Monday, June 29, 2015

The Physics of Faith

[Sermon from Sunday, June 28, 2015]
We’ve witnessed a couple of historic moments this week, for our nation and for our Church.  On Friday, we had the Supreme Court’s ruling that legalized same-gender marriage.  Though you may be expecting some commentary along those lines this morning, that was last Sunday’s sermon – and my article in the Messenger on Friday, too.  Until the Episcopal Church’s General Convention takes some actions, I can’t say anything more about how legal marriage and the Church’s blessing of marriages may be changing. 
Then, yesterday, we had the historic election of the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry as presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, our first African American presiding bishop.  He is one of the best preachers in the Church; and his clear, bold, inspiring witness will help the Episcopal Church claim its voice in witness to God’s astonishing love.
So it’s been a big week.  And to help us keep our balance in this week of historic movement, I want to talk with you about something very mundane: what I do when I get up in the morning.  Pretty much every morning, unless it’s pouring rain, I walk and pray.  I take the same path every time, walking by the elementary school where I used to take Kathryn and Daniel every day.  As I walk, I see creation waking up: squirrels, birds, rabbits beginning their day, the occasional raccoon or possum.  And as I walk, rather than hearing the sounds of nature and traffic, I hear the sound of Morning Prayer, a daily podcast with the Scripture readings for that day and the collect appointed for that week.  The whole experience is predictable enough that I know, when I turn a particular corner, I’ll be hearing the Gospel reading; and when I turn another one, I’ll be saying the Lord’s Prayer.
Why do I do this?  Certainly not for the sake of variety.  Not necessarily even for the sake of rich experience.  Every now and then, I get a fabulous sunrise or some flash of revelation; but most times, it’s just morning, and I’m just saying my prayers.  Sometimes, in the ancient words of Scripture and the centuries-old rhythm of Morning Prayer, I hear just what I need that day; but sometimes, I really struggle to pay attention and keep my mind from the anxieties of the hours to come. 
So why do I do this?  Here’s why:  As I walk in the intersection of my very familiar neighborhood and the very Word of God, I’m choosing to inhabit God’s landscape rather than the world I’m tempted to create.  I’m choosing to define reality as the kingdom of God, the reign and rule of God, the purposes of God made manifest around me.  It will sound overblown, but in the rhythm of a morning walk and Morning Prayer, I’m trying to embrace the physics of faith. 
That’s what I hear in the Gospel reading this morning, this fascinating story of one healing embedded within another.  Both these stories – Jairus and his daughter, and the woman suffering from hemorrhage – both are stories about faith.  And by “faith,” I don’t mean piety or religious practice.  And I don’t mean signing on the dotted line of a confessional statement.  I mean choosing to inhabit the reign and rule of God as your operative reality.  That’s what’s going on in this story.
Jesus has come back to Galilee after the exciting boat ride we heard about last week.  Again, crowds have gathered around him – some seeking a smile, some listening for a lesson, some hoping for a show.  We don’t know what Jesus had in mind because, before he can say or do anything, a person of substance comes before him – Jairus, the leader of the synagogue.  This local mover and shaker humbles himself before Jesus, begging him to come heal his dying daughter.  So Jesus interrupts whatever else was on his list, and he goes home with Jairus, the crowd swarming around him.
In the midst of the swarm is a woman at the other end of the social scale.  The fact that she’s a woman is enough to put here there; but compounding the social division is the fact that she suffers from chronic menstrual bleeding, which made her always ritually impure.  That would have left her socially outcast, unable to take part in worship or other community life.  But this woman has heard about Jesus, and we get to overhear her faith:  She thinks, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well” (Mark 5:28).  She comes up behind him, touches his cloak, and immediately “she felt in her body that she was healed” (5:29).  Well, as we learned in school, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction:  Jesus also feels in his body that divine power has gone out of him, and he asks, “Who touched my clothes?” (5:30). To the disciples, it’s a silly question because the whole crowd is pushing in on him.  But the woman comes to him in awe, and she tells Jesus her story.  Jesus hears the choice she’s made, the choice to make God’s kingdom her reality.  “Your faith has made you well,” he says; “go in shalom” – go in the wholeness of body, the wholeness of spirit, and the wholeness of relationship that God intends for all of us.
Meanwhile, Jairus is waiting, maybe not so patiently, as Jesus delays the visit to his dying daughter.  And indeed, time runs out.  They receive word that it’s too late; but Jesus turns to Jairus and tells him, It’s all right.  Hope is not lost.  “Do not fear, only believe” (5:38).  So Jairus hangs in there, inhabiting God’s reality instead of his own.  And the girl lives.  Actually, the story leaves her physical state as an open question.  Was she really dead?  Was she in a coma?  Was this healing, or resuscitation, or resurrection?  For Jesus, I think, the deeper point wasn’t what kind of miracle he worked.  It was the miracle that Jairus, like the woman with the hemorrhage, hung in there with him, choosing the kingdom of God over the kingdom of anxiety.  Their faith made them well.
Now, it would be easy to see these stories in an individual, transactional way.  Here’s one track that line of thinking can take, putting the burden of proof on us:  If only you have enough faith, God will give you what you want.  You’ve heard people say things like that, right?  Just believe hard enough, and everything will be OK.  Believe hard enough, and God will make you rich.  Believe hard enough, and your sick or injured spouse will recover.  I hear people saying things like that, and I just want to strangle them.  How do you account for it if the miraculous cure doesn’t come?  Well, following that line of thinking, it must be your fault.  You didn’t believe hard enough.  Nice try; sorry that your loved one is dead; thank you for playing.  Yikes.
Here’s another way that line of thinking can work, and it’s not any better – putting the burden of proof on God:  Lord, if you’ll just connect with me deeply enough, then I’ll believe.  Give me a mountaintop moment, Lord, and then I’ll know you’re there and that you really do love me.  Put some spiritual gas in my tank, and then I’ll follow you anywhere.  This makes the accounting of blame easy:  God, you’ve got to show me; you’ve got to make me believe.  So, if I don’t believe, you must not have shown me enough.
The problem with both these approaches is that they’re based in individual experience.  That’s the way of knowing and believing that we do best in this culture, where reality is my reality and truth is the truth I know.  If you prove you love me, Lord, then I’ll believe as deeply as you want.  And if I prove my belief to you, Lord, then you’ll change reality for me – which is the very best proof that you love me.  It’s the circular physics of transactional faith.
I hear something different in these Gospel stories – and I think I see it in the world around me, too.  In this reading, the Greek word for faith, pistis, “is not a name for an inner experience, but describes primarily a committal of trust to God.”1  It’s a noun that’s very nearly a verb.  It’s staking our lives on God, with God’s reign and rule as the fundamental definition of what is truly real.  When we inhabit that reality, we find that divine physics moves ever toward God’s shalom, the wellness and wholeness and relationship that heavenly life is, the peace that passes all understanding.  In the Gospel story, both Jairus and the woman give themselves over to Jesus’ world.  The woman with the hemorrhage doesn’t beg or plead, and Jesus doesn’t even mean to heal her.  With the little girl, Jesus says no magic words; he just proclaims the kingdom’s truth:  “She is not dead but sleeping.” The reality they inhabit is that Jesus’ presence and touch will bring wellness and wholeness and life.  Jairus and the woman aren’t working on the right prayers or signing on to certain truth claims, hoping to order up the outcome they want. 
By the same token, I don’t walk and pray in the morning as a bargain with God for a good day.  I walk and pray every morning because it sets the reality I inhabit.  The elements of Morning Prayer paint that holy landscape:  asking for forgiveness, offering God praise, remembering God’s love story and proclaiming our faith in it, asserting God’s kingship, loving others through prayer, acknowledging my own needfulness, and saying thank you.  That’s Morning Prayer in a nutshell.  Offering it is not a transaction.  It’s simply a way to step into the reality of God’s ordering of things. 
In that ordering of things, it’s a lot less about outcome and a lot more about orientation.  It’s a lot less about our perceived need and a lot more about our alignment with God’s desires, for us and for all creation.  It’s a choice to step into God’s realm of wellness, of wholeness, of fullness of life and relationship.  It’s a choice for the physics of faith:  For every action of belief, there is an equal and complementary reaction of life.
So, as we stand to affirm our faith by saying the Nicene Creed, let us do so with our eyes wide open to the reality we proclaim – not just giving intellectual assent, or glowing in the fire of a glimpse of the divine, but striding boldly into our heavenly country and claiming it as our home.
As you’re able, would you please stand?

1.  Mann, C.S.  Mark.  The Anchor Bible, Vol. 27.  New York: Doubleday, 1986.  286.

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