Tough questions—homily for 24 June 2018
June 24, Proper 7:
Draft text of the homily, it may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.
Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?
Why am I afraid? Well…let me count the ways…or, no, let’s not. We have entire industries primed and designed for generating as much fear and anxiety in us as possible… there are tremendous, gigantic forces being deployed every minute of every hour of every day designed to make us fearful…and if it’s not right in our face on every screen we see, and every byte of news that we consume, then it’s in our own heads telling us all the things that are wrong…with the world…with us…
So I don’t need to tell you all of the things that I’m afraid of, or list all the things I think you should be afraid of…you already know.
But that next question: Have you still no faith?
Wow. I mean, is that what it means to have faith? To just not be afraid?
Is faith truly living without fear?
I know the author of the first letter of John encourages us to remember that perfect love casts out fear. But I don’t have perfect love. Not yet. And I can’t get that perfect love just by willing it to happen. The quote goes on you know, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…and whoever has fears has not reached perfection in love” (1 John 4:18). So see, I have not reached perfection in love. Because I see the numerous Goliath’s surrounding us and I don’t feel like David most days. I feel like “Saul and the Israelites, who heard the taunts of this giant man, [and] were dismayed and greatly afraid.”
But I do have faith…is it the size of a mustard seed? Very often.
Is it the size of a mustard plant…? Not yet.
Is it capable of growth…? Yes. But growth is both something that just happens (as with the farmer’s field last week) and something that requires (what was that list we heard?) endurance, and afflictions, hardships, (occasional) calamities, (hopefully not) beatings, or imprisonments, or riots, (but certainly) labors, (a few) sleepless nights, (some) hunger; (a LOT of) patience, and kindness, (ever increasing) knowledge, (ever growing and deepening) practices of genuine love, (more and more) truthful speech, and (above all) the power of God.
Faith and fear and growth.
“Faith and fear are in perpetual tension […] with one another.”
One of my great teachers, Sam Portaro, who was the Episcopal Chaplain at the University of Chicago for years said, “The opponent of faith is not doubt, but fear.” [Portaro, Sam. 2003. Conflict and a Christian Life. Rowman & Littlefield, pps 123-124]
The opponent of faith is not doubt, but fear. Just as fearsome Goliath’s opponent isn’t Saul but David.
“Faith and fear,” Portaro says, “are in perpetual tension….but faith is far more than a denial or dismissal of fear.”
Faith is a stance. A way of framing and asking questions that helps us grow towards that perfect love, and away from the fear that constantly tempts us towards fantasies of control.
Here’s how it works according to Sam. We all have this tendency to want the world ordered to our liking, and where there is no conflict because everyone agrees with me. But (as prophets keep pointing out) our ways and God’s ways are not the same. In the real world, we rarely agree with others, conflict is more the norm than the exception, and God clearly is able to tolerate a much higher level of diversity and messiness than I am. All of this makes me fearful… “I want to be in control, and yet [just like being in a boat in a storm] I cannot be in control.”
In this conflict between faith and fear, says Portaro, “I am called upon to decide. What shall I believe? Do I believe God is ultimately in control? Can I relinquish my own control and be confident that […] God will bring God’s own order out of the chaos around me? Do I have sufficient faith in God to let go?”
But it gets even harder…
Because faith is about loving God and loving neighbor, I also have to ask…“Do I have sufficient faith in my neighbor […]? Can I trust my neighbor in chaos? Can I trust God’s relationship with my neighbor?” Can I trust others? Can I trust them even when I’m uncertain of their motives? Can I trust them with things that I hold to be precious?” How much of modern society fractures because of we insist on answering these questions fearfully instead of working at being able to answer them faithfully?
But it doesn’t end there…faith is about loving God and neighbor as myself…so, “Do I have sufficient faith in myself to let go? Can I give up [my Self? …] Do I have sufficient faith in God’s affirmation of me, of God’s claims upon me?”  That’s the thing about David in this story…he knows himself. He knows about killing bears and lions…he knows to reject the ridiculous armor that Saul (out of fear) insists he wear. He has faith in God’s possession of him. How many of us have that kind of knowledge and faith in ourselves? I hope that we will all one day have it.
And what about hope, Portaro asks? … “Do I really want God’s will to be fulfilled? Do I truly want the fulfillment of my neighbor’s life? Do I genuinely want the fulfillment of my own life?” We often say we want all of that, but then when it comes right down to it…and it becomes clear that it will entail endurance, affliction, hardships, calamities…you know the list…we pull back, and start letting that fear voice back in and turn away from that perfect love.
So what about love? Portaro concludes, “Do I love God, or am I only infatuated with my own notion of God? Do I love—can I love—a God who looks and acts like my neighbor, a God who is incarnate in the perplexing and demanding diversity of my neighbor? Can I love a God who relates to the world from the perspective of a different gender or sexuality or race, a [different] political order? Do I love—can I love—a God who made me, who loves me more profoundly and more passionately than I can love myself?”
Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith? The tension between fear and faith…opens up these and hundreds of other questions…they come to us in the midst of the storm…and in the midst of everyday life. Are we afraid? Yes. Are we faithful? I hope so…
“The practice of faith—any faith—“ says Portaro, “is not just a matter of trust in a particular person or truth. The development and practice of faith is a life-long process of making meaning out or our experience.” [Portaro, Conflict, p. 32]
That’s what we’re engaged in. That’s what this is all about. Helping ask and answer these questions…helping us grow in strength…in courage…in faith…in love…to go out and face all the giants in our world.