Written by Andy Lang
Sunday, August 8
Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Living into the Promise
God of Abraham and Jesus, you invite your people to contemplate heavenly things and urge us toward faith in you. May your coming among us find our doors open, our tables set,and all your people ready to greet you. Amen.
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, "as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore."
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.
All Readings For This Sunday
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 with Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23 or
Genesis 15:1-6 with Psalm 33:12-22 and
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 and
1. When have you felt like "strangers and foreigners on the earth," even if you are in your own "homeland"?
2. How does it affect our reading of this passage if we think of faith as trust?
3. What does it mean to "steward the promise"?
4. When was the last time that you, or your church, did something bold, simply out of faith?
5. What promises of God motivate and animate your congregation and the life of the people in it?
by Kate Huey
Perhaps the best way to approach this text from the Letter to the Hebrews is to get down to basics with Eugene Peterson's translation in The Message: "The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It's our handle on what we can't see." And Frederick Buechner unfolds this beautiful theme, this foundational truth, as he preaches on this text, that "we understand, if we are to understand it at all, that the madness and lostness we see all around us and within us are not the last truth about the world but only the next to the last truth….Faith is the eye of the heart, and by faith we see deep down beneath the face of things--by faith we struggle against all odds to be able to see--that the world is God's creation even so. It is he who made us and not we ourselves, made us out of his peace to live in peace, out of his light to dwell in light, out of his love to be above all things loved and loving. That is the last truth about the world."
Life, of course, is difficult: at one time or another, and for many of us, perhaps at most times, the experience of living has brought pain or illness, loss or loneliness, fear, defeat, worry, doubt, anxiety, hardship of one kind or another. And yet, for people of faith, there is a knowledge, a feeling, an assurance that even in the midst of that pain or doubt or suffering, God is good. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews is recalling the ancient story of two people who knew hardship well, our ancestors in faith, Abraham and Sarah, who were old and without children--but who were promised by God that their descendants would be as difficult to count as the stars in the sky. "Look up toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them...so shall your descendants be." Abraham believed the Lord, we read, "and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness" (Genesis 15). The author of Hebrews, then, uses Abraham as one in a series of examples of faith in a letter that is really a sermon exhorting an early Christian community to stand fast in the midst of difficulties and challenges to their faith. Perhaps faith is so hard to define that it is easier or better to use examples than to write a lot of theoretical things about it. It's the experience of real people in a real relationship with God that can help us to grasp the meaning of faith, not a precise or scholarly theological definition.
The Letter to the Hebrews exhorts an early Christian community that's struggling with something, perhaps persecution, marginalization, and fear. For a long time in not so distant memory, many modern churches didn't know what persecution felt like, for they lived in a "churched" society. Today, however, in a secularized culture, we certainly know the dull frustration of being marginalized. Suffering swirls around us, but so does a blithe disregard for the things we say about that suffering, and for the things we are about in responding to it, or so it feels. Beneath it all, however, this text reminds us that there is a greater and more powerful though unseen reality. In a sense, this passage is about the "however" of life. That "however" raises its head here and there, lifts up from beneath the trouble and turmoil, interrupts the incessant noise and electronic chatter, turns our attention toward ancient promises, and calls us toward our true homeland.
It's true that we're all homesick for what we cannot see but what we know, deep down, awaits us. In our lives, we have glimpses of what's in store for us in every moment of love, of light, of peace that we experience here and now. And we have glimpses in every moment, every taste, of justice and healing in our lives and in the life of our communities, glimpses of the "new Jerusalem," a home that is shining and beautiful. According to Diane Bergant, the author of this letter "is probably alluding to the heavenly Jerusalem, which is the true goal of all sojourners. In this way he links the religious journey of his Christian audience with the sojourn of their ancestor in faith," that is, of Abraham himself.
Providing the questions as well as the answers
Bergant also says that "faith is more an openness of mind and heart than a set of theological propositions." When we were growing up, many of us easily equated faith with intellectual assent to the answers to our catechism and church school questions, provided by our teachers, of course, people who were wiser than we were. Memorizing questions and answers may be easier than cultivating a deep, personal relationship with the One we have faith in, the One we trust. Also, the questions provided by our teachers years ago may not be sufficient in the post-modern world, but the words of this writer long ago help us as we wrestle with the questions of a new day. For example, more than fifty years ago, I memorized the same catechism question my mother had learned so long before me: "Who made me?" and the answer as well: "God made me." Good and true, but the divisions among people of faith (not to mention the divide between those of faith, and those who claim to be atheist) on the question of HOW God made us (creationism v. evolution, etc.) illustrate how questions arise today that were never even raised long ago. And yet this letter to an ancient Christian community refreshes and reorients us in our own journey of faith.
We are in a long line that stretches back to Abraham and our other ancestors in faith, the "saints" that went before us. But there are more who will follow us, and we have our own place in this story. Gary E. Peluso-Verdend writes: "To live with the assurance of things hoped for is to continue to steward the promise entrusted to the people of God over many generations, passed off like a baton in a race, from one generation to the next, and now nestled in the hands of the exhorter's community." Why do we carry on? How do we carry on? "Faith has a reason," Peluso-Verdend says: "God." Do we think of "stewardship" in this way, as embracing much more than money?
More than one way to open up the future
Walter Brueggemann writes about the words of the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament reading for this Sunday, a "testimony by Israel [that] offers a past that is saturated with life-giving miracles, not a past filled with self-sufficient achievement." On this bedrock of memory, the writer to the Hebrews can exhort the faith community (and us, today, as well) to draw strength not from one's own abilities but from the provision of God. Life comes from God, and life belongs to God, too. Just as "barrenness" (not having a child) was a sign of hopelessness in ancient times, a mark of having no future, then Abraham and Sarah's family, the new life they experience in the birth of a child, Brueggemann writes, can be "taken metaphorically as the opening of a future and the generation of an alternative by the miraculous power of God." This future has many different expressions and many ways of being experienced, in growth and deepening of spirit, of generosity, of faithfulness.
The reading from the prophet Isaiah is a powerful call to justice that reflects the integrity of a community's worship life. How do the promises of God challenge as well as console you? How do they call you toward others, beyond the walls of your church? What are the "tents" in which you live as you await the fulfillment of God's promises? How much are your hearts and minds still on "what [you] have left behind" instead of the "better country" to which God leads you? Do we live our lives mostly focused on the "next to last truth" of our lives and the world? What is an example of a time when your church saw things that were, at that point, unseen? When did you "step out in faith," as Abraham did, and yearn into a new reality, even if that dream seemed far beyond reason or expectation?
Abraham and Sarah today
Most if not all of us can think of people we have known who have been people of faith. We could help out the author of Hebrews with some more examples of people we have known who trusted in God. Perhaps it was a parent, a grandparent, a family member, a teacher, a pastor, a friend, a spouse. Can we number ourselves among them? Do we trust in God and in God's infinite mercy and love? Do we believe in what we cannot "see" or--in modern, post-Scientific Revolution terms, in what we cannot prove with scientific certainty?
Again, Frederick Buechner: "Faith is different from theology because theology is reasoned, systematic, and orderly, whereas faith is disorderly, intermittent, and full of surprises.... Faith is homesickness. Faith is a lump in the throat. Faith is less a position on than a movement toward, less a sure thing than a hunch. Faith is waiting."
A preaching version of this commentary can be found on http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel
For further reflection
William James, 19th century
Faith means belief in something concerning which doubt is theoretically possible.
Elie Wiesel, 21st century
The opposite of faith is not doubt, it's indifference.
Kahlil Gibran, 20th century
Faith is a knowledge within the heart, beyond the reach of proof.
Mother Teresa, 20th century
I know God will not give me anything I can't handle. I just wish He didn't trust me so much.
Martin Luther King, Jr., 20th century
Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase.
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