Pastor Sarah Stadler
Mother Teresa was an Albanian woman who early in her life devoted herself to service as a Roman Catholic nun and lived most of her life in India.
In 1950, she founded the Missionaries of Charity and built schools and orphanages, soup kitchens and clinics, hospice homes and children’s and family programs across 133 countries serving the poorest and most vulnerable people in those places. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975 and was canonized—meaning recognized as a saint—just last month by the Roman Catholic Church. Because she died on September 4, 1997, the day on which we will celebrate her life each year will be September 4. When I was a teenager, Mother Teresa was the ultimate example of someone who did good. “I’m not Mother Teresa,” people would say. Though she was controversial for a variety of reasons, no one could dispute the openness of her heart, her devotion to God, and the dedication of her life to serving God’s beloved people. However, a few years ago, a book was published that revealed something that deeply startled me and probably many other people. The letters she wrote during her lifetime—many of which are included in the book—show that Mother Teresa struggled with wide and deep doubts about the existence of God, the love of God, the grace of God. And this wasn’t simply for a short period in her life but throughout the majority of her ministry. As she held in her hands the pain of so many people, as she used her wisdom and power to found the Missionaries of Charity, as she received many honors for her godly work, she struggled on a fundamental level with the very concept of God.
This gives me hope. I am relieved. Honestly, I am relieved that Mother Teresa struggled with doubts, with very serious doubts. God worked through her despite her doubts to accomplish so much good in the love. She went about her work each day not entirely certain of God’s existence but still going and doing, still keeping on keeping on.
This gives me hope because, sometimes, my experience is similar. I know I’ve shared this before, but especially in moments when I am praying with people, I am suddenly struck by the thought: To whom am I speaking?! How ridiculous is this?! Am I just talking to myself? I share this with a bit of trepidation because I know that I am supposed to be the one who has strong faith. The faith professional, that’s me.
But I think my trepidation comes from the idea of what faith is. In the fourth century, the church fathers drafted the Nicene Creed, the first formal creed of the church. The reason for its drafting was to distinguish between Christians and non-Christians, to establish who was an enemy of the Holy Roman Empire and who was a devotee of it. Faith became intellectual assent to a series of ideas about God whereas, previously, faith had been about a relationship with God and God’s people, a living out of the practices of faith in daily life: prayer, love for enemies, forgiveness, community with other people of faith, worship, study, service to others, generosity.
In 21st century culture, the fourth century attitude still prevails. I have heard many people—I don’t think any of you have said this, at least not to my knowledge—but I’ve heard many people say: “I can believe in God without going to church.” And they’re right! Intellectual assent to belief in God does not require church attendance, but living with faith requires relationship with God and God’s people, requires a community with whom we practice faith.
In our gospel for today, the disciples plead with Jesus: “Increase our faith!” They apparently believed that they had little faith. And of course we know that the disciples had questions and doubts, that they didn’t get it exactly who Jesus was, that especially at the end of Jesus’ life when they were faced with guards who arrested Jesus, when they saw Jesus hanging on a cross, they abandoned him. Sure, they struggled with faith. But they also left everything to follow him. They also presumably left their families and their work and their daily way of life to follow an itinerant preacher, teacher, healer Messiah. They also went and did the things Jesus sent them to do: like go proclaim the kingdom of God and heal people as Jesus told them to do in Luke chapter nine. Yes, they wrestled with questions, but they kept on following Jesus. They didn’t stop being one of the twelve disciples. They kept on wrestling; they didn’t give up. They kept on keeping on with the difficult path of literally following Jesus wherever he went.
Having faith, growing in faith is not a matter of shutting out doubts and questions. It is a matter of hanging on and living in community andembracing God’s challenge to love and serve others even when our minds can’t fully wrap around the whys and the hows of God.
I am so grateful to be a pastor because a large portion of my job is really to just live with faith as we are all called to do. I do not mean that my job is to intellectually assent to belief in God but to live with faith. And living with faith means answering the door and sharing water with people who are thirsty. It means listening to people when they don’t know who else to talk to. It means being active in the community, meeting leaders, caring about our neighborhood and the people who live here. It means visiting people at home, in nursing homes and hospitals, at work, at school, simply being in relationship with people, being in conversation without offering empty platitudes and easy answers. It means using the gifts God has given me for the sake of the community, gifts like preaching and teaching. It means biking and walking instead of always driving in order to reduce my carbon emissions. It means celebrating God’s goodness in community and also praying together for the ways we need healing and renewal and direction. We only need faith the size of a mustard seed because, unlike intellectual assent to belief in God, living with faith means we will live in community, and this community helps us when we aren’t quite sure of the whys and the hows of God. And of course, the Holy Spirit is the One who makes all of this possible. In the Lutheran tradition, we celebrate how God provides even that mustard seed of faith, how God is the One who draws us into community, who draws us to the waters of baptism, who draws us to the table of Holy Communion, who gives us a hunger and thirst for service and study.
Perhaps you echo the words of the disciples this morning: Increase our faith, God! That is a fine prayer and a prayer God answers through us sitting right here, the community of faith. We love each other, forgive each other, serve each other, worship and study and pray and give together even in the midst of our questions and doubts. That is a life of faith.