September 26, 2021 Sermon, “Faith of Complexity & Perplexity” by Rev. Lraine MacKenzie Shepherd

James 3:1-12

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.

Two weeks ago, I preached a sermon referencing Brian McLaren’s book Faith After Doubt, in which he sets forth stages of faith development. He describes these stages as tree rings, each providing an important foundation for the following stage. Stages aren’t to be surpassed and forgotten—rather, they offer important building blocks for the following stages.

Stage One Faith of Simplicity teaches us how to judge between right and wrong, truth and falsehood. It is crucial that we get this stage right or it will not be able to sustain the development of our faith into more mature stages. And how do we get this stage right? It must be based on love for ourselves, for our families and friends and for strangers. We are set for life if we have been fortunate enough to have had parents, schools including Sunday School, and community clubs teach us how to discern between right and wrong on the basis of Jesus’ greatest commandment to love God and our neighbour as ourself. But if we learned our discernment on the basis of fear or self-centeredness, we will need to relearn this first stage as adults in order to deepen our faith in a healthy, life-sustaining way. I speak further about this stage in my sermon for Sept 12, which is available on Westworth’s website.

Today we’re going to look at Stage Two and Three Faith. Strangely enough, most of us go kicking and screaming into the next stages of faith. Why? Because it is usually something difficult, perhaps painful, that forces us to realize that our childhood skin doesn’t fit anymore. Our Stage One Faith is just not adequate to meet the complexity of life. And it is doubt that becomes our primary motivation to move deeper.

Doubt is not an enemy of faith, rather the contrary. Doubt asks the hard questions that help us deepen our faith. The questions doubt asks of the Stage One Faith of Simplicity include: What good is being right if I’m not successful in life? Can authorities be trusted or are they purely in it for themselves? These questions lead us into pragmatic independence. We’ll do our own research. When the doctor gives me a prognosis, I will go immediately to Google to find out more. When the preacher tells me how to interpret a particular biblical passage, I might do my own research and find other ways to interpret it—which I highly recommend, by the way! I will begin to realize that there are multiple truths that may conflict with each other. I begin to admit that life is not simply a matter of right and wrong, but that most of life lies somewhere in the middle.

These doubt-fuelled questions begin to haunt us and nudge us from a Faith of Simplicity to a Faith of Complexity. But just as we can get Stage One Faith wrong, so we can get Stage Two wrong. We sort through the complexity of life, making our own decisions through our own carefully considered thought processes. Great! But if we haven’t done this through the lens of love, we will turn inward and find ourselves in a lonely place of ladder climbing. Being successful isn’t enough. Personal achievements mean nothing if only I and my family are all that matters. Doing my own research matters little if I don’t pay attention to who benefits and who is hurt by my decisions. And once again, doubt propels us into another crisis—often happening at mid-life. These doubt-driven questions usually emerge from broken relationships or crushed dreams. They address the very purpose of life. We realize that our middle-aged skin no longer fits as we reluctantly move into Stage Three, which McLaren calls Faith of Perplexity.

This is a very difficult stage when the gift of doubt begins to critique almost everything we once held sacred and dear to us. Some mystics have called this time the dark night of the soul, a time when the soul travels the path of descent to the underside of life. This is when we may even begin to question the existence of God. Is there anything holy? Is there any spark of pure love? And if there is, how can any faith dare pretend to be its sole keeper? This is the moment when we begin to question boundaries of in and out. If God is wholly love, surely love would not condemn anyone simply because they worship a God of a different name or love someone of the same gender.

If love can be the guiding principle during this difficult time, there is a very good chance that faith will emerge humbled yet strengthened. But if we lose the foundation of love, this stage will turn us into cynics of despair and meaninglessness. We will hear more about the transition from Stage Three Faith of Perplexity into Stage Four Faith of Harmony next week.

McLaren wrote a song about his experience of Stage Three entitled “Vultures”:

Doubts fly like vultures, hovering hungrily,

Catching wind currents,

Their shadows are cast on my pathway.

And nothing seems healthy…

I search for firm footing until my hands and knees bleed

From falls that I’ve taken

But my wounds give awareness of need,

And my needs make me seek [God].

Though the path of the pilgrim leads through the dark valley,

It’s then, in my need, when I see, though my faith

May prove feeble,

My Guide remains faithful.[1]

And finally this brings us to the lectionary reading for today—the gospel lesson from Mark. The disciples in this story are facing a classic struggle between Stage Two and Stage Three faith. They have learned how to be disciples of Jesus and are becoming quite successful in their healing ministry as they follow their increasingly well-known teacher. But they still haven’t quite understood the fullness of Jesus’ message. Jesus caught them arguing about who would be the greatest and who would be seated at Jesus’ right hand. They were still ladder climbers. And when they found someone else ministering in the name of Jesus, they were outraged! He hadn’t given up everything to follow Jesus as they had done! He was definitely not a disciple of Jesus.

The disciples quickly found Jesus and reported the audacity of this healer to minister in Jesus’ name. But Jesus stopped them cold in their second stage judgement. “What does it matter if his religious practice differs from ours but he still offers healing to others? Whoever is not against my message of healing and justice—of shalom—is for us, not against us.” The disciple’s second stage ladder of orthodox belief crumbled in that moment. Their walls of faith cracked open into a deeper, wider faith in a God of love who knows no bounds.

Many of you know Shahina Siddiqui, Winnipeg’s popular Muslim spokesperson. We have been friends for almost twenty years, but for the first few years, I was afraid to come out to her. I knew her to be fairly conservative in her faith, although adamant about justice, and I feared the loss of her friendship. Finally, I decided that if we were to continue to be friends and to work together on issues of justice, I needed to risk letting her know fully who I was. I was at her house for tea one day and near the end, I took a deep breath and mentioned that I, too, knew what it was like to be taunted by strangers. I then told her about a car driving by Nancy and me, when we were holding hands walking down the street. The car slowed down as it came up beside us and the passengers began yelling gross expletives at us. I paused in my story and waited to be asked to leave her house. She, too, paused, taking in what I was revealing to her. After what seemed an eternity (which I’m sure was only a second or two), she turned to me and said, with some anger, that she wanted to find the passengers and punch them out. That was certainly not the reaction I was expecting and we both started laughing.

I may have challenged her in her faith in that moment, but she was able to see God’s boundless love that opposes every kind of hate, threat and intolerance. She had already moved to a Stage Three level of faith that is willing to question narrow boundaries of in and out. And I was able to see how a conservative Muslim was boundless in love and compassion (As an aside, I wonder if there’s a lesson to be learned about how love and compassion can heal the deepening rift between those vaccinated and those unvaccinated). Over the last few years, Shahina has made concerted effort to learn about LGBTQ issues and she promotes the protection of human rights on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. I’m not sure who was more moved in that moment at her house, but I do think that we both experienced the miracle of God’s boundless love. Amen.

[1] Brian McLaren, Faith After Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What to do About it (New York: St. Martin’s Publishing Group, 2021), p. 79.