A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
August 12, 2018
University Baptist Church
I really enjoy this grab-bag series. It challenges me to address topics I don’t usually address. I mean, those of you who were here in June can wax theological about the Wandering Jew and the Biblical general Sisera who met an untimely death. We can deal with the refugee crisis and our Christian response. Heck we can even sing Christmas carols in August, if it helps.
But then comes the topic that makes one just a little uncomfortable. Like the one picked for this week: the grab bag topic for today is: “I would like to hear a sermon about: A time when you felt your faith challenged and how you dealt with it.” I sent my weekly email to the congregation on Monday and said in part:
I think of the people who have had obstacles in their lives, which would make most of us give up, and yet they kept going on...But the writer is not asking about what other people have done, but to describe a time when my faith was challenged. It’s asking for some self-disclosure. I’ll be sitting with my faith crises this week as I prepare this sermon. A sermon ought to point us in a better direction. I’m not sure I always have that better direction, but I try my best to stay on track. One of the ways I do this is with the accountability of my faith community. So, this is an exercise in community reflection. I know that with the Holy Spirit as the guide, we’ll find the way to a godly faith practice.
Kathleen Tice emailed me this week and said, “Oh, just a note from an old(er) woman (pastor). I really love and admire your openness. But just want to remind you, you don’t have to disclose a darn thing to the wider audience. Just to remind you. Still, I’m looking forward to your sermon.”
I’m sure many of us can identify with this question. Tell me about a time when you felt your faith was challenged and how you dealt with it.
My family has lived through our share of dark nights of the soul. I know many of you have as well. How do we make it through with our faith in tact? I can’t speak for my family, but I will speak for me. Beware of preachers who speak for others.
Part of it has to do with where you put your faith.
A lot of us have the idea of God as a wizard. God will wave the divine wand of protection or blessing if we do what is pleasing. Conversely, if we don’t do right, God will punish us. Therefore if we have tragedy or pain or disease, it’s our own fault. And we long for that magic wand to cure us or punish the wicked. If we have this idea of God, then it we will have plenty of opportunities for God to disappoint us.
During this political turmoil, we wonder how God can sit idly by while the wicked flourish. Some have lost their faith as they watch the political landscape shift.
I think of brother Job who had faith-challenging experiences. He was dealt an awful hand. Even though he was a good and upstanding man of faith, he still lost his property, his family, his health. Even his wife encouraged him to “curse God and die.” He dealt with it by arguing with God and his friends alike. 38 chapters of it. The question was, if God is sovereign, why was Job in such a bad state? Why do bad things happen to good people? The question is not satisfactorily answered, but there’s something about the argument, the contending with God that is central to Jewish faith. Maybe that’s where we find the word of God.
You know, I’ve been through a lot of health crises and tragedy. Most of you know these stories. There have been 3 completed suicides in my family in the past several years, and other attempts. You all helped me through the latest, which was when my nephew died at his own hand just a year and half ago. 21 months ago this comng Wednesday. We still count.
Then there was Kim’s breast cancer diagnosis. She’s doing well, thanks to the doctors and therapists and supportive and caring friends and family.
You know these stories. They have been the subject or subtext of a lot of my preaching these past two years.
I must confess that none of these experiences challenged my faith. If anything they made my faith stronger. And that faith is not in a god who waves a magic wand to protect the people of God’s favor and punish the wicked. This is a god who created caring people who surround you when we are in the dark nights of the soul. Unlike Job’s friends, true friends sit with you in the turmoil, holding your hand even when you are on fire. They don’t say platitudes. Instead, they hang with you. Distract you when you need it, provide food and drink and laughter and tears. They remind you that when all hell is breaking loose there is good in the world. That’s faith in action. That’s healing balm. That’s what the church is for. We are doing so well right now precisely because we have had the support of a community of faith. I don’t wish tragedy on anyone, but that tragedy can help you focus on what is real and what is true.
Some of the best music has come on the other side of the dark nights of our souls.
After the death of his wife and infant son in 1932, Thomas Dorsey was at the end of his rope. He wanted to quit gospel music and go back to jazz. But deep in his grief, he sat down at the piano and what came out was his prayer to God. “Precious Lord, Take my hand, lead me on let me stand. I am week I am tired I am sore. Through the storm through the night lead me on to the light take my hand precious Lord, lead me home.”
Sometimes faith is the answer to systematized evil. Who can forget that the writer of one of our favorite hymns John Newton was a slave merchant. But he had a conversion of faith on one of the trips across the Atlantic. He realized that trading in his human cargo was an abomination to God. So, he ordered his ship to turn around and deposit its contents back in Africa. On his way back across the Atlantic, he wrote “Amazing Grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found. Was blind, but now I see.”
I often wonder if you tire of hearing my call to ministry story. But as we were speaking about this yesterday at home, our daughter Becca did not recall the story. So if she can’t remember it, maybe I need to repeat it. It’s a story about losing faith and finding it again in a different place.
I grew up in a large church in suburban Cleveland, Ohio where there were 200 people in church choir alone. It was the baby boom and we were booming. I learned how to be a good person and to love everyone in this church. The four of us kids went to church every Sunday and sang in the choir. The church even had a wilderness survival based youth program. I gained my own sense of self-confidence in my church setting.
But when I went to college, everything seemed to change. I loved my church and the people in it, but I found the church lacking in its ability to speak to issues of social and economic justice. In short, I discovered politics in college. And as I looked back at my church upbringing, I cynically saw how much we were sheltered from the world. Religion had to do with personal piety, not social justice. I grew up during the civil rights movement and the Viet Nam war and I don’t ever remember them being topics of discussion in church. I began to see church as a place where we could become comfortable with our prejudices. Like Marx, I could see how the religion could be the opiate of the people—placating people and soothing them instead of inspiring them to change the world. My faith was challenged and I found it wanting. So, I did what most college students do, I left the church, dismissing it as a social club that stood in the way of weightier issues—or worse, an institution that kept people blind to the realities of the world, all safe inside a stained glass tomb.
I took one religion course, my first semester in college. I hated it and vowed to never take a religion course again. And I didn’t, in college. I majored in Sociology and Anthropology with a minor in Music.
My first job out of college was working at the University in the Student Life department. I had an apartment on campus and was the liaison with student groups.
On break after my first semester in my new job, I went out for a drink with a church friend who had gone to the same college as me and had also recently graduated from seminary. She and I spoke about our lives and activism. She criticized me for working with rich people at the college when I had such a passion for justice, and a mind for social analysis.
We were talking about activism, particularly as it related to the situation in Nicaragua. She told me that she had just returned from a prayer vigil on the Nicaragua/Honduras border with a group called Church Women United. I had been following the situation there, knowing missionary families from our home church and railing against the Reagan Administration’s short-sighted policy there. I applauded her for standing for justice and everything, but I didn’t understand this prayer thing. I can support your being a physical presence there, but why waste your time praying. It was then that she told me, “Doug don’t you know that the entire Old Testament is the story of a people’s liberation from slavery and that Jesus ministry in the New Testament is to bring social justice to those considered outcasts?” I said, “that’s in the Bible?” She said, “Yeah, you may want to read it some time.” I did, and that was my first awakening to the fact that the core of Christianity is the creation of a just world.
She encouraged me to go to Nicaragua and I did for the first time back in 1984 with a group from my home church in Cleveland, Ohio. We had gone down to be with missionaries and we were used to doing the things that good US citizens do, go down, build a house or dig a latrine and go home. But American Baptist Missionary Gustavo Parajon said, “if you really want to help the Nicaraguan people, then let me take you around the country. Take pictures and hear their stories. Then take those stories back to the US and change US policy. That’s what we really need. That will save our lives.” So that’s what we did. I was again evangelized by the Nicaraguan people. They introduced me to liberation theology. This is a theology that looks at the world and the scriptures through the lens of a poor suffering people. And we need to remember that God is always on the side of the poor and the outcast.
I saw a depth of spirituality I had not seen before in the US. These people were in love with God and God was making a difference in their lives. It was not simply an intellectual assent or even a non-thinking spiritual sense of being swept away. Rather it was them loving God with all of their heart soul and mind and strength and at the same time loving their neighbor as themselves.
It so happened that we were in a Bible study one Sunday at the First Baptist Church of Managua. We were studying the Good Samaritan story. We talked about how we are to love our neighbors and even to love our enemies. We talked about how wonderful the Samaritan was. We talked about how we could imagine who the other players in the story were: the preacher, the lawyer, those too busy to take care of someone else. We talked about how the lawyer didn’t really want to love his neighbor as himself as much as he wanted to trap Jesus. We’ve looked at this story enough to know the predictable ways it might go. Then one man stood up toward the end of the lesson. He was wearing the fatigues of the Sandinista army. He said with tears in his eyes, “I am a Sandinista, but my cousin was kidnapped by the Contra. They said if he didn’t fight for them that they would come and kill his family. We have our guns pointed at each other. We love each other and we believe we are doing what is right. In this context, who is my neighbor?”
The people in the Bible study responded with many compassionate responses. But he nailed it. He pointed out the real life conundrum, the life and death context of faith. I realized how shallow my faith had been. And I left that study vowing never to settle for platitudes in the face of dire reality. That experience led me to being the person of faith I am today. That faith is not faith in a magic wand waving God, but in a God who inspires communities of people to get together to make a better world.
That’s one thing I have seen in the aftermath of the rise of white nationalism in the highest office in our land. A rainbow coalition of activists and seekers after justice have taken to the streets and demanded a better way. People have come to church and evaluated it not on the music and the hip technology, but on the difference they are making in the world.
So my faith has been challenged. It’s a challenge to see the world God created as broken. And it is the deepest reality that God wants us to work to repair the broken world. When the loudest voices spout meanness, it’s our responsibility to remind the vast majority—of God’s priorities of justice, mercy, compassion and love. If your faith does not have that as its core, then you are worshipping the wrong god.
Has that stopped my questions? Of course not. But it does put my faith in the perspective that the long arc of the moral history bends toward justice. It’s up to us to join God in bending that arc in the right direction
Mr. Rogers famously said: "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." To this day, especially in times of "disaster," I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world."
Good advice. It might actually restore your faith.