This morning I’m continuing a series I started last week. I’m asking the question: What is faith?
As I said last week, the nature of the church seems to be changing, as is the nature of our question. Faith used to be a given. It’s changing some places faster than others. Down South, people still often ask you WHERE you go to church. They don’t ask IF you go to church. The question has been, and this used to be true across quite a bit of our country: “Where do you go to church?” It was roughly equivalent to the St. Louis question. “Where’d you go to High School.” Church was a given, and where you went to church said something about your social location. I grew up out West, and then I lived for a long time in California. Out there people don’t ask “Where do you go to church” Instead they ask, surprised, “Wait, you go to church?” Question mark.
Faith is not a given anymore. Questioning your faith doesn’t make you a pariah the way it used to. Now, as a professional preacher, I probably shouldn’t say this, but I think the decline of “given” faith might be a good thing. Questioning your faith, that can be a very good thing. If you have doubts, hold on to them. Don’t let go to quickly. Doubts are important. Doubts cause us to ask questions. I don’t think God wants us to simply swallow the faith we’ve been handed. God wants us to wrestle. We are created with the capacity for reason. If you have doubts, embrace them, work them over, ask why. The view of God and the world that emerges, the faith that comes, through wrestling doubts is often subtler, more durable, and more useful in a crisis.
The Gospel this morning is heavy for a summer morning. Really all the readings are quite tough, but the Gospel is particularly hard. Jesus is angry. “Do you think I have come to bring peace? No, I tell you, but rather division! (Exclamation point). It’s a strong statement. I think Jesus is trying to wake people up. Do you think this is simple? Do you think God, in your lifetime, is just going to clean up all of the messes? Jesus needs you to doubt that kind of simplistic faith.
The Unitarian minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker coined the phrase that Dr. King often quoted and refined while he worked for Civil Rights:
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
God’s work can sometimes feel painstakingly slow. The work of liberation often takes much longer than it should. Faith is for the difficult times. Faith is for the hard slogs. There’s a reason our Presiding Bishop’s favorite tag line is “keep the faith.” Often we need reminding.
Then there are moments of breakthrough. Moments after climbing out of the pool this week, Simone Manuel looked at a camera and said, “All glory to God.” She is the first African-American woman ever to win an Individual Gold medal in swimming. Now, when athletes express religion on TV, I always get a little nervous. Tim Tebow used to make my eyes cross. Faith in athletics usually seems to come when the touchdown is scored or the game is one. Faith, it seems, is for the victors. The kind of religion that is most often displayed during professional sports doesn’t leave a lot of room for doubt.
But Simone Manuel both praised God and questioned the status quo. She later went on to say that her medal meant a lot, “with what is going on in the world today, some of the issues of police brutality. This win hopefully brings hope and change to some of the issues that are going on. My color just comes with the territory.” See, a few years ago, Simone wouldn’t have been allowed in a public pool in St. Louis. She wouldn’t have been allowed to train. There’s an old stereotype that African Americans can’t swim. Well, it’s hard to learn when you’re not allowed in the pool.
But little black girls in swim classes today have a role model, a now multiple medalist. You know what, it’s not just little black girls who can look up to her. She’s a champion for all God’s children to admire. To swim that well, given what she’s faced took faith. It took guts.
Now, stay with me. I’m going to turn now. I want to spend some time this morning talking about the faith of another woman of color. Tomorrow is the Feast Day of St. Mary the Virgin. (It also happens to be Ellis and my anniversary of our legal wedding, on the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin, which always makes me giggle.) St. Mary the Virgin, the mother of Jesus.
Now don’t worry. I used to preach about Mary in a historic Episcopal Church in Washington DC. On the outside of our early American building were six inch tall letters that proclaimed that we were “PROTESTANT.” I know that some of you believe yourselves to be an a Protestant Episcopal Church. I still preach about Mary. I love Mary. She is an amazing example of faith.
Somehow in the aftermath of the Reformation, the Romans ended up with Mary. Catholics are supposed to adore Mary, and Protestants are supposed to be suspicious about her. Have you seen the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun?” The scene where Diane Lane’s character talks about Mary? She buys this big villa in Tuscany, and in the master bedroom, the headboard of her bed includes a giant icon of the Virgin Mary. At first she’s not thrilled about Mary standing watch over her bed. She’s newly single. Who needs a judgy Mary in your headboard? But then one night Lane’s character is woken by a violent thunderstorm, and finds herself grateful for Mary standing with her, “knowing full well I’m not a Catholic.”
So, if you find yourself drawn to Mary that is okay. Really. You don’t have to start praying the rosary if you don’t want to. But if you want to, let’s talk. I think Mary is one of the most helpful images of what it means to have faith. Mary helps us understand that real faith takes risks. Somehow a pregnant teenage girl, a girl who could have been stoned to death because she was not yet married and was pregnant, somehow this young girl kept the faith. In the midst of it all, Mary found a way to proclaim the greatness of the Lord, to allow her spirit to rejoice. Mary had a faith that wasn’t easy, it wasn’t simple. Her faith was deep enough that she knew, she knew that the socially unacceptable child she would birth would knock the mighty from their thrones and lift up the humble and the poor.
Laurie Gudim, a lay Episcopalian from Fort Collins, Colorado wrote a few years ago on a blog I sometimes follow, the Daily Episcopalian, about Mary. She wrote out of frustration about the passive, submissive vision of Mary we so often hear. We don’t need that fake Mary, she wrote:
We need the real Mary. We need her guts, her willingness to turn aside from everything her family had planned for her….We need the Mary who went on to live a multidimensional life: being a wife and raising children in the home of her spouse, a man who also listened well to God. We need to envision her having bad days and screaming at the kids, being terrified and mortified, feeling powerless and enraged. And then we need to envision her moments of wild, exuberant joy… how she hummed as she baked bread early in the morning, how she laughed with her girlfriends and cousins – and how she raised Jesus and his siblings in a boisterous Jewish household, teaching Jesus what she could about love.
Mary lived what was in many ways a very ordinary, very difficult life. In the midst of that life, her faith allowed her to see God’s hand at work. For Mary, Jesus was not some benign smiling shepherd. Jesus was gritty. She knew. She changed his diapers. She was there when they executed him. I think we need the faith of Mary, gritty faith. Real faith. Faith that sees you through the difficult and ugly moments of life.
The letter to the Hebrews this morning finishes a long section on the faith of our ancestors. It includes that great phrase, “we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses.” Our faith is the faith of Mary, the gritty faith of a young unwed mother. Our faith is the faith of Simone Manuel, who overcame history and the odds and won gold. Our faith is the faith of Oscar Romero, the faith of Desmond Tutu, the faith of Dorothy Stang, a nun murdered by Brazilian ranchers for her activism to save the Amazon. Our faith has been shared by countless saints and sinners, remembered and hidden, who have kept faith in some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable. Our faith is shared by countless women and men who have changed the course of history, who left behind a world that was a little more loving, more peaceful, more just.
When he described faith as “the opiate of the masses” Karl Marx was not describing these folks. The saints of God are gritty. Their faith is real. As St. Augustine said, it should not seem small that we consider ourselves part of one body with people of faith like these. As theologian Elizabeth Johnson wrote, “their adventure of faith opens a way for us.” We are surrounded by the faithful lives of so many who gave not less than everything.
Jesus’ words this morning are not simply the grumpy words of a beleaguered prophet. Jesus words remind us that faith is not only about peace and comfort. Faith often comes with doubts. God can handle your doubts. And faith sees you though the difficult times. Faith is for those who, with God, are bending the moral arc of the universe toward justice. Jesus’ words remind us that faith is gritty, that faith is real. Keep the faith.