On Faith and Doubt: A Sermon

A sermon given on August 11, 2013 (Year C – Proper 14) by the Vicar, The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck

The story goes that there was a drought in a region of Texas and the crops were failing.

The people were in despair.
So the local pastor called for a prayer service, inviting folks near and far to come together to pray for rain.
He distributed fliers and walked the streets inviting everyone to come.
On the day of the service the church was packed.
Hymns were sung.
The pastor climbed into the pulpit and looked out over the anxious congregation.

“What are you doing here?” He asked?
“We’ve come to pray for rain,” a woman in the fourth pew cried out.
“Amen!” said another.

The pastor looked back at them.
“Well”, he said, “It ain’t gonna work.”
“What?” “Why?” They cried.
“You don’t have faith”. He said flatly.
The congregation grew defensive.
“How do you know?”
“Not one of you brought an umbrella.” he replied.

I heard that story decades ago.
And, lame as it is, it stuck with me.
Because, at some level,
I identify with the congregation in that Texas Church.

So I’m glad for the pair of lessons we are given today.
Because they give us a chance to reflect on faith.
and, by extension,
on doubt.

First, Abraham, father of our faith,
father of the faith of Jews and Christians and Muslims,
has his own despairing conversation with God about heirs and descendants.
Abraham is old.
His wife is old, way past child-bearing years.
She has never given birth.
And God promises Abraham descendants as countless as the stars.
Crazy, right?
But because God promises, Abraham believes.
“And God”, scripture says, “reckoned it to him as righteousness”.
Which means, God basically said,
“Well, now Abraham, I reckon this faith of yours makes you a righteous man.”

This faith of righteous Abraham has been heralded far and wide in the millennia since.
Throughout scripture and the traditions of his descendants it is recounted.
Romans, Galatians, James,
the camp song, “Father Abraham had many sons….”
This faith of Abraham’s allowed him to give up and to take on,
to move and to be moved,
to trust.

The story is told and told again,
because it is amazing, sure.
But also inspiring.
Abraham trusted God, despite the hassle, despite the upheaval, despite the irrationality of it all.
Abraham trusted God,
and God did indeed provide.
Oh, that we could have the faith that Abraham had!

In today’s reading from Hebrews, we get some further explication of this faith, and more of the Abraham story.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.

Now comes the Abraham part:
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised,… By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old– and Sarah herself was barren–…”
We are not talking here about faith in government,
faith in our school systems,
faith in our military to shield us from harm,
or faith in our ability to raise money.
We are not even talking about faith in the statements of the Creed.

Rather, the faith of Abraham and the faith of the writer of the letter to the Hebrews,
is faith in God.
And in the words of Brother David Vryhof of the Society of St. John the Evangelist:
[this faith] has more to do with the heart than with the head. Genuine faith involves trust. Christian faith, Christian belief, has to do with a radical trust in God. It does not mean trusting in the truth of a set of statements about God; it means trusting in God.

If thou but trust in God to guide thee.
so the old song goes,
And hope in him through all thy ways.
He’ll give thee strength whate’er betide thee.
And bear thee through the evil days.
Who trusts in God’s unchanging love,
Builds on a rock that nought can move.

And when we’ve got it,
we know we’ve got it.
And it is good.
It is like finding your groove.
It brings an inner peace,
a calm strength,
a blessed assurance.
All who are gathered here today have probably known it.

And, likely,
all who are gathered here have probably known doubt, too.

Now doubt isn’t something that gets a lot of sermon time,
but the tradition and the experience of the faithful
speak of it plenty.
From the father who brings his son to Jesus and exclaims:
‘I believe; help my unbelief!’
to St. John of the Cross writing of “the Dark Night of the Soul” in the 16th century,
to Teresa of Calcutta in the 20th century.

Doubt is a part of the life of faith.
If we are engaged with the world and others,
if we are thinking and inquiring,
which is to say,
if we are alive.
then we are going to have moments,
or seasons,
of doubt.

Maybe one day we experience something painful or challenging,
and we think,
If God were really in control, this wouldn’t happen.
Maybe we hear a really convincing argument from someone who either doubts or outright doesn’t believe,
and they sound mighty intelligent.

Faith is not rational,
not provable,
not quantifiable.
And we live in a post-Enlightenment world that over-values rational thought.
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. … what is seen was made from things that are not visible.
Hard to prove that!

Or maybe we doubt because we really like someone who doesn’t have faith and we don’t want to be on a different side of the equation from them.

Or we hear of something really unloving that was done in the name of faith
(we don’t have to look far to find an example)
And even though Paul’s letter to the Corinthians makes plain that
“If I have faith, but not love, I am nothing,”
we think we can’t go on identifying with a faith that would lead people to that kind of meanness,
or that kind of injustice,
or that kind of elitism.”

Or maybe we doubt,
because believing that there is a God who is bigger than us and our experience in this world
flies in the face of our desire to be the biggest kid on our own playground.
We resist acknowledging that there might be someone bigger.
And we don’t want to give up the control we don’t have.

Until, at some point, we really do want to give it up.
Because it is too hard to keep trying to control everything we can’t control.

And then…
and then we hear someone tell of an experience of their faith.
and it rings true to us.
Or we read something that someone has written
and it rings true to us.
Or we witness something truly loving,
and we think,
“there is more to that love than this moment”.
Or we hold a newborn infant in our arms.
Or we realize that the connection we feel with another is holy.

Or we witness the beauty of the diverse faithful gathered in prayer,
or the sounds and words of a hymn pierce our heart.
Or the rhythm and routine of going to church in spite of our season of doubt,
shakes something loose.
And we remember a time when God was so real to us, we couldn’t deny it,
and we still can’t deny it, really.

And we just know.
We know once more that there is a God who is bigger than us and our experience in this world and
that God loves us and desires that we love.
We just know once more
that there is an eternity that transcends our time and our space
and it is good.
We just know once more
that despite the difficulties and challenges of this life,
all will long be well.
Things may not turn out as we expect or plan,
but they will be well.
There is a rock on whom we can depend,
everlasting arms on which we can lean.
We just know
that the more we can knit our will to God’s will and our spirits to God’s spirit,
the more we will flourish,
the more we will be the creatures we were created to be.
And once more we have an assurance of things hoped for
and a conviction of things not seen.

And faith,
trusting God,
becomes for us once more a way of being,
a way of life.
We pray for rain and pack an umbrella.
And it is good.

If thou but trust in God to guide thee.
And hope in him through all thy ways.
He’ll give thee strength whate’er betide thee.
And bear thee through the evil days.
Who trusts in God’s unchanging love,
Builds on a rock that nought can move.