A sermon preached on August 8, 2010 based upon Hebrews 11:1-3
“Now faith is the assurance of things hope for, the conviction of things not seen… By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.” (Hebrew 11:1, 3)
The deepest reality, asserts the letter to Hebrews, is one that is invisible, eternal. The world we can see and touch depends upon the unseen order.
The assertion at the heart of faith can’t be proved, or disproved. Smart people can make arguments for or against the likelihood of such a reality, but they can’t finally prove it, one way or another. That’s why it’s called faith. So when we’re talking about having faith, the size of our brains doesn’t matter much. Trusting doesn’t arise from our intellects.
One thing though: the truth affirmed by faith can’t be experienced without intentionally setting out to live as if it were true.
An old joke: A circus ringmaster and a clown are watching from below as the circus’ new high wire acrobat is practicing above them. He rides a bicycle and then a unicycle along the wire. Now he is pushing a wheelbarrow.
“They say he’s the greatest hire wire artist the world has ever known. You think that’s true?” asks the ringmaster.
“Surely, he is the greatest there ever was, and ever will be.”
“I don’t know, we got a lot of people coming to night to see him perform. You think he’ll come through?”
“I have no doubt. He could do these tricks in his sleep.”
“Well, that’s really good, because tonight I want you riding in the wheelbarrow.”
“Nope. Not in my contract,” said the clown.
There is, of course, a tremendous difference between believing in someone, and putting your life in that person’s hands. It matters little whether we say we believe in God and Jesus if we aren’t willing to put our trust in them.
It is worth noting that in the Gospels the disciples rarely exhibited much faith. Jesus would say, “O ye of little faith, why did you doubt?” They weren’t willing to get in the wheelbarrow.
This means that although we may use the word “faith” routinely, that doesn’t mean that we necessarily have seen much of it lived out, at least in the radical way Jesus was calling people
If we were looking for a succinct expression of the Gospel message at the core, we might not do much better than the first verse of our Gospel lesson, where Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid, little flock for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
Sweet and simple. Faith is about trusting the Creator’s good intentions. There is a lot that is left unexplained in this verse. What, for instance, does it mean to be given “the kingdom?” Is the kingdom something here and now, or off in the distance, perhaps not fully realized until after we die? The scriptures seem to intentionally keep the answer to this ambiguous.
The letter to the Hebrews goes on to list some heroes from scriptures who lived out faith. People like Abraham and Sarah, who received a very concrete fulfillment of the promises of the Lord when late in life, Sarah, who had to that moment been barren, found herself expecting. And yet, the letter goes on to point out, they died without seeing fulfillment of what had been promised. “They were strangers and foreigners on the earth” waiting for a heavenly home.
Early on in Jesus’ ministry there were countless signs of the presence of the kingdom here and now: people were healed, hungry people fed, lives transformed.
At the end, however, when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemene shortly before his torture and death, the fulfillment of the Father’s promise clearly awaited a world beyond this one.
We often get confused about the nature of faith. I read a story about a man who traveled to Calcutta, India in order to spend three months in the presence of Mother Teresa. He felt an urgent need to figure out what it was God wanted him to be doing.
At his first meeting with Mother Teresa, she asked him, “What would you like me to do for you?” He answered, “Pray for me.”
“Fine,” she answered. “I will do that. What would you like me to pray for?”
“Clarity,” he answered. “I want clarity.”
“No,” she answered, “that his one thing I cannot pray for.”
“Why not?” he asked. “You surely have it?”
“I have never had clarity,” she answered. “What I have had is trust. I will pray for you that you will come to have trust.”
Faith isn’t clarity. We’re talking about things we can’t see. Abraham and Sarah left home, trusting the call of God, but not knowing where they were going.
I have two children who recently graduated from college. The one whom I might have anticipated having more uncertainly following graduation fell into a wonderful situation in grad school – a path seeming to open up before him. The one who appeared more practical in her approach to life is struggling to find her way forward. I am reminded that what she needs is faith/trust. Without faith you can’t take the next step forward into a path that is not yet clear, and it is in taking that next step, and the one after that, one and then the one after that, that the way begins to be revealed.
If we are afraid of being on the wrong path, afraid we’re making the wrong decision, we will never be able to move forward.
So what if Jesus is right, and our greatest need isn’t for more money, a better job, a clean bill of health, the right lover, but what we most need is more faith.
In order to grow in faith we need to face the places where we are faithless. We need to identify the areas where there is a recording playing over and over in our head reminding us of all the things that could go wrong. Ah, yes, this is where I need do whatever it takes to try and crawl into the wheelbarrow.
Paul offered another succinct summation of the Gospel when he declared, “If God is for us, who can be against us? Who can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord?” (Romans 8:28) Paul goes on to say that “All things work for good for those who love God…” which is another way of saying that on a certain level it is not possible to make a mistake, even though we may in the small picture make tons of them. God has a way of working through our mistakes. Nothing – including our own ignorance about the way forward – can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
Al came home from the hospital yesterday after a successful transplant of bone marrow. I saw him up at the hospital shortly before he came home. I noticed a card on his wall behind him with a lovely picture looking up to a blue sky through a rock chasm. I commented on it, and Al told me that the chaplain’s office had dropped it off, and he had liked it, and so he had put it up on the wall.
When I picked it up to read it I recognized it as a prayer I had read thirty years ago in seminary by Thomas Merton. I had kept a copy over the years. Here is how the prayer begins:
I have no idea where I am going.
I don not see the road ahead of me.
This past March 1st Al came over to the church in the morning to help in the kitchen with the hospitality for a bunch of clergy who were meeting in our building. He began feeling really badly and called his wife Gail, who came and took him to the hospital. In short order he was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. He spent the next month in the hospital undergoing chemotherapy.
We really don’t have any idea where we are going.
The prayer continues.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that my desire to please you does in fact please you. And hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart form that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death, I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.