Sermon for Sunday, June 21, 2015 || Proper 7B || Mark 4:35-41
Twelve years ago today, I preached my very first sermon. Delivering a sermon was a requirement of my internship at St. Michael and All Angels Church in Dallas, Texas. So when the other four interns and I received the readings we’d all be preaching on, we dove right in, determined to preach the best sermons the great state of Texas had ever heard. That didn’t happen. But we each managed to say something coherent about Jesus calming the storm, and none of us fainted in the pulpit, so I call that a win. I have a muffled recording of the sermon I preached. I made the mistake of listening to it earlier this week. Wow, it’s really bad. There was something about complacency and faith and God shaking us up and Isaac Newton’s first law of motion, but I didn’t real say anything to take home with you.
The thing is, at the time, I thought it was a pretty good attempt at preaching. I felt pretty good when I sat down. So why do I shake my head when I listen to it now? Well, my understanding of faith has changed quite a lot in the last twelve years, so what I hear in the sermon rings a bit hollow. But I expect my understanding of faith to change quite a lot in the next twelve years, too.
The question is this: if I’m no longer where I was faith-wise twelve years ago, does that make my earlier faith false? The answer to this question must be a resounding, “No!” Surely God is able to work through the most tentative faith or the most hardened faith or even the most erroneous faith. God makes use of any raw materials we bring to the table, however clumsy they happen to be.
I’d hazard to guess that your understanding of faith has changed quite a lot over the course of your lifetimes, as well. This isn’t a bad thing. Rather, if your faith has changed over time, you’ve probably been wrestling with it, questioning it, wondering how it impacts your life. A faith that does not undergo some kind of change over time is more than likely an unexamined faith or just a cosmetic one.
I’d like to share with you four understandings of faith that I have gone through since I preached that sermon twelve years ago. I don’t claim that any of these are wrong; rather, where I am now in faith happens to be the most helpful understanding for the current stage of my following Jesus. As you listen to these four descriptions, see if you can locate how you experience faith. Is another description beckoning you? Or is there a completely different understanding of faith that I know nothing about? This exercise is important because an unexamined faith often becomes a stagnant one.
First up: my understanding of faith during that sermon in Dallas. At that time, faith was a quantity. It was something I could measure. This makes sense: after all, in today’s Gospel reading, after Jesus calms the storm, he says to his disciples, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” If they have zero faith, then presumably they could also have a little faith or some faith or much faith.
The challenge to this understanding comes when something happens to tip the scales: a tragedy that takes a loved one’s life, an unexpected diagnosis, a relationship in tatters. You might beat yourself up, saying, “If only I had a little more faith, I could get through this.” When tragedy strikes, we forget the blessing that comes with this understanding of faith as a quantity. Jesus says that faith the size of a mustard seed (that is, the smallest amount possible) is enough to weather the storm.*
When I was in seminary, my understanding of “faith as a quantity” morphed into something else. For a long time, I swapped “faith” with a word that’s almost a synonym. That word was “trust.” For some reason, I couldn’t find the active component of faith that seemed to be missing from the “quantity” definition, so I replaced it with something I felt I could do. I could trust God. When Jesus calms the storm, he might as well have said, “Why are you afraid? Don’t you trust me?”
The most common expression of this understanding is the proverbial “leap of faith.” The shadowy unknown spreads out in front of you, and yet you walk on, trusting that God will guide you. Your faith is like the headlights on your car, which only illuminate the patch of road in front of you but still somehow manage to get you home.**
Over the first few years of ordained ministry, this view of “faith as trust” broadened. The act of trusting was not big enough to contain all that faith was. This is when “faith” became a verb for me. Faith was the active component of my relationship with God, the thing that spurred me to love God and serve God’s people. While Jesus might say the disciples have no faith, they still woke him up, thinking he could do something about the storm. As I said in a sermon for you all last year, this understanding of faith “borrows the best parts of trust, confidence, humility, and zeal and molds them into our response to God’s presence in our lives.”
The word “presence” carries over from this understanding of faith to the one that is alive for me today. And that is faith as direction or orientation. Faith is the mysterious something inside us that always and forever points to God’s presence, like a compass needle pointing due north. But we are not always facing the right way, and so the compass of faith prompts us to turn around. The technical word for this turning is “repenting,” which can lead to a renewal of our relationships with God.
Sometimes we have blinders on our eyes that make us look straight ahead through a narrow field of vision.*** God might be calling us to unimagined possibilities dancing just out of sight. Our faith invites us to widen those blinders until we can once again see what’s pointing to God. When we are overwhelmed by tragedy or grief or doubt, the blinders can snap tight again. But faith beckons us to open wide so we can find our true orientation towards God’s presence. Do you think Jesus halting the storm with a word was even close to a possibility on the disciples’ minds when they woke him? No. And yet what little faith they had still pointed to him as their refuge.
This is where my understanding of faith currently stands. I learned it from my father and from talking with many of you as you’ve sat on the couch in my office and spoken of your secret hopes and deepest fears and gnawing doubts and strangling griefs. I don’t know what my understanding of faith will be twelve years from now, but for today, this is it. Faith is the internal compass needle pointing to God’s presence. And since God’s presence happens to be everywhere, the blinders on my eyes serve no purpose at all.
I hope you will take some time this week to take stock of how your faith expresses itself. If faith is a quantity, how much do you need for it to guide your life? If faith is trust, into what unknown is God calling you to leap? If faith is a verb, the active component of your relationship with God, what are you and God doing together this afternoon, this week, this year? And if faith is your orientation towards to God’s presence, where and to whom is it pointing? What possibilities are dancing just out of sight?