The Federated Church of Marlborough
Marlborough, New Hampshire


  

    




Sermon for Sunday, July 1, 2018
“The Opposite of Faith”

Delivered by Laurence Upton, Member of the congregation


Jesus said: “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God… Whosoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.” (Mark 10: 14-15, King James Version)

 

This does not mean that a person who comes to the kingdom of God as an adult will be turned away.  Rather, Jesus is saying:  In order to enter the kingdom of God, one must come “like a child” with an open and loving heart, with an open and loving mind.

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Today’s sermon is a treatise on faith and, more particularly, the obstacles that get in the way of faith?

 

Let us begin with a quick sentence completion exercise.  I will provide the first few words of a sentence – and your task is to finish the sentence with whatever words come to mind.

 

There are four sentences in all.  Let’s take each one in turn.

 

I have faith in . . .  (congregation responds)

 

I have faith that . . . (congregation responds)

 

The opposite of faith is . . . (congregation responds)

 

The greatest obstacle to faith is . . . (congregation responds)

 

I suspect for many of us, the word doubt came to mind as the opposite or obstacle of faith.  Doubt is one answer, perhaps the most obvious answer, but there are others.   And, as we shall see later in this sermon, doubt may be the ally of faith rather than the enemy.

 

Antonyms

It might be useful to step back and give some thought to antonyms in general.  An antonym is a word that means the opposite of some other word. 

 

Some antonyms are truly opposite, as in antithetical, to the original word.  War and peace are antithetical.  Joy and despair are antithetical.  Love and hate are antithetical, although some might argue that indifference is the true opposite of love. 

 

Some antonyms simply mean the “other” way, the other state of being.  Left and right; up and down; heads or tails.  There is nothing wrong with left or down (or tails, for that matter), they are just the other way.

 

Faith and doubt fall in a third category, in the same vein as sunlight and darkness or active versus sedentary.    There is a “preferred” state but the other state is inevitable, useful, or necessary.  Darkness comes; it is part of the cycle of nature; but most of us prefer sunlight.  Rest is necessary (even enjoyable), but activity is what makes our lives meaningful. 

 

Faith and doubt fall in this category of preferred state versus necessary or useful step.  Faith lifts us up; it is the buoy in an ocean of fear and despair.  Doubt doesn’t drown us; instead, it gnaws at us; it unsettles us.  It says the search for safe harbor needs to continue.  Doubt can be a step on the journey to a stronger faith. 

 

What are some other possibilities for the opposite of faith?

 

How about ignorance and apathy?  Let’s try something.  I will ask a question.  Then I will point to my left and when I do, everyone on the left side will say, “I don’t know.”  Then I will point to my right, and everyone on the right side will say, “I don’t care.” 

 

Okay, what are you folks on my left going to say?  What are you folks on my right, going to say?

 

READY?  HERE COMES THE QUESTION:  What is the difference between ignorance and apathy?   First on the left.  Now on the right.  THAT IS CORRECT.  Ignorance is “I don’t know” and apathy is “I don’t care.” 

 

Both of these can be obstacles to faith.  But I suspect apathy is the greater obstacle.  Ignorance can be overcome through learning and study, through contact with other people and other ideas.  Apathy lives like a festering sickness that goes unnoticed but poisons all it touches.

 

What are some other possible obstacles?

 

Uncertainty can pose an obstacle to faith.  Sometimes we don’t know what to believe.  We see evidence for some belief or position.  Then again, we see other evidence to the contrary.  Uncertainty is not a bad thing.  It’s just a thing.

 

Injustice shakes our faith to the very core.  How can an all loving and merciful God allow innocent children to die from war, starvation, and disease?  All I can think is that God cries along with us; it breaks His heart too.  I know that’s not a satisfactory answer but it’s all I’ve got.

 

Mary Frost reminded me that fear can be a formidable obstacle to faith (and other things).  Fear immobilizes thought and action.  It freezes us in place.  It cancels out any opportunity for movement, for change, for growth or discovery.   

 

But there is something else that cancels out the opportunity for change, for growth and discovery.  And that brings me to a sermon I heard a while back at Central Moravian Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

 

Rev. Dr. Craig Atwood on the Opposite of Faith

Dr. Atwood is professor of theological studies at Moravian Theological Seminary in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.  He frequently speaks at Central Moravian Church.

 

The first sermon I ever heard Dr. Atwood give was titled, “The Opposite of Faith.”  It blew me away.  I conclude this sermon, my sermon of the same name, with a brief account of what he had to say that day.

 

Most people think that the opposite of faith is doubt.  But Prof. Atwood disagrees.  With faith we believe we have the right answers, we hope we have the right answers, but there are no guarantees.  That’s why we call it faith. 

 

With doubt we reject easy answers that lack substance.  But we leave open the door to continuing the search.  We leave a small crack open so that truth may find its way to us or we may find our way to it.  Doubt is not the enemy.  Doubt can be a good thing.

 

Let me say that again:  With doubt, we leave open the door to continuing the search.  Doubt leaves a small crack open so that truth may find its way to us or we may find our way to it.  Doubt is not the enemy.  Doubt can be a step on the journey to a deeper faith.

 

Where then lies the problem?  According to Dr. Atwood, the opposite of faith, the enemy of faith, is not doubt -- rather it is CERTAINTY – yes, CERTAINTY -- smug, sanctimonious, self-righteous certainty.  The certainty that declares I have all the right answers.  If you believe what I believe, you too will be right.  If you don’t believe what I believe, sorry, but you are wrong. 

 

Self-righteous certainty is not faith; it is the antithesis of faith.  Faith is humble.  Faith is open, affirming, and reconciling.  Faith is respectful of differing opinions, practices, and beliefs.  Faith is respectful of doubt.

 

That’s what Dr. Atwood has to say.  And I’m inclined to agree with him.

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Rev. Vodra provided a prayer for the Sunday I preached about the “Doubtful Disciples.”  I close today’s sermon with selections from that earlier prayer. 

 

          Dear Lord.  Like the disciples, we are sometimes afraid, sometimes full of doubt.  But in your extravagant generosity, your boundless love, you appear to us in our fear -- and love us in our doubts and grant us the oceans of your peace.  Thank you for loving us as we are.

          Teach us not to hide from doubt, but to recognize it as a door to mystery and to deeper faith.  This morning we pray for the many men and women in our society who have no faith at all.  There are so many who live without hope, without your light in their lives.
          Risen Christ, be light in our world.  We pray for those in our congregation this morning who find it difficult to believe.  Lord knows that they are not alone, but in the best of company:  Even Christ's own disciples struggled to believe all that they had seen and heard. 
          Loving Christ, it is your presence that removes all fear and erases all doubts:  So come, extend your loving embrace to those who never knew your light and to those who once did but no longer believe.  And grant to all of us, living Lord Christ, renewed faith, great courage, and your boundless peace.  Amen.

 

We now sing Hymn # 259, We Limit Not the Truth of God (verses 1, 2, & 4) -- please stand if you are able.

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 “We limit not the truth of God

To our poor reach of mind.

The Lord has yet more light and truth

To break forth from his Word.

Amen.”

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