Julian was amazed at people’s faithfulness and the depth of the commitment made by people who were confirmed at her church. (Confirmation being the process by which people in other denominations say, “Yes I am choosing to follow Jesus.”)
The enormity of such a decision awed 12-year old Julian, who was herself preparing for the confirmation process. She began to wonder: Is this something that I can go through with? I am making promises about what I believe, she thought to herself, but what if I don’t believe these things forever? Can I really make this type of commitment?
When she reflected honestly, Julian wasn’t sure that she could, so she shared her doubts with her father, a pastor. Her father responded: “What you promise when you are confirmed is not that you will believe this forever. What you promise when you are confirmed is that this is the story that you will wrestle with forever.” (Story comes from Still by Lauren Winner)
Is this what amazing faith looks like? I have been pondering that question this week.
So often we hear such lofty definitions of faith. Like:
Faith is believing the exact same thing at age 12 and age 92.
Faith is certainty.
Faith is not asking questions.
Faith is living a perfect life. Or having the perfect life.
With standards so high and unrealistic, I find myself in the boat with Julian, wondering: Who can live up those ideals? Who can make that kind of commitment?
These questions are one of the reasons I love today’s story of Jesus’ encounter with the Roman centurion. In this exchange, Jesus challenges our notions of what it means to be faithful, teaching us that, rather than being about doctrine, creeds or orthodoxy, faith – at its heart — is about a deepening, an opening up, a delving into a relationship with God that changes us, expands us, and transforms us so that we ourselves become different people.
Perhaps it is in the wrestling that we experience the transformation.
Amazing faith: Our Scripture this week teaches us what it looks like.
In the passage, a centurion – who was a professional officer in the army of the Roman empire– has an attendant who falls ill.
Distraught, the centurion contacts some of his friends in the Jewish community. The centurion has heard of Jesus’ healing power and trusts that Jesus can help his attendant. Will you go to Jesus, the centurion kindly pleads to the Jewish elders, and ask him to restore this person’s health?? His friends agree, relaying the request to Jesus, who sets out to the centurion’s home. As Jesus draws close, the centurion sends out his friends again to say to Jesus: You don’t need to come in. Just give the order and my attendant will be cured.
Upon hearing this, Jesus is amazed and says, “I tell you, I’ve never found this much faith among the Israelites.”
When we hear this text, questions arise, questions like: Why is Jesus so amazed by the centurion’s faith? How did the centurion become such a faith-full person? How can we too have an amazing faith?
I was pondering these questions this week when I remembered the story of the family of Charlie, a man who killed the Amish girls a few years back and then died by suicide in Nickel Mines, PA. A few months ago, I told the story of how the Amish community responding to this heartbreaking event by forgiving Charlie and embracing his family, providing funds to the widow, telling his parents how much they loved them and even showing up at Charlie’s funeral to protect the family from the prying eyes of the paparazzi.
What is striking about the story of Amish grace is that faith wasn’t a feeling for them. It was an action. The Amish parents and families weren’t feeling warm and fuzzy inside; no, on the contrary, they were grieving and heartbroken; their lives forever changed by what had occurred. Yet, they chose to love, to show up, to forgive, to trust in God’s ability to transform our lives.
Is this what it means to be faith-full?
In his book, The Heart of Christianity, Biblical scholar Marcus Borg points out that the historical definition of faith most closely resembles the word trust – as opposed to assent to a doctrine or a creed, which is how the word is most frequently used these days. Specifically, Borg defines faith as “trust in God as the one upon whom we rely, as our support and foundation and ground, as our safe place.” The opposite of faith, Borg posits, is mistrust, anxiety or worry.
Perhaps what makes the Amish community so faith-full is that they trusted in the power of Divine love to heal their lives over and above a response of resentment, cruelty or bitterness.
Perhaps what is so amazing about the centurion’s faith is that he persisted in trusting God in the face of distress, clinging not to anxiety, but to the promise of grace, of compassion, of resurrection.
In the words of one monk: “When trials arise within you or misunderstandings arrive from without, never forget that in the same wound where the pangs of anxiety are seething, creative forces are also being born. And a way opens up.”
A way opens up.
Even when we aren’t feeling particularly faith-full.
This is what we learn from the story of Charlie’s brother, Zach, who lived in New York City. As soon as Zach heard what his brother had done, he responded angrily, “There is no way that I would ever come home to attend his funeral. I hate him for what he has done!!!”
In turn, his mother Terri begged him to come but Zach was staunch in his refusal. With no other option before, Terri asked each person who came through her doors in the following days to pray for Zach, that he would have a change of heart.
One day, an Amish man, an uncle to one of the girls who had been killed, stopped by to visit Terri. The man updated Terri on how some of the other girls were doing, who were in the hospital and expressed his love and forgiveness. Before leaving, he asked if there was anything else that he could do. Yes, Terri replied, pray for Zach.
After a pause, he asked, “Would you like me to give him a call?”
Terri was taken a back because the Amish didn’t have phones and often resisted speaking on them. Yes, she responded, giving him Zach’s number. The Amish man called and left Zach a message, asking him to forgive his brother and come home for the funeral.
The day before the funeral arrived. Still in all the conversations Terri had had with Zach, he had persisted in telling her that he would not come home. Then, mid-day, as Terri busied herself making preparations for the funeral, she received a call from Zach, who said simply: “I’m on the train from New York. I should get into Lancaster about 6 p.m. Would you mind sending someone to pick me up?”
Of course, Terri responded, tears and joy intermingling.
Terri later asked Zach what had changed his mind and he responded that many phone calls had softened his heart but the call from the Amish man who had lost his niece had been the turning point for him.
A way had opened.
For a long time, Zach had been captive to resentment in his heart but, finally, he too trusted in God’s grace. This act transformed his life and the world – as his mother later told his story to the public, and brought hope to people for aren’t feeling particularly full of faith.
That’s amazing. That’s faith that is amazing.
In the book The Heart of Christianity, Borg defines not only faith but belief. Borg says that believe is more accurately translated as “I give my heart to.” In other words, when we say, “I believe …” we are naming that to which we give our heart.
Similarly, in baptism as Baptists, when we say, “Yes, I take Jesus Christ as my Savior” or “Yes I believe in Jesus” we are saying, I give my heart to Jesus and the story of God who loves us so much that God became flesh and walked among us. This isn’t to say that we promise to always have clarity about what form or shape our understanding will take. This isn’t to say that we promise to think the same things at age 12 as age 92. This is to say: We promise that this will always be the Story with which wrestle, for it is the one to which we have given our lives.
Likewise, in the lectionary text, the centurion enters into relationship with Jesus, saying “Just speak the word and my attendant will be healed.” In that moment, the centurion gives his heart to Jesus, trusting his life and the life of his attendant to God’s care. In that moment, it’s not about doctrine or orthodoxy but about what the centurion holds dear, what he prizes, what he commits himself to and, in his case, he treasures his relationship with Jesus, who brings forth life abundant – to the centurion, to the attendant, to the world.
Now the question comes to us: What do we give our hearts to?
What do we treasure?
And how does that change everything?