Proper 14c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.
A friend of mine, June Butler, lives in Louisiana, but she has visited here at St James Church. She writes on the internet under the name of Grandmère Mimi, at a blog called “The Wounded Bird.” Her slogan there is, “Faith is not certainty so much as it is acting as-if in great hope.” That strikes me as a profound way of expressing a simple truth.
For faith is not certainty. It is not about something which you know for a fact to be true, but something you believe to be true, something you hope to be true. What’s more important, our faith and our hope are proclaimed by our acting accordingly, acting “as if” what we hoped for were a certainty. As the author of the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” It is about assurance and conviction, not certainty. These two qualities reflect the outward and the inward aspects of faith. We receive assurance from the outside: from the faithful testimony of fellow-believers, and from the experiences we ourselves have; and these outward experiences ratify and confirm and strengthen our inward faith, our conviction of things not seen.
This echoes a line in Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans. He writes, “Hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?” Hope is about what you do not have, but which you believe you will have some day. It is based on a promise, a promise from one in whom you believe, in whom you place your trust, strengthened by your experience and the testimony of others.
Faith is, then, about things you believe to be true, but which you cannot prove to be true. Yet still, through that assurance and conviction, you hope that they are true, and you live your life “as if” they were true.
This is a bit like the principal called “Pascal’s Wager.” Pascal was a seventeenth century scientist and mathematician, and also a very serious and devout Christian. (It is good to remember that science and faith need not be enemies!) As a founder and developer of probability theory Pascal also scored a point for God. In his“Wager” he posed the question this way: either God exists or God doesn’t exist. If God exists, and I live my life in accordance to that belief, I stand the chance to gain life everlasting. If in the end it turns our that God does not exist, I haven’t lost anything. So wise people will bet on God existing, and live “as if” God exists — for by doing so they might gain everything, and if wrong they definitely lose nothing. This may strike you as a calculating way to come to some kind of faith; but then, Pascal was a mathematician: his faith was not based on certainty, but probability, common sense, and hope and trust.
Let me give you another example, about that little phrase, “I believe...” You would not normally use that phrase to describe something about which you are absolutely sure, some incontrovertible fact, some certainty. I would not, for instance, say, “I believe this is Saint James Church” or “I believe that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.” In fact, I would normally use the phrase, “I believe,” as a way to indicate — paradoxically — that there is some slight doubt or insecurity in my mind concerning the accuracy of a given fact. “I believe so” is a way of expressing a personal opinion, perhaps even a strong one, but with the possibility that it might just be mistaken. It is a way to indicate a degree of fuzziness, as when someone asks me if they can catch a #9 bus on a given corner and I say, “I believe so.”If I were absolutely certain, if I knew the bus stopped right there, I would just say, “Yes.”
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Now, of course, this doesn’t mean we should dwell on the doubt or in the doubt. With Pascal we are encouraged to place our bets on God rather than on Not-God. We are called to rest in trust and hope, and frame our lives “as if” what we believed were true for a certainty was true for a certainty — putting our faith in our faith, our hope in our hopes, and our trust in the one whose promises are sure.
Abram does just that in the portion of Genesis we heard today. God promises him not only that he will have an heir, but will have more descendants than there are stars in the heavens. But God does not show him a vision of the children who will flow from him, the offspring of this father of nations. Nor does Abram demand a sheaf of birth certificates for proof — long form or short. No, Abram trusts God who shows him the stars themselves, and challenges him to count them, and promises him descendants more numerous than they. It is as if God were saying, Can not I, who created all these, and set these countless stars in their places in the heavens, can not I fulfill my promise to you and make you the father of many nations? And so Abram believes — not because he has seen his offspring, but because he has seen God’s greatness, and his hope has been rekindled by God’s promise — God whose faithfulness is great — and the Lord reckons it to him as righteousness.
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Jesus makes a similar promise to his disciples in the gospel passage we heard this morning. He also tells two parables about the nature of faith — to show that it is about acting “as if” — trusting in what we believe is true even when there is no certainty or proof that it is true.
One parable is about being careful: you can’t tell when a robber might rob your house, but you believe it could happen — so you always act as if it could happen at any time, even though it might never happen, if you are lucky! As with Pascal’s wager, even though your home may never be burgled, you are prudent enough to have proper locks on your door, and maybe even an alarm system from ADT. So we act as if the thief might break in and steal, to be prepared for this possibility, even if a thief never breaks in and steals.
Now, that’s not an entirely happy parable, as we certainly don’t hope our home will be broken into, but just the opposite. But given what Jesus also has to say about where our treasure should be — in heaven — there is also a happier lesson in all this. Let’s apply Pascal’s principle to it: if our true treasure is in heaven, and if we act that way, living our lives as if all that mattered is our eternal home with God, we would need fear no earthly thief, no loss of earthly treasure — for our hearts truly would there be fixed upon the life of hope and trust and faith in the one whose promises are sure.
We get a glimpse of that trusted one himself in the other parable Jesus tells in the passage this morning: the one that describes servants waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet. They do not know when he will return, but they believe that he will return. If I were to ask one of them, “Is your master going to return?” they would rightly answer, “I believe so.” But were I to ask the hour of his return, they would rightly say, “I don’t know.” And so they act as if: as if their master might return at any moment; for in fact he might return at any moment, even though he only will return at one precise moment, the moment he actually arrives — and blessed are the servants who have acted as-if all along and so are prepared to welcome him.
This is what living life “as if” is all about — being prepared for the surprising arrival of the one whose return is promised, and whose promises are sure. This is the substance of our hope, our trust, and our faith. My brothers and sisters in Christ, are you with me on this? I hope you are, I trust you are, and I’ll bet you are!+