Sunday, September 2, 2007

Faithfully Stepping Out in Doubt (Sermon 9/1/07)

Lectionary 22 Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Anchorage, AK
September 2, 2007 Vicar Julia Seymour

Proverbs 23:6-7, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, Luke 14:1, 7-14

Peace and grace to you in the name of the Holy Trinity who gathers us together here, nourishes us and will go forward with us into the world.

How many of you have heard about the book coming out that contains the letters of Mother Teresa? It is a collection of letters she wrote to her spiritual advisors over the course of fifty years about her struggle with doubt and darkness. Mother Teresa writes that she continues to believe in God, but that she no longer hears God’s voice and she is no longer assured, as she once was, of God’s will.
These letters date from the time, in 1948, when she began the Missionaries of Charity in India. Before that time, she came to India with the Sisters of Loreto and then she believed she heard Jesus telling her to start a new mission, a mission for Indian nuns to minister to the poor of that nation. When she finally received Vatican approval to begin the new mission, she believed stopped hearing the voice of God.
There have been many reactions to the news of these letters. Many people have expressed shock to know that Mother Teresa felt this way, but I think most people are not surprised. If anything, I think more people will consider Mother Teresa saintly for her struggles than even for her works. Because a struggle with faith is something to which most people can relate.
The Bible is full of people who needed affirmation of their faith, who longed for an extra assurance of God’s presence. The list even includes Jesus who, in His most human moment- suffering on the cross… in His most divine moment, suffering on the cross, said, “My God, My God… why have you forsaken me?”
The theologian Frederick Buechner says God only allows His greatest saints to experience that level of feeling, but I disagree. I do not believe there is a hierarchy among saints and, if I ever needed proof, I find it in the reality that we all have or all will experience that kind of moment in our lives. It is that moment when the rug comes out from under us so quickly… we did not even know we were falling until we hit the floor. Accidents, illnesses, deaths, personal realizations, life changes, and revelations can take our breath away and make us look around and say, “Where is God?”
Later, in reflection, we are able to see God in the people who came to our aid or in the small miracles that helped us make it through one day at a time. Perhaps they did not know that card meant everything to you. Maybe the ability to get out of bed and take a shower seemed like a miracle. Even in something good happening to someone else that reminds us of positive things in the world.
How do we keep going when we feel that way? And what about those times when we are not devastated, but just feel bland, not bad…not good… just waiting for something to happen- something to affirm our faith in a small way.
We can and should be consoled by the realization that faith does not depend on us. It is a gift from God that we could not produce ourselves, even if we wanted to. The small blue book to which members of the congregation contributed, God Provides, is full of stories of people right here who were very worried about various things and God came through… maybe not how they expected, but in a way they were able to experience as a blessing, as divine provision.
The reading today from Hebrews tells us that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. He is the Word who was with God in the beginning, the man who walked next to the Sea of Galilee, and is the word and sacrament present in, with and under us today. God has promised that will not change… not matter how dark the walk gets.
That’s when I think we need to look again at the smallest things possible. Faith is like the mustard seed… not that we have to plant it and make it grow, but its tiny size grows into a miraculous plant. God gives us that mustard seed each day… in the sunshine, in the ability to make decisions, in the people around us. When you start with the smallest thing possible for which you have to be grateful, your list of blessings can grow to enormous proportions.
Yet, in the midst of that blessedness, we can still have doubts about our relationship with God and even about God’s own self. What to do then? We have nothing to prove to God. God knows us in our innermost selves and loves us despite what’s in there. In the knowledge of that love, we are called in today’s readings to turn to the people around us… to look around our tables, our neighborhoods and our world and say, “What can I do with what God has given me?” This is how Mother Teresa ultimately found her only consolation. She put on foot in front of the other each day and helped the Christ she saw in the people around her. She heard God’s voice in them and responded in the only way she knew how… believing that what she did for them, she did for God.
When I think about the 12 apostles, there is only one I have ever wanted to be. Not Peter…bumbling along. Not James and John, fighting over who will sit next to Jesus. Certainly not Judas. But I wouldn’t mind being Thomas. I would like to have the chance to see and to touch. But instead, you and I are among the blessed who have not seen, but have believed.
Until the day that we do see, when Christ comes again… God has promised to give us faith… to help us in this world to help each other. That faith is not the absence of questions or the absence of doubt. That faith is action in spite of doubt. Actions like, letting mutual love continue… showing hospitality to strangers… visiting those in prison… honoring loving relationships… sliding over and letting someone else have a better place at the table.
When we let these actions fill our lives… when we count the tiniest things with gratitude…when we keep moving even in times of uncertainty and in darkness, we open ourselves to the possibilities of reaching beyond our doubts and fears… to the possibility of entertaining angels… to the possibility of touching Christ in the person right next to us. How do we know he’s there… because God has promised it and God always keeps the faith.

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