What is faith and where does it come from? How can we get more of it? Through this series in which we reflect on the spiritual practice of generosity, our biblical texts center on questions of faith. There’s a connection between generosity and faith and we’ll excavate to find it. Join us for this journey and see how simple shifts in thinking and practice just might help you overcome some fear and, in the process, deepen your faith.
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC October 6th, 2019, the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost and World Communion Sunday. “Fearless Generosity: Deepening Faith” sermon series.
Texts: 2 Timothy 1:1-14, Luke 17:5-10
Mary Lou Hearn Matheny was my grandmother—we called her Nana. I’ll never forget when I got into Nana and Pa’s car and saw the scripture verse tastefully affixed to the sun visor along with an image of an angel. The specific verse is forgotten—something about God’s providence and protection for a journey; the striking thing was Nana’s determination to bring God into every part of her life. The bit in the car was a spilling over of my Nana’s habit of placing scripture, sacred images, religious artifacts, resources of faith throughout her home. There was a Bible study station between Nana and Pa’s recliners. Atop the piano was a beautifully framed copy of the hymn, Amazing Grace. Above the stove hung a poster-sized, hand calligraphied morning prayer, in her bedroom was what she called her “Christ wall” with images of Jesus at different stages of the Gospel story. As a child, I experienced Nana as kind of floating through the house, going about her various tasks, humming hymns as she worked.
Mary Lou Hearn Matheny gave birth to a daughter, Mary Carmen Matheny Gaines. My memory holds images of my mother, Carmen, sitting on our sofa surrounded by her notes, her Good News translation of the Bible, and other books as she prepared to teach Sunday School. Across the years, she taught adults, youth, and young couples. I can see her clear as day directing the youth choir, making crafts to contribute to the UMW Bazaar, crying in the pews as we sang certain hymns in worship, coordinating and planning the Family Retreats at Camp Egan, providing leadership for children and youth musicals—a personal fave of mine being “Moses and the Freedom Fanatics” (I might have done a dance in the character of one of the gnats who appeared in the 3rd plague of Egypt!). I witnessed her years of delivering Meals on Wheels and praying every morning with my dad at breakfast and with me and my siblings as we were tucked in at the end of day.
These are two of my immediate ancestors in faith, women who held and taught me—through word and example—what it means to love God and love neighbor. Their holy habits impacted my religious imagination and encouraged me to be open to God’s loving presence in my life.
Of course, my journey has been my own and faith is not something that you catch from others, like a cold or the flu. If only it were that easy! While on my journey I have had to do my own study, seeking, struggling, and serving, the truth is that faith has deep roots in my family tree and in some kind of way, I’ve got spiritual genetic material as a result.
Timothy and I have at least that much in common. Timothy was a trusted friend and colleague of the apostle Paul. The letter we read today is in the Pauline tradition, but written by a later author in the form of a “final testament,” a specific genre in which a dying parent teaches and blesses a faithful child, reminding them of the challenges that may come and encouraging them to endure in faith. In the opening verses Paul, the dying father, says to Timothy, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.” (1:5) Timothy has “spiritual genetic material.”
Modern science and medicine reveal that a person can have a genetic predisposition from things inherited from parents, but genetic traits may or may not express themselves, depending upon all sorts of factors. Likewise, sometimes there may be no family-based genetic susceptibility to a condition and yet a person might wind up with that condition anyway.
The “condition” at the center of our reflection today is faith. Faith is so often understood as a matter of the mind—that is, a condition of intellectual assent to certain ideas or “beliefs.” This leads many to think they can’t have faith because they’re just not down with certain pieces of the story or doctrine. But faith is not really a head thing. Faith is primarily a heart condition. Faith is knowing oneself to be embraced, loved, and cherished by God and, as a result, trusting God’s compassion, mercy, and presence no matter what. It’s not that faith turns off our brains or asks us to stop thinking. So many think and teach that faith asks us to narrow our thinking—and that is absolutely counter to the reality. As William Sloane Coffin said, “[Faith] has what we might call a limbering effect on the mind; by taking us beyond familiar ground, faith ends up giving us that much more to think about.” Faith doesn’t shut down spiritual exploration, seeking, questioning; rather our trust in God’s love and support gives us courage to wander into new and uncertain territory. Coffin says, “faith is not believing without proof but trusting without reservation.”
Trust is the biggie here. But how do we get there? How do we grow in faith? Some of us will have the “genetic predisposition” toward faith based on the faith of our parents and family. This is a beautiful gift and one that is not to be taken for granted. Rev. Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean, Professor of Youth, Church, and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary, emphasizes that even though it may seem our children and teens aren’t listening or paying attention to what we’re saying and doing, all the studies show that the single most important factor in their openness to God and faith is what their parents say and do. What you prioritize and care about absolutely influences your children. Dr. Dean says, “We (adults) may question what we believe, but most of us are pretty clear about who we love, and who loves us. It is such a preposterous claim—God-with-us (oh please)—that young people are unlikely to believe it unless we give them opportunities to do some sacred eavesdropping on us as we seek, delight, and trust in God’s presence with us.”
Others won’t have had the opportunity of such “sacred eavesdropping” on family members because we weren’t raised in a family where God or religion was a thing—or perhaps what we did hear if we were raised in a religious household was damaging or hurtful, something that harmed our faith DNA. But even without a healthy genetic predisposition toward faith, many will encounter—through relationships or the witness and stories of faithful women and men—others whose faith they will find infectious and healing, that inspires and excites curiosity and wonder in God.
But no matter what our background, what is required to cross the threshold into faith is a leap. Taking the leap might be slightly easier if you’ve got the “faith gene,” but it is an act of will no matter what. Again, William Sloane Coffin provides insight as he says, “It is terribly important to realize that the leap of faith is not so much a leap of thought as of action. For while in many matters it is first we must see, then we will act; in matters of faith it is first we must do then we will know, first we will be and then we will see. One must, in short, dare to act wholeheartedly without absolute certainty.”
When John Wesley was tempted to give up his ministry because he felt he had no faith, Moravian Bishop Peter Bohler told Wesley, “Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.” So Wesley kept at it. And many of us will know the story of how he wasn’t really in the mood to go to the Bible study on Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans at Aldersgate Street, but lugged himself there anyway. Wesley recorded this in his journal: “About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation…”
Wesley kept showing up, kept studying, teaching, preaching and the result was a changed heart condition. You see the growing, the knowing, the deepening of faith happens in the doing. It’s not that our doing makes faith happen, it’s that we do what we can do in order to make space for God to do what only God can do. This is our Wesleyan way, to practice the disciplines, understanding that as we practice we are intentionally putting ourselves in the flow of God’s grace, stepping into spaces for Spirit to get ahold of us and warm our hearts, prick our conscience, and ignite our imagination. The disciplines take a number of forms—including personal or group study, jumping on board for a service project, praying or meditating, caring for the poor, sick, and suffering, attending a small group or worship service, and giving money and time to support the work of a church or other faith community.
As we kick off our Fearless Generosity: Deepening Faith stewardship campaign today, it is helpful to think about the powerful spiritual practice of giving. I have long believed that there is so much emphasis in scripture on how we think about and manage our possessions because our stuff can be used for so much good—or it can really get us twisted. Not only do our financial gifts help care for others, support the life of our community, and make all we share possible, but giving and growing in our giving is one of the most powerful ways to practice the leap of faith. It can be scary and anxiety producing to let go of what the world tells us is our primary source of security. It is, after all, a scary world out there and all the messages want to tell us there’s not enough of anything to go around. But as Foundry member Tara Holeman Kawasaki has said, “I give without fear as way of practicing living without fear.” Practice courage ‘til you have it. Practice peace ‘til you have it. Practice generosity ‘til you have it. Practice freedom ‘til you have it. Practice faith ‘til you have it.
Paul did that and at the end was able to keep faith even in deep suffering and near death. John Wesley did that and his legacy continues to teach and inspire people to grow in love of God and neighbor. And Mary Lou Hearn Matheny, in my last conversation with her after she’d learned she was near death reflected on the unknown journey stretching out ahead of her. She looked right at me with a sense of deep calm and a twinkle in her eye and said, “It’s kind of exciting!” When you practice faith for a long time, it will be there when you need it, setting your heart on fire for whatever next adventure may come…
2. William Sloane Coffin, Credo, Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004, p. 8.
3. Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is telling the American Church
4. Coffin, 7.