What is faith?
Genesis 15:1-6 | Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
A reading from the Shia Islamic tradition: O people! REVERE God and whatever you do, do it anticipating death. Try to attain everlasting blessing in return for transitory and perishable wealth, power, and pleasures of this world. Be prepared for a fast passage, because here you are destined for a short stay. Always be ready for death, for you live under its shadow. Be wise like people who have heard the message of God and have taken a warning from it. Beware that this world is not made for you to live forever, you must change it for hereafter. God, glory be to God, has not created you without a purpose and has not left you without duties, obligations, and responsibilities. You must remember to gather from this life such harvest as will be of use and help to you in the hereafter. Here ends the reading.
Nahj al-Balagha (The Path of Eloquence), Sermon 67
Well, let's pray.
May divinity touch my heart. May my heart inform my words. May my words be heard. May you hear comfort and strength. Amen.
Does faith require action or just faith cause action? Is faith born of an emotional response to something inside you, or is it a response to an external stimulus? Does everyone have some level of faith? Or state the binary: either you got it or you don't. Is it even possible to measure faith? And if it's possible to measure faith, then who has the authority to set a yardstick by which we measure things?
So many do things a little bit different right now. I invite you to sit together in silence, close your eyes or not, whatever you feel called to do. And for the next moment, I invite you to reflect on your own thoughts, your own beliefs. On this central question, what is faith?
All right. Thank you. Now let's get into it. So we have this relatively short reading from the Torah, from Genesis. And it's a really nice story. And there's all these things going on. But the entire story hangs on one single word. It's near the end of the reading. The word “believed”. You know, when I read this, you know, maybe I'm just having an attitude about it, but I see Abram, Abraham, as kind of whiny. "Well, gee, God, you haven't given me this. You haven't done this for me. You haven't done that for me." And God's response is to teach Abram, Abraham, by analogy, the stars. And he believed. This entire story is all about the word believed.
Now, this is one of those Sundays when the lectionary people make it easy, because as you can clearly see, what we read from Genesis is reappearing in Hebrews. It's a great little link, and I invite you to see it as a type of commentary or explication of the reading about Abram, Abraham, from Genesis. The author of Hebrews takes that story and explicitly casts it as an example of faith as assurance, being convinced, or in the old language being convicted, that something you hope for is going to happen even if you never live to see it.
Again, God promises Abraham about the future, allegorically the stars in the night sky and the sand, which you note that that was not in the text in the Torah. That's maybe just raise your eyebrows. But it's a vision of the future. Now, having a vision of the future. You can apply that to climate issues, racial justice issues, the war in Ukraine, so many, many things. It's that big. So having a vision of the future can be the biggest thing you ever have. Now, I invite you to put a little pin in what I just said, because I'm going to return to this vision of the future in a little bit. But for now, I'd like to stop and discuss Hebrews, the Epistle itself.
Now, I actually was blessed to read every single word of it in the Coine A Greek in a class, literally every single word. I won't mention how I fibbed my way through some of my Greek knowledge, but anyway, the Greek text is stunning. It for me was like something out of our lovely 1971 Willy Wonka film. Remember that beautiful river of chocolate? It's like that. You're just, like, floating down that beautiful river of chocolate with this Greek text. Except, of course, there's no fat shaming of a German kid in the intake valve at the end. That's a disturbing movie.
But anyway, the Greek text is beautiful, but it flows completely differently from anything the apostle Paul or anyone who wrote in his name ever wrote. One specific feature it lacks the customary introduction, like the Pauline epistles usually start with Paul, a slave of God, or Paul a follower of Christ.
So in short, we have no clear idea who wrote this, this masterful volume. Now, over the centuries, there's been a lot of debate, some of it very heated over the way it was written, where it came from, what the point was and all that. And over the centuries, different theories have come and gone, and some of them have come back over the years. So I'm going to present my favorite theory. It was written by a woman, period. That intro greeting is missing because the writings of a woman would have been ignored by the men who fancied themselves as, cynical air quote, "in charge" of the church. For me, I call it the Priscilla Theory. And you're thinking, Who the hell is Priscilla?
Well, Priscilla and her husband, Aquila, are mentioned six times in the New Testament. They were itinerant evangelists, but four of those six times Priscilla's name appears before Aquila's. Is this a transcription error? Four times in different epistles? Maybe not, but it does raise my eyebrows and I choose at the risk of derision from academic peers to believe that Priscilla wrote some or all of this epistle. I do this not based on fact, but based on my desire to life women's voices up, Does God assure me of success at doing that, at times, but I know I will not live to see full equality of the thousands of genders just because I lift up a possible voice of a woman. I am left to take that on faith.
Now, at the risk of theological whiplash, let's pivot to Islam. So this reading and I did specifically note that it's a Shia reading. It's from a very early collection of sermons preached by the son in law of the Prophet Muhammad. Peace be upon him. And the split between the Sunni and the Shia occurred very early, and by this point, they were already fighting. Just a quick bit of information for those that don't know. Sunni is the far dominant denomination of Islam worldwide. Shia is the second largest.
So when you read this text, it's like I found it very jarring. You know, at first it paints this profoundly different picture. You know, this is like prosperity, gospel, this is work stuff. And it took me a while really doing some deeper analysis to open this reading up.
It even delayed, I'll confess, delayed my submission of today's readings to Ric, with an ongoing nod of profound appreciation for everything Ric does for us. By the way. Here's the key. This Islamic reading is two mandates, not one. Now, now, stick with me, because this can get a little confusing. The first mandate is saying to gather up as much, I'll use the word carnal, just meaning physical, mortal stuff, wealth, power and pleasure. Gather up as much as you can in this life in order to return all of it to God when you die. So you still can't really take it with you. It's a guarantee of a future paradise. But it's price is everything you accumulate. It's a 100% tax bracket.
And then there's that second mandate, harvest. Harvest, while still meeting the responsibilities of your brief physical life. Okay, that's nice. But I encourage us to take it literally. These words came from a desert culture. The harvest was physical, as in food. We must always remember that all of the Abrahamic religions arose from cultures that lived on the verge of starvation in a harsh climate always for them. Paradise would be a place where there was enough food. Not wealth, not dollars and cents, but bread. And why would the early Shia followers believe this? Because it was the words of a preacher that they saw as the rightful heir to what Muhammad, peace be upon him, started. They took it on. They.
Now, I could go on with hundreds, thousands of more examples. Get me started on Star Wars, and we'll be here all night. But that's it, folks. We're still where we began with that question : "What is faith?" And that's why I encourage you to take a minute to think about your own answer, because I don't have a nice, easy answer for you. And perhaps it's not my role. And after all the work I put into this sermon and there was a lot more than it might sound, I still don't really have an answer to that question.
But here's what I do know. I know that I wrote this sermon hoping it would work. Did I have that unwavering assurance, like in Hebrews? Oh, hell no. If I'm honest, my ego is involved in this. I want to show off my seminary smarts, and I want to impress you with my public speaking skills. But there's the rub. At this point, I have no control over whether this sermon worked. That is a decision you make for yourself.
With that said. So a couple of minutes ago, I told you to put a pin in something. Vision for the future. I am going to close today with dialog from one of my top ten favorite films of all time. Not a Star Wars film or Lord of the Rings film. It's from 1997. It's the film Contact, and it's based on Carl Sagan's masterpiece, 1985 novel. Now, the dialog I'm going to read occurs near the end of the film. It is a heated exchange in a congressional panel of inquiry. Sound familiar? Between a scientist played by Jodie Foster and the national security director, played by the one everybody loves to hate. James Woods. You'll see why I close with this. And I offer it to you as something to ponder, as you think about the question, what is faith?
“Is it possible that it didn't happen?”
“Yes. As a scientist, I must concede that I must volunteer that.”
“Wait a minute. Let me get this straight. You admit that you have absolutely no physical evidence to back up your story.”
“You admit that you may very well have hallucinated this whole thing?”
“You admit that if you were in my position, you would respond with exactly the same degree of incredulity and skepticism?”
“Then why don't you simply withdraw your testimony and concede that your journey to the center of the galaxy never took place?”
“Because I can't. I had an experience. I can't prove it. I can't even explain it. But everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am, tells me that it was real. I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever. A vision of the universe that tells us undeniably how tiny and insignificant and how rare and precious we all are. A vision that tells us that we belong to something greater than ourselves, that we are not, that none of us are alone. I wish I could share that. I wish that everyone, if only for one moment, could feel that awe and humility. And hope. But that continues to be my wish.“
Let us pray.
We know it is out there. Whether from the words of a rabbi, an unnamed pastor, Priscilla, or an imam. The signs are all around us and in us. Help us to tune ourselves to the frequency of those signs. Let us all walk toward God. Let us come to believe those promises and let us know that we are not, that none of us are ever alone. In faith in the risen Christ. Amen.