20 February 2010

Believing in doubt: Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent

Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13

Lent is normally a somber, reflective occasion, as we prepare for the joy of the Easter sacrifice and Resurrection. Not normally the time to be telling jokes. But I’m going to be a bit different and start off by telling one. It goes like this:

Jesus is subbing for Peter at the Pearly Gates.

A Roman Catholic dies. Jesus says, “I have one question to decide whether I should let you in: Who am I?” The Catholic says, “Well, the Pope says...” and Jesus says, “No, I wanted your answer. Sorry...”

A Protestant dies. Jesus says, “I have one question to decide whether I should let you in: Who am I?” The Protestant says, “Well, the Bible says...” and Jesus says, “No, I wanted your answer. Sorry...”

An Anglican dies. Jesus says, “I have one question to decide whether I should let you in: Who am I?” The Anglican says, “Well, you are Jesus, the Christ,” Jesus says “Very good!” And the Anglican continues, “...but on the other hand...”

The reason I tell this joke is because it highlights a central aspect of what it means to me to be a Christian: doubt. Gnawing, constant doubt, about everything. We Anglicans tend to question everything, we question authority and don’t take someone else’s word for it. We reject Biblical literalism, just as we reject slavishly following an overmighty Pope or other leader.

This brings with it an advantage, of course, of being liberated from these things. We aren’t burdened with slavishly following Biblical literalism or the latest utterances of Benedict XVI. But if we want to be honest with ourselves, it has a drawback: We are left spending our lives searching for answers, and our belief is constantly being tested and challenged, and thus evolves and changes over our lifetimes. Another old joke goes, ask three Anglicans what they think the Church is, and you’ll get at least five answers. Other Christians may accuse us of building our church on sand, because we as Anglicans or Old Catholics are so reluctant to accept outside authority beyond the barest necessities, and we keep asking questions.

Today’s Old Testament reading contrasts the experience of Israel with our own. Judging from the reading, the Israelites had no doubt that God was there, because He was constantly talking to their prophets and interacting with them directly. God today seems to be harder to spot. We today are plagued by this, constantly searching for evidence that God really loves us, or that God even exists. Bad things happen like the earthquake in Haiti, or the tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004, and our faith is sorely tested. We look for signs of God, and when God doesn’t quite turn out as we expect, we are frustrated and disappointed. Some of us give up entirely, rejecting the whole exercise as a waste of time.

But here, in this doubt, is the seed of our true foundation. It is in this doubt that the rock-solid foundation of our faith lies. Like the singer of the Psalm, we say to God, “You are my refuge and my stronghold, my God in whom I put my trust.” We trust in God and places our hopes in Him because our faith is constantly tested by the fire of doubt. We trust Saint Paul when he tells us, “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved”, and further, that “no one who believes in him will be put to shame”.

The thing is, if one relies on outside authority, that person is be making it too easy for themselves. They are taking a shortcut. That person has to constantly line up daily events or personal experience and see what their authority has to say to them about it. In a sense doing this is not a test of ourselves, but a test of God, to see if God really lives up to what that authority tells us God said. When God fails that test, as He inevitably will, it somehow becomes God’s fault.

But we don’t serve any authority but God Himself, and we certainly have no authority to question or test God, though it is of course tempting to believe that we can. As Jesus told the devil in the Gospel, “worship the Lord your God, and serve only him”. And in particular, Jesus admonished the Devil by saying, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” To think that we mere human beings can dare to test God or limit God or make God do what we want Him to do in any way is impossible. It is sheer hubris; it is folly. It is temptation of the Devil himself, who promises us the same false rewards that he promised Jesus. The “reward” of allowing our arrogance to get the better of us and to place ourselves above God is to be enslaved by our worst instincts. The temptation of certainty is what leads people astray to fundamentalism in any form, whether it is Biblical fundamentalism, ultramontane Catholicism, militant atheism or any of the other isms out there. That temptation is as evil as they come, and leads directly to war, conflict and despair.

We must be humble enough to admit that our own worldly authority might get it wrong, or that we ourselves get it wrong. Just as we must not test God by laying claim to infallibility, whether it is of a Pope or of the Bible itself, we must also be very careful not to lay claim to infallibility for our individual selves. It is through the deepest humility and self-denial that we come to experience the real divine presence that is God. Only when we are ready to renounce all preconceptions and preconditions are we ready to experience God directly. We have to play by God’s rules, not our own. Thy will be done.

On a lighter note, Casey Stengel, baseball player and legendary manager of the New York Yankees and the New York Mets, put it in his unique way: “Never make predictions, especially about the future.” We can certainly take that to heart by rephrasing it a little, “Never make assumptions, especially about God.” We have to let God define us and not the other way around, and that is the most important thing about learning how to let our faith grow on its own, rather than succumbing to the temptation of forcing the issue or of taking shortcuts. Thy will be done.

Lent is a time of testing our faith. We prepare ourselves for the triumphant resurrection of Jesus Christ at Easter by spending these forty days reflecting on what we believe, and how we came to believe it. This is particularly true for our catechumens, Michelle and Jon, who are working their way towards baptism. Ideally, when we prepare for this, we fast. When we fast, we should do it not just to give up something because someone told us to. Once again that’s just following authority for the sake of following authority. Instead, we should fast because it is a way to strip down our selves to the barest essentials. To remind ourselves that we need nothing but God Himself. To reject the temptation of short-term rewards. To understand that we must be ready to give up anything and everything, just as Jesus gave everything He had when He stretched out His arms on the Cross. Above all, to understand, to see ourselves as part of the greater whole, and our place in it.

When we test our faith in this way, it is tempered, hardened, polished. It becomes something more solid than rock, harder than steel. When we are ready to test our faith to the utmost, to wear our self-doubt willingly, we come to dwell in the shelter of the Most High, and abide under the shadow of the Almighty. When we deny our own pride and hubris, and all pride and hubris around us, the door to God is opened in our hearts and the fire of the Spirit storms in. God can then work through us to save this world of ours. Each of us can become the hand of God working in our world, as an integral part of the body of Christ. It is when we seek rewards least that we gain the greatest reward of all.

When we confess our faults, our fallibility, we come to the point where Paul says in today’s Epistle: “For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.” This is why Confession is part of each Anglican service: as a reminder to deny ourselves, to accept we are flawed, to accept that only together can we overcome those flaws. We confess our faith together that God is there for us. We come together as a Church to reinforce one another in our faith, to give one another strength on the journey, to leave no one behind. We come together as the Holy Church to make the world new, with God’s help. And that nagging bit of doubt and restlessness, the thirst for knowledge, the will to know God, is the seed in our hearts to help get us to the Kingdom of Heaven itself. And best of all, we know that at the end of Lent, we are ready to personally experience the triumph over death by Jesus Christ in the Easter Vigil, gaining strength from it year after year.

Remember the joke I told at the beginning? It’s true: All you have to do to get into the Kingdom of Heaven is to recognize Jesus for what He is, and do so out of your own heart. Lent is here, so that we can learn to see Jesus all around us, including in ourselves; at the end of Lent, like the disciples at Emmaus, we recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread at Easter, when we come together as one to share – and then the door to the Kingdom of Heaven is wide open, so that we can come into the land that the LORD our God is giving us as an inheritance to possess. Amen.

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