, or a need for belief so strong that it is continually and silently crucified on the crosses of science humanism art, or (to name the thing that poisons all these gifts of God the overweening self.”
In wasn’t until several years after I was ordained that I was comfortable to assenting to the faith that was latent within me because preaching about this faith released in within me. Now I am deeply grateful for the models of faithful living that were all around me as I grew up and nurtured the faith latent within me all the while, a flower within that never stopped blooming, released when I gave it voice.
Consider, this week, the faith that may be latent within you, and how you might access it by and welcome it into your conscious life by living faithfully and even acknowledging it out loud.
In closing, I offer you an example that is good for those who like that element of evidentiary law known as precedent. Someone sent me this parable and it is especially for you left brain people, to help you assent to the faith that is within you.
Once upon a time, a set of twins were conceived in the same womb.
Weeks passed, and the twins developed. As their awareness grew, they laughed for joy, “Isn’t it great that we were conceived? Isn’t it great to be alive?”
Together the twins explored their world. When they found their mother’s cord that gave them life they sang for joy, “How great is our mother’s love that she shares her own life with us.”
As the weeks stretched into months the twins noticed how much each was changing.
“What does this mean?” asked the one.
“It means that our stay in this world is drawing to an end,” said the other.
“But I don’t want to go,” said the one. “I want to stay here always.”
“We have no choice,” said the other, “but maybe there is life after birth!”
“But how can it be?” responded the one. “We will shed our life cord, and how is life possible without it? Besides, we have seen evidence that others were here before us and none of them have returned to tell us that there is life after birth.”
And so the one fell into deep despair saying, “If conception ends with birth, what is the purpose of life in the womb? It is meaningless! Maybe there is no mother at all.”
“But there has to be,” protested the other. “How else did we get here? How do we remain alive?”
“Have you ever seen our mother?” said the one. “Maybe she lives in our minds. Maybe we made her up because the idea made us feel good.”
Thus, while one raved and despaired, the other resigned himself to birth. He placed his hands in the trust of the mother.
Hours passed into days and days fell into weeks, and it came time. And both knew that their…birth was at hand. And both feared what they did not know.
And as the one was the first to be conceived, so he was the first to be born. The other followed after. And they cried as they were born out into the light. They coughed up fluid, and they gasped the dry air; and when they were sure that they had been born, they opened up their eyes and they found themselves cradled in the warm love of the mother. They lay open-mouthed, awestruck at the beauty of the mother whom they had never seen before.”
Christian Wimans, My Bright Abyss, 2013.
The Rev. David Anderson, “Finding Your Soul,” Internet blog found by Kathy Brown.