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Losing Faith, Hating the Sermon, Leaving the Church and Remaining with God

Misty Kiwak Jacobs
Preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church
Williamstown, Massachusetts
May 8, 2022

At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.” (Jn 10:22-30)

The Festival of the Dedication, also known as Hanukkah, is a national feast. It celebrates the day on which the temple was rededicated after the Jews’ long captivity in Persia. When the Jews first re-entered the temple they could only find one small, sealed jug of olive oil that hadn’t been desecrated by the Greeks. 

They used this one jug of oil to light the menorah in the temple, and though the oil was only enough to last one day, it miraculously lasted eight days. This is the reason Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, is eight days long.

In today’s gospel, Jesus is walking through the temple. He who came not to destroy the law but to fulfill it, has come to celebrate the festival of lights with his creation.

As Jesus is walking, some of the faithful gather around him and ask, “How long, Jesus, will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

I have found we hear the truth of the gospels most clearly when we place ourselves in the role of difficult people. In today’s gospel, we are the doubters, those subtly accusing Jesus of blasphemy.

20th Century theologian Paul Tillich writes, “Faith is certain in so far as it is an experience of the holy” (Dynamics of Faith, 18). Jesus tells those who question him, “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe. . . .”

I suspect most of us are here not because we did a cool, objective analysis of the Nicene Creed and found it to be reasonable, but rather that we have experienced God’s work in our lives. 

We have experienced the holy, and so we follow him, like sheep follow their shepherd.

In college, I sat across a desk from my don, my advisor. He was in his 60s and a faithful Catholic. He had played a large lrole in my conversion. I was a new Christian, in love with God and the liturgy and prayer. As we talked, he echoed Peter’s prayer in Matthew, “Lord, I believe, please help my unbelief.” (Mt 9:24)

I was not familiar with the Biblical reference, I thought he made up the prayer. I was incredulous that this man, this professor I admired, could ever have any doubt about God. Again, I was a brand new believer, about 21 years old.

In coming years, I would experience personal illness, severe postpartum depression, the difficulties of married life, (if you’re unfamiliar with those ask me at coffee hour), financial struggles, a premature baby, a neurodivergent child, and then the long illness and death of my father, my closest person.

“Lord, I believe. Please help my unbelief.”

Struggle after struggle. And the death of my father was the last straw. Heaven becomes a lot harder to envision when so much depends upon it. I hadn’t given a lot of thought to heaven before someone I loved died. 

In the early days of my belief, church had felt nurturing and mystical. Worn out and grieving, it had become a hollow and meaningless chore. At the time we had a parish priest whom I will charitably describe as having “administrative gifts”. 

That means he was good at raising money. Listening to his sermons with a broken spirit was like drinking sand. My apologies to the Stewardship Committee.

I stopped going. 

After a while, a new priest came. His name was Fr. Doug. A holy man, a former Episcopalian, a priest who had a wife and grown children. That was new. He preached from the pulpit about raising a neurodivergent child. “Lord, I believe. Please help my unbelief.” 

I gave him a chance. I cautiously listened to him preach mercy for 2 years before I asked to meet with him. For more than 8 years after that he was my spiritual director. And when, through no fault of his, I just couldn’t stay in that tradition anymore, he lovingly supported me as I left. 

That was in 2015. My family and I moved to the East Coast. For various reasons, I was done with church. I would never enter a church again. NEVER.

Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”

If you are in these pews and you doubt, you belong. If you are here just for the music, you belong. If you hate my preaching, you belong. If you feel hollow, you belong. If you need to leave for a spell, come back when you can. Wherever your exile, however long your exile, you belong to God.

Now, the rest of this story will sound very personal, but it’s more than that. Again, Fr. Doug of Blessed Memory–he went on to glory in 2019–was a former Episcopal Priest, who became a Catholic priest who did not agree with the ordination of women.

When I felt the call to Divinity School, Fr. Doug wrote one of my recommendation letters. His religion was love, and his belief in a merciful, loving God bigger than his personal theology or his politics paved the way for me to be preaching here today. One day’s worth of olive oil burned for eight days.

Generally speaking, theology, while worthy of study, does not relieve doubt. I give you examples of Jesus working in my life, because I believe he is working in your life. I know you also have stories. God working in our lives means God is at work in the world.

Some of us experience the holy in the gospels, some in the liturgy, some singing in the choir and some in hearing the music, some in good works and acts of service, some in community. 

Theologian Miroslav Volf writes, “God’s gifts flow to others above all when the community scatters, having been nourished in God’s presence, when we are back at home with our families or at work as carpenters or bankers, doctors, waiters or teachers. . .

. . . Every word and every deed, every thought and every gesture, even the simple act of paying attention can be a gift and therefore an echo of God’s life in us” (Free of Charge, 53).

Our worship here radiates out into our troubled world. To leave here to care for a child, or plant a garden, or prepare a lecture, to scour a sink, or rebuild an engine, to practice a cello, or write a recommendation letter, is to echo Christ in the world.

Whatever our grief regarding Ukraine and global conflict, whatever our anxiety regarding domestic politics, whatever our trouble at home, with children, or partner or parents, with illness or with death, Lord we have heard your voice and we follow you.

We in our own lives have seen miracles, when one day’s worth of olive oil burned for eight days.