Via Negativa: Hunger Games
Hunger for Faith

By: Candace Chellew-Hodge

Preached on Sunday, November 25, 2012 at Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, SC

Readings:
Joel 2:21-27: "be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God"
Matthew 6:24-34: "do not worry about your life"
Rumi: "Work. Keep digging your well."
  Hear this sermon at the Jubilee! Circle Web site.

Our first song comes from Dave Matthews. The South African born singer/songwriter got his musical start while living in Charlottesville, Virginia. Since then, his band has won a couple of Grammys and has sold more tickets to live shows than any other act between 2000 and 2010. This song comes from his 2002 album Busted Stuff. It's called "Digging a Ditch."

Run to your dreaming when you're alone,
Unplug the TV and turn off your phone
Get heavy on with digging your ditch,
Cause I'm
[Chorus] Digging a ditch where madness gives a bit,
Digging a ditch where silence lives
Digging a ditch for when I'm old,
Digging this ditch my story's told
Where all these troubles weigh down on me will rise
Run to your dreaming when you're alone
Where all these questions spinning around my head
will die, will die, will die

Recently, while scanning the Interwebs, I came across an interesting graphic. It was a flowchart of science versus faith. On the faith side, the chart was very simple. First, you get an idea, next you ignore all contradicting evidence against your idea, then you keep the idea forever, the end.

The science flowchart was, of course, a little more complicated. First, you get an idea, then you perform an experiment on that idea. If the evidence does not support the idea, then it's a bad idea. If the evidence does support the idea, then you move on to creating a theory and using that theory to get an even better idea, then you discover new evidence to back up that idea and modify and refine your theory even further.

Of course, the flowchart is horribly unfair to religion. Certainly, many, if not all, religions have evolved from their very first idea and have discarded and recreated its traditions over the millennia, but even in this simplified form, religion can learn a lot from science about something this flowchart never states, but implies: faith. This is the true starting point of both of these flowcharts. To have any new idea, you must have some faith that this idea is going to work, that it's going to be good and lead you to where you want to go. You don't have any proof of anything yet - all you have is an idea - and faith.

That theory they develop over on the science side of the flowchart is based in nothing but faith - then they test it. The theory either holds up, or it doesn't, which leads to another theory and another test and another theory and another test.

This is also true in the spiritual life. We base our faith on things we've experienced about God and the world, then that faith gets tested, and it either holds up or it doesn't. My theories about God and how the Holy works in the world have changed many times over the years, as I suspect yours have. I no longer believe in a vending machine God - where prayer goes in and things come out - or a superhero God who swoops in to save me just in the nick of time, because those theories have not withstood the test of my experiences.

This is why faith is a verb, not a noun. Faith is an action word because at the heart of faith is work - it's about digging the ditch every single day - doing the work required to come up with the theory - to find what we base our faith upon - and test it out. It's when we stop doing the work and coming up with theories and simply believe the ideas about faith that have been handed to us by our families, or our traditions, or our religious or political leaders that we fall into that place called "blind faith." Those faith traditions often don't hold up under experience or closer scrutiny, or heaven forbid, critical questions.

Instead of changing our theory, instead of finding a new basis for our faith, we often give up on God all together - or we follow that first flowchart on religion and harden our beliefs into concrete and disregard or ignore anything that contradicts our deeply held faith in traditions that, in reality, just don't work anymore.

Faith is how the Holy invites us into the mystery. It is our role, our part in the dance of life and creation, to experiment with our faith and experience the Holy new and different ways. If one way of believing and trusting no longer works, find a new one. We are on a journey, Jubilants, one that may have unity with God as its destination, but there are many different paths to get there.

Often, we take a wrong turn - one we believe is right at the time. Our job in this journey with and to the Holy is this - to turn around and abandon a path when we know it's not the right one. Too many of us stubbornly stay on the road because everybody keeps telling us it's the right road, the right tradition, the right religion, the right political party, the right belief. But, the Holy is clear - if the road leads only to more pain and confusion, and fewer feelings of mystery, awe and joy, you're going the wrong way.

Stop digging that ditch ... and start a new one.

Run to your dreaming when you're alone,
Unplug the TV and turn off your phone
Get heavy on with digging your ditch, Cause I'm
[Chorus] Digging a ditch where madness gives a bit,
Digging a ditch where silence lives
Digging a ditch for when I'm through,
Digging this ditch I'm digging for you
Where all these worries wear down on me will rise
Where all these habits pull heavy at my heart will die

"Do not fear" this ancient prophet known as Joel begins this passage from the Hebrew scriptures. "Do not fear." The essence of faith is that we have no fear - whatever befalls us, despair, death, unemployment, hunger, disease, anything that threatens our life or security does not cause fear. Faith is a form of peace that cannot be disturbed, that cannot be taken from us no matter how dire the circumstances.

By that definition, very few of us really have a lot of faith - myself included. Instead, we have what Stephen Colbert might call "faithiness" - we believe in good things while good things are happening, but when the lights go out, all we can think of is how much we hate those times, how much we wish they were over, and how soon the power guys will get the lights back on. It is in those dark times, however, along that path of the via negativa, that we need our faith the most.

The prophet Joel is clear that faith in the dark times will always be rewarded.

"Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things! Do not fear, you animals of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green; the tree bears its fruit, the fig tree and vine give their full yield. O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God; for she has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before."

The Holy speaks to all creation - even to the ground. Does the soil really fear? Do the animals really fear? Or is Joel making himself feel a little better by projecting his own fear - or the fears of the people - onto all creation?

What I think Joel is telling us is this: If we want to see what real, deep faith looks like, let us look to creation - to the soil and the animals. In times of plentiful rain, the soil produces a rich harvest. In times of drought, it dries out, crumbles and produces nothing. It doesn't lie in the field fretting about when the rain will come. Instead, it has the faith it needs to simply be - to be in the dry times - to accept the current state of affairs without worry, without tears, without developing ulcers. It simply allows what is to be what is.

Animals, too - they display great faith in good times and bad. In the good times when their health is good and the hunting is good, they eat, they play.

When the hunting is bad and they don't feel well, they lie down - they lick their wounds - they take care of themselves. They do not worry - even if death is approaching because they cannot find food, or they have been mortally wounded. They simply live until they die. They accept each moment, just as it is - not worrying for what the next moment brings, whether it's something we might label good or bad.

This is what faith is, Jubilants. We tend to think that we're better at this faith thing because we don't just have to accept the dryness of a drought or wait around for death to claim us. Unlike soil and animals, we have a choice - we are agents of change and if a drought strikes, we simply irrigate the land better. If the food supply in one place dwindles, we pick up and move to another place.

It's true - we have more options than the soil and animals - but our ability to get up and move when life becomes uncomfortable completely robs us of the ability to learn what true faith is all about. When things get tough, we get going, so we never have to experience what it's like to have real, deep faith - a faith that never worries, no matter what comes next. We never learn how to be vulnerable in the face of life's challenges, and we never learn how to come face to face with our fear, and faithfully overcome it.

Breathe deeply.

Run to your dreaming when you're alone,
Not what you should be or what you've become
Just get heavy on with digging your ditch, Cause I'm
Digging a ditch where madness gives a bit,
Digging a ditch where silence lives
Where all these disappointments
that grow angry out of me will rise,
Will die, will die, will die
Run to your dreaming when you're alone,
Unplug the TV and turn off your phone
Get heavy on with digging your ditch

Faith can be hard to live into, especially when we'd rather know, for certain, what is coming for us in our future. Buddhist monk Ajahn Chah was highly regarded, and was also thought to be a good fortune teller. One of his lay disciples believed this and begged the monk to read his palm, but Ajahn Chah refused. The lay disciple badgered him, reminding him how he had given him food and alms and had driven the monk around when he needed to go places.

Finally, one day, Ajahn Chah said to the disciple, "Give me your hand." The disciple was thrilled as the monk's finger traced over the lines in his palm. Every so often, the monk would say, "Ooo, that's interesting," or "well, well, well," or "Amazing." The disciple was driven crazy by the anticipation.

When Ajahn Chah finished he let go of the disciple's hand and said, "Disciple, this is how your future will turn out."

"Yes, yes!" the disciple was beside himself.

"And I am never wrong," the monk added.

"I know," the disciple uttered in excitement. "What is my future going to be?"

"Your future," the monk said wisely, "will be uncertain."

I don't need to read your palms to tell you the same thing. Your future will be uncertain, and I am never wrong. This is why we must embrace our faith - put it into action - dig our ditch daily - and know that no matter what the future may hold, the Holy reminds us: "Do not fear, be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God."

Breathe deeply.

Our second song comes from a Milwaukee-based trio that released their first of eight album in 1983. The band was discovered by James Honeyman-Scott, the guitar player for the Pretenders, who saw them band playing on a Milwaukee street corner and invited them to play a few songs before the Pretenders concert that night. This song comes from their 1986 album "The Blind Leading the Naked." It's called "Faith." Let's try it:

Got my faith baby, In the Lord Got my faith baby,
In the Lord, Lord, Lord
And I know He'll make everything alright
No matter where a child roam
That child's gonna have a home
If he's got his faith alright

I don't believe in no car I don't believe in General Motors
I don't believe in the President Or the League of Women Voters
I don't believe in these things All these things might fail
I don't believe it's gonna snow It might sleet rain or hail

But I believe in the Father, I believe in the Son
I believe there's a Spirit, For everyone
I believe in the Father, I believe in the Son
I believe there's a Spirit, For everyone
That's not all, That's not all I'm gonna tell y'all,
Let's do the faith call
I said F----F
I said A----A
I said I----I
I said T----T
I said H----H
What's that spell---Faith
What's that spell---Faith Oh Faith

In our Jesus story, we find our guy late into his famous, extensive sermon on the mount in Galilee. He's already gone through the beatitudes, told people they are the salt of the earth, revealed himself as the fulfillment of the law, stood the laws of divorce, revenge and murder on their heads and taught them how to pray the Lord's prayer.

In this passage, like the prophet Joel before him, he turns his attention to the beauty of creation all around them.

He starts talking about birds and lilies - and tells his audience not to worry about their lives, what they will eat or drink or wear. Jesus tells them not to worry about right now - and not to worry about tomorrow. God knows what you need and God will provide these things.

It makes you wonder if Jesus was just a little bit off his rocker. I mean, has he taken a good look at the world? In his time, as well as in our modern time, there is a lot to worry about. In Jesus' time, as in our time, starvation is a very real worry for many people - and not just in some far flung part of the world - there are people starving in the city of Columbia right now.

In Jesus' time, as well as our own, there are people who sleep under stars every night, and not because they have chosen to leave the comfort of their home for weekend of camping. This is how they live, without a four walls, a roof and a floor to call home. Homelessness continues to be a growing problem in our world.

Poverty, too, persists since Jesus' day - people without enough money to feed or clothe themselves, and yet, Jesus has the temerity to say, "Do not worry?" What world is he living in? He's living in a dangerous world - a world that threatened the order of the society around him and continues to threaten our modern day society, if only we'll actually live into what he calls us to do.

The passage we read this morning starts like this: "No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth."

Which master do we serve in the United States of America? Despite the God-soaked political waters we swim in - we do not serve God. We serve wealth. We worship money. We publish lists of the most wealthy people on earth - give them accolades, treat them like kings and queens. We serve them. We build our economies around the idea that wealth is better than poverty, that more is better than less, and that getting all we can before we die is entire purpose of life.

"No one can serve two masters," Jesus says, because when we choose to serve wealth instead of God, we worry constantly. We check our bank balances obsessively. We get security systems at our houses to protect our stuff. We worry about whether or not we'll be able to buy the best and latest gadgets for Christmas. We worry about whether we'll have the most state-of-the-art car, and heaven forbid, we can't walk around in last year's fashions.

We live in an economy where we have faith in stuff, faith in money, faith in wealth - and this is exactly where our leaders want us to be. They want us to live in an anxious state of scarcity, afraid that there won't be enough to go around. That way, we'll laud them when they hoard their own wealth. We'll give them tax breaks, call them "job creators" and make them our heroes.

Money, per se, is not the problem - it's that money is finite, and whenever we crave anything finite, we can never have enough of it, because there isn't enough to go around. That drives us to want to get all we can for ourselves while we can.

Jesus invites us to consider a different world - a world where we put our relationship with the Holy first - where we put our faith exclusively on the Lord of creation, not the lord of money. This is the world of the infinite. Here, we find an infinite supply of faith, an infinite supply of love, an infinite supply of generosity, and an infinite supply of peace. This is a place that operates on a different economy.

When new friends come into my life, or when I get a new puppy or kitten, I don't have to ration out a finite supply of love to the growing list of people and creatures around me. No! When more people and creatures come into my life, my love multiplies. It grows large enough to cover them all. In this Holy economy, love cannot be stockpiled or hoarded like money - instead it grows and flows with abundance.

When we enter into this world we find our worries disappear - we understand there is more than enough for all of us, and this is a world where our faith grows and flows with abundance. There is no scarcity, which is really what creates our fear and worry. Abundance produces freedom. The choice is ours, which master will win our faith?

Got my faith baby, In the Lord Got my faith baby,
In the Lord, Lord, Lord
And I know He'll make everything alright
No matter where a child roam
That child's gonna have a home If he's got his faith alright

"Do not worry about your life," Jesus says - but this is not an invitation to sit back and just wait for what you need to come into your life.

"Work," Rumi tells us. "Keep digging your well. Don't think about getting off from work.

Water is there somewhere. Submit to a daily practice. Your loyalty to that is a ring on the door."

Remember, faith is not a noun - it is not a passive thing. Faith is a verb - it is an action word, because faith in action is how we move from the scarcity thinking of this finite world to the abundance of the infinite world where the Holy invites us to live.

We don't enter that world sitting around, instead, we have to dig our ditch - that well we need to get to the waters of abundance. We need not worry about money, but we still have to put in the hours to get the money we need to share with others in this world. We need not worry about food, but we still have to work to get the food we need to share with others. We need not worry about clothing, but we have to work to secure the clothing we need to share that clothing with others. God promises restoration, God promises that we'll have what we need, but faith takes work, not worry, but work ...

God clothes the lilies, but they still do the work of growing. God provides for the sparrow, but the sparrow still flies, pulls worms from the ground to eat and gives birth to new life. We don't work to earn our keep - God provides for us no matter what. But, we come into relationship with God by working together in creation.

Jubilants, we are already given holy status - working means we recognize that honor - that awe of being part of the Holy's creation.

Don't get me wrong, this is not what my Southern Baptist friends call "works righteousness." We are not working to get into heaven - but to bring heaven down - to bring even just a bit of that New Jerusalem here. Sadly, this doctrine has led many in that tradition to serve the world's master of money. They figure if their "good works" don't earn them anything, then why not live a comfortable life here until God calls you home? But, in the end, pursuing your place here on earth only undermines faith, and keeps us worried and anxious about earning and keeping that worldly wealth.

If we really understand Jesus' lesson here then we can understand why later in the Bible, in the book of James, we find the seemingly contradictory words that "faith without works is dead." So which is it? Do we sit back and wait in faith that God will do everything, or are we charged with a role in this world - a role of co-creation with God? James seems to think we're to be about God's work and not sitting back and just having faith that it will all work out somehow.

This is not "works righteousness." This is a recognition that we are called to serve not just ourselves, but the whole world. Both James and Jesus call us to turn this world's economy on its head - to move from the scarcity mindset of this world to the abundance mindset of the Holy.

The world does not want us to make this shift, which is why leaders of governments, and even the leaders of some religions, want us to keep on worrying and serving the god of wealth. If we're anxious about the future then we won't rock the boat. If our faith is in keeping our economy growing - and the bank accounts of the rich growing - and the belief that perhaps one day, if we work hard enough, we'll be among those rich people - then we'll keep quiet about all the scarcity, starvation and poverty in this world.

Jesus dreamed of a different world - one where there is more than enough. It was a dream that got him killed, because if our faith is in a world of abundance then those who want to hoard the riches and power of this world will be just like everyone else, and the powers-that-be don't ever want to be the powers-that-were.

A faith that does not worry is dangerous. Such faith is a threat to the world as we know it - and those in power will not allow it to continue. But, if we want to free ourselves from worry, this is the faith we truly hunger for - that faith that knows the preachers of scarcity are lying, because they want to protect their own god of wealth.

The Holy calls us away from the faithiness of the world, into a real, deep, Holy faith that knows the abundance of the Holy is all around us. This is a dangerous faith, Jubilants, and if you commit yourself to this path, expect resistance, expect derision, expect the world to scorn you - and maybe even crucify you.

But, in those hard moments, when the temptation to worry is great, Luther Seminary professor David Lose reminds us: "God resurrects -- which, when you think about it, is the ultimate act of abundance: creating something, once again, out of nothing, drawing light from darkness, giving life to the dead."

Do not fear, Jubilants, have faith because your God is a God of abundance.

Got my faith baby, In the Lord
Got my faith baby, In the Lord, Lord, Lord
And I know He'll make everything alright
No matter where a child roam
That child's gonna have a home
If he's got his faith alright

I don't believe in no car I don't believe in General Motors
I don't believe in [Barack Obama] Or the League of Women Voters
I don't believe in these things
All these things might fai
l I don't believe it's gonna snow
It might sleet rain or hail
But I believe in the Father, I believe in the Son
I believe there's a Spirit, For everyone
I believe in the Father, I believe in the Son
I believe there's a Spirit, For everyone
That's not all, That's not all I'm gonna tell y'all,
Let's do the faith call
I said F----F
I said A----A
I said I----I
I said T----T
I said H----H
What's that spell---Faith
What's that spell---Faith Oh Faith

Oh, Yeah!

Candace Chellew-Hodge is a recovering Southern Baptist and founder/editor of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for GLBT Christians. Her first book, Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians, published by Jossey-Bass is now available at http://www.bulletproofbook.com. She currently serves as the pastor of Jubilee! Circle, a progressive, inclusive community in Columbia, South Carolina. She is also a spiritual director and is currently taking on new directees. She blogs regularly at Religion Dispatches. She can be reached by email at editor-at-whosoever.org or by using the suggestion box.

Copyright by the author All Rights Reserved

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