Falling Down and Rising Up
As we get closer to the end of the church year, it feels a bit as though we get closer to the end of time. At least it sounds a bit that way from the lessons we hear this week and next. Both in the reading we heard from Daniel this morning, and in the very short gospel reading from Mark today, we get a sense of foreboding—of bad things happening, or about to happen, on a large scale.
I don’t know about you, but this feels particularly timely to me somehow. The terrible fires in California, and the devastation they have caused, seem like a kind of metaphor for what seems to be happening to the institutions and the values we have trusted for generations. It seems like so much of what we have relied on for both guidance and assurance is going up in smoke.
You might have seen the series in the New York Times this past week, examining in frightening detail the ways in which people outside our country are using our technologies of social networking to turn us against each other. I heard an interview with the author of the series this past week, and I was shaken by one thing he said: The people who are doing this have as a goal getting us to a place in which we no longer believe in anything.
Because if that happens, there is nothing to hold on to, no values we share in common. We will be in the place Hannah Arendt described decades ago as the condition of totalitarianism—where everything is possible, and nothing is true.
We are people of faith in the midst of all of that. It is not easy, this work of faith we share. If there is a single idea that suffuses the historical moment in which we live, that idea is doubt. We doubt our institutions; we doubt our ideas; we doubt our virtues; we doubt our history; sometimes we even doubt each other.
There could be nothing more dehumanizing than to extinguish in people the capacity for belief. Without it, the basic functioning of society would be impossible. There can be no society in the absence of belief.
Almost in the teeth of this idea comes the Epistle reading from Hebrews, with its image of quiet, patient, confident faith. It is a reminder that our faith is not some abstract, intellectual exercise; it is a relationship with another, a holy other, on the other side of which is that loving other who is keeping faith with us.
The writer of Hebrews sees something about this that speaks directly to our historic moment. It is almost as though in this small little text we heard this morning we are hearing described another Trinity, a different understanding of the Trinity—a trinity that is not about the three-fold nature of God, but about the nature of how we and God are supposed to be in relationship. We are meant to have faith in God, because God has faith in us; and because God has faith in us, we are meant to have faith in each other, too.
Those gentle words about encouraging each other and provoking each other to love each other and do good deeds—those are not Hallmark card sentiments. Those are not Pollyannaish, mawkish sentiments. Those are hard-edged, practical disciplines. They are exactly the things we need to do to get ourselves through the times in which we live.
It is a bit of wisdom common to all of the great religious traditions that we get good at what we practice. The old Anglican way of saying this is caught up the four-word Latin phrase lex orandi, lex credendi—what you pray, you end up believing, or somewhat more gently, praying shapes belief.
Sometimes we have this idea that our beliefs shape our practice—that we begin in a place with a strong set of things we believe in, and we enact those beliefs by religious practice. But that turns out to be pretty much the reverse of what’s true. What we believe ends up being shaped by what we do, and not the other way around.
People who are “spiritual but not religious,” they have a practice, too; it’s just that their practice is the discipline of avoiding engagements with communities of other people that might in some way place constraints on their freedom, their time, their possibilities.
So what is your practice? And how has it shaped what you believe, in the very core of your being?
We are people of faith who have drawn the lot of living our lives in a moment of history that privileges proof over faith. Some of our ancestors lived in very different times and under very different conditions. In the long history of the church there have been times that people privileged the supernatural over the natural, magic over science. In those moments, the church stood for the importance of inquiry and scholarship.
It is not an accident that in those years the first universities emerged, and that they were all in some way connected to the church.
In our day, the church stands for the possibility of the sacred and the realm of the holy in a moment that wants to reduce every aspect of human existence to the material, the commercial, and the digital. We stand for the conviction that the ability to hold and be guided by a belief is part of what it means to be fully human. And we stand for the truth that true freedom can only be found when our lives are bound up in community with others.
You all know that I have recently and somewhat suddenly had occasion to spend time in various places in Europe. More of that time is ahead of me. One of the things I found oddly comforting about walking around in cities far older than anything here was the realization that churches have been opening and closing in Europe for literally hundreds of years—from long before the World Wars, long before the age of nationalism, long before the Enlightenment and the Reformation.
Churches, nations, institutions—all of them come and go. I’m told that Jeff Bezos recently told a gathering of staff at Amazon that even Amazon will fail someday.
But the faith—the faith endures. God’s offer of a covenant relationship with us, and the sealing of that relationship in the moment of our baptism—that endures. God’s call to us to be in community with each other to better understand how God loves us—that endures. God’s hope that we will respond to this offer of grace by acting in faith to worship and to follow—that endures.
So that is our call as disciples. That is our challenge. We must persevere in prayer and in meeting together. We must persevere in encouraging each other and provoking each other to good works. Our prayer, our practice, our actions shape our beliefs. So let us choose actions, let us offer prayers, that will shape in us deeper belief, confident belief, passionate belief, in the loving God who despite everything believes in us. Amen.