A Conclusion of Placement Service was held for Jessica Morthorpe, First Third Specialist for the Metro West Region, on Thursday 10 December at All Saints Floreat Uniting Church. Ashley MacMillan delivered the following sermon.
So, I’m going to talk about faith… and Jess. But given that faith manages to make it onto the list of most mis-used words in the English language, I thought I should do some clarifying before I began.
Faith is often considered to be ‘belief without proof’, making faith just a subset of belief. Yet not only is this mistaken, it also makes faith just as boring as belief is. Belief refers to what you think is true. We have beliefs about thousands of things, some of these beliefs we hold no doubt about, such as my belief that that that the Earth revolves around the sun. Other beliefs are things that we acknowledge we may never be certain about, or that there cannot be an objective truth about, such as my belief that summer is the best season. In short, belief is a broad thing, and whilst it might be a significant thing, it’s also a bit of a boring thing. It is just a form of intellectual assent to an idea. Belief is passive.
The word ‘faith’ though stems from Latin, via old French through Anglo-french, and then into middle English, before finally landing in modern English, and it means ‘to trust’. Trusting is a step in the dark. There’s this game that I used to play as a kid, where you close your eyes, hold your arms straight at your side and let yourself fall backwards. The person behind you will catch you, but the trick is to not try and save yourself. The game is to trust them.
Now I can see that this is the part where people begin to perceive of faith as ‘belief without proof’, because not knowing is so central to it. But faith is not intellectual assent to ignorance, it is what you do with your ignorance. It is how you act despite not knowing. When I say that I have faith in God, I am not saying that I am certain that God exists, I am saying that when I stare into my own ignorance I act in the trust that there is something more to the universe than that which I can hold in my hands, and I act in the trust, that there is something within me, that connects me to the rest of the universe. This is what makes faith exciting. I do not know. What will I do with my ignorance? Faith is not the ignorance, faith is the step into the dark. Faith is action. If there is not action, then it is not faith, because no step has been taken.
Of course, I am certainly not the first person to express these ideas, but I thought they needed some clarifying, especially as it is such a central topic. In fact, the author of Mark told us a story about this very subject. When you are in a little boat and waves rise up, when the water begins to pool around your ankles, when you cannot bail out water faster than the storm can throw it back in, you will not know what is about to happen to you. The feeling of powerlessness that ignorance faces us with makes us feel very afraid. When we are faced with these situations we have a choice. We can let fear overcome us. We can throw up our hands and say ‘it’s finished, we’re all about to die’, or the other option is to acknowledge your fear, to acknowledge your ignorance, and to act anyway.
So perhaps, when we are looking at a world where the poles are melting, where sea levels are set to rise and swallow up entire island states. Where storms are becoming more ferocious, and summers more scorching. When we face a growing population but the threat of a decreasing food supply. We are indeed frightened. I do not know what the world will look like when I am old, or even middle aged. I am ignorant of what my home will become. This fear can be overwhelming. It can guide us into an apathy that says ‘if I shut my eyes, everything will be alright’. Perhaps this is disguised in support for the status quo, or claims about needing to be ‘rational’, or ‘economical’ in our responses. The other option is to step out in faith. It is to stare at this problem and to say, ‘I must act anyway’, ‘I must serve anyway’, ‘I must care for this Earth, regardless of whether or not I will succeed’. This is the sort of faith that Jesus guides us towards. A faith that can be strong and brave even when facing storms. A faith that looks at the rapidly aging population of the church and says ‘we have everyone that we need’. A faith that is not fearful of what it doesn’t have, but works to embrace what it does.
In the reading from Pastrix (see the reading below), Nadia Bolz-Weber speaks of realising that nothing is God’s favourite material to work with. This is such an important message, because often the biggest fear that inhibits our action is this idea that we are not strong enough, we do not have the money we need, that there aren’t enough people and even if there were, none of them would be smart enough. We look at everything we don’t have, and we become paralysed. We let the fear of failure that such a lack could, and often does, bring, and we let that fear guide our behaviour. Facing fear is not new. The writers of our psalm today feared just like us. Feared that perhaps God doesn’t care after all; that perhaps the rich and mighty will indeed win; that perhaps their gods of power, and money, and control are stronger than our god of gentleness, of smallness and justice, perhaps their god of might is stronger than our god of fisherman, and little people. To act in faith though, we need to stare into this fear, acknowledge it, and to trust that we can make a difference. To act despite what we might lose. To act despite what we will lose. To act regardless of whether we will succeed. To act in faith is not to feel no fear, it is to not let fear become god.
Jess has a strong faith in the idea of First Third ministry, in care for the environment, and in the churches ability to play a part in restoring health to this planet. The fear of smallness, of failure, of futility, are all fears faced by those engaging in these sorts of movements. I’m not certain, but I imagine they’re fears faced by Jess too. These fears are real fears, but our celebration of Jess is a celebration of her faith despite this fear. We are here because we share her ideals and think that they are essential parts of living life as people of God’s way. If they are ideals we share though, then they also ought to be things we have faith in. Faith does not necessarily mean you must be willing to die for this cause. But perhaps you could be willing to say something that your family, colleagues or congregation doesn’t want to hear. Perhaps you’d be prepared to re-examine how you live your own life. Perhaps you’d be prepared to embrace a new set of doubts. No matter what sorts of storms that you may face, or maybe they’re not storms, maybe they’re other gods, the gods of money, or power, or admiration, that are tempting you. Or maybe your storms are better described as an annoying drizzle. No matter what ignorance’s you have to face, no matter what fears they might bring, you must step towards them with a faith that says, in the words of Martin Luther, ‘here I stand, I can do not other. So help me God.’
This faith is what we come to celebrate in Jess. These things will not disappear because Jess’ job is changing. They will not disappear from her, and they will not disappear from us, if we are brave enough to exercise faith. Jess I thank you for living your life and serving in your ministry with such faith. A faith that looks at the impossible task of a church dominated by the older generations, and sees a path that leads to the inclusion of all. A faith that sees the very poles of our planet melting a way, and sees a path that leads to God’s people and God’s Earth renewing their vows with one another. We admire your faith, and we too shall not be frightened of the storm. We too, shall step into the dark, and we thank you for stepping with us.
May God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, half truths and superficial relationships, so that we will live deep in our hearts.
May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people, so that we will work for justice, equity and peace.
May God bless us with tears to shed for those who suffer, so that we will reach out to comfort them and change their pain into joy.
And may God bless us with the foolishness to think that we can make a difference in the world, so that we will do the things that others say cannot be done.
The following reading from Pastrix, by, Nadia Bolz-Webber, was read during Jess’ service.
In our reading from Pastrix, Nadia is relaying her experience with trying to organise an event called Rally Day, which she tried to use to have more young people and families to come to the church. In the end though, she had even fewer people attend that service than she normally did and there was so much left over food that they had to begin to give it away. This reading takes place right at the end of rally day, when they are getting ready to leave.
Pastrix: Chapter 10, pp. 104-106
“Where does this go?” Jim asked, as he dumped the ice out of the soda cooler. He indicated with a nod of his head what he was asking about. It was the basket. A completly empty basket. Not a single dollar in it. Now I not only hated all the people who didn’t show up, I also hated all the people who did. They had laughed and had a blast and ate and ate and ate and gave the food away, and not one of them put a dollar in the basket. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
On the drive home I called my friend Sara who serves an equally odd, but much more established Episcopal church in San Francisco. I relayed every detail of the whole disappointing day and how the lazy people didn’t come to Rally Day and the selfish, greedy people did and how I hated them all. And how I was a total failure as a church planter, and oh, by the way, I had to get up at four a.m. to get on a plane to Chicago; the Lutherans were flying me there because they wanted to hear about my church, but that’s because they didn’t get that these people are awful and I was a failure.
“Honey, just tell them the truth. It will be a gift.”
It was almost midnight before the resentment and self-loathing shut the hell up long enough for me to fall asleep. But then at two a.m. I was startled awake with what can only be described as a bitch slap from the Holy Spirit. My eyes sprang open and out loud I said, “Oh wow.” The force of the realization hit me: My back didn’t hurt. It hadn’t hurt after they prayed for me and it didn’t hurt now as I laid in my bed, startled awake. I had received a healing. A temporary one, my back still had issues, but still…I had received a healing and I was too wrapped up in myself and my feelings and unmet expectations to even notice.
And come to think of it, I hadn’t really noticed the joy people had in being together and handing out cotton candy in the street. I hadn’t really noticed that some hungry people in Triangle Park got to eat iron-rich burgers for dinner that night. I hadn’t really noticed that Amy, Jim and Stuart got to have the experience of caring for their pastor and that it was a blessing to them. I had decided that the event was a failure since there wasn’t the right number of people and no one had chipped in any money. How small.
I was reminded again of the loaves and fishes. Thousands of people were sitting around listening to Jesus when the disciples realized it was getting late and no one had ordered pizza. So there they were, faced with feeding all those people who they frankly wished would just go away, and Jesus said, “Well…what do you have?” And here’s the great thing about the Gospel of Matthew’s account of the feeding of the multitude: the disciples said, “Nothing.”
“What do we have?” they asked. “We have nothing. Nothing but a few loaves and a couple of fish.” And they said this as though it were a bad thing.
The disciples’ mistake was also my mistake: They forgot that they have a God who created the universe out of “nothing,” that can put flesh on dry bones “nothing,” that can put life in a dusty womb “nothing.” I mean, let’s face it, “nothing” is God’s favourite material to work with. Perhaps God looks upon that which we dismiss as nothing, insignificant, and worthless and says “Ha! Now that I can do something with.”
I had looked at the twenty-six people at Rally Day, and when Jesus asked, “What do you have?” I said, “Nothing”.
And I had missed it all.