Sunday 8 August
8.00 and 10.30 Holy Communion Woodchurch
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 and Luke 12:32-40
May I speak in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”
Has anyone been watching the program “Rev” over the last 6 weeks or so? Vivienne and I have been watching it religiously, if you’ll pardon the phrase, since it started and I really hope it gets a second series.
From what I have read and heard from colleagues it has generally gone down well with the clergy because, on the whole, it did a very good job at giving a realistic view of life in ministry.
Now, I am not saying that it was wholly realistic, it is after all a piece of light entertainment and not a documentary, and those who have met Archdeacon Philip Down will know very well that not all Archdeacons are like the black gloved and rather scary one portrayed on Rev. So whilst not wholly realistic an awful lot of it came quite close to home and I think that a lot of priests engaged in urban ministry will have recognised either themselves or their situations on screen. It certainly did a good job of demonstrating the humanity and the vulnerability of a priest in a way that rarely gets seen on television.
In fact the reason I wanted to talk about Rev this morning was because the events of the last episode really spoke to me of an important point underlying today’s readings.
In the last episode the Rev in question, called Adam, undergoes something of a crisis about his ministry and even about his belief in God. The crisis is triggered by a number of events such as youths hanging around a war memorial on remembrance day without having any idea of what the day was about and kicking a ball at Adam’s head and, slightly later, Adam receiving a very bad review of one of his sermons on a website called Godslot.com. This is actually a ficionalised version of a real website called Shipoffools.com and that website printed the full text of the review of Adam’s sermon which was as follows:
“Exactly how long was the sermon?
Two minutes, which was three minutes too long.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
Minus 1. Revd Adam talked to his tiny and lifeless congregation about Jesus curing the blind man. It was without scholarship or insight and the reverend seemed as bored by his own words as the congregation. He may have been hung over…”
And before you ask, no I am not. Well, not very…
And if anyone is wondering how you are going to submit reviews of my sermons to shipoffools I should let you know that I am one step ahead of you and I have had a word with my friends at GCHQ and any submissions on the internet containing the words “Woodchurch” “Paul White” or “Rubbish” will not get through. Just so you know!
Anyway, this combination of events sends Rev Adam into a bit of a spin about what he is doing, is he merely a remnant of a bygone age and, above all, where is God in this morass? He has what is commonly called a crisis of faith. He ends up lying on his sofa all day drinking beer and eventually he makes an embarrassing pass at the headmistress of his local school. For the record I am sure that our local headmistress will be relived to know that I have no aspirations in that direction.
At the end of the program a rather drunken and feeling very sorry for himself Adam is picked up the police. But it turns out that they are not arresting him for being drunk in charge of a cassock but, rather, they have been sent to find the local vicar because a women is dying and wants to have the last rites. At first Adam protests and says “I am having a crisis…I am not strong enough” but the policeman says rather sternly “Are you this woman’s Vicar or not!” and, I am pleased to say, that Adam collects himself, he administers the last rites and, although much of this is unspoken, by the end one can tell that the very act of ministering the presence of God to that dying woman has actually succeeded in ministering the presence of God to Adam himself and, in the final scene, Adam declines the policeman’s offer of a sip from his hip flask and simply says: “I am fine” and you can tell that Adam’s crisis has passed.
Now of course there is a very important lesson to learn from the way this situation was resolved – how the very act of looking after the more serious needs of another person can lift our eyes from our preoccupation with ourselves and our own problems – to take an obvious example we are currently dealing with the mess and aftermath of the most recent lead theft from the South Aisle and it would be too easy to become obsessed with the needs of looking after this building. At the same time, when we switch on the news, we see that millions of people in Pakistan have lost everything in the devastating floods that have swept through that country – hundreds of thousands of properties have been lost to the waters, thousands have died and many more are at risk from disease. In that context our damp floor and missing lead is irrelevant – and so the very act of bringing healing to others can bring healing to ourselves.
But that is not what I want to focus on this morning. What I want to think about a little more is Adam’s so-called crisis of faith itself. I say ‘so-called’ because I think what was actually going on was not a crisis of faith rather it was a lack of certainty and that we are often too quick to confuse the two.
What do I mean?
Well, certainty suggests knowing something to be true. I can state with certainty that I am standing here right now in front of you. I am certain my name is Paul, that I live in the Rectory and so on and so forth. I don’t need to have faith in relation to any of those things because they are all facts that I know to be true.
But I cannot have the same certainty in relation to God and to the Christian story that we inhabit. Whilst I have absolutely felt the call and the love of God in my heart and whilst I have without doubt seen evidence of God at work in the lives of many people around me, as I have no doubt each of you has in myriad ways, neither I nor anyone else can prove the existence of God using logic or argument in any way that would convince someone else, and nor is it possible to point to any object outside myself and say with certainty “there is God.”
God simply does not operate within the language of certainty.
However we live in both a scientific and even legalistic age – scientists will only accept as true that which can be seen and studied and verified and lawyers want certainty in all things and mock the very idea of trust. And it is too easy to assume that that language and that world view has to apply to every area of life in order for it to have any value.
And once we feel that we always have to be certain about God then the moment that a degree of uncertainty or doubt creeps in for whatever reason then crisis is not far behind.
But God does not give us certainty and, I believe, does not want us to act as people of certainty. Rather, God gives us faith and wants us to act as people of faith.
In todays reading from Hebrews the author gives us a litany not of certainty but of faith and hope:
By faith our ancestors received approval
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called
By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised
By faith he received the power of procreation
And in the verses omitted from this reading, verses 4 to 7 we have
By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did…By faith he was commended as a righteous man…And by faith he still speaks
By faith Enoch was taken from this life…
In verse 6: “And without faith it is impossible to please God…
v 7 “By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family.”
And if you read the rest of chapter 11 of Hebrews it continues as a litany of faith and verse 39 concludes:
“These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.”
Of course the author of Hebrews is talking about the perfection brought about by Jesus which Abraham and all those mentioned previously never saw in their lifetimes but the point is that God did not give any of those characters either certainty or instant gratification – they were each commended and blessed and played their part in the ongoing drama of God interacting with his people because they moved by faith.
“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Certainty lends itself not only to every crisis of doubt but can also lead to extremism and fundamentalism. Wars and terrorism are not caused by faith but by certainty – certainty that one is wholly right and the other is wholly wrong.
Faith, in my view, is less threatened by doubt and less prone to extremism because faith is not built on wilful ignorance or denial but should be built on a quiet interior relationship with God and accepting that others may experience an interior relationship with God that may differ from one’s own. That relationship with God is not something that can be proved in a court of law or discovered in a laboratory and is never something about which we can be certain but in which we can have faith.
So when the Peter Hitchins, Philip Pulmans or simply the circumstances of life cause us to doubt we should not build our walls of certainty higher nor should we allow ourselves to crumble under the assault.
Rather we should ask God to take away both our certainties and our uncertainties and to increase our faith – our faith in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.