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A post-homiletical discourse delivered by the Rev. Dr. James R. Beebe

Rector, St. Patrick’s Church, Incline Village, Nevada, July 17, 2011

Text:  Romans 8:24 – “For who hopes for what is seen?”



     Someone once said that faith is believing in something you know perfectly well isn’t true.  I think that’s a tad cynical.  So I called him on it, telling him that he had just stated his faith.  He didn’t like that.  Oh, well….


     This morning I’m going to mess with you.  I’m going to tell you that faith is exactly what you don’t want. 


     In one of the most famous passages in the New Testament, the writer of Hebrews provides us with a definition of “faith”:  “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Biblical scholars pore over the layers of nuanced meaning.  Theologians wax rhapsodic in its rich metaphorical potential.  Preachers gush about how faith is that solid anchor that holds your life together as forces conspire to explode it.  I think they’re all wrong….


     I think Jacques Ellul has it wired.  Ellul was a French philosopher, theologian and law professor who piqued his more conventional colleagues with the kinds of radical statements that Jesus himself might have made.  Here’s his take on what faith is:

     First and foremost, faith is not belief.  Belief provides answers to people's questions while faith never does.   People believe to find assurance, a solution, an answer to their questions to fashion for themselves a system of beliefs.  Ways of thinking and acting are rigidly codified.  

     Believers are the people of gatherings.  Believers find encouragement and certitude in the presence of others ­ the certitude that those others really believe ­ and so community life fills up the existential void.  Their belief keeps them busy.  So diversity can’t be tolerated.  Diversity is always a source of further questions, of self-criticism, and thus of possible doubt ­ so belief is rapidly transformed into passwords, rites, and orthodoxy.


     Faith presupposes doubt while belief excludes it.  Faith is summarized in the words, "I believe; help my unbelief.”   Faith constrains me above all to measure how much I don't live by faith; how seldom faith fills up my life.  It leads me to question all my certitudes, all my moralities, beliefs, and policies.   It forbids me to attach ultimate significance to any expression of human activity.  Faith leaves nothing intact.

     But here’s a major distinction: this doubt concerns myself, not God's revelation or His love or the presence of Jesus Christ.  The Kingdom of heaven is in you or among you.  As of now it is you who constitute it.  Faith is the demand that we must embody the Kingdom of God now in this world and this age.

     That’s pretty tough stuff.  Especially when we have the author of Hebrews using words like “assurance” and “things hoped for.”  But here’s the thing about being a follower of Jesus:  you have no assurance.  But that’s also exactly why real, risky, faith changes things.  And belief does not….


     OK, so how does that play out in the life of the church?  Usually, pretty badly.  [From Disciples of Christ in Community:  the Gospel According to Mark]  Here’s a fable that pretty much says it all:


     Once upon a time in a kingdom far, far away there was a wide valley between two high mountain ranges.  The valley had rich farm land and abounded in game and the river supplied an ample variety of fish.  So lavish was the valley that it tempted poachers and thieves.  Every spring the farmers faced armed gangs, intending to steal from the fields and livestock.  The king lived far away, on the other side of the mountains, so he asked a trusted ally to oversee the valley to restore security.


     This new ally drew on ancient skills and, in time, established orders of knights and squires, calling upon them to protect the valley from interlopers.  In battle after battle he led them to victory.  And gradually, peace returned to the valley.  It wasn’t long before the farms once again flourished and the farmers were able to till the soil without fear.  In time, they were able to build trading ships to carry produce down the river to distant ports.


     To accomplish this, however, the farmers who owned large plots of land had to hire others to till the soil, plant the crops and harvest them.  Because the overall economy was prosperous, people generally overlooked the fact that the landowners offered only minimum wages, with no benefits.  Soon, the valley system became one of haves and have-nots. 


     As the external threats became a distant memory, new questions arose among the landowners.  Was there really a need for a new wing on the castle?  Did the knights need new swords every year?  Was it necessary for the people of the valley to send money and troops to help far-off kings fight battles in other valleys.  Couldn’t taxes be lowered?


     Over time, the Lord discovered two ways for dealing with field workers who insisted on verbalizing their complaints.  The most reliable method was to recognize the questioning as a sign of potential leadership.  Workers asking such questions were invited to become special trainees in the school of the knights.  They studied diplomacy and philosophy.  They learned to wield weapons and graduated to become squires and, if they did well, were knighted.


     They sat in the councils of the Lord, but, interestingly, their questions about the rights and wrongs of the exercise of power tended to disappear.  They discovered that the way of the knights was, after all, the right way.  The working underclass were pleased to see that some of “their own” were making it among the knights and they cheered lustily for the ex-worker knights in annual castle tournaments.


     But the Lord had another, quite exquisite, approach with other articulate critics.  If one were particularly impassioned, the Lord would invite that critic to address council meetings, giving special honor, asking the critic to repeat the most appalling things about the inequities of the system.  Council members listened carefully, taking copious notes. 


     They then sent the critics home with strong applause and statements of genuine gratitude.  Their farmer colleagues were proud of them and their outspokenness, “telling it like it is” even to the powers that be.  Those who spoke their criticisms most forcefully were celebrated and even sent by the Lord to speak in other valleys, where both they and their Lord became known for their challenging approach to change.  But not much changed.


     Jesus taught us to love our enemies, to forgive seventy times seven, to give the shirts off our backs, “for truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”


So how much has changed?