Sunday, August 17, 2008

Secular Faith

Marsh Chapel, Boston University


Isaiah 56: 1, 6-8

Psalm 67

Matthew 15: 10-28


So … um … yeah; I have a confession to make. I seem to have … uh … left my faith - at home, this morning. [pause] Oh, you know how it is. You’re preaching and you’re nervous and the basic, habitual, routine things of life are suddenly more complicated than usual. I laid everything out just like always: wallet, keys, handkerchief, cell phone, chap stick, faith. I think, maybe, as I was putting things in my pockets, I may have accidentally bumped my faith and it rolled off the edge and fell to the floor. I’m not sure. I wasn’t really thinking about what I was doing. I was thinking about my sermon! Surely you can understand. Similar things have happened to you, right? [pause] I must confess, stepping into the pulpit without my faith feels much like the proverbial first-year student who dreams of walking into her or his first class in college stark naked.

By now the clergy and choir, and perhaps even you in the congregation are gripping your seats. “Oh no! We haven’t seen much of Br. Larry this summer. What happened to him? Is he really going to get into the pulpit in Marsh Chapel, broadcast over the airwaves and internet signals, and proclaim that the likes of Samuel Harris and Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett are right; that God is a delusion?” [pause] Fear not, dear friends. You can pry your fingernails out of the wood. As I have traversed the city of Boston this summer, visiting various churches where Boston University students have found a spiritual home, I have found no reason to despair but much that is hopeful. “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isaiah 43: 1-2).

Of course, it is rather odd, unsettling even, to speak and think of faith as a trinket or a bauble that can be put in one’s pocket or fall and roll across the floor. Faith is not something we can pick up and put down at will, is it? If we are honest with ourselves, I suspect we would prefer that faith be something like the dietary restrictions Jesus addressed in the first half of our reading from the Gospel of Matthew. Faith is much easier to manage as a dimension of our life if all we have to do is be sure not to put it in our mouths; much easier to keep track of one another as well. Such faith is either on or off, a simple binary, you ate it or you refrained. Contemporary forms of Christianity have been wont to cast faith in such a light: accept Christ or reject Christ. Black and white, either/or, easily settled.

Unfortunately, Jesus does not let us off so easily. “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” A few chapters earlier Jesus said, “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” The disciples must have forgotten this because they did not understand Jesus’ parable. Our defilement is not marked by what we take in but by what we put out in speech and words. Defilement is not something that comes in from out there but something that begins in here and that we spew out to others. Defilement is more complicated than a simple binary. There are stages of degradation. It is like the frog in the boiling water. Put a frog in a pot of boiling water and it will jump out. Put a frog in a pot of lukewarm water and slowly raise it to a boil and the frog will allow itself to be cooked to death. Over time, setting aside our faith when it is inconvenient becomes the habit, and we fail to notice that we have walked out the door without it.

What is it, then, to have faith? Faith is indeed something that can be, and is, picked up and put down. If repeatedly putting our faith down is a sign of defilement, then picking it up repeatedly, daily, ritually is the sign of faithfulness. The Canaanite woman demonstrates this. She comes to Jesus begging for mercy and healing for her daughter. At first he ignores her, but she continues to petition. Eventually her persistence garners attention, albeit accompanied by the sentiments of annoyance and dismissal. Finally, after being humiliated by the one in whom she placed her faith as he called her a dog, she dug deep one last time. Br. Sebastian of the Community of Taizé taught those of us spending a week in silence this summer that cultivating humility is the only way to endure humiliation. But for the Canaanite woman, her humility was a conduit for the power of the Holy Spirit not only to endure but to transform her humiliation from the mouth of Jesus Christ into the conversion of God. The very words of her humiliation turned the situation on its head and Jesus’ own heart was turned to recognize her faith, to heal her daughter, and to adjust his mission. It shall indeed be as God declared through the mouth of the prophet Isaiah:

Thus says the Lord:

Maintain justice, and do what is right,

for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed.

And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,

to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants,

all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant—

these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer;

their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar;

for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.

Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel,

I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.

The faith in the humble, undefiled heart of the Canaanite woman is picked up and expressed in speech and transforms the very heart of God.

This notion of faith does not sit well with our modern consciousness. As moderns, faith is most often associated with belief. It was Krister Stendahl, at that school across the river, who first pointed out that the modernity informed interpretation of the term “faith” as “belief” in the writings of the apostle Paul is in fact a result of the modern “introspective consciousness.” Recent Pauline scholarship has taken this to heart. We would do well to adjust our understanding of faith in the Gospel context as well. Faith is not belief. Faith is a state of being, a way of being in the world that informs the ways in which we interact in and with the world. When we take up faith, we behave in a faithful way. When we set it down, we behave in a defiled way. Speech is a form of behavior. Faith is what philosopher John Searle would call a “speech-act.” Being and doing are not two different things. Doing flows out of being and we are because of what we do. We are faithful and so we act in faith. We are defiled and so we act negligently. God acts to forgive us not when we merely say the words but when the words rise out of a conversion of heart.

And so we can speak of a secular faith. Of course, you know that “secular” means “worldly.” When faith is a way of being and acting in relationship, then it is a way of being that the world itself can and does exhibit. The psalmist says in the 19th Psalm,

The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.

There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard;

yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.

The speech of the world in the world and to the world is a testimony of the faithfulness of the world to God. The world does not speak as people speak in voice and words. The world speaks in activity to the glory of God who creates it. We are faithful as part of the faithfulness of the world. Let us consider, for a moment, the world God creates to the divine glory.

First, our world is marked by change. This is not an entirely novel idea; other eras can be noted for their shifts in political and economic systems or in theological and philosophical ethos or in cultural and social relation. But especially in the history of the west, following Aristotle, the most valuable things in the world are considered to be things that endure and do not change. Aristotle was wrong. Things in the world do change and there is a beauty and a felicity in their changing process. Children grow and mature and become adults. Trees flower and blossom in springtime, then drop their leaves come fall. The beaks of birds evolve to meet changing conditions around them and this change allows for their survival. Change exhibits rhythm and balance and gives to life a sense of flow. To be sure, the value inherent in change is not all positive, at least in human perspective. We have some experience now with attempting to change political dynasties and systems in other lands. Russia is experimenting with this model as we speak. Indeed, we will bear the cost – financial, emotional, spiritual – into the coming decades, if not centuries. The changes brought on by natural disaster are terrifying and life consuming. And as life wanes the changes to body and mind are frustrating especially for their being unwelcome. Faith speaks faithfully in a world of change.

So too, and not unrelated, our world is marked by chance. It is not the case that life and experience grind on like a machine, each subsequent moment determined wholly by the moment prior. To be sure, if you flip the switch the lights go off. This regularity gives life coherence and consistency instead of absolute chaos. But sometimes when you flip it again the bulb burns out. Like faith, life is not a simple binary of if-then clauses. Life is marked by spontaneity, novelty and creativity. The most interesting moments in life are not when the lights go on but when they don’t. Baseball is interesting and fun because when the pitch is thrown, the batter might hit it, or he might not! Again, the possibilities of chance do not always work in our favor. Sometimes the patient dies on the operating table. Sometimes the war takes years, not days. Sometimes you lose your shirt when the markets shift and your investments are tied to sub-prime mortgages. Faith speaks faithfully in a world of chance.

Finally, ours is a world of choice. In this respect especially, the early years of the 21st century exhibit unprecedented levels of choice. We can choose what kind and color of car to drive, where we will live and whom we will live with, where and what to study. From the perspective of a student, it may seem that colleges and universities choose you, or not; but speaking from the perspective of a university administrator, I can tell you that we are at least as concerned about your choice as you are about ours. Choices in fashion, music, reading material, hairstyle, career, travel, and on and on are virtually unbounded. There is a dark side to all of this choice. So much choice produces anxiety. How are we to know that we have made the right choices? How can we choose responsibly? And sometimes, we do make the wrong choices. We choose to play instead of work, to speak instead of listen, to hate instead of love. Our power to act combined with the multiplicity of our choices can be a lethal combination. We may have the power to unseat rulers, but we are seeing what happens when that power is enacted without due consideration of the realities at home and abroad. Faith speaks faithfully in a world of choice.

God creates the world of change, chance and choice to the glory of God and we are faithful to God or not as we speak and act our choices amid the chances that bring about change. Pick up your faith daily in each word and action of your life. Remember that God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. It may be that we will have to humbly submit to humiliating rebuke. But even God changes when we choose faithfulness and speak faithfully. Foreigners too can be friends of God. Amen.

Here now, what’s this? Oh! Huh, there it is. Ha ha. It was right there all along. I guess I didn’t leave it at home after all. Oops. Sorry if I worried any of you. I’m just going to go sit down now.

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