Princeton University Religious Life

Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, University of Chicago

The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, University of Chicago
June 8, 2008
Genesis 12: 1-9, Psalm 50: 7-15, Romans 4: 13-25, Matthew 9: 9-13, 18-26

Thank you so much, Laura, and everyone, for the invitation to preach this morning. It is wonderful to be here again among you. You are a special community of people, and I have missed you.

Our four wonderful lessons for today are each about faith. Oh, they concern a number of other things too, but the idea of faith unites them mightily. In Genesis we read of God’s calling of Abraham, and of Sarah and Abraham’s faith in God’s project and protection as they willingly venture off into the unknown. The Psalmist tells us that God does not want our burnt offerings, the rote rituals of religious practice, but rather the sacrifice of a thankful heart, a heart that sees God’s love and mercy everywhere, and that cannot stop saying “thank you!” In Paul’s Letter to the Romans we hear of the righteousness of faith, and only faith, amongst all claims that we might make for our justification before God. And from the evangelist Matthew we have perhaps a self-reporting of a call – the disciple Matthew, a tax collector, sitting at his booth, but who has the faith to abandon his lucrative lifestyle at Jesus’ invitation to follow. And we read of the faith of a bleeding woman and a grieving father – against all common sense (and modern day science) they have faith in Jesus to restore and revive. 

Yep, faith is all over these texts. Heck, it’s all over the place! Everyone’s got faith – or so it seems. Athletes are on their knees before the game, after the game, and between each play. Models have faith. Rock stars have faith. Madonna’s into Kabbalah! Folks can’t get a big enough cross to wear around their neck. And in an election year every politician makes sure we know that they have LOTS of faith.  And at the same time, . . . nobody has faith – our good colleagues, intellectuals, the pundits, our relatives. I think it’s easy to talk about faith, and plenty of people are doing so, but it’s not so easy to say what we mean by “faith,” to really name what we’re talking about. What is faith? I’ve had some fun this week looking up the ideas of various Christians through the ages. Augustine said, “Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.” Aquinas said, “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.” C.S. Lewis has written, “Faith is the art of holding on to things your reason has accepted in spite of your changing moods.” Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” [He could be describing the faith of Abraham, Sarah, and Matthew.] John Donne wrote, “Reason is our soul’s left hand, faith her right.”  Tolstoy said, “Faith is the knowledge of the meaning of human life.” And from someone who arguably spent his career reacting to Christian faith, Friedrich Nietzsche, comes the opinion, “‘Faith’ means not wanting to know what is true.” Maybe one or more of these sayings will ring true to you; maybe none. There certainly is no consensus on the meaning of faith here, and I’m not sorry. Let me offer you now some reflections on faith that are particularly rooted      – to me – in our biblical texts for the day.

In Matthew’s gospel we see a theme that is redolent in scripture: sometimes the people of the deepest and most exemplary faith are those whom society considers the lowest. There is no sentimentalizing of the cruel or of the oppressed, just persistent reminders that our categories of human value fly in the face of the grace of God, for whom all people are of equal and inestimable value, no matter how much they may sin. Matthew is a tax collector; he and his colleagues are loathed by their fellow Jews because they extort money from them. They are collaborators in the brutal Roman occupation. Matthew is no paragon of virtue, but he becomes a paragon of faith, leaving everything, especially his financial privilege, to follow Jesus. Materially, he had a lot to lose. In Matthew’s gospel (with the exception of the late-added story of the adulterous woman) Jesus never reproves sinners. He reproves the “righteous” and “faithful” people who reprove him for hanging out with such lowlifes in the first place. Matthew is writing to us of the bottomless mercy he received from Christ himself, he, the “wretch” as much as anyone from the hymn “Amazing Grace.” And then there’s the woman who is bleeding yet who through faith believes that touching the hem of Christ’s garment will restore her - and therefore it does! She has been ritually unclean for years, restricted in her every movement and the company she can keep. She reaches for the bottom of Christ’s clothing in hopes of not making him unclean, which he would be for a week if she touched his person. Her condition has left her an outsider for a very long time. Christ does not chastise her but praises her faith. I appreciate the contribution of one biblical scholar to our understanding of Christ’s raising of the little girl from the dead. This action, he says, shows that Jesus values girls, and so all Christians should (this at a time when newborn girls were sometimes left to exposure in the elements, either to die there or to be picked up by a passerby to be raised as a slave). In I Peter 3: 7 we read that women are equal inheritors in the Kingdom of God – even more radical news 2,000 years ago than it remains today. Jesus raises from the dead someone who didn’t matter at all. He continually insists that God’s love is for all, and that the faith of some of the people we think are bad or unimportant is the exact faith upon which we should model our very lives.

I think that our texts describe not a faith that but a faith in. Miracles happen to a sick woman and a dead girl. Promises are fulfilled to Sarah, Abraham and Matthew. But the point is not their faith that God or Christ could come through, their faith is simply in God, in Jesus. That’s the kind of faith Jesus recognizes in the hemorrhaging woman. She believes so deeply in him, and so he tells her that kind of faith has made her well. We are absolutely right at all times to be lifting up our heartfelt petitions to God, but not because we have faith that God will respond that and will . . . , but rather simply with faith in God, faith in Jesus.

Our texts show us, too, that faith isn’t a question of how we feel but of what we do. We may feel warmth, even love, for God and Christ, or for others because we love God, and this is wonderful. But it’s not the real content of faith. That is the actions that are prompted by our belief. Abraham, Sarah and Matthew did not relish warm feelings but got up and responded to a call, knowing the risks, accepting the consequences. It is not the savor of warm feelings but the taking of action that has the potential to reshape us into the image of Christ. Without faithful action we can conform only a handful of our intentional choices to what the church tells us is appropriate. This is not our transformation.

Faith, as we see in our texts for today, is not about assent to doctrines. Neither God as shown in Genesis or Jesus in Matthew instructs Abraham, Sarah, Matthew, and the other actors on items of belief and asks them to sign on the dotted line. Faith would be a lot easier to practice if it were simply a matter of agreement on doctrinal principles. Faith, as we see, is rather a category of relationship, a way of being in the presence of the Divine, a way of relating to God, Christ and Spirit, and a way of responding to that relationship, and opening ourselves to being transformed by it. At heart this relationship is about trust – trusting in God and Christ with the whole of their futures by Sarah, Abraham and Matthew, trusting in Christ for restoration by the bleeding woman and grieving father. For those of us who cherish control (and let’s start with me!) it is this kind of relationship that can be most challenging. 

I have secular faith in a particular colleague of mine. I trust her without reservation not to always be right, but to always make the most thoughtful, intelligent, wise, judicious, and human decisions. Religious faith is much harder than this category of relationship. Religious trust is easy to affirm intellectually, but so hard to put into action.

It takes faith to have faith – to enter into a relationship with God, to make yourself available for transformation. Most people would say that they’d like to be transformed, they just want a say regarding who they’ll be turned into and what it will cost, and what it will compel them to do. We’ll do the work ourselves, thank you, to be the best people we can be, to be generous with our assets, and to act conscientiously for social justice. These are the characteristics of people of religious faith, and of people with no such faith – to be good, to be generous, to do justice. It is wonderful. But the people who have faith in God have decided to trust their future to God, to abandon control to a relationship that risks changing who they are and all they do. It takes faith to have faith. Faith is a gift from God, some say, and for some people it’s true. For others of us it’s a decision to step into shallow waters slowly, moving to deeper waters carefully, remaining close to the place where we can touch our foot to the bottom when we have to, then, with time, pushing off confidently at last into the deep – trusting, floating, swirling in God’s grace.   Amen.

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