(St. Francis Animal Blessing Sunday)
Offered October 2, 2011
St. Clements’s Episcopal Church, New York City
Proper 22, Year A
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19;
Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy. . . . Amen
Do you all know this prayer? It appears in the Prayer Book (on page 833) where it is attributed to St. Francis. It’s uncertain whether this prayer was actually written by St. Francis, but it expresses a beautiful spirit of self-giving and reconciliation – and it’s a prayer we associate with St. Francis’ Day. I want to focus on one the line in this prayer “Where there is doubt, let me sow faith” – the relationship between doubt and faith.
This past week I spent some time putting together some material for a job application – and one of the questions I was asked to write about was a statement of my understanding of the Christian faith. Seems like a reasonable question. After going over and over this question in the discernment process before coming to seminary – and now after two plus years of study in seminary focused on subject of Christian faith, I initially felt pretty confident. By this time, I must be immanently qualified to dash off a quick answer – an answer that might quote some scripture and the Creed – and give a nod to the Trinity, the Incarnation and the workings of the Holy Spirit. I thought that should pretty much cover the relevant theology.
And, of course, to make a good impression on a job application, I assumed that a statement of my understanding of the Christian faith should indicate that my faith at this point is strong and certain and unflappable.
So with all that in mind, here’s what I came up with for an opening line: “Christian faith is the knowledge and the certainty that we are loved unconditionally by God – that God is faithful to the promise to be with us always – in the person of the incarnate son Jesus Christ – in the power and flow of the Holy Spirit.”
This was a good enough start, perhaps, but I started hearing a nagging inner voice. The truth is that often I don’t feel so confident and cozy and absolutely sure. I’m guessing that most of us are skeptical, or anxious, or afraid, or doubtful from time to time. As I sat with my initial statement — that “Christian faith is knowledge and certainty” it became clear that faith, as I know it – is not so black and white, so absolute. It’s true that the faith I experience is as real as anything I know. But the whole truth is that I also go through times when it doesn’t feel so sure – times when I live Christian faith in darkness. With this self-confession, I found that I needed to retreat from that initial confidence about turning out a perfect erudite statement of my understanding of the Christian faith.
Our human tendency is to build up self-concepts of our status, security and certainty based on our own achievements. Doubts are sure to come when that security is lost. Doubts can arise any place along our faith journey. But they can be most painful when they arise as the result of difficult setbacks: like the loss of financial security due to the loss of employment or the loss of the companionship of a beloved spouse or parent or friend.
When we look at today’s epistle reading from the third chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, we come across several verses that I think provide some assurance and hope – insight that shines some light on the experience of Christian faith and the doubts that arise when certainties prove to be false.
Paul writes: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings — by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”
These words are amazing – coming from the great apostle Paul, the author of a large chunk of the Bible, the very Word of God. He says, “I want to know Christ” – not “I do know Christ and let me tell you all about it.” His words are tentative – they indicate that even he, Paul, is not sure — at least not yet.
I wonder if it could be that faith is not about being absolutely sure, absolutely certain . . . I wonder if faith may actually only begin where certainty ends.
Paul expresses a desire to know Christ – not to achieve knowledge about Christ – but to know a personal relationship with Christ. And he goes on to say that his goal is threefold: to know the power of Christ’s resurrection, to share Christ’s suffering, and to become like Christ in his death.
Paul’s words here seem to grow out of the reading we heard last week – from the second chapter of Philippians: “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”
So I’ll continue to work on that statement of my understanding of Christian faith for the job application. But based on reflection on today’s epistle reading, I might modify that original statement and add these thoughts:
- “Christian faith is the knowledge that we are loved unconditionally by God – and that God is faithful to the promise to be with us always in the person of the incarnate son Jesus Christ – in the power and flow of the Holy Spirit.
- “Christian faith is the certainty of Divine Light — even when the spark of consolation and the sense of God’s Presence leave us. In these times, Christian faith is lived in darkness. By leaning on faith we find the strength and perseverance to carry us through the tunnel of darkness.
- “Christian faith is a mystery. It is certainty in what we can’t explain, but it is more real than the things we can explain. Because Christian faith is a mystery, “We walk by faith, not by sight.”
- “Christian faith lives, breathes and moves in the personal relationship of love – first and above all else in our love of God, then flowing into our unconditional love for all others, as we also love ourselves, — and then to all creation.
- “And as Paul says, Christian faith embraces the experience of ongoing death and resurrection, ongoing transformation into the mind and image of Jesus Christ.”
If all this is beginning to sound a little too complicated, the Good News is that Christian faith doesn’t need to be complicated to be true: Simple Christian faith means a deep gratitude that God is our Creator, our Lover and our Keeper. Simple Christian faith means that we know God’s Love through our personal relationship with Jesus Christ as our constant companion. Simple Christian faith means that we depend on God for forgiveness and everything else we need.
Blessings more wonderful than we can begin to imagine are assured by our faith in Jesus Christ – simply by accepting the gifts of God’s love and mercy. Amen