(a sermon for August 18, 2019, the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16)
It was a small moment, but I dare say that it was one of the more enlightening moments of my summer vacation.
We’d gone up to Mapleton that day visiting both the in-laws and our son and his wife who live nearby. Zach and Jess’ house is literally out behind where my mother and father-in-law live, and within walking distance, so I’m on my way up there when this old, dilapidated and nearly rusted-out pickup truck drives up beside me, and this old, dilapidated and nearly rusted-out man leans out of the truck window, laughs out loud and says to me (and, by the way, it being church and all, I’m cleaning this up just a little bit), “It really stinks to get old, doesn’t it?”
Now, I don’t know this guy from Adam (!) but he seemed friendly enough, so I just laughed and said, “Oh yeah, it happens to every one of us sooner or later!” To which he replied, “Well, good for you to be out here walking… you want to stave it off for as long as you possibly can!” I’m still just laughing, and with my Maine accent kicking in I say, “Ayuh, I figured I’d best be kickin’ that can solidly down the road!” And then the man says this: “Well, you know what, nobody should be out here walking alone… tomorrow I’m coming out to look for you so we can walk together!” And with that, he just smiles, gives me the official “Aroostook County Wave” and roars off down the road. And as I’m watching him go I’m still laughing, but I’m thinking, how old does this guy think I am?
I mean, granted, I wasn’t exactly at my Sunday best that morning… I’m on vacation, after all, so I’m in shorts and a t-shirt; my hair’s getting shaggy and I’m sure I was sporting some beard stubble, but come on! I know I’m 60 years old, but did I really look that… that… dilapidated? Maybe it was the way I was walking down the road; perhaps there was a bit more maturity in my step than I intended (after all, as has been pointed out to me, I may have two new hips, but the rest of my body is still 60)! All I can say is that apparently I was not only headed to Zach’s house, but also quite literally to the end of the road… my road! And so when I got back I could let everybody in the family know that it was now official, because the truth of the matter had been unquestionably confirmed for me while on the journey out there on the “old town road,” so to speak:
Now, don’t misunderstand me here; I’m not headed for a rocking chair just yet! But I do have to say that for me this chance encounter “on the way” did end up serving as something of a parable, and an apt metaphor for life itself: simply put, that we’re all on this “walk of life,” aren’t we; taking the journey step by step, mile by mile, year by year, ever and always moving toward some kind of long-term vision for the future; raising a family, having grandchildren, getting ready for retirement, trying to live your life with some kind of integrity so that when you finally do leave this world behind, it’ll be a better place than when you found it. That’s what we do, right; that’s what our journey, and the walking, is all about!
And yet, we also know how utterly unpredictable life can be, and how quickly things can change in ways that are often wonderful but sometimes… challenging (What’s that expression; I think it’s attributed to Woody Allen, of all people: “If you want to make God laugh,” he once wrote, “just tell him about your plans!”). So often the hard reality of life is that plans change: there’s a bad medical diagnosis, the loss of a job, a shift in a relationship status — hey, maybe you discover that you’re not as young as you used to be (!) — but at the end of the day some of the things we envision get postponed, others change as we along and a few, well, don’t happen at all. And as far as leaving the world a better place? Well, when we look around as we do these days to see that world that keeps spinning recklessly out of control, we can’t help but wonder if that’s even possible.
And yet… and yet, we keep walking, don’t we? We stay on the journey, we kick that can down the road, we keep on “keeping on,” continuing to go where we are determined to go and to do what we know is right, ever and always staying true to the path that’s been set before us even if at times we’re not all that sure where that pathway’s going to end up! We walk in faith… because, as our text for this morning has so beautifully proclaimed, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Understand, friends, that this has nothing to do with wishful thinking, which is the expectation that by some miracle that which has never happened before in our lives will come to pass; nor is it even about optimism, per se, as optimism has to do with the strength and resilience of the human spirit and the confident belief that good will triumph, eventually and finally, no matter what. And there’s certainly a place for that; but faith is different. Faith, you see, is all about hope: a hope that is founded in God and which is made real and vindicated because of God’s faithfulness! Lest you think I’m just talking in circles here, let me put it another way: in the words of Craig Barnes, “Faith isn’t something we get. It’s something that gets us. We don’t possess it. We are possessed by it… faith is a grace from God – a grace that changes everything about your vision of life in this world.” So faith, then, is the assurance of things hoped for, precisely because that assurance comes from God; it’s not simply our confidence in the triumph of good, it’s our understanding that this is how good triumphs, solely by God’s faithfulness unto us! It’s how you and I keep walking the path set before us even when we’re not at all sure of what’s ahead; for faith, beloved, is “the conviction of things unseen.”
This 11th chapter of Hebrews, of which we read just a small portion this morning, is considered one of the greatest affirmations of faith that’s found in all of Holy Scripture, and moreover a celebration of the heroes of faith who had gone on before, from Abel to Noah to Abraham to Moses and beyond, all these people who spent their lives believing in this great hope that had its source in an ever faithful God. But what’s interesting is that if you read just prior to where we picked up the reading this morning, in the 10th chapter, you read how Paul is urging the people to not “abandon that confidence” in their own Christian faith, saying to them, “you need endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised.” Understand, we’re not talking about a group of people who have turned away from God, but those who have kept on, and who likely have a long way yet to go on the journey. So, says Paul, you need to know what faith truly is; hence this grand affirmation of faith in the chapter that follows. Actually, there are two Greek words that are used in that regard: first, there’s upostasis, which translates as “standing under,” and speaks to “a foundation of belief,” that comes from Jesus himself; in other words, Jesus is the very picture of the “bedrock of God’s identity,” “something basic, something solid, something firm” that “provides a place from which one can hope.” (Amy L.B. Peeler, NT Professor, Wheaton College) It is, as we read, the “assurance of things hoped for.”
The other word used is elegchos, the translation of which is a bit murkier, but is probably best referred to in English as “evidence” or even “proof” of what we have difficult comprehending; that is, in the words of The Message, “our handle on that which we can’t see.” In other words, even if on this point on your journey you’re having some doubts (I don’t know, maybe some random passer-by has suggested you’re too old to keep walking!), don’t forget there are those who have gone before who continued to stand firmly upon God’s faithfulness, and you would not want to reject that evidence! Case in point: Abraham, who demonstrated his faith by going to the place where God called him to go, sight unseen, and who continued to be faithful, though “this great obedience never really paid off” during his lifetime, living out his days “as in a foreign land, living in tents.”(Peeler) And yet, over time and across generations that promise would come to fruition, and Abraham “looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” Likewise, the promise of descendants as many as the stars up in the heavens did not happen in exactly the way that neither Abraham most especially (!) Sarah were expecting; nonetheless, even though they were elderly and “as good as dead” – Paul’s words, not mine, friends (!) – there was a child, the beginning of a great multitude of descendants.
The point is, it was by faith that Abraham and Sarah kept walking; they kept looking and moving forward, firm in the knowledge that God’s faithfulness and his sure and certain promise of a land and a home and a family. They truly had a “conviction of things unseen,” and the question for you and me is whether we’re willing in our lives – and, might I add, in our care of the world and culture that surrounds us – to keep walking in faith despite all the disruptions that seek to keep us off track; looking forward to all signs of God’s faithfulness and love as we go. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” and just as it has been for countless generations of the faithful, what that means for us is that no matter how “round about” the journey has seemed to become for us, “we can depend on God to see us home… [because] the destination of the journey of faith is never in doubt.” (Mark Ramsey, “Today”) We just have to keep walking.
I have shared with you before that one of my great heroes of the faith is the Rev. Dr. Fred McFeely Rogers, a Presbyterian minister better known, of course, to generations of children and families as “Mister Rogers” from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. I could tell you about a hundred different things I loved about the man, but here’s the latest, something I just learned this week: did you know that whenever Fred Rogers made a speech to one group or another, or when he was on television apart from the “neighborhood,” and even when he was amongst Hollywood celebrities and accepting an Emmy Award for his work in children’s television, “never failed to end his remarks, not with ‘thank you very much,’ or ‘have a good evening,’ but always by saying, ‘May God be with you.’” And not, by the way, ‘God bless you,’ because “he knew that God had already blessed them, couldn’t help but bless them, would always seek to bless them.” No… it was always “May God be with you,” because Mister Rogers’ fervent wish, and indeed, his prayer was that each one of those hearing his words would be aware that God was with them in their lives and along their journey.
As the old song goes, “the road is long with many a winding turn.” So it is with faith, beloved… to walk in the presence of the Lord, never looking back but always moving forward, can often be a daunting task indeed. You know, one thing that old guy in the pickup truck had right was that nobody ought to be walking alone, and there should be someone to walk along with us when we go. But the good news is that in faith, we’re never alone on the journey. To quote another Presbyterian Church leader, the Rev. Mark Ramsey from Atlanta, “[Faith] knows the challenges of life and the strife of the world. But God renews faith daily. Faith gives us a home. It gives us a road to journey toward that home.” And as we keep walking on the journey, “God’s hope is persistent and lasting. It goes eye to eye with hardship and keeps on hoping.”
My prayer for each one of today is that we’ll have that assurance of all the things we hope for, the conviction of what we can’t see… and that awareness of God’s presence with you along every step of the way.
May God be with you, beloved…. May God be with you!
Amen and AMEN!
© 2019 Rev. Michael W. Lowry