Another look at “faith”

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis – I had an interesting discussion with the parents of our confirmation students the other night. Midway now through working with our five 7th-9th graders, I wanted to better understand their parents’ hopes and expectations, given that they were each requiring their child to attend. What struck me in our conversation was not a stated desire for their youth to believe certain Christian doctrine. Nor were they particularly concerned about their 12-, 13-, 14-year olds assuming responsibilities of adult membership in the church at this age. What the parents wanted for their kids was for them to be able to identify and talk about the questions that the kids have this point in their young lives. Questions of meaning and purpose and how does one come to one’s own conclusions about God and this complex and confusing world. Questions about their emerging identity as a young person, and how their own intellect and conscience might come to judge religious belief and practice. Questions about the ideas their parents and schools and church have taught them. The parents wanted their kids to be able to identify “the enduring questions” that will be with them through life, as one mom put it. To attain some tools for exploring these questions that will be part of their life-long spiritual journeys.

These parents’ concerns resonated with me, and reflect a growing practice within the wider United Church of Christ: helping our youth explore the difference between confirming and conforming (see “Confirm Not Reform” curriculum from Logos Productions). Part of developing one’s own sense of personal identity is to take a hard look at ways we have been urged/forced to conform. How might young people identify and deconstruct some of these beliefs? As a middle-school student, I myself proclaimed that I was an “atheist.”  But I don’t remember anyone actually asking me: “Anne, what idea or image of God do you not believe in? What might be some other ways to think about God and why you are here on earth? And what difference might this make in the way you see the world, make moral choices?” At the time, no one asked me these questions.

For several centuries now, the practice of confirmation in the Protestant church has been about a young person’s education in the proper doctrine or beliefs of the church, so the youth could adequately understand and “confirm” the faith professed by his or her parents at baptism. During infant baptism, we ask the parents if they themselves believe and trust in God, in Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and if they will raise the child within the nurture of the Christian church. Confirmation class was the time to learn about and then publicly testify to these beliefs. Little attention was paid to the fact that developmentally, young people need to learn to reflect critically on beliefs, faith and values given to them by parents, church and society.

All of this is rather curious, when I look at the Biblical record of how Jesus of Nazareth actually interacted with people. He never seemed big on doctrine or beliefs. He had this knack for going up to people and saying, “Follow me,” and they would. He certainly didn’t check out their “faith status” first. But in his conversations with his closest followers, those called his disciples, he speaks specifically about their faith. What did he mean by this word, “faith?”

From our brief Luke passage today, we hear Jesus’ disciples make what sounds like a reasonable request:  “Lord, can you increase our faith?!” Jesus has just been talking privately with them about the extraordinary demands of following him. In conversation right before this, Jesus insists they were to continually forgive one another: be mutually accountable, lovingly rebuke where necessary, apologize and make amends. “Do this seven times a day, if you have to.” Apparently, living fully in God’s Kingdom was more complicated than they had imagined. “If someone repents, you must forgive,” Jesus pushes them. To which they understandably respond: “Good grief, we are going to need more of something to do this. Jesus, can you give us more faith!”

Jesus responds in an odd manner: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” There is something in the sharpness of Jesus’ answer, the bizarre exaggeration of his images about small seeds and huge deeply rooted bushes, that leaves me wondering if the disciples, and maybe I, have missed the point somewhere. Is this about more faith? Is quantity the issue here? Or might Jesus be using common images in a cryptic and indirect manner so he can unsettle our assumptions about faith? The disciples appear to assume that faith does come in different quantities: If I have the right amount, I can face the challenges of following you, Jesus. I can valiantly change the world!

So what is “faith” here? Are we talking about faith like a super power, so I can then somehow manipulate an even bigger super power? I wonder if Jesus turns to irrelevant references like tiny mustard seeds and huge mulberry bushes and tossing foliage into the sea because…the disciples are asking an irrelevant question. It may not be about an amount of faith. I sense that Jesus may have been telling them they had all the faith they needed.

Maybe the disciples’ question should have been, “Jesus, we need some help here understanding how following you works, about how to be and act faithful. Jesus, we need some help in learning how to trust God, to trust in God’s steady presence and unfolding plan even when things look bad.” They may already have this thing they think they need. A connection with this transforming God, which they need to learn to trust. This may be at the core of what gets us confused: We hear the word “faith” and think it is about “belief” – an idea or concept we have to get our brain to accept. Yet the word “faith” in Biblical times carried deeper connotations of trust, as in “to have confidence in.” The disciples may have lost track of what they already had. I hear this echoed in the Apostle Paul’s letter, written years later, as he reaches out from his prison cell to a young co-worker Timothy: “You do not have a spirit of cowardice or fear,” he writes in this mentoring letter 2 Timothy. You have, he says, “a source of power and love and self-discipline.” You have it. Lean into it, engage it, Paul urges his leader-in-training. Guard this “good treasure entrusted to you….this treasure of faith that comes down from your mother and your grandmother and lives in you,” he counsels Timothy. Paul speaks of a legacy of trusting, of acting with confidence in God’s presence and strength. How might we have faith to do the hard stuff in life?

Perhaps when a congregation such as ours is faced with overwhelming challenges like addressing racial inequities, we might question: “How do we have the faith to do this? How do we ‘guard the good treasure entrusted’ in us from generations past here at Falcon Heights Church UCC and throughout our denomination? How do we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us?” Because clearly, one of the ongoing legacies of this church has been an abiding concern for those who live in poverty and for racial inequity, a deep passion for those who don’t have enough proper food, school, jobs or heath care. This kind of caring and outreach have been part of Falcon Heights Church’s identity since its formation in the late 1940s. This is about a level of faithfulness, of trust that we are called by God to do these things and that our actions make a difference. We allow the inherent fruitfulness of God’s creative justice and power to affect how we perceive and respond to life.

In these days of increased racial tension and deeper awareness about some of the problems in how we keep our communities safe, we are challenged to have trust in God’s creative justice and power to make changes in our community. I saw that kind of faith-trust in action as we hosted the panel discussion on new directions for community policing here in this packed sanctuary this last Thursday. Members of our Executive Board served as greeters, welcoming the diverse group of attendees. A number of you listened, learned and stayed around to talk with different people in the overflow crowd. Tough questions were asked, and were respectfully responded to by the panel, which included the president of the St. Paul NAACP chapter and a retired St. Paul police sergeant. Important data about racial inequities in policing were shared by one of our former members of the Minnesota House of Representatives and the local legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota. We were urged to continue to ask questions about police training and policing policies and to trust that our concerns would be addressed. We were reminded to support our police in the tremendously hard job that they do on our behalf. We were challenged to step out in greater trust, in greater faith, trusting in one another and our ability to work for changes in our community and to heal these injustices.

Jesus seemed to think the disciples’ problem wasn’t about an amount of faith; it was about the ways they were with one another, and with God. He was concerned about their level of trust and patience, honesty and forgiveness. Each Sunday we worship together we renew our commitment to faithful action beyond our walls. We do this as by nurturing these relationships among us. We are here, “rekindling our faith,” our ability to trust in God’s good future together. Thanks be to God. Amen.