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What is faith?

3 Put your trust in the Lord and do good; * 
dwell in the land and feed on its riches.

4 Take delight in the Lord, * 
and he shall give you your heart’s desire.

5 Commit your way to the Lord and put your trust in him, * and he will bring it to pass. (Psalm 37:3-5)

We were supposed to be worshipping together today beside our beautiful, and soon to be resting, Gideon’s Garden. But Fall in New England is a fickle thing. One day it is warm enough for shorts and t-shirts where you cannot get enough of the warm sun on your face and the colors just dance in the sunlight. And the next moment cold damp air descends, the sky is gray and you need a wool parka and a scarf to keep out the deep chill. One thing is for sure, we will offer a blessing for our precious animals following worship today. We will gather outside in this garden and give thanks to God for their presence in our lives and we will offer a blessing that they may enjoy their days on this earth. 

Life can be like our New England weather. One moment everything can be sunny. We may just skip through life being loved and supported, finding good work to do that is appreciated, resting in the kindness of generous friends and family, and trusting in finding a welcoming and warm place at the end of a long day to rest our weary bodies and souls. And then, without warning or time to catch our breath, we have people and things we cherish, depend on, see as central to our lives–taken away or changed suddenlya beloved partner, child, or family member; a relationship; a job; a sense of well-being; our health. And suddenly we are left trying to find a place of refuge from unforeseen chaos, where we try to shield our broken heart by curling in, hunkering down, seeking shelter against what is suddenly cold and hostile.  

In these raw times, when the ground beneath us is shaken and we have not found something to hold onto that will steady our jarred lives, someone may step forward and offer what seems to them hopeful advice—”well at least you have your faith to give you strength.” 

And once you have gathered yourself and resisted the strong urge to hurt this “helpful” person, you can begin asking yourself—what does that even mean? What is faith? How is faith helpful when the wind and waves toss you about and batter your tiny boat of security?

In our reading today from Luke’s gospel, the disciples of Jesus are asking for more faith to help them follow him. The road of discipleship has not been easy since these men and, yes, women, left behind their homes, their work and their families to follow this itinerant rabbi. They have faced hardship and hostility.  But they have stuck around, even for this final journey toward Jerusalem, even when they have received a warning of what is to come. The teachings seem overwhelming and the disciples feel underequipped. So they turn to Jesus and ask him to “increase their faith.” 

In our own world’s days of turmoil and fear, we can empathize with the disciples when faith wavers. It seems like something I might have asked. “Please Jesus, give me more! Please give me something that will give me clarity, help me take the next step, let me know that the path I am following is the right one for my well-being and healing.” But Jesus does not give them more. Instead he tells them that if they had the faith of a mustard seed, they could command a mulberry tree to uproot itself, transport itself, and put down roots in the sea. In other words, you have more than enough faith to follow me and face what life gives you. 

So what is faith? Let’s start with what I have come to believe faith is not. First faith is not something we can increase on our own. Faith is not a product of our efforts. We may see it as a muscle that we develop by right belief, dedicated study, active participation in worship, and consistent prayer. And while these disciplines will certainly enhance our journey in life, it will not increase our faith. Neither our hard work nor our fierce determination will increase our faith.

And faith is not achieved through our belief in an unshakeable certainty as to how the world works or how our lives will progress. Faith is not gained through airtight theology or indisputable knowledge. And faith is certainly not the opposite of doubt. In fact if anything, the opposite of faith is certainty. Having faith does not mean that we will never struggle with unbelief, distrust, or anxiety. Instead we like our brother and sister disciples must live with doubt and uncertainty as we face the challenges of life while living in the story that tells us of God who loves us and the world so passionately that God will stop at nothing until we all are gathered together in wholeness and love. Faith requires equal measures of imagination and courage.

So what is faith? Faith is God’s continuous relationship with us. Faith is God’s gift to us. Faith is God’s deep place that lives within us. Faith is an ever present love. Faith is a living, creative, active, and powerful thing. Faith is God who is always saying “Yes!’, always seeking us, always being present in our lives. Faith is available. Faith is God working in us to open us, to soften us, so that we can feel God’s mercy and accept God’s grace. Faith is the patient presence of God that gently opens our mind and hearts to the reality that God is always accessible to us—always acting in the world. Imani Perry in her book Breathe writes, “There is a form of faith, the sanctifying one, that is the stuff of your soul. It is not defined by moments of mercy or opportunity; it is not good things happening to you. Rather it is the good thing that is in you, regardless of what happens. You carry this in you…It is what made the ancestors hold on so that we could become.”[1]

Faith is always about movement. I do not believe that God has our lives all planned out that we either follow or veer from at our peril. But with all my heart and all my mind, I believe that God sees and knows us and loves us intimately. And God is always coming alongside to support us as we journey in this life. Faith is God’s extravagant decision to love and pursue us. Faith is Jesus walking with us one step at a time, day after day. For the long haul. 

Faith is important in our lives whether our lives are full sunshine or ripped with storms. We live in our fullness through faith. We may never feel as if we have enough or that we can do enough with what we have. But Jesus tells his followers that though they may feel overwhelmed and underequipped, they have all the faith they need because all faith is available to them through him. Jesus assures us that we don’t need more faith to move mountains, to transplant trees, to survive great trials, to support others in need, to be faithful to the work we have been given. A bit of faith, a bit of love goes a long way.

It is often not easy. Sometimes with God’s grace we are filled with the strength that allows us to achieve great things. Sometimes our struggles only leave us weak and tired. But we never walk alone. Faith carries us into the abundant arms of God.  Faith is for times like these, to help us navigate whatever comes our way. There are deep wells of strength, wisdom, and courage available to us through God’s love. We are surrounded by ancestors who bravely faced the challenges of their lives and remind us what resilience looks like. And we have companions in this life who come along just in time to offer us a hand or a word or a place of refuge to help us make our way together.

The disciples were frightened and unsure. But Jesus reminds them that they are never lacking or alone. Jesus reminds them and us that even the smallest bit of faith is all that is needed. That in the presence and abundance of God, the faith they have will see them and us through.

Faith does sustain us in times of struggle. It may not be immediately apparent at a precise moment. It may take time for the pain or the disappointment or the anger to loosen its grip on us even a bit. But as we open our hearts, unclench our fists, to allow ourselves to turn toward God’s love, we can find that even a little bit of faith, and grace, and love goes a long way. Mirabai Starr writes, “When you breathe into the pain of your losses, you detect the presence of a smoldering ember you thought had been snuffed out years ago. But there it is, fragrant and warm. If you blew on it now it would burst into flame. Longing. Longing for God.”[2] We may never feel we have enough or that we can do enough. But it does not matter as much, because it does not all depend on us. God is always waiting to embrace us in love.  

Let Everything Happen  

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,

—then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,

go to the limits of your longing.

Embody me.

Flare up like flame and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.

Just keep going. 

No feeling is final.

Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.

You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.[3]

 Rainer Maria Rilke  

[1] Imani Perry. Breathe. Beacon Press, 2019

[2] Mirabai Starr. Wild Mercy: Living the Fierce and Tender Wisdom of the Women Mystics. Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2019, p.43.

[3] Rainer Maria Rilke. “Let everything happen.” Book of Hours: Love poems to God.