“I used to believe that faith and consistency went hand in hand; that believing in God meant ascribing to a series of beliefs, and holding onto them into eternity. But now, I believe that change is intrinsic to faith. Now I believe that the most faithful thing we can do, sometimes, is turn and go another way.”
Sermon Preached: Sunday, August 22, 2021 at Trinity Church on the Green
May I speak in the name of God who is to us Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I have decided to follow Jesus
I have decided to follow Jesus
I have decided to follow Jesus
No turning back, no turning back.
As I was preparing for my sermon this week, I could not get this song out of my head. I debated, at length, whether to sing it – both because singing from a podium is a step beyond my comfort level, and because singing has been one of those risky activities that we have had to practice differently, throughout the pandemic. For those of you who have been paying attention to our shifting policies, you will have noticed that a few weeks ago we decided to put a pause on congregational singing here at Trinity Church, because of the heightened risk of singing that we learned about early on in the pandemic. In our eNews this week we announced a change in that policy – we have decided to resume congregational singing at Trinity – always with masks! – starting next week, on Aug. 29. Our clergy and church leadership met with doctors, and we discerned that singing is not that much riskier than speaking at this particular moment in the pandemic, in an environment where we all commit to wearing masks, social distancing, and getting vaccinated.
Of course, this all feels very hypothetical this morning, since we are all worshipping from our respective places due to Hurricane Henri! But this change simply underscores the theme that I’ve been thinking about throughout this week: consistency. How do we think about those moments in our lives when we change our minds? I’m thinking about this, both in terms of our discernment about the role of singing at Trinity, and also in light of last minute changes we have made in light of this current tropical storm. All of this leads me to wonder: is perfect consistency a good thing? Or are there times when being faithful means changing our minds; changing our plans; changing our view of the world as we grow and change.
One thing I have learned this past year is that consistency is not the ultimate virtue. Sometimes we show more integrity – more faithfulness – when we choose to shift from the path that we had previously walked.
This, of course, is not just advice for setting policies in an age of Covid-19, or developing disaster plans in the face of a hurricane. I think it is sound wisdom for our lives of faith as well. All too often, I have seen Christians make an idol of consistency. We venerate martyrs in the church for their steadfastness, without looking at the lives they lead, and the ways that their faith grew and changed over time. We recite creeds, but don’t always pause to think about the words that we are saying. And we are afraid to change the things that we believe, positions that we might have taken at some earlier point in our lives, lest we be called hypocrites somewhere down the line. If consistency were the primary metric that we followed in our faith, we might discover at some point along the way that we had stopped following Jesus altogether – and what a fearful thing that would be.
Today, I want to invite you to take off that mantle of consistency that sometimes weighs heavily in our lives. Ease it off your shoulders, and look to our scripture readings for today. You will find that consistency is not the way of faith that Jesus proclaims. Faith was never meant to be unchanging. It was meant to be a living, breathing thing. And God (contrary to popular opinion) does not demand unwavering faith from us. Instead, God invites us to follow; God invites us to choose; and God reminds us at every step of the way that it’s not too late to turn and change our direction.
Consider first our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures today. The people of Israel are at a pivotal place in their journey towards the land of Canaan; the land they have been headed towards for 40 years. This is the point in the story where you might expect a locker room pep talk; a rallying cry to tear down the walls and seize the day. While it’s true that the words that come next are inspiring, they are also surprising in equal measure. The leader Joshua stands before the people of Israel and says: “Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living.” Choose this day whom you will serve. “But as for me and my household,” Joshua continues, “we will serve the Lord.”
Joshua makes it clear that God expects integrity from the people of Israel. Earlier in his speech, Joshua even says, “revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness.” And yet sincerity and faithfulness are not associated with utter consistency in this passage. Instead, sincerity and faithfulness are about choice. Joshua does not try to sway the opinions of the people standing before him. He simply reminds them that they have a choice – because faith is meaningless without that ability to choose.
In my ministry, I’ve listened to a good number of people describe a crisis of faith. They don’t know if church is the place for them anymore. They don’t feel the presence of God as close as they once used to. They wonder if God exists. In those conversations, I don’t try to force faith on people – because sometimes imagining a life without church, or a life without God, is the most faithful thing that people can do. We live in an unusual time in the history of Christianity where people no longer have to go to church because that’s what society tells them; people no longer have to go to church because it’s consistent with the culture around them. While this time of growing secularization may be disconcerting, it is also a gift. Now people are coming to church because they choose to be in church. You have chosen to come to church. And you choose this – not out of a sense of propriety or consistency, but out of a sense of faithfulness. You choose this out of a sense of searching for something more.
I think that God wants all of us to hear the words that Joshua spoke to the people of Israel, and apply them to our own lives: Choose this day whom you will serve. Choose everyday. Make your faith spacious enough that you could imagine choosing differently – because that is what sincere faith looks like. Allow yourself to walk down a different path, even if that journey takes you away from what you previously understood to be true. Faith is not a stale relic of consistency. Faith is a living, breathing thing. And you can choose this day whom you will serve.
This theme of choice – of agency beyond consistency – is present not only in our reading from the Book of Joshua, but also in our reading from the Gospel of John today. After a bit of an argument with the disciples about how Jesus’ teaching is simply too complicated to accept, Jesus watches some of his followers turn away. Turning himself towards the twelve disciples who have followed him from the beginning, Jesus asks: “Do you also wish to go away?” I love that Jesus asks this question. He doesn’t simply presume absolute loyalty, because he is the Son of God. Instead, he reminds the disciples that they have a choice – that they have always had a choice. Do you also wish to go away?
Simon Peter responds, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” This is a statement of faith, but it is also a statement that recognizes that faith is, itself, a process. We have come to believe, Peter says, acknowledging that faith is something with twists and turns; something that grows over time. And so the disciples decide to stay, and continue on the journey of faith.
Choose this day whom you will serve. Do you also wish to go away? Are these verses that we apply, on a regular basis, in our own lives? Or do we hunker down with a two-dimensional idea of what faith should be, squeezing our eyes shut in prayer until we feel so exhausted, we just can’t do it anymore? Ultimately, faith is not about stale consistency or blind adherence. Faith is about choosing. Faith is about remembering that at any given moment we have the opportunity to turn, to pivot, to change. Faith is about giving ourselves permission to Choose this day whom we will serve; and to ask ourselves, as Jesus asked his followers, Do you also wish to go away?
I used to believe that faith and consistency went hand in hand; that believing in God meant ascribing to a series of beliefs, and holding onto them into eternity. But now, I believe that change is intrinsic to faith. Now I believe that the most faithful thing we can do, sometimes, is turn and go another way. And I believe that God is with us on that journey, wherever we turn.
In a few moments, we will be invited to profess our faith together in the words of the Nicene Creed. In light of this sermon, saying the creed might feel a bit more complicated than usual. You might wonder, do I believe in all of these things? Can I say them, in good faith? I recently read the book The Heart of Christianity, by Marcus Borg, and his reflections really helped me approach the creeds with a sense of integrity. Borg notes that the Latin word credo, which translates to “I believe” at the beginning of the Nicene Creed, does not mean “I hereby agree to the literal-factual truth of the following statements.” Rather, Borg writes, the Latin word credo has roots that mean “I give my heart to.” Not simply “I believe” but “I give my heart to these things” (Borg, The Heart of Christianity, 192).
What a beautiful way to think about faith – not as a list of consistent bullet points, but rather as a tradition that we give our hearts to. In this way, faith is less about assent and more about following – following with our whole hearts wherever they may lead us.
Perhaps the words of the song that I began this sermon with were not that far off, after all: I have decided to follow Jesus, I have decided to follow Jesus, I have decided to follow Jesus; no turning back, no turning back. As a child I misunderstood this hymn. I thought it meant that I could never change my mind. But now, what I hear is the word decide. What I hear is the word follow. And I know that there is no turning back: because whatever way we choose to go in the integrity of our hearts – that way is forward. Amen.
Borg, Marcus J. The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith. New York: HarperCollins, 2003. Accessed on Scribd.