Flannery O’Connor once said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you weird.”
I want to be honest. Faith is weird. It’s strange. It’s different. It makes no sense. It’s anything but normal.
And yet here we are.
Which only means that we might be weirdos too.
I attended the funeral for young Chris [last name left out], and between the beautiful eulogies and words of comfort, I found myself marveling at how weird faith is. His family comes from a different faith tradition, one I struggle to understand, but one that helps me see just how weird my own faith tradition is to others. I believe that Jesus Christ, God manifested in the flesh, died and was raised and somehow this gives people of faith power for new life and forgiveness of sins, and continues to gather and send believers and followers every week to hear a word and then attempt to go and live that word in the world.
In Egypt, Libya, and the Yemen, people are rioting because someone posted something offensive about their religion, and are taking out their fury not on those who made the video, but on those who work to serve the very people who are offended by such a video.
My friend Mark, who is a missionary in Cairo says this: “It is difficult to grasp this complex thing that is happening. For Americans, who treasure freedom of expression over the right to courtesy, and for many of whom religion is just one minor aspect of life, it is incomprehensible that a religious insult could cause such heated emotion. Most Middle Easterners in general do not place quite such a high value on freedom of expression, but are dead serious about their religion, Christians as well as Muslims. Even so, most Muslims that I know would, with us, deplore the destruction of life and property because of the insensitivity of some amateur American filmmaker.” (Mark Nygard)
Faith is a weird thing. Faith propels people like Mother Theresa from her home in Albania to live in Calcutta, India. Born Agnesë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu in Albania, she “joined the Sisters of Loreto, a Catholic religious order, at eighteen. After years of prayer and monastic discipline, she heard a “call within the call” to minister to Christ among the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, India. Moved with compassion for people who were dying in the streets, Mother Teresa took them in and gave them basic care. With no resources or established programs, she begged for food and supplies to care for those she welcomed. When others came to help her, she started the Missionaries of Charity in 1950. For nearly half a century, she committed herself and the movement she led to serving Christ in his most distressing disguise among the poor, the sick, the orphaned, and the dying.” (Shane Claiborne)
Faith is a weird thing. When Colin and I lived in Kenya, we travelled to the coast town of Msambweni. Being on the coast near the Arabian peninsula, Msambweni is a predominately Muslim town. We were there for Eid al Fitr, the celebration to commemorate the end of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, one of the five pillars of faith for Muslims. Kids dressed in their best outfits and asked for their Eid-Mubarak–either candy or money for their Eid blessing. There we stayed with a Christian Pastor named Bakari. We walked out on the beach of the Indian Ocean and he began to tell us his story. Bakari was born in a Muslim home, but while he was out fishing on the beach, he heard God call him to a different faith, the faith of Jesus. His father asked him three times if this was true and when he said yes, Bakari was thrown out of his home and had to make his home in the bushes on the beach. It was a hard change. He is now the bishop of that area and his call now is to assist those who are called to the faith of Jesus. He does this with respect and dignity and honor.
Faith is a weird thing. It calls people to do things that defy wisdom. Things like lay their lives down, give their lives up, and put their lives at risk. But what else can you do when God calls you?
God called a man named Abram toward the end of his life. Abram and his wife Sarai were 75 years old when God said, leave the land of your father and go to a new land that I will give you. You will be the father of many nations. You will be blessed to be a blessing.
Now there was nothing special about Abram. His wife was too old to have children, and yet God told him of a future in which he and Sarai would have many children. He was familiar with his family’s land, and yet God was calling him to a new and strange land. For whatever reason, God chose Abram to start something new, a family, a nation through which God would bless all families and all nations.
But we meet Abram in the middle of his story today, in the difficult place that we all know too well, the reality between promise and fulfillment. We meet Abram in the midst of a dark night when he wonders what God could possibly be doing with him. God said that he would be the father to many nations and yet his only heir was Eliezer of Damascus. Not even someone from his household.
Abram’s story brings another Abraham’s words to mind. When we sit in darkness, God is our light. The rabbi Abraham Heschel said that, quoting the prophet Micah. When we sit in darkness, God is our light.
Abram is in the midst of darkness, like St. John of the Cross, we might think of the “dark night of the soul,” that this was more than a physical darkness. We find Abram in the midst of feeling that maybe God had given up on him, given up on the promise, feeling that maybe, just maybe, he had dreamed this whole business of land and family and blessing.
He laments and complains into the darkness, into his fears. He is honest with his doubt and his frustration. And God is there, and God hears him, and tells his promises once again.
We learn three things from this short story (bulletin insert):
- God keeps promising, even when everything seems lost.
- Complaint and lament are part of the life of faith. Abram is honest with God about what he faces. Who will be the heir? When will Abram and Sarai have children? We can come to God with our honesty, with our pain, with our doubt.
- God gives us what we need to carry on.
In the dark of night, God was Abram’s light. God came to him in the middle of his complaining, in the middle of his lament, and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” “God gives Abram the gift of a nightly visual aid; every night, Abram can step outside his tent, raise his eyes to the galaxies, and be amazed that his descendants will be as numerous as all those uncountable stars.” (Dennis Olson) Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah, and the promise is fulfilled in the birth of Isaac.
God gives us what we need to carry on.
When we sit in darkness, God is our light.
I’m not sure about you, but I haven’t had many nightly visits with God who has shown me the stars. Our encounters with God may not meet Abram’s, but God still shows up, even if we don’t recognize God. For Mother Theresa, it was in the face of Jesus’ most distressing disguise among the poor, the sick, the orphaned, and the dying. For us, it may be in the love of a friend, or hospitality of a community, the warmth of a meal, or a hug of a stranger.
Hebrews 11 states “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” We’re not really able to hold something and say, “this is it!” “this is it!” just as Abram was not able to hold onto all those stars. But we can point. We can point to the cross and know that God is with us in our suffering. We can point to the waters of baptism and know that God has washed us of our mistakes. We can point to the bread and the wine and know that Jesus enters into our bodies and into our lives. We can point to the church, as failing and weird as it is, of Christ’s presence, Christ’s body through the centuries.
We are here because of God’s faithfulness, because of God’s promises. It’s why we come back week after week, to hear again God’s promise for us: forgiveness of sins, new life, meaning, purpose–we know too well that we often see the opposite in our day to day lives. You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you weird. Thank God for that.