Needing Proof

February 22, 2004
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

This sermon is in conversation with an earlier sermon I gave on tradition, and it is in conversation with one I'll be giving next week on the sources of UU faith. My aim with this little series is faith development, especially for those who are new or new-ish to Unitarian Universalism, or who have been at it for some time but are still working to understand and define this non-creedal religious movement. For those of you who would like to plumb the depths even further, and more intimately in small group conversation, we will be beginning a five-week Adult Learning course here beginning Wednesday, March 3rd called "Spiritual Autobiography: Exploring Your Religious Past." It ‘s coming soon, so please sign up now, especially if you need childcare.

*I'd like to return with you to the gospel lesson; one of the most vulnerable pre-Passion moments in Jesus' ministry. There he is at the height of his powers: savior and messiah to some, dangerous maniac to others. We know him as an enlightened being, exemplar, and prophet. Yet in this moment of Mark's gospel we find Jesus utterly defeated in Nazareth by his own home team. It's a terrible scene, really. He's been engaged in a fantastic and fantastical ministry all over the region: he's been healing, preaching, challenging, blessing the poor and meek, and metaphorically smacking the powerful and arrogant upside the head. Everywhere he goes the multitudes surround him clamoring for what he's got, which is that god-thing. He's got it! It radiates from him. Demons flee from him -- but children climb into his lap. And here comes Jesus home to Nazareth and he's greeted with this profound skepticism and a good dose of familiarity breeding contempt.

I picture the Nazarenes standing around, maybe chewing gum, hands on their hips. "Oh please. We know you. We went to school with your siblings. Please, Mister Big Shot. We wash our clothes in the same stream your mother goes to -- get over yourself!"

And I picture poor Jesus standing there, surrounded by these villagers who are looking as cynical as any group you'll find gathered around the hucksters in Times Square. They've got that real "show me" attitude that we assume when we meet a professed miracle-worker even today. Which isn't a bad thing, either, because most miracle workers today are indeed charlatans and snake charmers. But this is Jesus of Nazareth we're talking about: not some shell game con artist whose main goal is getting us to empty our wallets (when Jesus asks you to empty your wallet, it's for an entirely different reason!). This is the exciting, living Jesus that Mel Gibson's movie won't show you -- the man who was far more victor than victim.

But in this moment of overwhelming community cynicism, he's not doing so well. Mark tells us that Jesus is unable to do any miracles in his hometown, except for laying hands on and curing a few sick people ("What?" I want to ask Mark,"this doesn't count?"). And at the conclusion of the uncomfortable episode we get this telling phrase: "And he was amazed at their unbelief."

I love that detail, that image I get of Jesus walking away muttering "You've got to be kidding me, people." Because what does it cost them to believe? What's he been doing that wouldn't benefit them? What perverse, all-too common human instinct brought out all those Nazarenes to stand around and dare their own hometown hero to do a miracle, and then sneer at him when he couldn't muster his usual power? Maybe sheer ego. Maybe competition and jealousy. "I remember Jesus from when he was a little boy, now he's such a somebody?" The gospel doesn't tell us that Jesus rode into town claiming to be the Messiah and exhorting the people folks to follow him . He does that at other points in the gospel but not this time. So the people really aren't rejecting Jesus' religious authority here. This rejection is very personal.

The really painful thing is that healing miracles are what Jesus does, and he comes back to his "hood," you know, and he just can't do them. The point isn't whether you believe in the miracles or not (you'd be in good Unitarian company if you didn't, but also in good company if you did -- as, for instance, William Ellery Channing most certainly did). The lesson is simply this: when we stand around daring God to do miracles, we won't experience miracles. If we adopt cynicism and doubt as our primary religious orientation, we're not likely to get much glory breaking through to us. Maybe visually or aesthetically -- because our universe is breathtaking enough to impress even the most hardened skeptic -- but not in the heart, where everything that matters happens.

For all of us who have fallen prey to the "show-me" attitude that permeates so much of our culture, this gospel moment says to us, "Look, it's not God's job to break through your resistance and fill your soul." God – who in this context is the healing, redeeming, personally caring God of Abraham and Moses -- couldn't work even through Jesus when he was mired in a bog of rejection. Faith is a prerequisite for miracles, not a result of them. Desire must precede healing. That corny bumper sticker, "Expect Miracles" may be better advice than we first thought.

Our attitude problem about miracles today may have different sources than whatever caused the attitude problem among the Nazarenes, but it is still our problem. We fancy ourselves smart, psychologically sophisticated people, and we'd rather be found dead than get caught believing something that violates our intellectual integrity. All over the country this very morning, sophisticated church-going people are holding their arms across their chests, daring the wondrous stories from their various traditions to get past their intellectual barriers and work on their souls. Naw. Rather be caught dead.

These modern-day Nazarenes have forgotten that religions, as Professor Diana Eck once said, are not logical systems but streams of argument. The heirs of Enlightenment-era Protestanism (that would be us) are often described as "God's frozen people" but I don't think we're necessarily frozen, just maybe parched. It's scary to even dip a toe into that rushing stream of argument that Jesus represents. Scary to swim in Buddha's stream, too, if you do it with real discipline. Or to emulate the prophet Mohammed's submission to Allah, for that matter. All of them are deep rivers, easier to walk along side as tourists and observers than to swim in.

The good news is that even sophisticated folks eventually begin to figure out that religious life can't be meaningful or sustaining if we stand there holding our five dollar bill over the basket saying "Show me what you got and you can get my money and my life." Faith doesn't come and get people against their will: somewhere, somehow, we have to leave a door open and extend an invitation to be flooded by it. Faith doesn't set out to prove. Faith itself is the proof. Saint Paul knew, "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." (U2's Bono echoed it in a lovely lyric when he wrote about "a place that's got to be believed to be seen.") As our story from the gospel of Mark suggests, when we steel our hearts and cross our arms against the possibility of the divine presence, miracles will simply turn on their heel and seek more gracious welcome elsewhere.

"Why did you stop praising?" the guru asked his student. "Because I never heard anything back," replied the student. "This longing you voice is the return message." (When God Is Silent, Barbara Brown Taylor, p 79)

Faith is the substance of things hoped for. The evidence of things not seen. It's a koan. If we seek a meaningful and sustaining faith, we must first be faithful.

Faith almost never knocks people off their horses with rapturous visions as happened to St. Paul in his conversion experience; faith requires that we joyfully give ourselves over heart and soul to some ideal, some principle or inspiring inner vision, gather it to us, hold it fast, and actively practice it. Then we will have earned the gift of faith. For those who don't feel inclined to work that hard, Ralph Waldo Emerson cautions us -- and wisely, too -- "A man will worship something, have no doubt of that." And wouldn't we rather mindfully and intentionally develop that something rather than discover it's been sneaking in through the basement of the unconscious? A faith developed on the sly and snuck in through the window is not usually the kind you want to take home to mother.

But we hesitate, for we are people of good conscience. We will not follow tradition blindly. We will generally not consent to practice the faith of our mothers and fathers without serious consideration and considerable revision. So… faith in what, you might ask? Faithful to what?

To the highest ideals of our own tradition, for one. Faithful to the notion that we were indeed created in the divine image, and are therefore all equally precious in God's sight, or if you prefer, are all creatures of "inherent worth and dignity." Faithful, perhaps, to those things that we deeply believe should be true for all human beings: for instance, that they be free, (most essentially that they be free to think for themselves), that they be entitled to food and clean air and shelter and education. Faith in justice as a divine right. Faith that there is something beyond us that works in the universe as a power, or an intelligence, or an animating spirit, or a holy presence. Faithful to the Something that my friend Phyllis Hubbell says "springs up again and again that is the source of courage, love and beauty." Faith that the qualities of love, compassion, humility and forgiveness are undoubtedly better foundations for human inner and outer life than the qualities of self-centeredness, cold rationalism and defensiveness. Faith that when it comes time to die, you will be convinced that your life was a unique and beautiful work of art that had purpose and meaning.

When we swim in the stream of argument that is our faith, we begin to understand that our tradition, the liberal church, does not exist to provide us with that something we call religion. We exist, rather, as living testaments to its faith claims, and to minister to one another within the framework provided by those claims. This religion, like any other, will not prove its worth to you, but invites you to become evidence of its worth. You become the proof. It is an awesome opportunity and responsibility for which we must be constantly preparing.

Henry James wrote a wonderful short story that changed my life when I read it in college. It is called "The Beast in the Jungle" and concerns a man named John Marcher, who is absolutely certain that he is destined to some great fate. You begin to realize that John is not so much an interesting character as he is an incredible narcissist. He is certain that something either great or terrible will occur in his life. This sense of fate clings to him and keeps him in a constant state of dread and anticipation, but also in a state of tremendous self-absorption.

May Bartram is John's closest confidant. She is a lovely woman and seems to have no needs of her own except to be present to John through the many years as he sweats it out waiting for his special destiny to arrive (you can see, perhaps, where this is going). John frets and obsesses, and May listens. She listens and listens and listens, and shares almost nothing of her own inner life. Eventually May sickens – you never find out what is wrong with her medically; it is some kind of wasting disease – and then she dies. Throughout the entire process, what do you think John is doing? Just what you'd expect. He's moping around because May is the one person who really understands him, who knows about his special destiny! May is the one person who could witness to his remarkable impending fate and now she's gone. Now he has no one to indulge his delusions of grandeur. Poor John!

The end of the story is a wrenching. John Marcher finally achieves an epiphany: he has passed his life by waiting for the great Thing to happen, and he has utterly failed to see that May Bartram loved him – utterly failed to understand that her love was, in fact, the Great Thing. He used her, he broke her heart (and the story implies that this is exactly why she died) and he knows he has forfeited a real life to a sick and insatiable self-enchantment. In this chilling phrase, John Marcher realizes his true fate. Henry James writes, "He had been the man of his time – the man, to whom nothing on earth was to have happened." (Beast in the Jungle, 366).

We have all known a John Marcher or two, and perhaps even been him. Marching along, eyes fixed squarely on our navels, waiting and hoping to feel something big, something transformational, something that feels like an answer to our cry for meaning. Marching by just daring Jesus to pull off a miracle in Nazareth. "Show me!" "Bring it on!"

Meanwhile, Faith is like May Bartram -- always there, always present and ultimately devoted to the full flowering of each creature but never (because that's not her way), never forcing anyone to have a reciprocal relationship with her. She wants us, in Buddhist terms, to be fully awake, but it's very rare that she'll actually walk into the bedroom and douse us with cold water or blow the bugle. We've got to do that work ourselves.

John Marcher's terrifying failure, of course, was a terrifying failure that is too easy for any of us to make: to have sat around waiting for the meaning of life to show up instead of living it. We may say with good reason that May Bartram is a tragic figure, but she is nowhere near as tragic as John Marcher, who was waiting for a flashy miracle and entirely missed the one that was happening right under his nose. The miracle, of course, was love. Most miracles don't come any greater than that.
* * *

Jesus walks away muttering, unable to perform miracles because of disbelief. May Bartram dies, undesired and carrying her silent secret of unfulfilled adoration. Who suffers the most? We do, of course, holding the healer at arm's length, keeping God waiting in the driveway while we wring our hands and stamp our feet, wishing for epiphanies to fly through our window.

Faith, like May Bartram, is there for us, for every one of us, constantly and devotedly, if we would but claim her. Faith does not offer proof, it is itself the proof. We can embrace it with passion and openness, pursue it as ardently as we pursue our earthly lovers, or we can allow it to die of a broken heart, languishing forever its unrequited love of us. Lord have mercy, and preserve us from such a fate. Amen.