Sermon, August 11, 2019
“Faith or Superstition”
Old Testament Scripture: Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.
Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.
When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation-I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
Scripture Reading: Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old-and Sarah herself was barren-because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead,
descendants were born, "as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore."
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.
Sermon: "Faith or Superstition?”
Faith is such a funny thing. And by funny, I don’t mean funny, haha. I mean, funny weird.
On one hand it involves what the poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge called, “A willing suspension of disbelief,” that is, faith in some ways is the voluntary giving up of a certain kind of skepticism, a certain kind of logical, rational thinking, and be willing to engage the irrational, the mysterious, the unknown unknowable.
And this doesn’t come easy to some of us.
And maybe that’s a good thing. We see the results all the time of what happens when someone throws off all rational thought, all logical, cognitive reasoning and embraces all kinds of things that fly in the face of common-sense knowledge. The made-up controversy over vaccinations comes to mind. We actually have a presidential candidate who isn’t sure the science is in on vaccinations, who isn’t sure that clinical depression actually exists, or that illness is anything more than an illusion.
Now, while I certainly agree with anybody’s right to inflict whatever harm they wish upon their own body in order to live out whatever crackpot philosophy they want, I certainly don’t want that person in charge of policies that will affect the health and wellbeing of literally millions of people. Even if they do call themselves spiritual, and use words like love, faith, and miracles.
There is a fine line between faith and superstition, a fine line between the willingness to confront the mystery that is our Trinitarian God, and blindly believing in what I call, “woo” that sort of all-encompassing willingness to embrace any number of faux spiritual philosophies or remedies.
A great example of “woo” is the lifestyle brand called “Goop”. Now, I love Gwyneth Paltrow, and she will always be the definitive Pepper Potts in the Iron Man Superhero movies, but her ideas on spirituality and healing included in her wellness products, while extremely lucrative, are simply hokum. Let me read the advertising for one of my favorite ‘spiritual’ guidance products, “The Inner Compass:”
(The inventor of the Inner Compass) was at one of those dead ends. It wasn’t tragic. She was bored. Her life path had never been straight and narrow: She’d left law school for night classes at a fashion academy, partied through Amsterdam’s fashion scene as a stylist, and started her own headhunting company for creative agencies. (Pastor’s note: She sounds like a regular Albert Schweizer!). She had always had fun creating and telling visual stories. But at some point, she realized she just wasn’t creating from inside—you know, where the good stuff comes from. She wanted focus, not distraction. She wanted to hear from that inner voice—where had it gone?
In search of it, she built a tool to clear her head that became a powerful deck of cards, which she later named Inner Compass. Designed around forty-nine life themes, the cards incorporate Mayan culture, Taoism, Buddhism, and I Ching. You might think this would make for an abstract experience. But the messages the cards carry are straightforward: “Slow Down,” “Surrender,” and—our favorite—“Party Time.” So there’s no pretending you didn’t get the memo.
Isn’t that great? A deck of cards. And on sale right now for only $55. So easy. Who knew? Certainly not Rheinold Niebuhr, who spent his entire life writing some thirty books about the concept of vocation. He could have saved all that time, sold a deck of cards, and lived on the beach in Tahiti. I’ll bet he’s turning over in grave, right now, wishing he’d done it differently.
Gwyneth’s lifestyle brand is a syrupy gloop of new age, spiritual sounding words paired with new ideas about mindfulness and health that promises wellness, happiness, wholeness and purpose. It is a modern day example of there’s a sucker born every minute. And don’t even get me started on yona eggs.
Now, I don’t blame Gwyneth. I make fun of her, but I don’t blame her. If I had absolutely no shame, and a couple of million dollars for a startup, I think I would go in the same direction. Because she didn’t invent the snake oil scam. It’s been around as long as people continue to simply believe whatever they see or hear, without thinking about whether or not it actually makes sense.
And the internet, far from giving us the information we need to identify and eliminate this sort of indiscriminate superstition and ignorance, is amplifying it. Reposts of specious news reports, urban legends posing as something my friend told me, political tribalism, and more recently, efforts by foreign countries to deliberately insert divisive and inflammatory langue into our national discourse have all combined to create a culture that trusts it’s timeline on facebook more than it trusts the actual news and scientific consensus.
And this, my friends, is not faith.
This is superstition.
I, like I’m sure many of you, have been around folks that have somehow conflated believe in God with belief in just about anything but actual truth and facts. In fact, it seems sometimes that these folks insist that their faith is somehow validated by the increasing weirdness of what they actually believe, and that perhaps your faith is suspect because you’re not in there with them.
I just had a visit from someone like that the other day. Guy knocked on my door ready to tell me that the events in El Paso and Dayton were predicted in Daniel, and that we were in the end times. I told him I didn’t believe that, and he asked if I was a Christian. When I told him I was the pastor next door, there was such a look of confusion and suspicion on his face.
Of course, the conversation went south from there, but my point is, he probably was finding an audience for the idea that El Paso was predicted in Daniel. I’d like to read that passage. It would be fun to see Texas called out by name in the Old Testament, but I’m guessing that that reference doesn’t actually exist.
This willingness on the part of too many Christians to embrace “woo” is endemic. There is a whole industry built around selling organic remedies to Christians. Look it up on google. As though Christians are somehow a wholly separate species of animal than normal human beings, and require a completely different treatment protocol.
This is not faith.
It is superstition.
And we don’t have to believe in it for our salvation. In fact, I give you permission to reject it, if you like.
Now, I’ve been poking fun at folks who are willing to believe anything if the word, “faith”, or “spirituality”, or “God” is attached to it, but all of this brings up the natural question, “OK, Dave, what is faith? How is faith different than superstition?”
And I’m afraid the best answer I can come up with is the same one that Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart gave in his opinion about hard-core pornography: “I can’t give a definition, but I know it when I see it.”
And maybe that’s the best test. Faith is something that can be seen.
Because faith is not just believing in something that you can’t see.
Faith is acting on what you believe.
He has told us what is good;
and what the Lord requires:
do justice, love kindness,
and walk humbly with God.
To love neighbor as self.
To clothe the naked, to feed the hungry. To welcome the stranger. To house the homeless. To care for the children.
These are expressions of our faith. This is what faith looks like. We can buy every product in the Gwyneth Paltrow catalogue (well, some of us can, I don’t have that kind of cash), but if we aren’t caring for the least among us, it’s not faith.
We can buy Marianne Williamson’s books, we can believe all we want in the power of positive thinking, we can name it and claim, sow it and grow it, blab it and grab it, strengthen our attitudinal muscles, any of a 100 other new age manifestations of gobbledygook, but if we are neglecting the voiceless, if we are perpetuating injustice, if we are unable to embrace the other among us, then our faith is dead. It is no more than muttering at new moons, or wearing talismans to bring good luck. Our worship is nothing more than assemblies of iniquity, convocations of self-centered spirituality.
And that is not faith.
It is superstition.
This is the difference between faith and superstition: superstition answers the question, “What can God do for me?” Faith answers the question, “What can I do for God?” And when we live out that answer, we see faith. And it doesn’t involve special creams, or handkerchiefs, or essential oils, or exotic herbs, or spirit guides or bobble-head Jesus dolls.
The problem is, faith is not safe. In order to help someone else, someone who is hurting, you run the risk of being hurt yourself.
Faith is vulnerable. Faith can't be explained. Faith can't be proved. There is a fine line between faith and foolishness.
Faith requires action in order for it to be real. And it's impossible to predict where it will take you.
The author of Hebrews points to the faith of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of the Hebrew faith for our example. He lifts up Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Jacob for our admiration, to remind the church that belief and action are two sides of the coin of faith.
It's this willingness to trust God with the intangibles of life that the author describes as faith: "The assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."
The willingness to step out into nothing, confident in the unfailing presence of God to support us. The rare gift of trusting God's call on our lives, and then responding to it.
Now, the problem is, that we've become accustomed to thinking of faith as a thing we have, rather than a thing we do. Faith has become a state-of-being verb rather than an action verb. Faith has become a means to an end, rather than part of the journey.
I'm not suggesting for a minute that the things we do earn our salvation. I'm sure that if you've heard any of my sermons over the last several years you know that I'm quite convinced that nothing we do earns our relationship with God. Our salvation is not found in our own works, but in the work of Jesus Christ, who, on the cross, once and for all has bound me, and all of you to God.
But, I am saying that belief, that faith in our relationship with God, has to mean things. It results in actions, decisions, works. If it doesn't, then our faith is indeed dead.
What kind of faith is it that doesn't move us to take risks? What kind of faith is it that doesn't provoke convictions about how life could be, if we committed ourselves to a better world?
That can't be faith. At least, it's not the kind of faith that we see in the history of the Bible.
And, you know, it's not the kind of faith we see in our country's history, or in our church's history, or even in our own personal history.
It took faith for our country to commit to the idea that all men and women are created equal, and are given certain, inalienable rights by God.
It took faith to honor that commitment by freeing slaves; by fighting for the right for women to vote; by marching on Selma for civil rights; by abolishing segregation.
It took faith for this church to build this remarkably modern and forward-looking sanctuary.
To begin the habitat for humanity program in this community.
To put aside old hurts, and reconcile a decades-old church disagreement.
To provide a place where spiritual questions can be discussed, openly, and theological differences are embraced.
Faith is about planting in the spring, and waiting for the first shoots of corn or cotton to poke their heads out of the ground.
It's about the first day in a new high school; or the first day in a classroom for a brand-new teacher.
It's about pledging a portion of your income to the church for the first time.
It's about taking the bar exam after seven very expensive years of school.
Faith is about trusting someone else with your deepest, darkest secrets.
It's about a first-time teen-age mother going into labor.
It's about protecting the dignity of a homeless person, when they ask for money.
It's about being at the end of life, and looking forward to being in God's presence in a new, and more complete way.
Faith is about taking the first patrol as a policeman; the first alarm as a fireman; stepping into the yard for the first time as a prison warden; answering the first code blue in the hospital, taking the first step into enemy territory as a soldier.
It's also about watching your child do these things from a distance.
Faith is the first time a surgeon wields a scalpel on a live patient; or the first time a nurse pierces a vein.
It's about talking to a friend about Jesus Christ.
It's about taking the stage on opening night.
It's about your first solo flight in an airplane.
Faith is working for the basic human rights of people on the margins of society.
It's about performing your first recital; sharing your art in a public place.
It's about writing your first book or letting someone read your poetry.
It's about giving your time away without getting paid for it.
Faith is taking the field or the court in the first game of the year.
It's about taking a college math class, late in life, knowing that if you fail, your dreams will come crashing down around you.
It's about waking up, getting out of bed, and facing the world every day after the loss of a child, or a mother, or father, or sister, or brother.
As the author of Hebrews reminds us, faith is inextricably bound up in action. When the Bible talks about faith, it talks about doing, and it talks about doing things which are risky, things that are dangerous.
I really don’t know what faith is. But I know it when I see it.
So, what's next for you? Where is God calling you? What brand new, scary land is he promising waits for you, if you trust him to go there? Are you willing to take a risk, to look like a fool, to be out on a limb?
And what about our church? As the church moves into a season of planning, of preparing budgets, of thinking about our finances, of sharing our hopes and dreams, what might our faith look like?
Where will the journey take us in the new year? In what ways will this church look for the un-seeable, to trust in the unknown? Where will we step out in wonder, in fear, in hope for the promises of God?
I'm looking forward to finding out with you. It's going to be quite a journey. Let's get ready to take these next steps together.