Text: Luke 1:39-45
“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teacher and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and it is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.” – Buddha
“One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. But to sacrifice what you are and to live without belief, that is a fate more terrible than dying.” –Joan of Arc
“Live your beliefs and you can turn the world around.” – Henry David Thoreau
“Any belief worth having must survive doubt.”
“Miracles happen to those who believe in them.” – Bernard Berenson
“ And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by God.”
When I was a child, it was about this time every Christmas that I would start asking my father, “Dad, do you think Santa will bring me that motorcycle? Dad, do you think Santa will bring me that baseball glove? Dad, do you think Santa will bring me that remote controlled car?” Does it surprise anyone here that a baby doll was not on my list? Each time I would ask my dad if he thought Santa would bring what I had asked for, he would respond, “Nancy, you’ve gotta believe.”
In this season of believing – whether in the jolly old man who comes down the chimney bearing the gifts you want, or in the miracle of a virgin birth, or in the Norman Rockwell picture perfect family Christmas Eve gathering – I want to talk with you for just a moment about what it means to believe. What difference does it make in our life to believe in something, in anything? But more than that, in this season of believing, I want to go one step further and suggest that believing is critical to our life of faith.
Several months ago, I preached a sermon titled, Beyond Belief. In that sermon I posited that belief wasn’t necessary to have faith. To shore up my argument, I quoted two highly respected and thoughtful theologians: Elaine Pagels and Karen Armstrong. Here is what I quoted from each.
Elaine Pagels: “When and how did being a Christian became virtually synonymous with accepting a certain set of beliefs? From history, we know that Christianity survived brutal persecution and flourished for generations – even centuries – before Christians formulated what they believed into confessional statements and creeds. It wasn’t until the fourth century, after the Roman emperor Constantine himself converted to the new faith – or at least decriminalized it – that Christian bishops, at the emperor’s command, convened in the city of Nicaea to agree upon a common statement of beliefs – the so-called Nicene Creed. And since that time people of faith have been fighting over right belief.
I also quoted Karen Armstrong’s arguement in her book The Spiral Staircase:
“that our world doesn’t need more religion or belief but rather what our world needs is more faith and more compassion.” She writes, “religion and belief is about certainty and certainty makes people heartless, cruel, and inhuman.” She argues that certainty and belief closes our minds to new possibilities; it makes us complacent and pleased with ourselves.
In the end of her book Armstrong concludes, “Our task today is to mend our broken world; if religion and belief cannot do that it is worthless. What our world needs now is not belief, not certainty, but compassionate action and practically expressed respect for the sacred value of all human beings, even our enemies.”
In that sermon, I agreed with both Pagels and Armstrong. And I ended with this confessional, yet emphatic statement: You don’t have to have belief in order to live into faith. There is a place beyond belief where God transforms our broken world.
And yet today, I stand before you suggesting that believing is critical to our life of faith. But how can both be so? How can believing be so critical and yet, as we know, be so dangerous? It was George Bernard Shaw who once said, “It is not disbelief that is so dangerous to our society; it is belief.”
By definition belief is a conviction, an opinion, and by extension something that you have to defend. It is the epitome of position. That’s why we find ourselves in the midst of vicious wars about beliefs. But the process, practice and act of believing is something different. Believing, at its best, is having the ability to step outside one’s self, to imagine something beyond a personal position or a reasoned opinion. It is a willingness to bend, to lean into, to anticipate, or sometimes to revise. It is what Mary did when she listened to an implausible angel, and trusted in the unbelievable message that she would be a part of God’s fulfillment in the world. Believing. As much as we have confused or interchanged the words belief and believing, they are not the same.
This distinction between belief and believing feels so critical for us as people of faith right now, because as progressive Christians, we too have confused belief and believing – we have become afraid of belief, of speaking what we believe, and as a result we’ve even become afraid of believing. Often, when I think of progressive Christianity, I’m reminded of the wisdom of a line from a song out of my favorite music genre – and for those of you who are new, that would be country music. The line says: “You’ve got to stand for something, or you’ll fall for anything.” Profound, maybe not. But true, yes. In our fear to say what we believe, in our fear to affirm that we are a believing people we have become susceptible, I am afraid, to falling for anything.
I want to return to my original question. How does my believing make a difference in my life as a person of faith? Consider these statements of believing:
- I believe that the mystery of God is bigger than our knowing. And that means that I try to stay open to experiencing and knowing God in all things.
- I believe that the Bible’s central message is one of love, inclusion, and equality. And that means that I take it as my job to love everyone – even those different from me – in the name of God.
- I believe that being a Christian is not about following a prescribed set of rules, but about living an authentic life of loving God, loving self, and loving neighbor. And that means that I am less interested in defining God and more interested in experiencing God through relationship.
- I believe that being fully human, flaws and all, is the truest manifestation of God in and with us. That means that I work hard to suppress my judgment, of myself and of others, so that I can be fully who God created me to be, and let others do the same.
Without this foundation, without this ground beneath my feet, without this believing, there is the danger in falling for anything.
Beliefs are what we use to change others. But believing is about being willing to be changed. And it is Mary, the mother of Jesus, who teaches us this truth – blessed is she who believed. In this season of believing, one of the messages is: blessed is she and blessed is he who believes that they, too, are a fulfillment of God’s hope and peace in the world. Maybe, just maybe that is where joy enters our life – that moment when we believe, actually believe that we are, in some small way, God is with us.
I can still hear my father’s voice at Christmas, “Nancy you’ve gotta believe.” May God bless our believing.