Luke 12:32-40 and Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16

“Faith,” said Mark Twain, “is believin’ what you know ain’t so.”  He’s mixing up belief and faith to make us laugh; but I wonder if he realized how important it is not to confuse the two.  The writer to the Hebrews does not make that mistake: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Faith is conviction, not belief.

This morning I’d like us to think about the difference between faith and belief.  Sometimes they mean the same thing, but often they don’t.

Let me give you a sad example of what can happen when faith and belief are taken to be the same.  The popular author, Anne Rice, posted this on her Facebook page.  “I remain committed to Christ, as always, but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity….   I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.”

Anne is listing beliefs in her manifesto, not the faith of Christ.  She is speaking for a whole generation of what the church calls “nones.”  N-O-N-E-S.  That is, in filling out a form that asks for religious preference they check the box marked, “None.”  They have been led to think that the Christian faith is defined by teachings and creeds; and that the church imposes those beliefs on us and unless we subscribe to them our salvation is at risk.  Also that the church stands as gatekeeper at the doors of heaven.  In other words, the nones reject the church, because they think it is all about beliefs, which they, “know ain’t so.”

This is an example of how wrong beliefs can keep many bright young people away, which harms the church.  Now I’ll give you an example of how wrong beliefs can harm all of us.  Often these wrong beliefs were instilled in childhood.  For instance, in my family, my parents came of age when the great depression hit.  By the time I was born, in 1938, they had taken on the belief that poverty was always just around the corner.  We never lacked for anything; nevertheless I grew up believing that we were about to become poor and as a consequence, my family never spent money easily or joyfully.

Others may grow up believing that the natural human state is to be ill.  No matter how healthy they are, they fear that, unless they are taking some medication, a sickness will overcome them.  You can add to the list.  It may be that a person believes themself to be unlikeable, and goes through life fearing rejection.  Or I might believe that I am unlucky, and go through my days fearing loss or failure.  It’s common to believe the world is basically dangerous.  Wrong beliefs are legion.

These examples show how wrong beliefs can keep us from engaging with life.  They engender mistrust or fear.  So we shrink back from exploring what the world has to offer in all of its fullness and beauty.

The antidote to wrong belief is faith.  Belief and faith cannot be separated, but we can distinguish between them.  You noticed the letter to the Hebrews did not link faith to belief, but to “things hoped for.”  Faith is not hope about things in this world, but about things spiritual.  Basically, we hope that this life is not all there is.  We hope that another reality, an eternal reality — what Jesus called the kingdom of God — surrounds us and fills us like a sponge in water.  That at the heart of that kingdom dwells the God we came to know through Jesus.

How does all of this relate to Jesus’ teaching in today’s Gospel?  It relates directly.  Speaking of that eternal reality — the “kingdom” — he says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  “Do not be afraid.”  Our take-away from this reading is that faith will free us from fear.

Jesus drives this point home with his next words.  “Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  Clearly he is not speaking literally.  If we sold our possessions it would not free us from fear; just the opposite.

Metaphors speak with more force than explanations.  Jesus is pressing us to ask, “Am I clinging to my possessions for my security?  Do I fear losing them?  Does my identity depend on them?”  Jesus says, “sell.”  He means: make a mental shift — from belief that my life depends on what I possess, to faith that, as the letter to the Colossians says, “your life is hidden with Christ in God.”  Sell means shift from fear and distrust to assurance and conviction, from threats to hope.

Faith is not like a room: either you are in it or you are not.  Faith is a journey.  We progress toward faith, toward when we can ‘sell’ our possessions and give alms.  Gradually and increasingly we inhabit Jesus’ kingdom, even as we continue to walk in this world.  Progressively we live — less and less by beliefs, and more and more by faith.  Bit by bit our treasure builds up in heaven, side by side with our hearts.  And the farther we progress the more we leave fear behind.  Let’s close with this from today’s reading, it’s both a true belief and a true faith: “God is not ashamed to be called [our] God; indeed he has prepared a city for [us].”

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