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When Lisa and I got married, one of our weddings gifts was this cookbook from my maternal grandmother, who just turned 80. Grandy made note of many of my favorite recipes as a child, and she hand-wrote them into a journal, added photos of me from my first birthday party on, and then covered it with waterproof plastic. It is one of my most prized possessions.
When we moved from Dunwoody to Sewanee for my Anglican Studies year back in 2007, we forgot it in the apartment, called the management office, and had them ship it to us in Tennessee.
We still use it from time to time when we make something on holidays, and I like to flip through the photos as well—including the one of me at five years old having one third place in the annual Armadillo Festival Tiny Tot Pageant. That’s a prize winner, I’ll tell you!
One of my favorite foods as a kid was Grandy’s Broccoli and Rice Casserole. Here’s the recipe:
Cook 1 cup of rice in 2 cups of water and 1 tsp. of salt. Combine broccoli mixture and rice and bake at 300 degrees for 15 minutes or until everything is done.
I love this recipe—although I can’t do the oleo and cheese whiz anymore. It reminds me of my childhood—a time of family dinners and church where we focused so much on memorizing Bible verses. John 3:16 was, of course, the featured one to memorize:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”—I believe that is the King James Version, of course.
We would have contests to see who could memorize the most verses, and we prided ourselves on standing in front of the church firing off snippets from Romans, the Gospel of John, and others. We had to defend ourselves against the onslaught of the Methodists, who were not to be trusted.
While we dabbled a good bit in Romans and the other Gospels, it was John 3:16 that held pride of place. You see it everywhere, at ballgames, on signs, bumper stickers. For so many people, it seems to sum up the entirety of the Gospel message in one short verse.
But have we given deeper thought to what it actually means?
“Belief” is a loaded term, like “salvation” and “sin.” Like “God” if we’re honest. As a word and image, it holds a lot of baggage, like barnacles that accumulate through time in families and churches. “…whosoever believeth in him…”
I really dug into this for the past couple weeks, wondering what it is about this verse that holds such sway in the hearts of millions—and what it is about this verse that remains an enigma when we pause to really consider what it is that we are saying we believe—just what belief is.
When I was a child, it was quite clear that belief had a great deal to do with thinking the same way about who Jesus was, about what Jesus did, and we what needed to do to get into heaven. I don’t say this to slight it at all, only to emphasize that the particular theological school in which I was raised had a heightened focus on consenting to a certain, clear theological position. Being a member of the church meant thinking the right thing and sharing in this same thought with rest of the community in which I was raised.
We questioned everyone else who thought differently about Jesus—who didn’t believe the same way we did. (Did we ever stop to acknowledge that they were, in reality, thinking about Jesus?) We were honestly suspicious of them, which led to a bit of tension when it came to how we understood the other loaded term of “salvation.” You had to think the same way we did to “be saved.” This was what belief was focused on, and it was a very coherent system of thought. There were fundamentals that one must adhere to.
This all made sense, until for some reason I found myself wondering about it.
So much of Westernized Christianity, as we have described, has reduced belief down to a rational exercise, limiting it to dealing with the space between our ears. Thinking our way through… Faith and belief equates with rational assent.
The thing is, when you dig down into this word “belief,” you might be surprised by what you find. I know it might feel snarky to look at the Greek, but bear with me. The word belief here is “pistis,” from pistewo. And the core root, if you will, is a word that surprised me: patho. That word might sound familiar to you, when you think of pathos. It describes the deeper experience of human existence, the pain and suffering, the reality of life, the struggle and yearning…our humanity…the heart of who we are as humans.
So, let that sink in: the very word “belief” used here is not confined to a rational exercise of assenting to one facet of doctrine. Its deeper—and honestly more challenging—meaning has to deal with the way the heart of our human existence learns to trust in the reality of God’s compassion in Christ. We step into a fuller understanding of belief, then, when we engage in a deeper contemplative reflection.
“Faith” becomes less and less confined to our heads and more and more rooted in our hearts.
I was talking with my friend Justin Lanier this week, who is a priest in Vermont. He was with me in Snowmass last Summer. We were talking about this dimension of belief, and Justin offered this remarkable image. He said that we need to remember that our thinking mind, while vital and important, is the small engine. The real motor of our existence, if you will, is our heart, our spiritual heart. That is important to remember.
To stretch a metaphor that we started with, we experience this when we move from simply reading the recipe and even memorizing it to actually sharing the experience of mixing the ingredients, smelling, feeling, tasting, hearing the sound of the spoon scrape against the bowl. Feeling the heat of the oven. Waiting in anticipation for the meal to be ready. Sharing and savoring the taste of the cheese. Perhaps you see where I’m going…
We spend too much time in our heads, and our faith—our spiritual selves—are starved when we reduce belief down to a rational statement on paper that we can argue over. Who is right. Who is wrong. It is not that theological definitions are not needed. They most certainly are. It is just that we must ask ourselves if we can really enjoy the broccoli and cheese casserole until we taste the melted cheese.
Of course, to fully understand this dimension of our practice of faith—this movement toward our spiritual heart—we must appreciate the movement of the Holy Spirit. This is the key—that the Spirit of Christ is moving within us, within our lives, awakening us to a greater realization of God’s presence in our lives—and our call to embody compassion in the world.
It is the Spirit that enlivens the words we read, infusing them in our hearts and inspiring us to live them…not to stay on the level of the words of the recipe but to share in the meal God has prepared.
“Behold who you are, the Body of Christ. May we become what we receive.” We will say together in a few minutes.
To close, I would like to link this reflection with our liturgy, specifically looking at a prayer in the Rite of Confirmation, that service when the bishop confirms the person in their practice of faith. The gathered community recognizes the person and their mature affirmation of faith, and we place our trust in the Spirit who is our very breath.
If you would look on page 418 in the Book of Common Prayer, you will find the prayers…beautiful words that point to an even more beautiful reality.
Let these words challenge you as they encourage you. Let them inspire you as they open your eyes to the Spirit of Christ who seeks life and a deepening awareness of our union with God. And let us always pray for a faith that is alive, thriving, challenging, enriching…
Strengthen, O Lord, your servant with your Holy Spirit;
empower him for your service; and sustain him all the days
of his life. Amen.
Defend, O Lord, your servant with your heavenly grace,
that he may continue yours for ever, and daily increase in
your Holy Spirit more and more, until he comes to your
everlasting kingdom. Amen.
The Rev. Stuart Higginbotham
Sermon #6 in the Praying Shapes Our Lives Series
Lent 4, Year B
March 11, 2018