Every now and then I watch religious programming on television. Sometimes this is amusing, sometimes frightening, often disappointing, occasionally uplifting. I have a problem with a Christianity that is terminally cheerful, one that says, “Leave your brains at the door, come on in and smile and just believe everything you hear”. This attitude, the one embraced by many churches, suffers from the delusion that if we only believe firmly enough and “stay positive” we will be spared suffering and pain. This view of Christianity teaches that we are called to avoid pain, to obtain every earthly blessing we desire and to be financially successful because these things are our birthright. To me, this seems to be a distortion of Christianity, especially when we consider that the central idea of our religion is that crucifixion and death are the only way to resurrection and a life beyond all limitation. There is no way to avoid pain; one must move through it and overcome.
We’ve all seen or met people who are unbelievably cheerful in their Christianity. These people want desperately to believe that if we just keep a happy face on at all times, everything will be fine. To them, having a sad face or a worried face is evidence that our faith isn’t genuine, isn’t strong enough. If we truly believe, they suggest, we should be happy all the time. Certainly we know that Jesus laughed and knew how to have a good time—think of the miracle at Cana when the house wine ran out and Jesus made his own special vintage– to rave reviews! But there is nothing in the Gospels to support the notion that Jesus was happy-go-lucky all the time, and there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary. Those who believe that all we need is enough faith and then we’ll have no more sadness or no more challenges or heartache are suggesting—at least implicitly—that maybe Jesus ought to have had more of this brand of faith himself. If he’d had more confidence and cheerfulness, he might not have been crucified. The early Christian martyrs, too, might have escaped a lot of unpleasantness had they only had had more positive thoughts to bolster their faith.
My own experience of faith is that it is something more than agreeing with official doctrine, something more than denying our emotions when we are experiencing them, and certainly something more than denying the reality of our pain, sorrow and doubt. Faith is more than a desperate smiling determination.
The story of Elijah on Mount Horeb, tonight’s first reading, is about having faith in uncertainty. Like many of us who sometimes seek a sign from God, Elijah wants something unambiguous, something powerful, something he can carry within himself for the rest of his life. Intuitively, he feels certain that God will be revealed on the mountain, and sure enough, a strong wind came up, one that caused avalanches. Elijah thought that this might be the voice of God, but realized it was not. Then there was an earthquake, but Elijah realized that this was not God either. As a result of the quake, a fire broke out, but again Elijah knew intuitively that this was not the voice of God either. And then, a tiny whispering sound became audible to him and Elijah hid his face in his cloak. In the dark and terror of that mountain experience, he came to know that God was present, that God was with him in the midst of his solitude and doubts.
During World War II, Nazi troops entered a Jewish village, took most of the men and hanged them from the trees. The rest of the village was forced to watch these executions, and as the dying men hung from the trees, kicking and jerking, a Nazi soldier reportedly grabbed the Rabbi and yelled into his face, “Now, where is your God?” The Rabbi pointed to the dying men, and said, “There! There is our God!” There were no smiles, no positive attitude to be found in that village on that day, but there was a deep faith that would transcend the darkness and that would endure long after the Nazis had become a distant memory.
God does not will evil in our lives nor in our world but neither can God intervene directly in the happenings of our world. God does not intervene to save starving babies or to save a young mother with terminal cancer. But God is there with us, crying with us and holding us close in our most painful moments, sustaining us and helping us to overcome each of our limitations. And the last limitation that each of us will have to overcome is death itself.
When we have gone through the dark times and come out into the light, we know more surely than ever that faith is real, that it’s about trusting the power and love of God. We also know that our language is somewhat limited. We can’t explain faith completely with words alone. Those who have had faith understand words about faith, just as those who have loved and been loved understand words of love. The best definition we have of faith is the example and presence of those precious people in our lives whose faith has inspired us, just as the best definition we have of God is the example and presence of those in our lives who mirror God’s love and justice and forgiveness.
In Matthew’s account, as told in tonight’s pericope, Jesus walks on the water while a storm rages. This apparition of Jesus is clearly a post-resurrection event, even though the telling of the story is clearly out of sequence in Matthew’s Gospel. The Apostles think they are seeing a ghost: had Jesus been alive, they would not have made that assumption. They were terrified until Jesus told them who he was. Then Peter– good, old impetuous Peter– asks Jesus to call him out onto the water, and so he does. Peter climbs out of the boat onto the surface of the water and does well until he looks around at the storm. His fear returns and he begins to sink. He loses his focus and begins to second- guess himself and God.
Matthew wants us to see this story in two ways: as a miracle worked by the New Moses (which is how he sees Jesus) and also as a lesson for ourselves. Jesus, in his limitlessness, is able to still the stormy seas and still the fears within grown men’s hearts. As we ourselves are tossed and threatened by the storms of our personal histories, it is our faith that will keep us from going under. And even in the most uncertain times, Jesus invites us to walk where others might have drowned, because there is no one else. This is the task for which we have been prepared all our lives, and there is no one else in the world who can step up and do our ministry for us. We are an irreplaceable small step in God’s plan. And even if we are afraid that our faith is too small or too weak, Jesus will show us the way, when we call out in faith.
This past Wednesday, August 6, was the feast of the Transfiguration: the commemoration of the event in Jesus’ life when he took Peter, James and John up the mountain and revealed himself to them in the brilliant light of his inner glory. August 6 is also the anniversary of the dropping of the world’s first atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945, which illuminated the city on that early morning as another brilliant flash of light. Hundreds of thousands of innocent people died as a result of that light and its terrible aftermath. Babies born a generation later still had horrible birth defects attributable to the effects of radiation.
The choice seems clear to those of us who now live in a post-nuclear age where these weapons exist in an increasing number of places, and the key question is: where we will place our faith? To the scientists, military men and politicians of the 1940s, faith in technology as savior of the world became their ultimate allegiance. For those of us who follow Jesus, the Shower of the Way, our faith is in the God who is the ground of our Being and of all that is. Our allegiance is to this God. We step out of our boat a little timidly, like Peter before us, and we move cautiously forward, confident some days, fearful the next, but still we move forward. We believe in a world without war, without prejudice, without hunger and want, without walls and boundaries. We acknowledge the painful reality of the present, but we press forward through the darkness because we know that that this is the only path to transcending our limitations. Because we believe. We believe.