Delivered at Ames UCC on March 18, 2018
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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Part of how I’ve been able to have a faith, and be part of the Christian religion, has been by rejecting belief. I’ve rejected the notion that I must believe in God, believe in the Trinity, believe in resurrection. I don’t reject God, Trinity, and resurrection, I reject that requirement of belief. Because, for me, the word belief is about intellect and conceptual understanding, none of which can encompass an encounter with divinity.
I believe, for example, in thermodynamics and diabetes and global climate change. I have received data on all of those, data gathered through rigorous, intentional testing by those who have undergone rigorous, relevant training. Maybe over time they will be proven wrong or modified in terms of biochemical or geologic mechanisms, but I believe energy is a physical phenomenon, as is insulin, and the rising waters resulting in environmental refugees.
Belief, I am trying to argue, is the outcome of a formal and predictable process.
Until now. Now it seems that belief as a function of the human brain and so a major factor in human society, is no longer tied to process.
I just finished a book by an Episcopal bishop on parish ministry. In it, he references a Duke University researcher who has studied how an audience holds on to both positive and negative misinformation as it relates to politicians. Basically, we conform facts to our experience up until the moment we receive the information, and we are remarkably unwilling to budge on our beliefs even when given reliable data that countermands our beliefs.
That research was in 2013. At this point it feels like anyone can believe anything, be it about politics or medicine or the planet, without any need for logic or data or relevant credentials, merely a suspicion of all three.
So talking about belief in God doesn’t make sense to me because the concept of God cannot be tested scientifically and belief itself is now so loaded a term as to be toxic.
Instead, I have faith. Instead of belief in God, I have faith in God.
The anonymous author of the Christian Testament’s Letter to the Hebrews wrote that
faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (11.1).
Faith is a paradox: Faith is hope somehow made substantial with data that are not quantifiable. Faith is without proof and without the kind of predictable outcomes that pass the test of the scientific method. And, if we are completely honest, faith can be explained away by that method in terms of our personal psychologies and social enculturation.
Please don’t hear me as anti-science in any way. My parents are scientists and my wife is a scientist. I’m not interested in pitting science against faith; I rely on both science and faith. What I am interested in, no, what I am compelled by against all reason, is to support you in the strengthening of your faith, to encourage you as you wrestle for yourselves with the paradox of logic-less proof and data-free truth that is faith in God.
Today we do that through the story of Jesus’ condemnation.
At this point, Jesus’s location has been betrayed and he has been arrested—and I’ll preach on that in some depth on Maundy Thursday at our joint service across the street1—then tried by both local authorities and the regional occupying government.
Pilate, in the version we have in this fourth gospel, knows that the charges against Jesus are a ruse, so he tries one last time to forestall execution. He has Jesus flogged, that is to say, whipped. The Roman soldiers then dress Jesus as a king in mockery of his alleged crime.
Pilate tries to return the bloodied Jesus to the local authorities, but they are determined to see his death through. So they change the charge against Jesus. It’s not that Jesus claimed to be a king, a direct challenge to the Emperor, now it’s that he claimed to be equal to God; Jesus is a heretic.
Pilate is afraid, the scripture says. He’s afraid of making the wrong decision. After all, Pilate is the governor of Judea, the boonies of the Empire, because he’s not skilled enough to oversee a more important holding. Not long after this, the historical record shows, Pilate will be fired for his mishandling of a revolt.
We see Pilate try to engage Jesus one last time, but Jesus can’t get Pilate out of this mess, he can only note Pilate’s poor understanding of power. So Pilate caves to his fear and inadequacies and condemns Jesus to die.
IN THE PAIN
As I said last week, I could spend all day on the theological ins and outs of why Jesus endured what he did and what happened at the cross and beyond the tomb. But, as I said, those are the questions of humanity, not the invitation of God. To be more specific, those are the debates we have when we have already made the leap of faith, once we already have an encounter of God with which to assess theological claims. The first step, or stagger or tip toe, of faith is not a well-reasoned and well-sourced intellectual claim that we can be convinced to believe.
faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen
So here is what I want to offer you from this story, without any elegant conceptual dances or theological maneuvers: God is with us in pain.
God is with us when we are betrayed.
God is with us when we are mocked.
God is with us when we are misunderstood.
God is with us when our bodies hurt.
God is with us when our bodies die.
God will not stop betrayal, or mockery, or misunderstanding, or pain, or death. But God will not abandon us in them. The holiness that called women and men out of their short, insignificant lives to spread good news to other nobodies about the power to feed and heal and redeem the world—despite the worldly powers that starve and injure and abandons it—that holiness remains faithful to those nobodies and all bodies whatever comes.
Just as God calls us to relieve the pain of others, God suffers our pain with us.
Every heartache, God feels.
Every job loss, God feels.
Every slight and every discrimination, God feels.
Every chemo treatment, God feels.
Every stroke, God feels.
Every broken bone, God feels.
Every arrest, God feels.
Every overdose and relapse, God feels.
Every suicidal thought, God feels.
Every grief, God shares.
Jesus does not stay in the whipping room or on the cross forever, but because he did at all, we have this portrait of sacred solidarity in our suffering.
You may not believe me. And that’s OK; you can still come to this church if you don’t believe me or believe anything. Please do! You may also have a good critique for why my case is weak. You may have gone through every pain on that list and felt completely alone. Or maybe you have had an experience of the institution of faith—church—that was itself injurious, one of the problems of parish ministries that the bishop I was reading says we must directly address.
But I hope that none of us will hold so tightly onto our past experiences, good or bad, or the data we have received to date, that we close off our hearts to new revelations of, new findings about, the one that is many, the irrational and divine multiplicity that I have faith is within, beside, above, below, behind, and in front of us all right now and always.