What is Faith?

Christmas Eve 2011

This month, a woman walked into an American Kmart store, asked the clerk to see a list of the store layaways and paid off several that were for children’s toys and clothes. She did so without getting any credit and left the store quietly. But her act started a chain reaction, and across the country, others began doing the same, making sure struggling families were able to puts toys under the tree for Christmas. In a year in which we began, around the world, to consider what it means to live in a moral society, what our obligations are to one another and how we might correct the stark social inequalities that we have allowed to develop, it was a story of human goodness and charity – not for a name on a building, or media fame. Just because it felt right and good and worthy of the season. Something to restore a little faith.
What does having faith mean? This is a searching time of year: we come to the manger scene, looking for something we often can’t put our finger on. Some guidance to set us on a new course. It is a hopeful time, full of possibility, fresh as a newborn baby whose future is not yet written. Even knowing the story so well – and what happens next – doesn’t taint it for us. If Christmas gives us anything, in these secular times, it should give us hope and freedom to really ask the question “What is faith, and what does it mean to me?” to each one of us.

I don’t ask that in a strictly religious way, though of course, for most of us here, God and Jesus are central to that question. But for too long we have wanted that answer to be the same; it’s human nature to want to simplify life, to make it as comforting as those heart-wrenching family scenes on TV, where everyone loves their gifts, and no one complains about anything. But that’s the Christmas drug: it’s not sustainable, and it’s not real. In truth, we live in a constant state of distance and embrace. Our families drive us nuts, much as we love them and could not live without them. Some days we wake up feeling pretty good about ourselves and sometimes we go to bed tossing and turning and wishing we were somebody else. Sometimes God makes sense and sometimes God doesn’t. And sometimes we have faith; until we don’t. That makes us uneasy – but it shouldn’t. Within that tension, live two of the most important elements of human life: hope and faith.

Take a look at the manger scene – the story we’ve all heard tonight.  We know it well, one of those traditional tales most of us could tell from memory. It’s as if God sat down to write a screenplay and got every character right – because there is no one that does not speak to us.  But let’s get some distance. Let’s look at these characters from another angle, and ask the question: Do we really think, knowing ourselves as questioning and flawed people, that these humans, these strangers, really came together quite so easily and nicely posed around a baby?

We often talk about the nativity scene in terms of the physical journey – Mary had to ride that donkey, pregnant, for miles and miles; the shepherds had to abandon the flock; the wise men came from afar. But that’s not really the journey that counts the most. How did they come to believe in the hope and possibility of the gift of Christmas? That’s what we want to know.  And if we make it too easy for them to get there, we shortchange our own faith stories.

Each of one of them finds faith in a different way and for different reasons. Consider Mary, informed that she is pregnant and that her baby shall be a great leader. Mary is doubtful at first, but she chooses to believe, and her faith always comes across as the strongest and most unflinching, for her burden is the largest. She finds her faith through love.
Joseph, we might say, is a different story: he gets some pretty hard news about Mary, and he must decide whether to abandon her, and shame her forever.  Joseph finds his faith through honour, in doing what is right.

The shepherds, well, we can bet that getting news from an angel was an awfully big deal, but then the life of a shepherd back then didn’t exactly count as white-collar work. So here they get news that a change is coming, that society might be heading for some upheaval,  and from where they are standing — at best mid-tier of the 99 per cent — that sounds pretty good. They head off to Bethlehem, likely scared out of their wits. But their faith comes from possibility, from optimism, from hope in change.

And then there are the wise men whom we always put at the manger scene on the same night even though they show up much later, and only after word of Jesus has spread to King Herod. The magi arrive under orders to spy on Jesus, to report back to Herod, who, it’s safe to say, does not plan on throwing a birthday party. They arrive at the manger and present gifts. Where did their faith come from? Let’s say it was political: they recognized the flaws in the leader they had left and sought a new way of running society, someone with big ideas to stand behind. Perhaps, for them, it wasn’t really about God – at least not at first. Perhaps it was faith in transformation.

The point is their faith all originated from different places – but it didn’t matter. They all stand here at the manger with the same belief: that life can be better, that there is purpose beyond what we see, that we can make a difference. Mary would draw a straight line to God for that; the wise men might be more political. But does God really care? In the end, if we work together for a moral society, God makes room for everyone. God admires diversity. God accepts the ebb and flow of our own belief. There are many paths to the manger scene and many different contributions when you carry that experience with you. That is the lesson of Christmas.

If we are honest we are not always Mary, we are not always Joseph, we are not always the wise men. Some of us lean on the activist side of Jesus for faith, for others it is the divinity of Jesus that inspires us, and is essential to our faith. What matters is what we do with that faith – how we build upon the story of the manger.

We spent too much time on those little nuances of who’s better, or more faithful. It happens with our families; when we pick apart how our sister, say, is raising her children, and forget that she loves them as much we love ours. Or when we fume about some insult, and forget that, in the end, a perceived slight counts for far less than the time we have together. People don’t unite in defiance of their beliefs; they are brought into the fold and into our lives when they are respected.

So look at the manger scene, and find your place – find the character standing here who speaks to you most. But take a stand among them. In the face of our environmental and economic problems, we need to lean on all the resources humanity offers. The manger story – the story of Christmas – may speak to us in different ways. But the moral message is the same: hope and love for humanity and the promise of peace in the world. And only faith will make it so.

Amen.


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