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Trust in the Promises Fulfilled

IMAG0252(a sermon for October 25, 2015 – 22nd Sunday after Pentecost and Stewardship Sunday, based on Hebrews 11:1-12:2)

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

 

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Trust in the Promises Made

IMAG1263(a sermon for October 18, 2015, the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, based on Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14)

I had just begun my tenure as the student pastor of a small congregation up in “The County;” only three weeks in, as I recall.  Understand, like most student pastors just starting out I was essentially clueless; what I lacked in experience and ability I made up for in energy, enthusiasm and sheer determination fueled by the leading of God’s Spirit and the care of God’s people.  And I was totally jazzed by what I was doing: I was learning my way around, getting to know names and faces, sweating every line of the Sunday sermon to the point of absurdity; just working very hard to make a good first impression!  And by all accounts, things were going pretty well and we were off to a good start as pastor and parish.

Or by most accounts anyway: I will never forget that one Sunday morning – again, just three weeks into my ministry there – when one of my new parishioners, a long-time member of the congregation, came up after worship and greeted me with a dour face and a half-hearted handshake.  There was obviously something troubling her, so I asked her what was wrong.  And she heaved a heavy sigh and simply said, “I thought you were going to be different.  But I guess I just have to face the fact that things are never going to change at this church.”

Talk about taking the wind out of your sails!  I was crestfallen, and for the rest of the day I kept thinking about it, wondering what it was she’d been expecting.  That my arrival as the new pastor would immediately double the size of the congregation?  That pledging would suddenly increase by a hundred percent?  That the congregation would miraculously be purged of every poor attitude, with every old argument finally laid to rest and every good thought transformed into a successful program?   Well, first of all, a pastor doesn’t do that alone; even back then I knew that God does it in partnership with the whole congregation, including the pastor.  But secondly and perhaps more to the issue at hand; in three weeks?  After the initial sting of her words had worn off, I was left with this feeling that her concerns might have been a bit unwarranted, not to mention unrealistic considering the time frame!

Over time I came to understand that her words were not meant as a complaint against me or the church – in fact, this woman turned out to be one of the most supportive and hardest working members of the congregation (!) – but on this particular day, she’d come to me out of concern, this overwhelming sense of frustration, really, that all these things she’d been hoping, and praying and yearning for in that church for so many years had not yet come to pass in the way she’d been expecting.  And that I could understand; I mean, if you’ve been spending your whole life anticipating a particular set of blessings and yet it never seems to happen, this does have a way of discouraging you; to the point where while once you felt bound for the Promised Land, now you feel hopelessly mired in the wilderness!

And the fact is, this discouragement is by no means exclusive to matters of the congregation, but can easily seep into the rest of life.  Many of us know all-too-well what it is to have things not live up to our expectations, time-wise or otherwise.  All it takes is something like the loss of a loved one, a problem with a job or within a relationship, or some kind of economic challenge, and suddenly everything we’ve always assumed to be true about how things should go in our lives is forced to change.  And even when it seems as though life is proceeding pretty much as it should we’ll often have this sense – call it youthful disillusionment or mid-life crisis – that maybe everything we’re expecting, all of those things that are the result of what scripture refers to as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” (Heb. 11:1), that is, faith (!), maybe isn’t ever going to happen for us after all.  Suffice to say that there are times for most of us in this life that we begin to think that the promises that have been made will never, ever be the promises that are fulfilled.

And that, friends, is the context by which we need to approach our text for this morning, Jeremiah’s word to the people from the Lord himself:  “For surely I know the plans I have for you… plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”

Now, this is a verse of scripture that may well be familiar to your ears, particularly if you’ve ever bought or received a graduation card:  this is one of those passages tailor made for encouraging anyone who’s heading out into the world knowing in their heart of hearts that God has a real purpose for their lives.  These words represent a true promise of God; a promise that has been claimed by countless believers over the centuries as an assurance that God does indeed have “a good plan” for you and for me.   All of which is true, and appropriate; and yet, it is also a piece of scripture that we’ve tended to misinterpret, or at least, take out of its proper context.

It’s important for us to understand that these words were actually spoken (written, actually, in the first of several letters from the prophet Jeremiah) amidst one of the darkest periods of Israel’s history, soon after the destruction of Jerusalem in 597 B.C. and when many of the leading citizens had been carried off into exile in Babylon.  To call this a catastrophe would be to put it mildly; here we have a people whose city had literally been reduced to rubble, the few survivors who remained forced to rebuild their lives in a foreign land hundreds of miles away.  At this point they’re barely even existing as a people; much less a nation of God’s chosen people!  And in fact, there’s this growing sense of dread amongst the people that God had surely abandoned them forever; and the worst part is they knew full well that in many ways it was their own faithlessness that led them to this place.

But now, here comes Jeremiah, and he’s got the word of the Lord:  “I know the plans I have for you:” “plans to take care of you, not abandon you, plans to give you the future you hope for. When you call on me, when you come and pray to me, I’ll listen. When you come looking for me, you’ll find me… I’ll turn things around for you.” (The Message)

Don’t worry, I’ve got everything under control: that’s the message God brings to these people; but here’s the thing.  Whereas there were so-called “false prophets” who were quick to assure the Judeans that their stay in Babylon would be short-lived and they’d be home soon, Jeremiah is pretty specific about their exile:  seventy years, he says.  Seventy years you’ll stay in Babylon, and only after those seventy years “will I visit you, and… fulfill to you my promise” to bring you home.

Can you imagine the people’s response to that?  Seventy years!  Nice promise, Jeremiah!  Why don’t you ask God what we’re to do in the meantime?  We’re certainly not going to last 70 more years, especially under these conditions; our children won’t even survive that long, so what are we supposed to tell our grandchildren?  Does God actually expect us to trust in this promise of his that we won’t even see come to pass?

You see the dilemma?  It’s hard to embrace a future with hope, when that future seems so very far off, and the here and now is uncertain at best!  How can we possibly plan for retirement a few years down the road when right now the cost of everything from heat to healthcare just keeps skyrocketing?  How can we possibly invest ourselves and our resources in future possibilities when current realities make that kind of decision difficult and… risky?  How do we give, trusting in why we’re giving, when we might not yet see all of the results of that giving?  Isn’t it just easier… safer… just to hunker down and wait to see what happens?

Maybe… but then, listen to what God has to say to the exiles who are now facing seventy years of “hunkering down:”  “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Take wives and have sons and daughters.”  “Encourage your children to marry and have children so that you’ll thrive in that country and not waste away… make yourselves at home.” (The Message)  In other words, people, live your lives… walk in faith… do what you know, in faith, needs to be done.  And as you do, trust in the promise, because God has a plan!  And the beauty of that plan, writes James Howell, is that “it all begins now… but the consummation, the fulfillment, will be when I’m not around any longer.”  To trust in God’s promises, you see, is to be part of something bigger than just ourselves; it is to be part of a vision, a purpose that stretches far beyond our lifetimes; it makes us “a small but significant part of the grand adventure that is God’s plan.  We call that grace.  And grace gives us hope, which is dogged enough to cope with unrealized dreams,” and seemingly delayed results.

What does all this mean for us, friends?  Well, in terms of our lives, yours and mine, it means “keeping on keeping on” with faith, hope and love even when everything that comes at us in this life would seek to take us off the pathway.  It’s about seeing God’s presence and power and activity in the midst of the everyday and ordinary; and recognizing that even though all has not been yet revealed, God is at work fashioning that promised future. It’s because of this, we can live; we can move forward with our lives, we can be fruitful and experience the kind of simple grace that comes in knowing that there is always hope, beyond the next horizon… because God has made a promise, and God has a plan.

It also seems to me that this says to us a great deal about stewardship!  Because who are we as the church if not the bearers of this incredible promise that God has made; “purveyors of the plan,” as it were?  The thing is that the concerns that were raised by that woman I told you about earlier I’ve heard from a whole lot of people in a hundred different ways over the years.  We gather together as the church, this incredible place where we’ve found faith and community, and we are grateful for how God has blessed us.  But still we worry; we begin to wonder in these uncertain times how it’s ever going to last.  We concern ourselves, and rightfully so, with money matters and tight budgets, and we speculate as to how long we can possibly hold on given our limited resources; all the while asking why it is that people don’t come to church in the same numbers they did when we were growing up; we even begin to entertain the notion that the world has become so secularized, maybe this church we love has already started to become antiquated and out of touch.

Sometimes, you see, we in the church start to feel like exiles, strangers in a strange land.

But to this, God still says, “Surely I know the plans I have for you… plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future hope.”  And that’s why, despite the challenges and the occasional bouts of discouragement, we press on; why, day by day and in every season that comes, we continue to be people of faith and truly the kind of church that God has called to be here on Mountain Road.  That’s why we take the time, and make the effort to reach out to one another in Christian love and through prayer and action, both in times of joy and of sorrow; that’s why we work so hard in this place to nurture our children in the ways of faith, so that they might come to know Jesus as more merely some long-ago character in the Bible, but rather as a personal Savior, teacher and friend; that’s why we seek to stand together for love and mercy; for justice and equality; and on behalf of all those whom the rest of the world has cast aside.  That’s why, in faith, we continue to invest ourselves in a graceful future that even now is blossoming in our sight.

It may not have come to full bloom just yet; but the thing is, it’s happening.  Every time somebody walks into this sanctuary and knows they’ve found a spiritual home, it’s happening.  Every moment that there’s a song, or a prayer, or an idea, or a Spirit that touches a heart because of our worship, or our fellowship, or our mission, it’s happening.  And every instance that we let ourselves trust in what God is doing in and through the lives of these people who surround us in these pews, it’s happening, and it will come in its fullness.

It’s happening because God has a plan, and he’s made us a promise.  The only question is what we’re to do about it; how we will respond to the promise made.

Beloved, I hope and pray that however else we respond, it will begin with trusting in the promise… and letting our thanks and praise be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c.2015  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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