It has been called the most sublime definition of faith ever given, and I would tend to agree: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
In that single verse of scripture is the assertion that all the promises of God in which we have our hope are true; it is the expression of our inner certainty that the unseen things of life — things like grace, like love and even like God himself – surely exist, even when the world as we know would seem to mount evidence against it. Faith is the capacity to believe in that which cannot always be proven by means of logical and empirical proof, but is in fact very real indeed. As Christians, faith is our creed: faith in the presence and power of a living, loving God made manifest in the person of Jesus Christ our Savior; faith in the confidence that comes in knowing that God’s Holy Spirit is with us in the here and now; faith that even now, even in these times, God’s purpose and plan is unfolding for the sake of his kingdom to come.
When you come right down to it, friends, that’s our core belief as Christians and as the church; that’s ultimately the reason why we’re all here today! And I suspect that most of us here can easily claim that belief as our own. Granted, there are as many pathways to understanding what faith is all about as there are people in this sanctuary, and then some; there’s a reason that in this tradition we like to talk about how you’re welcome here “no matter where you are in life’s journey.” So you and I might come at things from slightly different perspectives; but ultimately, we’re here out a common understanding that we want, we need, we embrace this thing called faith, which is, as we’ve heard this morning, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
The question that always arises, though, is what that means out there; how what we believe connects to how we live. In other words, do we believe it to the extent that we’re willing to actually “step out in faith,” to actually let that faith we claim as our own guide our lives, shape our ideals and set our priorities? Do we believe it to the extent that we’re willing to take “the leap of faith” necessary for the sake of dreams and visions, the kind of dreams and visions that come to us from God? Do we believe enough to trust in the promises made by God that those dreams and visions will come to pass?
It’s a good question, and an important one; but if we’re being honest, the answer has to be… not always! Wayne Cordeiro, in a book of his entitled Dream Releasers, actually addresses this rather nicely when he writes that “the richest place on the earth is not the diamond mines of South Africa or the gold caches of Ecuador. It is not the oil fields of Saudi Arabia, [nor] in the uranium excavations of the Balkans.” No, “the richest plot of land on this planet is in your very own neighborhood… it’s the cemetery (!)… the graveyard,” he says, “is the wealthiest place of all creation, [because] beneath those rectangular pieces of sod lie countless unsung melodies and unwritten poems. The grassy plots overflow with brilliant ideas that could have transformed entire communities, rehabilitated the lost and borne hope to the weary. Our burial grounds,” writes Cordeiro, “reek with unattained successes and unrealized dreams.”
To be sure, that’s a pretty dramatic and unsettling image, but it does point up the end result of all those missed opportunities to step out in faith; all those “dreams deferred” that in time became “dreams denied.” Who knows why it happens; perhaps it’s fear of failure, or for that matter, fear disguised as caution or prudence. And, yes, at the end of the day a whole lot of people simply prefer the tried and true to living on the edge; they will always go with the predictable rather than with the spontaneous and adventuresome (you can’t ever get lost if you never strike out into the unknown, right?). Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you; but think of just how many lives have never caught fire because of it! Imagine all that… isn’t… because of that kind of caution: the incredible treasures of life that stayed locked up forever; all the divine blessings that were never enjoyed; all the truths that were never given voice and the chance to take root, blossom and grow in the heart of a new believer… all because someone, somewhere along the line, had the opportunity and refused, for whatever reason, to step up, step out and take the leap of faith.
By the same token, however when one does have the faith and is willing to act on it, incredible, amazing and blessed things can happen, and do! And this, friends, is exactly what the writer of Hebrews was trying to get across to the early church in our reading this morning; a reminder, as The Message translates it, that “this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living.”
Now, what’s interesting about this Epistle to the Hebrews (of which we read an “abridged version” this morning) is that it is addressed to those who came out of the Hebrew tradition; so rather than engaging in deep philosophical discourse as, say, the Greeks might do, the emphasis here is on history and tradition and storytelling. So what we have here in this 11th chapter is a story of faith for the Hebrews; or more accurately, a discourse on what faith is about as defined by the stories of the people they knew: Noah and Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob and Joseph, Moses and David and the prophets. It’s quite literally “the telling of the tale;” the story of all that these people were able to accomplish was “by faith,” and how by their example, we learn the ways that our lives are to be shaped and directed “by faith” as well.
Take Abraham, for instance: we are told that it was “by an act of faith [that] Abraham said yes to God’s call to travel to an unknown place that would become his home [and that] when he left he had no idea where he was going.” [The Message] And of course, that’s putting it mildly: as Genesis records it, Abraham was upwards of 75 years old when God calls him; at a place in his life when he had to have been feeling the need to slow down a bit! But God tells him to go, quite literally only God knows where, leaving country and kindred and his father’s house; and amazingly, Abraham, by faith, went! And that’s only the beginning; we’re also told that “he lived in the country promised him, lived as a stranger camping in tents,” all the while “keeping his eye on an unseen city with real, eternal foundations – the City designed and built by God.” And lest we forget, Abraham’s wife Sarah was also a part of all this, and we find out that again, “by faith” Abraham and Sarah, despite their advanced years, “were enabled” to become parents, thus fulfilling a promise God had made and beginning a line of descendants “as many as the stars in the heavens and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.”
The point here is that God called old Abraham to go, and Abraham… went! He trusted in the promises God made; he took the risk to step out in faith and he answered God’s call… and in the process, Abram also found the pathway that led to God’s righteousness and blessing. You see, ever so slowly and sometimes in ways that seemed unlikely, incredible and even confounding, the promises made became promises fulfilled! When old Abraham took his leap of faith nothing would ever be the same again, and so it is, says the Epistle for all of us who would have that kind of faith.
But that said, we need to understand that “that kind of faith” amounts to more than mere philosophizing: as Sarah Dylan Breuer writes, “Having faith is not about trying to convince yourself that you are convinced of something. You don’t know you have enough faith when the needle doesn’t leap on a lie-detector test as you say, ‘My journey will birth a people, and we will have a home.’ You know you’ve got faith when, however your heart pounds as you do it and whatever fears you have, you take the next step toward the desert. Your heart will follow your feet, and you will become more fully the person God sees as your true identity.”
Faith, you see, is acting on what God has promised, even when it doesn’t immediately look promising! Faith is clinging to God with all your might, knowing that even when we don’t see God, God is there and helping us through. Faith is stepping out into darkness when God has promised not to let you fall. Faith is building a boat when the skies are clear and blue with no storms in sight; and yet God says, “Get ready, it’s about to start raining.” Faith is moving everything you have to follow God’s call, giving generously and sacrificially of that which God has given you if that is where God is leading you. Faith is knowing in your heart of hearts that the promises God has made will become the promises that God has fulfilled; and so, knowing that, you can go forward, you can take the risk; trusting that it will happen in by God’s intent and in God’s good time.
Friends, may I just say to you that that’s the kind of faith that you and I need to embrace… as persons, as people… and as the church?
Every year as we return to this process of stewardship and begin planning for the church in the coming year, by necessity we end up talking about a whole lot of unknowns. As much as we might try to predict what’s going to happen next year, how much things are going to cost or how much money is going to come in in 2016 – and led by our trustees, we do a pretty good job of that, I think (!) – in the end, we really can’t know what the future’s going to bring; we can never fully predict what kind of twists and turns the road ahead might take! So, yes… what we do here today, in making a pledge, or setting a budget, or embracing and committing to, a dream and vision for ministry we share… it all does require from us a true leap of faith.
We don’t know everything that’s going to happen, or how it will all unfold, or how long it’s going to take us to get to where we want to be! But we do know this, because we’ve seen it; we’ve felt and experienced it together in our life together. And it’s that in and through all of it, God has been working, God has been moving, God has been speaking, and God has been leading us on the journey. The promises that God has made are slowly, surely and in ways that have been exciting, sometimes unexpected, and always amazing to behold, are becoming the promises God has fulfilled.
And in this we can trust.
Beloved, it is by faith that we move boldly into the future as God’s people. It is by faith that we can answer the Lord’s call to love and service in the world. And it is by faith that we go into those places where the spirit leads, strengthened and emboldened to do our part, each one of us, in bringing God’s kingdom to fruition. And the thing is that have this ministry of love and hope, you and I here in this wonderful church; but God’s purpose for us is still unfolding, and there is so much for us to do… for those who are lost, those who are lonely, those who stand in the need of mercy and assurance, for a world crying out for justice and true peace.
Our church was gathered as a congregation back in 1842 (says so on the stone out front!); and this place is filled with history; from the first 44 members who met in a worship service led by the Rev. Timothy Morgan to the 120 we have on the rolls today. It’s a history filled with praise and song, love and care, Sunday School kids and bean “suppahs;” our people have shared moments of incredible joy, and we’ve been there for one another in times of unspeakable tragedy. And that history goes on… you are part and parcel of that history, and as your pastor I am blessed to be a part of it as well. And the thing is, “our story” is only just beginning, and our journey “by faith” goes on, starting today, bringing a legacy of faith, service and love to the next generation of believers. And so, given that we are surrounded by “so great a cloud of witnesses,” who have in so many ways made us who we are here on Mountain Road, let us truly “run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”
For your stewardship of time, and talent, and treasure… For your ongoing ministries of care, and service and Christian love… And for the ways, by faith, you continue to trust in the promises made and fulfilled…
Thank you… and thanks be to God!
AMEN AND AMEN!
c. 2015 Rev. Michael W. Lowry