Proper 16 John 6:56-69
I had a professor in college who said something that has stuck with me for now over 25 years. It had to do with the character of faith. He said that once we are SURE of our faith, our faith was dead. The essence of a living faith is what he called “Holy Uncertainty.”
Holy Uncertainty is that internal gnawing that pushes us forward. It is the questioning that keeps us unhappy with the answers that just seem too easy. It is those questions that we ponder just as we drift off to sleep. Holy Uncertainty may not give us an easy faith, but it gives us a depth and profundity of faith that we cannot get just from accepting the easy answers and the hard and fast rules.
My professor would say that once we become assured of our faith, we cease to grow in faith. We have all the answers and we have everything nicely placed in its box. We don’t have to think any more. We can just say, “Oh, that person is lazy; they are bad.” Or, “That person is greedy; they are bad.” Or even, “That person is a Cubs fan; that person is totally delusional!” We can become pretty smug concerning our judgments of other people. When we have lost our Holy Uncertainty, all we have to do is make our judgment and move on.
But Holy Uncertainty does not let us get by so easily. Holy Uncertainty pushes us toward understanding and away from judging. It moves us to search deeper in life than just accepting what we can see with a quick glance; Holy Uncertainty drives us to compassionately search for answers.
Holy Uncertainty is definitely not easy. It asks us to sit in those gray places in life. It can cause us to lose sleep at night. Holy Uncertainty can make us very uncomfortable. And it is the discomfort that drives many people toward black and white understandings of God and the world. Black and white may be easier to understand, but black and white views often deprive us of the richness that surrounds us.
In our gospel reading for today, the people are becoming uncomfortable. Jesus has been teaching about being the Bread of Life and about how people need to eat this bread to find everlasting life and forgiveness. This was (and still is!) some radical teaching. It did not fit nicely into The Law as the Jewish people knew it. The teachings that Jesus was giving the people were introducing a while range of gray to the established, cut and dried, system. Suddenly the people who were listening to Jesus were thrust into the realm of Holy Uncertainty. Many, possibly for the first time in their lives, were caught in the gray area. And with the laws changing, Jesus noticed that the big crowds were dwindling. People were leaving. The discomfort of the new teaching was just too much for them.
I think we often feel this way, too. As I said, Holy Uncertainty is uncomfortable and we really don’t like discomfort. But I am not so sure certainty is so comfortable, either. Certainty may feel like comfort, but it can leave us feeling torn. We see people we love being judged harshly and many of us know that under different circumstances we could be in that position of being judged. But instead of questioning the law, we question the person. The law cannot be wrong, it has been there forever and why would we need to change it now? So we assume the person is bad and we go on.
But Christ was offering forgiveness. He was saying that just because someone went afoul of the law doesn’t mean that they are forever damned. Jesus was saying that people can be forgiven and redeemed. But instead of rejoicing at the news, people began to leave, they began seeking another teacher.
When I was a kid, I had really bad feet. I had to wear these funky shoes and had to have various kinds of supports placed in them. When the supports were first placed in the shoes, they hurt! But eventually my feet would conform to the supports and I would find relief. That transition time was not the most pleasant time, but the finial result was being able to sleep through the night without ankle and foot pain. I could have ripped the supports out, I would have had immediate relief, but the chronic pain would have continued. In dealing with the pain of change, I was able to sleep more soundly. Holy Uncertainty involves living through the discomfort and finding the relief that Christ has promised.
Changes are occurring on all levels of life. Some of these changes can be scary and downright painful. The Episcopal Church is making all kinds of changes that some feel are just too much. We have an election happening that is promising to be all kinds of uncomfortable. In our lives, there is the possibility we are being asked to open ourselves to new teaching that can be uncomfortable.
It is easy to turn away when a teaching feel too difficult. Jesus acknowledges this. He acknowledges that what he is teaching is difficult and opens the opportunity for the disciples to leave. That is part of human nature: Leave when the going gets tough. But Jesus does not want the disciples to leave; he wants them to stick around, work through the discomfort and to grow. He reminds them that they have been through difficult teachings in the past and not to lose heart. But Jesus also knows that some will fall away but asks us, his followers to continue to press on, to continue to persist through the uncertainty and to grow.
One of the wonderful things about the Episcopal Church is that Holy Uncertainty is build right into our system. We are able to deal with uncertainty because we have our points of stability. We believe that God is Almighty. We believe that Jesus is God’s Son. We believe that through Christ’s death and resurrection we have received forgiveness and new life. And we have our worship where we can gather as a community and place ourselves at Christ’s feet. Many of the other points of faith are open for discussion. We still disagree on things like ordination of women and more recently the ordination of gays, lesbians, and transgender people, but those things do not stop us from worshipping together. At each of these times, there was much discord and people declaring the demise of the church. But you know what? We are still here! We keep the vision of what is important, God is Almighty, and then work together through the details.
I believe that as long as we continue to work together, Christ will be present in the process. As long as we look to our Savior, we will find the teachings we need. As Simon Peter says, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” And as long as we continue to search, with Holy Uncertainty, for the leading of the Holy Spirit, I believe we will find it.
There will always be changes. Even something we hold as dear as the church will have changes. Even our interpretations of the Bible may change. But we are not to turn our back on the community. We are not to turn our backs on those who disagree with us. Christ calls us to keep our faith in him and to not turn our back. Christ calls us to hold fast to our faith, even though we may be uncertain as to what is happening. But as long as we remain faithful, and as long as we keep working to understand, as long as we remain engaged, we can trust that Christ will be there.