Sermon

WALKING BY FAITH NOT SIGHT

What does that mean? Surely walking by
sight is the sensible thing to do to use our natural senses- part of everyday life? Is it like walking on a tightrope not looking down just focusing on what is ahead?
What is the meaning of life? What makes it
worthwhile? Perhaps the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews provides a good answer to that age-old question: faith. Frederick Buechner unfolds this beautiful theme, this foundational truth, in his book, Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons, when he asserts “that the madness and lostness we see all around us and within us are not the last truth about the world but only the next to the last truth.” Like the writer of Hebrews, Buechner knows that faith, that is, trust, is a thing of the heart that helps us to see the truth hidden sometimes beneath appearances, “the last truth about the world,” the truth of God’s love, and God’s peace.

Today’s readings, of course, are about faith. In our
passage from the Book of Genesis, we hear a little piece of the familiar story of Abraham and Sarah, who were old and without children – but who were promised by God that their descendants would be as difficult to count as the stars in the sky. Despite all appearances to the contrary, Abraham believed God, we are told, and God “reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6).

The author of Hebrews then
uses Abraham as the first in a series of examples of faith in a letter that’s really a sermon exhorting an early Christian community to stand fast amidst the of adversities and challenges to their faith. Perhaps faith is so hard to define that it’s better see it in the lives of faithful people than to write a lot of theoretical things about it (not that that has deterred many theologians). It’s the experience of real people in a real relationship with God that can help us to grasp the meaning of faith, more than a precise or scholarly theological definition.

The author of Hebrews begins our passage with an eloquent,
often-quoted definition of faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1). He then goes to the lived experience of one person of faith after another who trusted in God’s goodness and the unfolding of God’s plan, including Abel, Enoch, Noah and Abraham. In fact, the very first example is “we” – the community of faith – who understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, with the seen made from the unseen. Faith, then, is the ability – or the openness – to see the invisible in the visible, the eternal in the earthly.

Longing for the “New Jerusalem”
The Letter to the Hebrews
exhorts an early Christian community that’s struggling with something, perhaps persecution, marginalisation, and fear. Under many churches we certainly know the dull frustration of being marginalised as LGBT people. Suffering swirls around us, but so does a blithe disregard for the things we say and the things we are about, or so it feels. Beneath it all, however, there is a greater and more powerful but unseen reality. In a sense, this passage is about the “however” in the life of faith. That “however” raises its head here and there, lifts up from beneath the trouble and turmoil, interrupts the incessant noise and electronic chatter, turns our attention toward those promises of old, and calls us toward our true homeland. We also are aware of the promises of the Kingdom of justice and mercy and continue to strive for these whether we can see any progress or not.

It’s true that we’re all
homesick for what we cannot see but what we know, deep down, awaits us, the deepest hope of our hearts. In our lives, we have glimpses of what’s in store for us someday, in every moment of love, of light, of peace that we experience here and now. And we have glimpses in every moment, every taste, of justice and healing in our lives and in the life of our communities, glimpses of the “new Jerusalem,” that home, that dream of justice and healing in which all of God’s children can live in peace. This was a powerful image for a people long ago that knew the bittersweet taste of longing for homecoming from exile, the longing for restoration after devastation and loss. It is a powerful image for us, today, as well, in every experience of loss, alienation, and injustice.

Is “faith” different from “believing”?
Faith is the
complete trust or confidence in someone or something or a strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof.
Belief is an acceptance that something exists or is true,
especially one without proof, conviction

We are in a long line that
stretches back to Abraham and our other ancestors in faith, the “saints” who went before us. But there are more who will follow us, and we have our own place in this story. Years ago, I learned that the word “tradition” derives from “handed down,” and in every generation, it’s up to us to hear the promises, to live the promises, and to pass them on to the next generation. It seems to me that we find it easier to see ourselves as heirs rather than as ancestors; it’s even more difficult to see ourselves as stewards of those promises. The word “steward” is usually connected to money, or perhaps the environment (although not often or well enough), so we may not take the time to see ourselves as stewarding the promises for those who come after us. They will hear them in their own time, their own circumstances, and their own need, and their faith will be shaped and energised by how well we tell the story in our turn. Someday, we will be “the saints,” the ancestors in faith who inspire them: are we thinking of ourselves that way? Diana Butler Bass has done wonderful work in describing the way the mainline Christian churches are “re-traditioning”: instead of casting aside the precious heritage we have received, we dig deep into the roots of our faith, where we find sustenance and even new vision for the world we live in now. I believe the writer of Hebrews would approve of such stewardship. (Diana Butler Bass has written many books; Christianity for the Rest of Us is a good one to begin with.) Giving expression to what’s deep in our hearts: The Statement of Faith

Walter Brueggemann
has observed in Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope that our passage from the prophet Isaiah reminds Israel of its long history of God’s amazing deeds, not their own achievements. On this bedrock of memory, the writer to the Hebrews can exhort the faith community (and us, today, as well) to draw strength not from one’s own abilities but from the provision of God. Life comes from God, and life belongs to God, too. Just as barrenness was a sign of hopelessness, a mark of having no future, then Abraham and Sarah’s family, the new life they experience in the birth of a child, opens up a whole new future for all of us because of God’s great power and presence in the life of the people, God’s plan for a future that is full of hope, not destruction and despair. This future has many different expressions and many ways of being experienced, in growth and deepening of spirit, of generosity, of faithfulness.

What does faith as trust look like?

Trusting in God
means setting out on a journey, like Abraham and Sarah – and so many other people in the Bible – a journey of faith toward a future where God’s design for creation will be fulfilled – toward the “Heavenly City.” Trusting in God means seeing God’s goodness in the worst of times, and believing that God’s blessings will outnumber the stars in the sky, even if we could count them. Trusting in God means seeing beauty and grace in what may seem like the smallest of wonders.

It is
faith that gives substance to our hope. When it looks like life is just too hard to bear, when we struggle with that pain or loss or loneliness or doubt, faith enables us to reach out and feel the grasp of God on our lives, to know that we are headed on that journey to the heavenly city where all of God’s purposes will be fulfilled. Faith is not agreeing to a doctrine, rather, but trusting that God, and not we humans, are in charge. It’s not all up to us, after all.

There are
days, along the way, when this faith is what carries us through. We know, for example, that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., suffered a great deal on his journey toward that heavenly city. He endured physical attacks, verbal abuse, threats to him and his family, the bombing of his home, and, finally, death itself. As the story goes, on that motel balcony in Memphis, just before he was killed, he turned to his musician friend who was to play that evening at the rally for the sanitation workers, and asked him, “Play ‘Precious Lord, Take My Hand’ for me tonight – play it real pretty.” A few seconds later, shots rang out. But that was not the end. No. Dr. King knew where he was headed. He knew whom to trust along the way. And we know in our hearts that God “reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

What does faith have to do with
courage?
When was the last time that you, or your church, did something bold, simply out of faith? What is an example of a time when your church saw things that were, at that point, unseen? When did you “step out in faith,” as Abraham did, and yearn into a new reality, even if that dream seemed far beyond reason or expectation?

What promises of
God motivate and animate your congregation and the life of the people in it? How do these promises challenge as well as console you? How do they call you toward others, beyond the walls of your church? (This week’s reading from Isaiah is a powerful call to justice that reflects the integrity of a community’s worship life.)

What are the “tents,”
the temporary places, in which you live as you await the fulfilment of God’s promises? How are you “strangers and foreigners on the earth,” even if you are in your own “homeland”? How much are your hearts and minds still on “what [you] have left behind” instead of the “better country” to which God leads you? Do we live our lives mostly focused on the “next to last truth” of our lives and the world?

One of the most
elusive experiences in life is perhaps that feeling of “having one’s ducks in a row,” of “getting is all together,” in just about any area of life. Faith is no different. As Frederick Buechner puts it, “Faith is different from theology because theology is reasoned, systematic, and orderly, whereas faith is disorderly, intermittent, and full of surprises.” And the writer of this Letter to the Hebrews would agree with Buechner as he writes that faith is much more about experiences of the heart and the gut: “Faith is homesickness. Faith is a lump in the throat. Faith is less a position on than a movement toward, less a sure thing than a hunch. Faith is waiting” (Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons). One of the most marvellous things about this beautiful Letter to the Hebrews is the way it somehow looks backward and forward at the same time, finding strength and grounding our faith in what has been, and yet letting our hopes soar on the wings of our imagination as we dream of what is yet to be. based on work by Kathryn Matthews Huey For
further reflection:

William James, 19th century
“Faith means belief in
something concerning which doubt is theoretically possible.”

Elie
Wiesel, 21st century
“The opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s
indifference.”

Kahlil Gibran, 20th century
“Faith is a knowledge
within the heart, beyond the reach of proof.”

Mother Teresa, 20th
century
“I know God will not give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish [God] didn’t trust me so much.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., 20th
century
“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

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