A Steadfast Faith – The Rev. Michelle Meech
October 22, 2023
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
– Rainer Maria Rilke, trans Joanna Macy, Book of Hours 159
I’ve said that the thing that most often gets in our way as humans is that we cannot seem to grasp just how much God loves us. We cannot seem to ever rest in the deep realization that we belong to God and God will never leave us. That God speaks to each of us as we are made and reminds us to hold on to Her as we move through life.
We have forgotten, as Rilke suggests in his poem. We let go of God’s hand. We leave God. We forget. And we learn to believe other things about ourselves in the chasm that is created. And then learn to find ways to fill the void or escape pain. Learn to believe that others have a problem with us rather than to realize that others are struggling with their own demons just like we are.
All the time, forgetting the truth that is and will always be: That we are God’s beloved. And we belong to God.
What brought me to this message today, was the Gospel reading because it’s about a steadfast faith in God. The cynical pharisees, once again, are trying to trip up Jesus as he teaches, to catch him saying something that goes against Jewish law or gets him in trouble with the Roman government.
So they set the trap by asking about taxes, or more accurately, the census-based tax which the Romans forced upon adults who lived throughout the Roman Empire. These taxes were not used like taxes are today – to build roads and parks, but to pay for Roman soldiers who were charged to keep rebellion from happening. So it’s a very, very volatile subject amongst Jewish people who are under Roman rule.
They ask: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” Jesus sees what they are trying to do and asks to see the coin, to use it as a visual aid.
Now, if Jesus says, “no” it is not lawful, then he is denying Roman authority outright, which is a dangerous thing to do. Not to mention, the Herodians who came along with the pharisees are, of course, of the house of Herod – the Roman appointed governor – who would be sure to tell the governor about Jesus if he gave the wrong answer.
And, if Jesus says, “yes” it is lawful to pay this tax, then he would be seen as kotowing to Roman authority when the majority of Jews resented Roman rule. Not to mention, the image and inscription on the coin were offensive to observant Jews… which Jesus takes the time to point out.
It’s a very tense scene. How will Jesus respond?
Well, Jesus offers one of his most brilliant, most famous, yet most often misunderstood statements: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s… but Jesus continues: “and give to God the things that are God’s.”
Imbedded in this statement is the Jewish belief that all things belong to God. So, what seems like a parallel statement from a rhetorical perspective, is not parallel at all when it comes to what we believe, when it comes to our faith. If we are, therefore, steadfast in our faith, there is nothing we could give to the emperor because it all belongs to God.
What Jesus is saying is that your perspective on this depends on your own steadfastness. It depends on your own faith.
If you are faithful to the emperor, then give to the emperor. Because you see that all belongs to the emperor.
But if you are faithful to God, then give to God. Give to God all you have and all that you are.
I think this is so illustrative of the Rilke poem. We let go of God’s hand and place our faith in things that are ephemeral. For example, nations come and go. The Roman Empire, an entity that once was thought of as endless, both as far as its physical boundaries and its timelessness, is no longer.
Churches, congregations are the same. They arise for a time as they are needed and then they close their doors, their faith seeding future congregations. It’s illuminating to realize that all those churches Paul wrote to in his letters, the letters that make up most of the new testament, they no longer exist as unique congregations.
Our emotional states come and go too. As Rilke reminds us: No feeling is ever final. Just keep going. Don’t lose me, God says. Don’t lose me.
To what then are we faithful? To what are we faithful?
What both Jesus and Rilke are talking about is essentially the same thing: steadfastness of faith.
Rilke says: Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. No feeling is final.
The emotional ups and downs of life. Some days the people we love drive us nuts and some days we fall in love with them all over again. Hopefully, as we mature, we come to understand that some days we are more open, more forgiving, and more compassionate… and therefore, more appreciative and more loving. The fact that we are bothered by another person is really not always their fault. Because we have other days, when we are more agitated for whatever reason… and therefore, less able to appreciate the people we love. Less able to appreciate ourselves usually.
And we keep going. Because no feeling is final. And we develop a steadfastness… which is that part of us that remembers God’s hand is always there, waiting for us to grasp it. Over time, then, we become less susceptible to whims of thought and emotion and start to recognize that something is deepening for us.
It is faith that is deepening – through compassion for others and, most especially, compassion for ourselves, we become more steadfast, realizing that no feeling is final. We are less fickle as we learn to ask for forgiveness when we need to and to forgive when we are called to.
This is what relationships and community are built on. This forgiveness of self and forgiveness of others. This realization that people are doing the best that we can – including ourselves.
Because it’s so easy to be disappointed. It’s so easy, in our society especially, to be consumers of literally everything. Consumers rather than participants. We are taught by our culture that if something doesn’t make us feel great about ourselves that we should just stop “buying” that and move on to the next brand or even another product altogether.
We fall into this trap with everything, even church. And this may be a news flash: But church is not about making people feel good. And spirituality is not about being blissed out. Church is a community of people who are called out by God to be Christ in and for the world. And spirituality is about rediscovering our way back to God so that we can hear God’s call.
But here’s the secret, if we come to worship, if we earnestly surrender ourselves in prayer, if we stop holding back and choose fuller and deeper participation… we notice that something in our experience does start to shift. Things are lighter and we are able to let go of a lot more. And that is the spiritual path because it is about rediscovering God’s love. It’s not always bliss but it is always good. It is always restorative. It is always true.
We participate. We love. We feel. We engage. We forgive. And we don’t stop. And we find that when we do these things, we start to believe the truth about ourselves – that we are God’s beloved and we belong to God. Our faith is renewed and we are resurrected with Christ, grasping God’s hand once again. Building a faith that will carry us through times of triumph, times of disappointment, times of sweetness, and times of devastation.
As a church community, we do this together. A church community is a kind of laboratory in which faith can develop and spirituality can deepen. We learn how to forgive and be forgiven. We learn to step forward into being responsible for one another and to be steadfast in our faith. Learning to give to God all that is God’s. Which is everything.
So that when our worship comes to an end and we are sent out to love and serve God, we leave here with the strength and the conviction to go into a world in desperate need of a Gospel that is bright and bold and clear. A Gospel that speaks openly about God’s unbounded and endless love. A Gospel that is true.
This is what faith can bring. To us and to the world.