Sermon for Sunday, November 18, 2018 || Proper 28B || Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25
We were talking theology over pizza last week at confirmation class, and one of the teens asked a question that was so thought-provoking, I spent the next several days thinking about it. Because the question was on my mind this week, my response to it ended up being this sermon. The question went something like this: “Adam, how do you believe all the time? Are there any times when you don’t really know about all this God stuff?”
Adults don’t usually ask questions like this at church. I think we’re too scared to reveal what we perceive to be inadequacy or doubt or lack of faith. So it was a real gift for a teen to have the courage to ask what is really one of the fundamental questions about our walks with God.
Since this is a teaching sermon, I’m going to start by defining an important word, and then I will try to respond to the question: “How do you believe all the time?”
First up is the word “believe.” Here’s my working definition, which – fair warning – is subject to change as I grow deeper into my own relationship with God. Belief is a posture, an orientation of the mind, heart, and spirit toward that which brings you fully alive. To believe in something or someone is to locate within that thing both your own reason for being and your foundation for meaning making.
I know this is an intense definition, so let’s break it down further. Belief is a posture. We hold ourselves a certain way because of belief. If I slouch at my desk, I’ll have back problems because of my bad posture. If I orient myself toward the wrong belief, I’ll have spirit problems for the same reason. I personally have a discipline in which I try as hard as I can to say the word “believe” only when I’m talking about God. I do this because I desire to locate my reason for being and my ability to make meaning in the revelation of the God made known in Jesus Christ.
Believing in anything less than God will give me those spiritual posture problems. If I decide, say, money is my reason for being, I will forever be chasing the next buck, and my spirit will contort into a grubbing, ungenerous thing. If I rely on, say, my spouse to be my foundation for meaning making, I will place impossible expectations on her, which will contort both our spirits and our relationship.
Because God’s very nature is faithfulness and because God is the foundation of all that is, only God can function as a trustworthy locus of belief.
I shared something similar to this with the teens last week, and since my response didn’t actually answer their question, they asked another one. “But how do you know all of that is right?”
The answer to that one is easy: “I don’t know.” I have the witness of ancient seekers after God. I have the love and the shared worship of this community. I have my own experience and memory and practices. These three join together to help me make meaning of the world around me and the world within me. But whatever knowledge I possess is a drop in the ocean compared to the infinite Source of all things that we call God.
Such natural limitation in my ability to comprehend the eternal makes me, in a way, “agnostic.” We tend to use this word as a label for curious nonbelievers, but truly it applies to everyone. The word “agnostic” is of Greek origin, and it means “without knowledge.” I am agnostic in the sense that I can’t do the math that adds up to my belief. I can’t “show my work” as my algebra teacher used to say. In other words, I can’t simply think my way into believing.
What I can do is imagine my way there through prayer, praise, practice, and the posture I spoke about earlier. Instead of letting the single drop of knowledge fall into the ocean of the eternal, God invites me, invites us, to allow our whole selves to fall in that ocean. We rest there, floating not in our limited knowledge of God, but in the boundless presence of God.
The believing posture of our minds categorizes this presence and places it within our memory, our experience, and our language. The believing posture of our hearts yearns to remain in that presence always, for the heart always points to that which brings us fully alive. And the believing posture of our spirits recognizes our true home in the fullness of the love of God.
So this brings us back to the teen’s questions: “How do I believe all the time?” I can’t answer this question because I don’t believe all the time. My posture gets out of whack, and I start chasing the wrong things. I lose my reason for being. I cut myself off from my prayerful imagination. Meaning is hard to find. Then I remember that I’m in good company. If you read the book of psalms, you’ll find it is full of people stumbling their way back to belief.
Today’s reading from the letter to the Hebrews gives us a pep talk: “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.” Yes. Now I remember! God is the faithful one. God’s very nature is faithfulness. God is still present even when I have no eyes to see. God’s presence is not dependent on my belief in God’s presence. God’s faithfulness means that God will be there when I’m ready to stumble my way back into belief. And all that time God will be calling me home.
I am reminded of that home here in this community of faith, which is why such communities are so vital for us to come fully alive. Hebrews continues: “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” In other words, through our love and our service together, we help one another hold the posture of belief. When one person has lost the reason for being, another has found it and invites the first back to believing. Our belief spurs us to love and good deeds, and our love and good deeds spur our belief. We practice such love and service in this place because we believe and to help us keep believing.
“How do I believe all the time?” I don’t, but there’s always someone here in this special place holding the posture of belief. When God seems far away, we can mimic that person’s posture until we once again take on that posture, the orientation of the mind, heart, and spirit toward that which brings us fully alive.