Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 & Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
I am grateful to be with you this morning. At times when the news of the world is overwhelming, it is good to gather together as a community of faith. In the past week, our lives have been filled with talk about unspeakable acts of violence in San Antonio and Dayton. We mourn the loss of those whose lives were taken so suddenly. We call out the violence which is endemic in our society. We cry out against words that justify hate. Each new act of gun violence brings an opportunity for moral reckoning. How did we get here? How have we failed? What do we need to change direction? Our answers will be varied, but we all share the experience of seeing something unrecognizable in the state of our country. Most of us think we have lost something, though we disagree about what we have lost. Some say it is a homogeneous culture from a bygone time and others founding principles that extolled human rights. From the earliest days of the country, Americans have felt like they have lost something. Preachers way back in the Great Awakening expounded an “American jeremiad”, a fiery warning that Americans had fallen away from God’s favor and needed to return to avoid catastrophic punishment. This impulse to the purity or holiness of the earliest days of our country has resurfaced throughout our nation’s history. It was employed by preachers in movements of spiritual awakening. It rang out in the Civil Rights movement whose leaders called us as a nation to be better, to live up to our principles. Martin Luther King, Jr. made a forceful argument that the nation faced a choice between perpetuating injustice for African-Americans or living up to its creed that all people are created equal. One of the most eloquent calls for America to recall its early visions and transcend its troubled history was penned by the poet Langston Hughes in 1935. Here is a portion of the poem, “Let America be America Again”:
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
In this courageous hope, there is faith. Faith that we as a country are more than what we have been. Faith that there are core values and principles that call us to something better. Faith to grasp for things hoped for and to claim the assurance of things unseen.
Faith is a word with contested meanings. The passage from Hebrews today contains the famous line defining faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” As it is used today, “faith” usually means a set of beliefs that can be intellectually accepted. However, the words “faith” and “belief” have not always been identical. Wilfred Cantwell Smith is a historian who has traced the relationship between the words faith and belief. He explains why the word “faith” gives us problems. Since in English “faith” was used only as a noun, the verb became “to believe.” This verb was taken from the German, belieben meaning to hold dear, to prize, to love or give allegiance. The Latin word is credo meaning literally “I set my heart.” The point is that the word “believe” meant to engage in an activity that included more than the mind, an action of “setting one’s heart” that involved the whole person. Over the years, the meaning of the word “faith” has changed. It is now used to show lack of confidence or trust, like “Do you think it is true?” “Well, I believe so.” You could even replace “believe” with the word “guess.” It has come to mean something that is primarily an exercise of the mind, just another thought that can be dismissed as mere opinion. Rather than to give oneself to something wholeheartedly, “to believe” has come to mean agreeing with an idea. Smith argues that we have even fallen into the “heresy” of requiring belief as the primary evidence of faith; “heresy” is a strong word, but he uses it because to him, these requirements are backwards. Faith is a stance, a willingness, a trust, that is prior to belief. To have faith means to be willing to believe, it means to make the “leap of faith” that makes it possible to place one’s trust wholeheartedly.
This distinction is important in today’s world. Equating “faith” with “belief” has contributed to the perception that faith is irrelevant. If not irrelevant, then cordoned off into a merely private world of ideas that are unrelated to the rest of life. I am a college chaplain, and this is especially apparent on campus. “Faith” is a word that is suspect to many students. They don’t want someone telling them what they must believe. The majority of students identify as non-religious and by this they simply mean that they do not adhere to one of the world’s religions. Since they choose “none of the above” when asked to pick their religion on a survey, they are called “nones”. These are the new nones, not the ones with habits. They do not claim to believe what they think they are supposed to believe to claim a religious label. It does not mean that they do not have faith. According to Elizabeth Drescher, a former professor at Bangor Theological Seminary who now teaches in California, most even believe in God. They just don’t accept a set of beliefs that come from one religion or another. Though they are unsure of beliefs, they are open to exploring what people find meaningful and the practices that lead to more awareness, compassion, or sustained action to change unjust conditions. They want to know what is worthy of “setting one’s heart”. They are open to developing trust in something inspiring, worthy, and durable.
It may be disconcerting to hear that many college students don’t claim a religious identity. Of course, it is not all their fault. They are a sub-set of what is happening in the wider culture. In recent research, the number of all Americans who fit in the category of “nones” is twenty-five percent. This is alarming for people who find meaning through religion, but when you find out more about who the “nones” are, it is likely that their journey outside of religions is not all that different from our own. To claim our faith means more than asserting that our beliefs are correct. It means making the argument that all people need to place their trust in something. All people need to search out what is ultimately worthy of their commitment. Don’t get me wrong, beliefs are important, not just for the integrity of the beliefs themselves, but because what we believe effects how we act. However, in today’s world, something is missing that comes before the task of defining beliefs. What is missing is a basic sense of trust. An all out wager that there is something worthy of ultimate devotion. A conviction that as vessels of meaning collapse, meaning itself has not collapsed. A belief that there is more to life than “whatever.”
Perhaps the greatest challenge on a college campus and in the wider culture, is to rescue faith from the private world of ideas. Faith has not fared well in that cloister. If faith is mere opinion, then it is easily relegated out of common life. It may have something to do with how we live our lives together as Christians, but it doesn’t offer much instruction for living with people who do not share our beliefs. It leaves us with nothing more than a fair process for exchanging opinions and making sure that no one’s opinions prevent others from forming their own opinions. It is also important in college, because opinion doesn’t fare well in the full blast of withering reason. Every new piece of knowledge can be used as a weapon to nick away at belief. Faith as belief or private opinion has also been banished to the world of interest groups on college campuses, because it is not seen as making any claim to ultimate truth. Of course, as the reasoning goes, only the scientific method can derive ultimate truth. So, what we are left with on college campuses are people staking out territories for particular pieces of knowledge. There are lots of little pieces and people fight hard to make sure their pieces are not lost, but there is no glue holding the pieces together. There is nothing connecting the pieces together into a comprehensive meaning; a beautiful picture that sparkles with everyone’s contribution and shows us a vision of what we can be together.
I read a book once that made me realize that faith has not always meant private belief. It was a book called Knowledge of Angels, and it was about a man from a society something like ours, who was shipwrecked and washed up on the shores of a society which was something like Medieval Christianity. In the new country, religion was the way of life. It was something you were born into, something that defined who you were. Religion bestowed authority on the government and defined the basic laws of the land. It was most certainly not private, and it was not a matter of choice. Shortly upon arriving, the newcomer was asked to define himself by his religion. They needed to know if he was a Christian, Muslim, or Jew, because that would define how he fit into the society and what laws and authorities he would be expected to follow. The newcomer explained that in the world he came from, religion was a matter of private belief, and people could choose what they did and did not believe. The authorities did not know what to do with him. They could not imagine that such a country existed. They could not fathom that there could be a place. The questions followed, how would authority be grounded in such a place, how could competing claims be arbitrated, what would hold the people together? In the end, he did not fit in, there was not room for him. The society could not imagine religion confined to private belief.
It is good that we have come a long way from Medieval Christianity. None of us want to be subject to arbitrary authority that we cannot protest or influence. But the shift to understanding faith as private belief has left us holding individual pieces without knowing how they might fit together. We need a way of making comprehensive meaning out of bits and pieces. We need faith understood as commitment to seek meaning from these pieces of knowledge and belief that each of us hold. We need a willingness to grasp for something more. We need a basic trust that there is something of ultimate worth. What we need is faith. Faith as a venture that craves knowledge and seeks wisdom. Faith as a commitment to wade through a morass of meaninglessness and trivial pursuits in the fierce conviction that there is something worthy of devotion. Faith as a fundamental assurance that there is something worth hoping for, and a conviction that there is ultimate meaning, even if it cannot be seen. Faith is the process of placing one’s trust, placing one’s heart, on what truly matters. As the gospel form Luke puts it, “making purses for ourselves that do not wear out.” Paul Tillich, a well-known Christian theologian, defined faith as “ultimate concern.” In his understanding, we put our faith in and give ourselves wholeheartedly to that which is our ultimate concern. Faith seeks that which is ultimately worthy, it is not satisfied with the merely partial or finite. It is a “passion for the infinite.”
The scriptures today warn us of placing our hearts on things that are not ultimately worthy. As the gospel says, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” It is certainly difficult to place our treasure where “no thief comes near and no moth destroys.” To be a people of faith means being a people who are not satisfied with things that are not truly worthy of ultimate concern. With God’s help we can let go of the things in our lives that do not point us toward God and press on with the assurance that in God life is given a meaning that will not fade or crumble. When we place our hearts on God, we have the assurance that our hearts have found a true home.