We have been blessed with a wealth of preachers the last few weeks at St. Mary's House, Greensboro. Yesterday our preacher was a new friend and colleague, Karen Favreau, who has joined us at St. Mary's House this year. A deacon postulant (or as the jargon goes, a postulant to the vocational diaconate), Karen is a full time graduate student in the Counseling Department at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, which we serve as Episcopal/Anglican chaplaincy. She is also a freelance writer and her spiritual memoir, Ridiculous Packaging: Or, My Long, Strange Journey From Atheist To Episcopalian, In Two Acts, was released by Cowley Publications in 2005. (I tried to link to Cowley's website, but it wouldn't work, so the link is to the beast Amazon.) Karen may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and no, she didn't pay me to say all this. Enjoy her meditation on faith.
Sunday, October 7, 2007
St. Mary’s House, Greensboro, NC
Feast Day of St. Francis
Today’s Gospel lesson is what I refer to as one of those “tough love” passages we encounter now and then in the New Testament. It’s a passage in which I can visualize Jesus smacking his head with the heel of his palm or rolling his eyes before lovingly chastising the disciples for “not getting it.” And these “tough love” passages always make me squirm because I can relate so intimately to Peter and the rest of the motley crew—most of the time, I don’t quite “get it” either.
In response to the disciples’ well-intentioned request for “more faith,” Jesus replies, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, be uprooted and planted in the sea, and it will obey you.” I can understand Jesus’ frustration. After all, his followers had witnessed firsthand the transforming power of faith in peoples’ lives. “Your faith has healed you. Go in peace,” Jesus tells the woman who’d been hemorrhaging for twelve years. “Take up your mat and go home” he says to the paralyzed man who was lowered through the roof of a crowded house. What more did the disciples need?
Before I continue, I thought it might be a good idea to examine what we mean by this thing called “faith.” In the letter to the Hebrews, faith is explained as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith is what empowered the matriarchs and patriarchs of the Old Testament to forge ahead when others declared their situations laughably hopeless. It’s what sustained Jesus and kept him from succumbing to temptation during those 40 days in the desert, and it’s what allowed him to say “your will be done” during those agonizing final hours in the Garden of Gethsemane.
And faith is something we’ve all experienced. Yet it’s not something we ever master, or an achievement that can be obtained by jumping through the right hoops. And it’s not a one-shot deal. Right when we think we’ve got this faith thing down, right when we’ve finished slaying dragons and weathering the slings and arrows of this life, we let our guard down just a bit, and fear burrows into our hearts. And when fear worms its way into our being, it becomes all too easy to turn away from a thousand proofs of the miraculous As Frederick Buechner writes, “Faith is better understood as a verb than as a noun, as a process than as a possession.”
“Lord, increase our faith!”
Maybe Mother Teresa prayed a variation of this request as she wrestled with doubt and loneliness in her own ministry. A new book entitled Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light is based on decades of correspondence, and the letters within reveal something very disconcerting: for the last 50 years of her life, the beloved saint felt spiritually abandoned, cut off from God, and completely alone. “I am told God loves me,” she wrote, “and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.” Mother Teresa, a perfect example of the servant in the parable Jesus shared with his disciples, the epitome of one who expects no reward or recognition, had run out of steam. Upon learning of her dark decades of the soul, columnist Leonard Pitts figuratively shook his fist at God and said, “You know, you could have given her a sign. Would that have killed you?”
I find it interesting that the powers that be chose to publish her letters after her death. Maybe they wanted to “protect” Mother Teresa—after all, there are many Christians out there who like to envision their saints as superheroes who can leap tall buildings in a single bound. Or maybe they wanted to protect US. After all, why would we want to be confronted with the knowledge that the glorious saint in our midst wrestled with the same stuff that we mere mortals deal with everyday? If we knew that the amazing woman who hugged lepers and fed outcasts in India felt like God was distant and unloving, might we be tempted to say “What’s the point?”
Don’t worry; “faith” is not the same thing as “certainty.” Nor is it the opposite of “doubt.” Rather, as Paul Tillich tells us, doubt is a necessary element of faith.
“Lord, increase our faith!”
While I’m not a fan of bumper sticker slogans or catchy phrases that try to distill complex theological concepts into seven words or less, i.e. “What would Jesus do” or “I’m too blessed to be stressed,” I did see a clever t-shirt message the other day that made me stop and go “hmmm.” The t-shirt said “DON’T Keep the Faith—Pass it On!” OK, it’s not exactly Kierkegaard, BUT it did remind me of something very important. Faith is not something we keep to ourselves. Nor is it something we gain or sustain by ourselves. We live out our faith in community, communities filled with broken men and women who struggle to make sense of Jesus’ life and who strive imperfectly to live up to his teachings. When our faith is so great that it spills all over the floor and we can no longer contain it, we share it with the thirsty person next to us. And when our hearts are cold and empty and God feels one million miles away, we hold out our hands in the hope that someone will do the same with their abundance.
I would be remiss if I didn’t somehow work St. Francis into today’s sermon. Actually, I’d finished my sermon a couple of weeks ago when Rev. Matthews said, “Oh yeah, we’re blessing the animals that day, so you might want to work St. Francis into it.” It’s easy to romanticize St. Francis on a day like this and turn him into some sort of cuddly Dr. Doolittle character. Yet St. Francis was truly radical and wonderfully subversive. In an age when the Church had become bloated with power and more concerned with collecting indulgences than with feeding the poor or bringing the Gospel to the oppressed, Francis, by his example, forced the Church to take a long, hard look at its priorities. The idea of challenging the Catholic Church in Italy in the Middle Ages is about as fantastic as telling a mulberry tree to uproot and plant itself in the sea. As biographer Donald Spoto reminds us, Francis, like most saints, was an eccentric. Among other things, he probably would not have passed the psychological examinations required of those wishing to enter the ordination process in the Episcopal Church. [Howl of laughter in our congregation from those who are or have been in the process and all those who have sat on discernment committees.] Francis was in love with God, and, as we all know, love makes us do wonderful, crazy, eccentric, life-changing things. And so does faith.
Even though Jesus got annoyed at the disciples for requesting “more faith,” I will continue to do just that. And, as that prophetic t-shirt reminded me, if I AM blessed with “more faith,” then I have a responsibility NOT to “keep it,” but to pass it on, however imperfectly, in thought, word, and deed. Perhaps I will pass it on by stepping outside my comfort zone and reaching out to someone who doesn’t look, act, or speak like me. Maybe my whole world will be rocked as a result of this influx of faith, a faith that St. Francis showed us could transform lives and challenge everything comfortable and familiar to which we cling. Faith is powerful stuff. Therefore, if we pray, “Lord, increase my faith,” we might do well to remember another catchy slogan: “Be careful what you wish for.”