In our Sunday Gospel readings during this part of our church calendar in
what we call Year B, we follow Jesus as he leads his disciples from his
ministry in the lush hill country in Galilee to congested Jerusalem,
where he will be arrested and crucified. On the long winding trip, he
teaches his disciples and us many things, but most of all he says,
“Follow me and I will make you a servant of all.”

In today’s Gospel, Jesus says to the rich man, “Will you sell what
you own, give to the poor, not to the other rich, not to the temple
even, but to the poor.” Will you sell what you own and follow me
becoming a servant of all? Notice Jesus does not say, “Will you
believe?” Rather he says, “Will you follow?”

I have a close friend from Boston who worships in an Episcopal church
there regularly, does very good outreach and justice-seeking work; she
does what she can to help build the community at the church. She is
among other things one of the DOCC leaders. (DOCC—Disciples of Christ in
Community—is the program we are started here at the Cathedral last
Tuesday.) As far as I know my friend is much beloved by everybody.

About a month ago, she called me at our home in Washington and said,
“William, I am distressed about something. For some time now, I have
come to realize that I can’t believe in the Christian faith anymore.”
She was quick to tell me that her relationship to the church has not
changed, not yet anyway. She worships regularly, tutors children from
low-income families, works on the anti-racism efforts of the church, and
she is always welcoming new people and making them feel at home in the

When my friend called, I mostly listened and seemed lost for words.
But I have been thinking about my friend and what she calls her
“inability to believe” ever since. This sermon is for her and maybe for
some of you, perhaps at various times in your life, or for your friends
who would like to believe but say that they can’t and are distressed
about that.

I am certain there are some, maybe quite a few, in every congregation
I have served over the last forty years, who are like my friend, who say
that they just cannot believe in what we teach about the Christian
faith, our Creeds, for example. They come to church regularly and try to
do what they think God would have them do (if there were a God). But
they do not believe. At certain valley times in our ministries, many of
us clergy would include ourselves among those who do not believe.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus seems to care more about what his followers
believe than he does in the other three Gospels. In Matthew, Mark, and
Luke, you get the idea that Jesus wants the disciples to believe more
with their feet than with their heads. “Follow me,” he says, “and the
Kingdom of God will be yours.” In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the emphasis
is not on believing with your head but rather in following in the way,
being a servant of all. So if belief comes hard for you, the message is:
Continue to be part of a Christian community, continue to do what God
would have you do—if there were a God (and of course there is).

I think a lot about the women who observed the agony of the
crucifixion. (Jesus had told of his resurrection, but no one believed
him.) Thinking it was all over, nothing to believe any more, they
nevertheless set out to do the right thing, the last decent thing, the
thing God would have them do if there were a God. At some risk to
themselves, they followed along at a distance to see where the body of
Jesus was laid. And the next morning they went to the tomb to anoint the
body, so that Jesus would have a proper burial.

As they entered the tomb, they discovered that the body had
disappeared, that the tomb of death could not hold the Lord of life. A
voice from the tomb said, “Jesus who was dead has risen.” They did the
right thing—they followed in the way right to the very end—those women,
and they were given belief, Easter belief, a belief that they took back
to the other disciples. And as you know, the world has never been the
same since.

So that’s one way we who do not easily believe can respond: With our
feet, determined to become a servant of all, with the hope that God will
some day bestow belief upon us, as he did for the women at the tomb on
that first Easter morning. We can follow in the way.

But that way of dealing with non-belief doesn’t work for all of us. I
am not sure it will work for my friend from Boston. Not all can follow
in the way by an individual act of will.

I want to tell some of the story from long ago of one of my seminary
professors (at Virginia Theological Seminary, in Alexandria) that may
help my friend, maybe you and others during your time of unbelief. My
favorite teacher at seminary in the middle sixties was Cliff Stanley,
professor of systematic theology. Before I get to the main point of my
story, I want to introduce this man, special to so many of our Episcopal
clergy today. And what I say about him really will relate to the main
point. So listen up!

On the first day of class, Stanley, as the students affectionately
called him, defined systematic theology as follows: “It is more personal
than dogmatic theology, but just as complete. It is always signed—it
is somebody’s theology, ‘my theology.’”

Stanley did not care for theological statements that could not be
tied to one’s own life; he called such an attempt “gossip theology.” You
talk and talk and go on about what others believe, but you don’t worry
about how you connect with those things yourself. He was fond of
quoting the passage from Mark in which Jesus will not settle for Peter’s
answer when Peter holds forth on what others say about Jesus. “But you,
Peter, who, do you say I am?” Jesus asks.

As Stanley lectured on and on, we seminarians knew that he was trying
with all his being to relate everything he said about the faith to his
life, to human life as he knew it, although he talked very little about
his actual life.

Defining angst as the threat of non-being, ultimately death, a
super-anxiety, he said during that first day of class, “Angst is the
hero, the Hamlet of our course.” The knowledge of on-coming death that
only human beings can fully understand is what darkens our world with
despair, but it is also the very thing that makes civilization and a
rich existence possible, as we learn to have the courage to be in the
face of it. “Feel the agony of your finite life to be worth your salt,”
he said, “but don’t go under. Feel the tragedies of your life and of the
world until they crush you; then get up and go about your business.”

We seminarians sat enthralled as we listened to this tall, slender
man with flowing white hair and with a chin that jutted straight out,
waving his hands all over the place. As he paced the floor in front of
us, up and down, getting more and more involved in his Christian
existentialism, we knew he had felt deeply the tragedies in his own life
with God’s help, had been able to go about his business. We loved
Stanley because he understood just how painful it was for us to hear his
message, how painful to really feel the tragedies in our own lives and
the great suffering in the lives of others. He understood.

A few years before I began seminary, Stanley’s wife died while still
in her early fifties. A very private man, he never talked about his wife
or her death, but several stories had been passed down from class to
class. When Stanley talked about Kierkegaard (the 19th century Danish
philosopher, theologian, poet) and his love for Regina (the woman he
could never have), I felt sure Stanley was thinking of his own wife. He
had loved his wife more than anything and just could not bear the idea
that she had passed on. On the day before his wife was to be buried, he
stood and watched for an hour or more while the gravediggers prepared
the seminary plot.

I have a picture of this proud man known for his ability to talk,
engage, persuade, now standing at some distance from the grave, his head
bowed slightly, completely silent. If someone had asked him why he was
there, he would certainly have said, “What else can I do but be here?”
That was the same answer that the women who went to anoint the body of
Jesus would have given. “It is all over. There is nothing else to do,
except this last important thing, be there and feel the pain, feel the

Shortly after his wife’s funeral, Stanley lost his faith. He
was so devastated, felt so forsaken, that he could no longer believe.
The students and faculty began to notice that during Morning Prayer in
chapel, he stopped saying the Creed. He could not so easily get up and
go about his business…though he continued to teach his courses as
he always had.

Finally, Stanley, who helped shape the faith of hundreds of clergy,
told the students of his dilemma. “I can’t say ‘I believe’ at this point
in my life,” he said. “But each morning I rise with you when the Creed
is said, and I sit with you when it is over. At this time in my life, I
need you to say the Creed for me; I need you to believe for me. Stick
with me. My personal crisis will pass.”

In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis, the imaginative Anglican
theologian and author of fiction, sets up a plot in which Screwtape, an
arch-devil, writes regularly to a lesser devil, Wormwood, whose job it
is to misdirect and eventually destroy the hero of the story. So the
whole book is told from the devil’s point of view. The enemy is of
course God. On one occasion, Screwtape writes Wormwood with these words
of warning:

Do not be deceived Wormwood. Our cause is never more in
danger than when a human, no longer desiring but still intending to do
our enemy’s will [God’s will], looks around upon a universe from which
every trace of [God] seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been
forsaken, yet still obeys.

When Stanley explained his predicament to the students at VTS and how
he was going to let the seminary community believe for him—as he carried
out his usual duties, teaching the faith the best he could—I am sure
there was great singing in heaven and great mourning among Screwtape,
Wormwood, and all the other devils in what Lewis called the “Lowerarchy”
of Hell. If you take away a person’s belief in a loving God and that
person still obeys, still follows in the way, what else can you do?

By the time Stanley taught us at Virginia Seminary, his crisis had
passed. His lectures were just as dramatic as ever, but he was not an
actor. We were seeing the real thing. He could now believe not just for
himself but for others, at times for me. So, during your times, of
unbelief, if it doesn’t quite work for you—as an act of will—to put one
foot in front of the other and follow in the way, learn the lesson of
Cliff Stanley.

In our Prayer Book, we have two ways of saying the Creed. One way (in
the traditional service) the Creed begins with the words “I believe.” It
is good that we have that option because God takes us seriously as
individuals; God blesses what we write as the capital I. But our other
way of saying the Creed, as we will today, in the service we call Holy
Eucharist II is to say “we believe.” We don’t always have to be such
heroic rugged individuals. We can, like Cliff Stanley, let the community
believe for us, and then when we receive the gift of belief, we can
believe for others, during their times in the valley.

Well, I eventually called my friend in Boston and said I thought she
should keep on keeping on in her church life and work and, for the time
being, not to worry about her lack of belief. “Let me,” I said, “while
you are serving others, let me believe for you.” I could have said,
“Unlike the rich man, you have followed in the way.” I did say, “Let me
and all of your wonderful friends at church believe for you. And in
God’s own time and God’s own way, God will bestow upon you the gift of
belief, Easter belief. And that’s a promise!” And that’s a promise, my
friends, to all of you as well.