Monday, November 14, 2016

Faith, Doubt, Fear, Hope

November 13, 2016 – The 26th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 28C
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon as written below and as preached at 8:00am is available here. As sometimes happens, I wasn't satisfied with the sermon I wrote or preached at 8:00am, so I preached a somewhat different sermon at 10:30am. If you'd like to listen to that one, click here.

This morning, I’d like to start the sermon with a little congregational participation. I will say a word, and then I want you to say the opposite. Sound easy enough? Let’s give it a try.

Up. Down.
Left. Right.
Hot. Cold.
Black. White.

Good job so far. Those were the easy ones. Let’s keep going,

Protestant. Catholic.
Liberal. Conservative.
Rich. Poor.
Faith. ???

What is the opposite of faith? Is it doubt? I don’t think so. I believe that doubt is a healthy part of faith. Doubt keeps faith honest. Without the questions and the hesitations of doubt, faith becomes meaningless. It becomes blind, thoughtless agreement—believing in something without really meaning it. Anything worth believing in comes with a healthy dose of doubt. I think the opposite of faith is fear. And I think Jesus wants us to have the kind of faith that can handle moments of doubt but that puts all fear to rest.

“Do you see this temple?” Jesus asked. “All these beautiful stones and precious ornaments—the time is coming when not one of them will be left upon another. Everything will be thrown down.” Isn’t Jesus just the sort of conversationalist one would want at his Thanksgiving table? The temple was the symbol that held God’s people together. To predict its destruction was to predict the destruction of their homeland. They were already under Roman occupation. How much worse could it get?

“When will this be?” they asked him. “Tell us what sign we should look for as a warning that this is about to take place.” I don’t blame them for asking. Wouldn’t you want to know how long you had until the Statue of Liberty or the Capitol Building—each a symbol of our national identity—was destroyed? But Jesus didn’t really give them an answer. “Many will come and say, ‘I am he!’ and ‘The time has come!’ but don’t believe them…because things will get even worse.”

Jesus said, “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified. This must happen first, but the end will not follow immediately. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes and famines and plagues. And there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. But, still, that’s not all.

“Before any of this occurs, you will be arrested. You will be persecuted. You will be imprisoned…You will be betrayed even by your own parents and brothers, your relatives and your friends. Some of you will even be executed. All of you will be hated because of my name. But don’t worry. Not a hair on your head will perish.”

Up until that last part, this sounded like some sort of deranged pep talk. It seemed like Jesus was telling them not to worry because, even though the whole world was going to come crashing down on top of them, he had plan for their escape. But, when Jesus told them that some of them would be executed yet not a hair on their head will perish, we knew that the jig was up. That’s the kind of otherworldly rabbi-speak that lets us know that Jesus wasn’t talking about being saved from the catastrophes of this world but being saved through them. “By your endurance,” he told them, “you will gain your souls.”

But how does that work? How could Jesus tell his followers that terrible things would happen to them yet encourage them not to worry? How were they ever going to make it through arrest and persecution and betrayal and execution without even a hair on their head being lost? How are we supposed to face wars and insurrections and famines and plagues without losing hope? How do we say to someone whose life is falling apart, “Don’t give up; everything will be ok?” Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t know how that works. I just know that it does.

What is it that we are really afraid of anyway? Is it death? Is it financial ruin? Is it political turmoil? Is it isolation from our family and friends? Is it a massive, public failure? Whatever it is, I’ll suggest to you that the part that really bothers us isn’t what might happen but when and how. We all know that there will be another financial crisis even bigger than the last one. And there will be political divisions even more rancorous than this one. There will be wars more devastating than any we’ve ever seen. There will be famines and plagues like nothing we can imagine. We will experience hurricanes and earthquakes more devastating than any in history. All of that will happen—maybe not in our lifetime, maybe not in our children’s lifetime. But, if you wait around long enough, it’s going to happen. It’s the when and the how that keep us up at night.

Just like the people who were speaking to Jesus, we want him to tell us when. We want to be able to prepare ourselves. We want a head start. We at least want to be able to brace ourselves. Even when everything is falling apart, we want some modicum of control. But doubt means living with those unanswered questions, and faith means letting go of that need for control.

When will it happen? I have no idea. Somedays I think it’s right around the corner, and other times I think that it won’t come for ten thousand generations. How will we survive? What will happen to our families? What will happen to the church? I don’t know. Can we prepare for it? Probably not. And that’s the point at which faith and fear collide. We don’t know when it will happen, and we can’t know how we’ll make it. We have to live with those unanswerable questions for the rest of our lives. The question Jesus is asking us is will we let that uncertainty define us, or will we believe that, no matter what happens and no matter when it comes, God will be with us?
Faith means believing that God is with us no matter what happens. It doesn’t mean believing that tragedy will not come. Being a Christian doesn’t get you out of trouble. If anything, following Jesus means more trouble, more hardship, more heartache. But those of us who follow Jesus know that we are not alone on this journey. We may not know exactly when or how we will get where we are going, but we believe and trust that we will. We believe because in Christ we have seen God transform death into life. In the cross and empty tomb, we see that God is with the forsaken one—that in God no one is ever lost. Even if everything we have and everything we are is taken from us, we cannot be taken away from the love of God. That hope shatters all fear. Doubts may linger, and that’s ok. But will we believe that no matter what happens God will always be with us? Will we trust that in him we have no reason to fear?

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