Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 — Pondering Faith with Frederick Buechner and CS Lewis 


 A sermon preached on August 7th, 2016 based upon Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16. 

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Great inspiring words, but a bit intimidating, leading me to wonder sometimes if I have “faith.” What I mean is there are times when things I hope for don’t seem to be working out the way I think they should, and I find myself getting anxious.  Where is my assurance? Where is my conviction?

But then I find comfort that he reaches way back for his prime example of faith to Abraham and Sarah.  There one enduring virtue was that they had faith in terms of willingness to set out from the land they had lived their whole lives, with all that was familiar, and set out on an unknown journey trusting in a promise given to them by God that God would give them a land in which their ancestors, who would number as many as the stars would possess.  Abraham and was 90 and Sarah 80 when they set out, not knowing where they were going, as the author of the letter to the Hebrews puts it.   But along the way they had their times of doubting the promise, and times of trying to take things into their own hands.  And who can blame them?  They didn’t even have a child, living in a world where children was the only way in which people were believed to live on after they died.

They weren’t perfectly constant in their faith, and at the end of their lives they are living in the land, but they do not possess it.  They live in tents, as pilgrims passing through.  The one thing they do have, the one sign of the partial fulfillment of the promise, was the birth late in life of their baby boy, whom they named Isaac, which means “laughter.”  Such joy he brought them.

The promise only partially fulfilled, the author of the letter ends our passage declaring that they looked for the fulfillment of the promise in a “a better country, that is, a heavenly one.”

CS Lewis was a brilliant Oxford scholar of English literature, a prolific writer best known for various books — some novels such at the Narnia Chronicles — about Christianity.  He was born at the beginning of the 20th century.  His mother died when he was a young child, and he lived through the horror of World War I.  In his youth he turned away from the Christian faith in which he had been raised.

Over time he found himself convinced of the reality of God and the truth of Christ, and a piece of the journey that brought him back to faith involved his reflection upon an experience dating back to childhood of rapture that would come unbidden to him on rare occasions, to which he gave the name “joy.”  He said that it had the quality of a longing, a desire — a desire that in itself was preferable to any amount of mere pleasure or happiness.   When he asked himself what it was that was the object of his desire at such moments, he realized that it was not anything in this world.  It seemed to him that all desires must have an object and so he concluded that the object of his desire must be beyond this world:  that it was God, or heaven.  He described this whole process of reflection that brought him to faith in an autobiography entitled, “Surprised by Joy.”

The great irony of his later life was that in late middle age this seemingly life-long confirmed bachelor fell in love with an American woman who just happened to be named “Joy.”  He experienced a couple of years of ecstatic romantic love, and then way too soon she was taken from him by cancer.  His grief cast him down into a deep darkness and doubt.  Over time, he concluded that the love and joy of his marriage was a sign of what awaited us on the far side of death.

If we examine our lives perhaps we will see our moments of what Lewis called joy — moments when we held our own baby “Laughter” and glimpsed a world of ecstatic love beyond this one, and our faith was nourished.

One of my favorite authors is Frederick Buechner, a novelist and occasional preacher of the Gospel.  In an essay he wrote he said that he has faith in part because he experiences life as having a kind of “plot”, that like a novel is leading to something, so do our lives, and that something is not to a place but in some sense to God.

He says that “Faith is better understood as a verb than as a noun, as a process than as a possession. It is on-again-off-again rather than once-for-all. Faith is not being sure where you are going but going anyway. A journey without maps.”

In this essay he tells of three things that happened to him which each in their own way were moments where it seemed oh so briefly the veil was lifted, and he caught a glimpse of what lies behind the veil.

The first involved a dear friend who died.  A few months after his death, Fred and his wife stayed as guests in the house of his friend’s widow.  During the night he had a dream so very vivid in which his friend came to his bedside in the dark.  He told his friend how much he had missed him, and how good it was to see him.  But then he asked, “How do I know this is real, that it is really you?”  And in response the friend plucked a thread of blue wool from his jersey and gave it to Fred, and the feel of the thread was so real, it woke him up.

The next morning he was describing the dream at breakfast to his friend’s widow and his wife.  His wife said that she had seen a blue thread of wool on the floor that morning that she was sure had not been there the night before.  Going up to the bedroom, sure enough, there it was.  Fred said that to this day he carries that thread around in his wallet.

What does it mean?  Just a dream and nothing more?  Or a sign of what awaits us beyond this life?

The second experience he describes was of a time he was travelling and had a lay over of an hour or so in an airport, and finding flying in planes anxiety provoking, he stepped into an empty bar to for a drink to calm his nerves.  He sat down on one of the bar stools and he noticed that in front of every seat there was a little card with the drink of the day.  But in front of the seat he had chosen he noticed a little piece of metal, which with closer examination turned out to be a tie clip with three initials on them.  They were his three initials, in precisely the right order.

He realized that it could be nothing more than a remarkable coincidence, signifying nothing at all. “But maybe it wasn’t a fluke,” he writes. “Maybe it was a crazy little peek behind the curtain, a dim little whisper of providence from the wings.  I had been expected, I was an schedule, I was taking the right journey at the right time.  I was not alone.”

The last experience he describes on the surface seems perhaps less extraordinary.  He described attending an Episcopal Church near where he lives.  The priest was a friend, and he described kneeling at the altar railing with others awaiting the bread and the cup. “This is the bread of heaven.  This is the cup of salvation.”  However when the priest came to him, he inserted a word, his name. “This is the bread of heaven, Freddie.  This is the cup of salvation.” And somehow having his name spoken at that moment moved him deeply, leading him to catch a glimpse of the notion that when Jesus offered himself up that night long ago, he did it for each of us, in all our frailty and imperfection.  And the veil lifted.

So we will be sharing Holy Communion in a few moments, and may it be for you a moment when, like old Abraham and Sarah holding the long awaiting baby whose name was laughter, a moment in which you catch a glimpse of the home that awaits us all, a home not of this world, a home prepared for us by God.  May we find our faith raised up once more.