Harrowing Of Hell
January 9, 2022

Faith in Hard Times

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

Good morning. On Thursday evening this past week at the Feast of the Epiphany I shared my vision for this parish over the next year or seven. It included more thorough integration of our spiritual conversations. And so, today we begin with a sermon titled: Faith in Hard Times, followed by the 10:00 am forum where we will discuss the topic of Faith in Hard Times. All of this in part of our effort to be a more integrated institution of spiritual formation.

But this emphasis on integration doesn’t mean we can’t also be a place of beauty as well. If you haven’t noticed, on the nave floor is a beautiful new chasuble we commissioned for use and blessed at the Feast of Epiphany. It was envisioned and created by Sandra Darling, with some help from the All Threads ministry.

I point this out not just because it is an extraordinary piece of art, but also because of what is on the back–The tree of life. There is a saying in Jewish mysticism that goes like this: “This visible world is the fruit of an upside-down tree of life with its roots in the invisible world.”

I love that image: the tree of life, and the created order we see as the dangling fruit swinging in our sightlines, nurturing us through roots deeply buried in the invisible realm.

Our acknowledgement of these invisible roots has a name: Faith. And so, it is my hope that whenever you see this chasuble, you consider faith, and its root deeply anchored in the invisible realm.

The Bible defines faith this way in the Book of Hebrews 11:1 &3: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 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.” Faith is our acknowledgement of and participation in the invisible realm. I’ve preached about this before, back in July 2019.  I’m sure you all remember.

Now the logic for thinking about things invisible begins by thinking about things visible. We know how visible things work by their impact on us. We know how day and night affect our behavior. We know what we do when it rains, depending on how hard it rains. These are visible things, and we act in full knowledge of them accordingly; and so do other people because they generally experience visible things the same way we do.

There are also visible things that we can’t see; like wind and molecules and germs. We used to think these were invisible things, but we know better now. They are just small things that we understand through science: like a virus,  which all of us are now experts on, sadly.

Because of our knowledge of how visible things impact us, we know how to act. We wear masks, or we know not to step in front of a moving bus. Invisible things work exactly the same way, it is just that we don’t see them; and because we don’t see them we too often don’t accept their existence; and if we don’t accept their existence then we fail to respond appropriately to their impact upon us which can have the effect of feeling like being hit by a bus, that we don’t accept as having hit us. And so, we’re walking around feeling like we have been hit by a bus and have no explanation as to why.

With this in mind we return to the topic of today’s sermon: Faith in Hard Times. It is my observation that in hard times, stressful times, times of uncertainty, faith is either strengthened or diminished because it is unmoored from its more static patterns. It is as if, in hard times, we are forced to take faith out of our pocket and hold it out in front of us and decide what to do with it. Will we add to its bulk by wrapping it in clay from the earth; or will we chip it against the hard steel of human self-centeredness?

I have seen this choice play out many times, in many different ways: when people move, or when they get a new job, or when they enter a new relationship, or when they lose a loved one. There’s a shifting of their spiritual habits in a way that accelerates or decelerates their faith.

These shifts are very individualistic and trend either towards self-reliance or God dependence. The pandemic is doing the same thing, accelerating or decelerating people’s faith, but in a seismic way with ramifications yet unseen. There is no static state of faith in hard times.

Here is the thing about faith; it is a choice. God gave us a choice because God loves us, and we know without choice there is no authentic love. But God took a risk when God wove the patterns of hard times into the created order, letting hard times become a freedom vector, if you will, against which to consider how we are tethered to the invisible realm, deciding to pull faith taut, knowing it’s connected to God, or let it flap loosely, as if it is not a real thing at all.

Jesus captures this sentiment in today’s Gospel: “Everyone who hears these words and acts on them will be like a wise person who built their house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, the winds blew and beat on the house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish person who built their house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against the house, and it fell—and great was its fall!” (Mt 7:24-27)

Where we build our house is a choice. It is a faith choice; to tether to the invisible realm, believing it is the place from which all creation is nourished; that is a choice. To live as if the invisible realm doesn’t exist is also a choice… one that is usually fine, but sometimes it causes us to feel like we’ve been hit by a bus, and don’t know why.

The gift of hard times is that is calls us to consider our faith and decide what we want to be tethered to. That is the decision that 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal made, which became known as Pascal Wager.  He wrote that: “A rational person should live as though God exists and seek to believe in God. If God does not exist, such a person will have only a finite loss (some pleasures and luxuries maybe). Whereas if God does exist, a person stands to receive infinite and eternal gained, and, possibly, avoid infinite and eternal loss.”

Some people might say this “reasoning” is intellectually dishonest–that if we don’t feel faith, or have a full “understanding” of it and its tie to the invisible realm, if we can’t fully “explain it” then we should in no way claim it. I understand that way of thinking, but I might suggest that this reasoning is intellectually dishonest as well, in that it is built on the forgetting, the shrugging off, the ignoring of all the times we have received blessing, or nourishment, or power from the water that wells up from the invisible realm.

Too many have decided to ignore the movement of the invisible in their lives because it claims an agency and influence over them that is beyond their capacity and even imagination. How can one be master of their own universe if there is an invisible realm that they are tethered to?

The Jewish mystics who imagined creation as the upside-down tree of life also claimed the “fall” of Adam and Eve, was really humanity’s forgetting or denying our connection to the infinite, invisible nature of God.

Faith is remembering and then claiming the unseen. That’s what we are talking about when we are talking about the Kingdom of God.We are talking about the flowering energy of God into this visible world from an invisible realm. And yet, for some reason when it comes to things invisible people stumble around. That’s why we have a God that came to meet us in person, incarnate, in a body, in a context, for a time, with a name–Jesus. God knows we don’t like the invisible. It pushes our “need for control” buttons; so, God gave us something concrete to hold onto, a rock upon which to tether our faith–Jesus.

What I have witnessed in my years as a priest is the exercise of looking at faith, out here in front of us, objectively, offering an opportunity to reignite faith. One way this happens is by tracking the history of our suffering. Here is how: Put a pin in a point of suffering that happened in the past. Reflect on it.

Then leave that place and walk a year into the future. Now what is that life like? Then leave that place and walk another year into the future. Now what is that life like? Was there unanticipated blessing? Maybe. Was there more suffering? Maybe. Was God with you? Were there moments that you can point to where you say “yes?” Were there moments when you felt grounded to a force, a power, bigger than your own capacity would allow, even for a split second? Were there moments you grabbed the tether and it held taut?

Mostly in our lives, the tether around our waist is loose. But in times of suffering, like this time of pandemic, it straightens and, if staked to the rock of God, in faith, it will run taut, it will hold; but, if it is buried in the loose sand of our self-centered predilections, it will pull free and flap in the wind of anxiety and fear and insecurity and selfishness. Held taut or loosely flapping is a choice. 

Hard times force the question… Our state of faith determines what we are tether to: either the shifting sands of personal capaciousness, or the rock of our invisible God, made known through the person of Jesus Christ.

Choose faith. It is what the people of God have always done when they are forced to take the rock of faith out of their pocket and look at it.

I’ll leave you with this image. As the people of Israel stood on the banks of the Jordan River, after their leader Moses had died, their new leader, Joshua, turned to them and said: “Today you have a choice, the choice is between life and death, as for me, he went onto say, I choosee life,” life drawn forth from the invisible realm of God. Faith is life lived acknowledging of our rootedness to our invisible God.