By The Rev. J.C. Austin
Just in case the sign plastered to the pulpit here was too subtle for you, the word for this week’s sermon in our “Good Word” series is “believe.” Back when we asked you, the congregation, for words that you’d like to hear sermons about, this was one of the most popular submissions. Which didn’t surprise me at all, really.
First, we obviously talk a lot about “believing” in the Christian church, but it’s interesting how rarely we talk about what that really means; we just sort of assume everyone know and agrees about it. But second, believing is one of our favorite pastimes in the United States. Yes, we are by far the most “believing” country in the developed world by far, with over 90% of the people consistently saying they believe in some form of God. But I’m talking about believing in a bigger sense even than that.
Did you watch Bobby Finke win Olympic gold for the USA in the men’s 800m freestyle this week? Finke had only the 12th best qualifying time of swimmers in the field, and was a full eight seconds behind the favorite, which is an eternity in competitive swimming. In the actual finals race, he was in fourth place at the last turn in the finals race, with only 50m to go against far more accomplished swimmers, but as he touched the wall to make his final turn he thought to himself, “I’ve still got a shot at this.”
And he remembered his coaches talking about “switching gears” at the end of a race, no matter how long it had been, and suddenly it was like he had cranked some kind of outboard motor to propel him forward, catching and passing the leaders on the final length of the pool to put his hand on the pool wall first. On the NBC Olympics Twitter feed, which is where I saw it first, the tweet showing the dramatic finish was simply captioned: “I FINKE. I CAN.”
That’s how we think about sports in the United States and, indeed, so much about life in general. “You gotta believe,” we tell ourselves; “If you can think it, you can do it,” we say. In fact, the more remote the chances are for success, the more we talk about the need to believe: to not let the odds or obstacles before us deter us from what we truly believe we should be or do.
Most athletes or musicians or actors or entrepreneurs will tell you some version of how, at some point, things looked like they would never get what they so desperately wanted to receive or achieve. But they kept on believing, no matter what they faced or what other people said, and finally, everything they believed came true.
But the very power and resilience of belief can also be problematic if we believe in the wrong things or in the wrong way. That’s what James is warning against in this somewhat hostile passage we heard today. He’s using the word “faith” in the way that we often use the words “believe” or “belief”: to refer to a personal conviction about God, Jesus, and God’s will for the world that combines a set of important ideas with a deep sense of heartfelt commitment to those ideas.
And yet James is also saying not only that it isn’t enough, but that it’s actively a problem because it can lead us into thinking that believing that something is true IS enough and that we don’t have any responsibility for acting as if it is true.
He even goes so far as to ask a question so provocative to us Protestants that it might get your ordination blocked if you were a candidate for ministry and asked it during your final examination: “can faith save you?” Any of us who has spent any time being nurtured in our faith by a Protestant tradition, in particular, will almost reflexively respond, “yes, of course, we are saved by faith alone.”
Now, yes, as our Protestant ancestors boldly clarified when the church had gotten off its theological track on such matters, we are saved through faith alone, not through actions to earn our salvation. But neither are we saved by belief alone, James is saying; faith without works is dead because faith requires both believing and acting to be truly living.
Belief or conviction without action is a dead faith, James is saying. To be confronted by someone who is naked and hungry and to respond by assuring them they will be warm and well-fed because you believe it will somehow happen is, in a very real way, to offer them death through your belief. A true faith believes that Jesus Christ died so that all might have life, and have it abundantly, as Christ himself promised.
And as believers in Christ, as followers of Christ, we are to act as he acted and continues to act through the power of the Holy Spirit in and through us: to offer life and sustenance and hope; love and mercy and peace; not merely in thoughts and prayers, but in concrete actions that embody those thoughts and prayers and become building blocks of the kingdom of God in the lives of individuals and in the life of our society and world.
So to believe is merely a beginning that leads to action. And, in fact, sometimes a beginning action is what leads to believing. Which leads us to the sign here on the pulpit. As some of you will have recognized, this sign is a copy of the one in the locker room of AFC Richmond, the soccer club in the truly wonderful show, Ted Lasso, by their coach, Ted Lasso himself.
The blessings and challenges of believing is at the very heart of the show, and don’t worry, I’m not going to spoil anything from the new season. But, if you don’t know it, the show centers on Lasso as an American who is improbably hired to coach a perpetually mediocre English premier league soccer club, AFC Richmond, despite not only lacking any soccer coaching experience but even any actual knowledge of the sport itself.
And of course, there are a lot of funny moments about his lack of knowledge of both soccer and English culture, but what quickly becomes clear is that, like any truly great coach, Lasso’s deep gifts aren’t in the nuances of the game, but in the depths that he is able to understand and motivate his players. He finds that he has a number of talented players, but either they believe too much or too little in themselves as individuals, and don’t really believe in each other or the team. And so one of the first things he does is tape this sign up in the locker room as a constant visual reminder of the importance of believing.
But what’s so great about the show is that it not only refuses to fall into the typical platitudes of everything coming together if you just believe, it actively undermines them. In the beginning, the players do not believe at all in anything; they are actively hostile to him and everything he does. It is only through a combination of relentless conviction, deep attentiveness, and astute interventions with various players and staff that Lasso slowly, very slowly, begins to get the team to start believing, as well.
It is Lasso’s intentional, insightful, insistent, persistent actions that cause things to finally start coming together for the team and its players. The tentative players play with conviction; the arrogant players play with humility; and the cynical players and fans and team staff all begin to believe.
And by the time the most important games are coming around at the end of the season, the players aren’t scoffing at the handmade sign that says “Believe” hanging over the locker room door anymore; they tap it with their hands as they head out to play, showing that their faith, their belief, is finally and truly alive.
What I love most about the sign is that it is crooked. There’s even a bit early on when Coach Lasso first hangs it up in the locker room and the girlfriend of one of the players tells him it’s crooked and helps him straighten the paper, only to reveal that when the paper is straight, the writing itself is still crooked. Which seems fitting, because so often we try to align the world with our belief or our belief with the world; we feel like if we can straighten our beliefs, God and the world will make sense, and therefore what we need to do in our lives and in the world will become clear.
But Christian faith, true Christian faith, is never fully in alignment with the realities of this world; it is part of this world but never fully in sync with it because the very promise of the gospel is that God is transforming life and death, the world and us, into the way God always intended everything to be, and we get to be a part of that; and in the process what we believe informs and transforms our acts of faith, and our acts of faith inform and transform our what and how we believe.
And so true belief and action, true faith, never aligns us with the world but instead aligns us with God, which means we are always off-center in the eyes of the world, until God finally aligns the whole world with God’s will and brings all of creation into perfect balance and beauty. We don’t have to believe it; but we are invited and empowered to believe it, and whether our action leads to belief or our belief to action, when we have faith we get to be a part of God’s purpose and activity ourselves until it is done.