On Having Faith vs. Living Faith
October 2, 2022
Behold, he whose soul is not upright in him shall fail, but the righteous shall live by his faith.
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” And the Lord said, “If you had faith as a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be rooted up, and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.
“Will any one of you, who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep, say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and sit down at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and gird yourself and serve me, till I eat and drink; and afterward you shall eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”
Today’s sermon is titled On Having Faith vs. Living Faith.
My youngest children started their first year of high school a month ago and they have to be down at the crossroads to catch the bus at 6:15. We’ve been setting our alarms for 5:30 and that is very early for me. It has taken me years of practice to establish a healthy pattern with starting my day and now I am having to start all over again.
You may remember me speaking about using those first few waking moments to frame a positive thought, and how that practice can radically shape the day ahead. For years, I have practiced forming the thought and feeling of the words “Thank you” as my first waking impression. I don’t say the words out loud, but I don’t just “think” the words, either. There is a feeling of gratitude that I aim to conjure, and genuinely experience, before I get up out of bed and begin my day. It was working beautifully for a very long time. Even on days I was dreading, I could dispel the dread with this practice of being grateful and starting my day from a place of gratitude. But I have to say, at 5:30 in the morning, with only a hint of light in the sky, I am not grateful for much of anything except my warm bed.
I’ve had to modify my practice. Now, in those first waking moments when I am stirring, I say, “thank you that I am able…” Some mornings it is “thank you that I am able to get out of this bed.” Other mornings it is “thank you that I am able to face the work set before me today.” A simple “thank you” is no longer sufficient to counteract my resistance; I needed something more.
The disciples in our story from Luke today are also asking for something more. They are asking for more faith. Jesus has been telling parable after parable about putting faith in God instead of riches, practicing radical forgiveness, caring for our neighbors, and establishing justice at our gates. It’s a lot for these disciples to take in; it’s a lot for us to take in, too. The disciples ask Jesus, “Increase our faith.” Jesus tells them, you don’t need more faith. Even a little faith can do what may seem impossible. Jesus says they need to live their faith.
For one of my classes, I have been reading a book titled Stages of Faith by James Fowler. In reading his work, I realize that I have misunderstood faith. I always thought that faith is something we acquire through experience, something we cultivate and nurture so we can then put it into practice and lead more fulfilling lives. We hear remarks like, “She has a strong faith” in the same way we might say “She has a strong dog.” Faith is not what we have; faith is what we do.
Faith is not a power that, if we possess it, we can move mountains. Faith is a power that we have and if we learn how to practice it, to live it, we can handle anything life has in store for us. We have faith whether we are Christian or Buddhist, Muslim or Hindu. We have faith if we are agnostic or atheist. Faith is not a product of religion. Faith is a product of being and staying alive. According to the author of the book I am reading, James Fowler, living faithfully begins in our earliest moments of life. As we are born and cared for, as we survive mishaps and learn to navigate complex relationships, we learn who and what to trust and we learn to whom and to what our loyalties belong. We learn faith like we learn to swim. Faith is not what we have; faith is what we do and how we live in the world.
The power of faith is the power to re-frame the circumstances of our lives. This is what I try to do each morning. I try to turn the dread of getting up or the dread of facing my day into the opposite of dread and I can do it with my heart and mind, invisible and imperceptible to anyone else. All I am doing is shifting meaning away from what is unpleasant and shift meaning, instead, shift meaning towards what is more pleasant. For example, instead of placing meaning on how much I want to stay in bed and how unfair it is that I have to get up so early to get the kids off to school, I place meaning in being thankful that I can physically get up and out of bed. I place meaning in being thankful that my children are physically able to go to school and that a bus, that I don’t have to drive, is coming to pick them up and take them there. That, my Friends, is an example of choosing to live faithfully. I’m not letting myself be swallowed up by dread and negative feelings. I’m trying to learn that faith is not what we have; faith is what we do and how we live in the world. Faith is inextricably bound with where and how we find meaning.
Here is James Fowler’s definition of faith: “Faith is a dynamic existential stance, a way of leaning into and finding or giving meaning to the conditions of our lives.” Let’s unpack this a little bit, Friends, because I expect I am not the only one here who might have misunderstood what faith is all about. Fowler writes that faith is how we lean into the conditions of our lives, how we find meaning in the conditions of our lives, or how we give meaning to the conditions of our lives. This is so important, Friends, because these are all choices we make. Do we lean into the conditions of our lives and work with them, or just gripe about them and gripe about the people we hold responsible? Do we find life meaningful? If not, are we looking for meaning in our lives? And to what do we give meaning to in our lives? Do we spend our time dreading and worrying about what might happen or do we, instead, give meaning to what we are able to do right now, even if it’s something as simple as putting one foot in front of another or rolling out of bed? We hear of people losing faith. People can not lose faith; people can only stop living faithfully when true meaning is missing from their lives.
Let’s go back to Fowler’s definition of faith. And, by the way, his work is based on the work of Erickson, Piaget and Kohlberg, names the educators among us will recognize as experts in the field of human development. Fowler writes, “Faith is a dynamic existential stance, a way of leaning into and finding or giving meaning to the conditions of our lives.” His use of the words “dynamic existential stance” define faith as an ever-changing, dynamic part of how we exist in the world. I love the pairing of the words “dynamic existential stance.” Stance is our position, how we stand in the world, how we place ourselves in the world. Do we move towards life, or shield ourselves from it or brace ourselves against it?
Yesterday I gathered with Friends in a service to honor the life of a very good Friend of mine, one of three who have died in the past year. My Friend, Ed Brooks, was diagnosed with terminal cancer of the jaw many months ago and I witnessed him, time and again, leaning into the circumstances of his life, not his death. I witnessed him, time and again, finding meaning in his life, giving meaning to his life, living his life and sustaining relationships. His dying did not eclipse his living and that, my dear Friends, is living faithfully. In living faithfully, fear has no foothold; fear comes and goes, as it should.
Jesus was frequently frustrated with his disciples’ resistance to living more faithfully. He was quoted as saying things like, “you of little faith.” Jesus speaks of faith 41 times in the Second Testament. Only once does he commend someone for their faith and I will close with that story.
In Luke chapter 7, Jesus was dining at the home of one of the religious leaders when a woman from the village came asking for Jesus. The woman had a tarnished reputation and the host wanted to send her away, but Jesus beckoned her in. The woman, with tears flowing, knelt at Jesus’s feet and washed them, dried them with her hair, and anointed his feet with nard. The other men gathered there were astonished that Jesus would even allow such a woman to touch him, but Jesus did not judge. What Jesus saw was a woman who took his message to heart. What Jesus saw was a woman who believed the good news he was sharing, that all people are children of God, all are forgiven, and an abundant life is available to each and every one. She was seeking change, she was leaning in to the promise of new life, she was giving meaning, she was living faithfully. Jesus said to her, “Faith has set you free. Go in peace.”
Friends, I pray that we will no longer feel as if we lack the faith to cope with the circumstances of our lives. May we live in faith, fully aware of the wealth and depth of meaning all around us. So be it. Amen.
Beloved God, source of faith and hope and love, guide us in ways of living faithfully in the world. May we find comfort in Friendship, satisfaction in serving others, and an abiding sense that goodness, that God-ness, is at work in our world. Help us to slow down and experience the rich meaning that is around us each day in the beauty and perfection of nature, in the warmth of connection with Friends and family, and even in the spark of recognition with those we do not yet know as we pass one another along the pathways of our daily lives. This I pray in the name of Jesus, who taught us to pray faithfully by saying… Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
I leave you with these words from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 3:
“May you be strengthened in your inner being with power through God’s spirit–may Christ dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.”