Sunday, August 8, 2010

Driving Over Hills

Today’s lessons are about faith and fear.
Old Abraham was facing death, still childless,
in a world where there was no immortality, no resurrection.
The only hope of survival was to live on through one’s progeny
—and he didn’t have any.
But God told him not to be afraid. Just trust.

In Luke, Jesus gave one of his most famous teachings.
“Have no fear, little flock.
It is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
This passage falls in the middle of a longer speech
about not worrying over worldly needs
but setting our hearts on the kingdom of God.
Jesus is saying, it’s alright, friends.
The only thing that finally matters is yours
already guaranteed.

Such promises would have been hard to believe,
such assurances would have been hard to trust in Galilee
– poor and powerless under Roman rule
– as hard as it was for old Abraham
to believe he would father a nation.
Such promises are hard for us as a society to trust
when our economy is fragile,
terrorists plot atrocities,
and secularists gleefully write the obituary of the Church
with daunting statistics to prove their point.

Such assurances are hard for us individually to trust
when the threats to our personal happiness
are so clear and present.
Illnesses, the fragility of personal relationships,
the jeopardy of those we love keep us awake.

My soldier son-in-law is waiting to find out
whether he will be deployed overseas.
It’s hard to rest easy without knowing that.
All of our lives have question marks.
We all live with so many unknowns.
But Jesus says, “Let not your hearts be troubled.
Neither let them be afraid.”
He’s talking about a way of being in the world.
It’s called faith.

We sometimes get faith mixed up a set of theological opinions.
We think faith is having the right doctrines
clear and tidily arranged in our heads.
But our Epistle lesson says faith is something
entirely different from that.
It says, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for,
the conviction of things not seen.”

Faith isn’t dogma. It isn’t knowing the answers.
It’s trusting the unknown.
Then the Bible describes faith as a kind of bold action.
“By faith Abraham . . . set out,
not knowing where he was going.’

Isn’t that what we do every single day of our lives?
The future is unknown. We can’t see over the hill.
Every time we literally drive over a hill we can’t see past,
we have to trust there is a road on the other side.
I suppose we could stop, get out, and walk slowly up to the top
of each rise in the road and take a look.
But that would make for a pretty tedious drive.

Some folks live just that fearfully
and their lives are just that tedious.
But that isn’t the Christian life.
We live more boldly.
We live boldly because we trust God.

Faith is the courage to take a risk.
It is what theologian Paul Tillich called “the courage to be”
It may be the only way we can live.

Helen Keller said,
“Security is mostly a superstition.
It does not exist in nature,
nor do the children of men as a whole experience it.
Avoiding danger is in the long run no safer than exposure.
Life is a daring adventure or nothing.”

Faith is not a dogmatic assertion of things we know.
It’s an attitude toward what we do not know.
That is our most important attitude
because there is so much we don’t know.

Most 18th Century Enlightenment philosophy
has gone the way of Nehru jackets, bell bottoms,
and the DeLorean.
But the wisdom of Immanuel Kant is still with us.
Kant divided reality into those things that could be known,
and those things that in principle could not be known
– not just that we haven’t figured them out yet,
but things that truly cannot be known.
The 20th Century philosopher Martin Heidegger showed how language
is essntial to thinking but language
limits our capacity for thought and perception
and the physicist Werner Heisenberg proved
that aspects of the physical world simply cannot be known.

Reality is mostly unknown and unknowable.
The part we can know floats in a sea of mystery.
As our Epistle lesson says, “what is seen was made
from things that are not visible.”
Or as Antoine de Saint-Exupery put it,
“It is only with the heart that one sees rightly.
The things which are essential are invisible to the eye.”

Faith is our attitude toward what we do not know.
Faith is driving over a hill top trusting there is a road
on the other side.
But if faith is trusting what we cannot know,
and acting on that trust.
where does the faith come from?
And how can we tell authentic faith from craziness?

There are 3 basic ideas about the foundation for faith:
First, there’s William James who says faith is an act of will.
We just choose to put our existential eggs in this basket.
It’s like the folk hymn “I have decided to follow Jesus.”

Second, there is Karl Barth who disagrees with James.
He says we don’t have the will power for faith.
God has to inject us with it.
That’s like Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven”
where God’s love is just inescapable.

Third, there is Thomas Aquinas for whom faith
is a reasonable extension of what we know.
It’s taking the trajectory of our knowledge out into the mystery.
For example, Anthony Flew, the greatest atheist philosopher of our time
was finally persuaded of God by the Big Bang Theory.
His lifelong commitment was to follow the evidence and the evidence
led him to a reasonable belief in God.
It did not prove God as a fact,
but God was a reasonable explanation
for the facts we know.

I honestly don’t know how faith happens.
It may not work the same way for everyone.
It may take a mix of God planting the seed in us,
our free will choice to water that seed or not,
and some good honest thinking to test
whether the beliefs we use to structure our faith
are reasonable or not
and whether they makes us better people or not.
Thinking may not create faith. But thinking will refine it.

I have more faith some days than others.
That’s why I need the Church to have faith.
I need the Church to have more faith than I do.
I need my family to have faith for me.
This community of hope carries me through my moods of despair
and my spasms of fear.

The Christian life is driving over one hill after another
trusting God to have a road waiting for us on the other side.
It isn’t a guarantee that we won’t have mishaps, even catastrophes.
Those are the hills. Faith trusts God to give us life on the other side.

Such a life leads, as all lives do, to the last hill – death
– “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.”
But if we have been flying over hills for decades,
we can fly over the last one too.
A life of faith consists of practicing trust in the unknown.
When faith has been exercised, developed, strengthened enough
to carry us over that final hill,
then all the hills along the way become
much more manageable.

Just as God invited Abraham to a life of adventure,
Jesus invites us, saying,
“Have no fear little flock.
It is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
With those words he invites us to live.