Written by Kathryn Matthews
Sunday, August 7
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 oldóand Sarah herself was barrenóbecause 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?
Reflection by Kate Matthews
What is the meaning of life? What makes it worthwhile? The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews provides a good answer to that age-old question: faith. Frederick Buechner unfolds this beautiful theme, this foundational truth, in his book, Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons, when he asserts "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." Like the writer of Hebrews, Buechner knows that faith, that is, trust, is a thing of the heart that helps us to see the truth hidden, sometimes, beneath appearances, "the last truth about the world," the truth of God's love, and God's peace.
Our readings this week, of course, are about faith. In our passage from the Book of Genesis, we hear a little piece of the familiar story of Abraham and Sarah, who were old and without children ó but who were promised by God that their descendants would be as difficult to count as the stars in the sky. Despite all appearances to the contrary, Abraham believed God, we are told, and God "reckoned it to him as righteousness" (Genesis 15:6).
Experience over precision
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews then uses Abraham as the first in a series of examples of faith in a message that's 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's better to use examples, to share stories, than to write a lot of theoretical things about it (not that that has deterred many theologians). It's the experience of real people in a real relationship with God that can help us to grasp the meaning of faith, more than a precise or scholarly theological definition.
The author of Hebrews, of course, begins our passage with an eloquent, often-quoted definition of faith as "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (11:1). He then draws on the lived experience of one person of faith after another who trusted in God's goodness and the unfolding of God's plan, including Abel, Enoch, Noah and Abraham. In fact, the very first example is "we" ó the community of faith ó who understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, with the seen made from the unseen. Faith, then, is the ability, or the openness, to see the invisible in the visible, the eternal in the earthly.
Feeling persecuted, feeling marginalized
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 our own not-so-distant memory, many churches didnít know what persecution felt like in a churched society, but today, in a secular culture, we certainly know the dull frustration and even anxiety of being marginalized. Suffering swirls around us, but so does a blithe disregard for the things we say and the things we are about, or so it feels.
Beneath it all, however, there is a greater and more powerful but unseen reality. In a sense, this passage is about that however in the life of faith, a however that raises its head here and there, lifts our gaze from beneath the trouble and turmoil, interrupts the incessant noise and electronic chatter, turns our attention toward those promises of old, and calls us toward our true homeland.
At one time or another, all of us know what it feels to be homesick: homesick for what we cannot see but what we know, deep down, awaits us, the deepest hope of our hearts. In our lives, we have glimpses, now and then, of what's in store for us someday - in every moment of love, of light, of peace that we experience in that here and now. And we have those 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," that home, that shining and beautiful dream of justice and healing in which all of God's children can live in peace.
Everyone longs for home
This New Jerusalem was a powerful image for a homesick people long ago that knew the bitter taste of exile, and the longing for homecoming, for restoration after devastation and loss. It is a powerful image for us, today, as well, in every experience of loss, alienation, and injustice. Diane Bergant calls this "heavenly Jerusalem....the true goal of all sojourners," so the author of Hebrews "links the religious journey of his Christian audience with the sojourn of their ancestor in faith" [Abraham].
I admit that I wrestle sometimes with saying that we "know" what awaits us. Is "believe" a better word choice than "know" for things we cannot yet see? When we were growing up, many of us understandably equated "faith" with intellectual agreement (some more voluntarily than others) 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 is easier than cultivating a deep, personal relationship with the One we have faith in, the One we trust. How does it affect our reading of this passage if we think of faith as trust, rather than intellectual assent? Do we actually "know" something simply because we have memorized it, or is this kind of knowledge more a matter of the heart?
Handing down the promises
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: God."
Years ago, I learned that the word "tradition" derives from "handed down," and in every generation, it's up to us to hear the promises, to live the promises, and to pass them on to the next generation. It seems to me that we find it easier to see ourselves as heirs rather than as ancestors, so it may be difficult to see ourselves as stewards of those promises.
The word "steward" is usually connected to money, or perhaps the environment (although not often or well enough), so we may not take the time to see ourselves as stewarding the promises for those who come after us. They will hear them in their own time, their own circumstances, and their own need, and their faith will be shaped and energized by how well we tell the story in our turn. Someday, though, we will be "the saints," the ancestors in faith who inspire them: are we thinking of ourselves that way?
Digging deep in the ground of faith
Diana Butler Bass has done wonderful work in describing the way the mainline Christian churches are "re-traditioning": instead of casting aside the precious heritage we have received, we dig deep into the roots of our faith, where we find sustenance and even new vision for the world we live in now. I believe the writer of Hebrews would approve of such stewardship. (Diana Butler Bass has written many books; Christianity for the Rest of Us is a good one to begin with, but her latest work is on "grounding." I'm drawn to the way that God's promises both ground us, that is, root us, and yet move us forward.)
When I was a little girl, I memorized several creeds and many, many answers to questions in something called the Baltimore Catechism, which we had to learn by heart. In the United Church of Christ, we have a beautiful Statement of Faith that's often read in worship, to affirm that we stand together in this community as part of a larger community (wider, in the world, and longer, through time) that shares common beliefs.
Trying to describe God's great love
However, we do not hold these statements as complete, perfect, final statements about God and God's mercy and love, about God's plan for our salvation and for all of creation. Nor do we use them as tests to determine who is in and who is out of our community. The statement of faith represents our effort to give expression in words to our beliefs about God, but it's the experience of faith that keeps us going in the difficult times: our willingness to trust God's good intentions for us and for all of creation.
Walter Brueggemann has written in Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope about the words of the prophet Isaiah: "This testimony by Israel 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.
Brueggemann has also noted that, just as "barrenness" was a sign of hopelessness, a mark of having no future, then Abraham and Sarah's family, the new life they experience in the birth of a child 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 by all of us, in growth and deepening of spirit, in generosity, in faithfulness, because of God's great power and presence in the life of the people, God's plan for a future that is full of hope and goodness, not destruction and despair.
We have all known saints
My grandmother was a woman of faith. I don't say that because she went to church all of her life and raised seven children who went to church all of their lives, or because she was named "Mother of the Year" by the Catholic Daughters of America or because she had a son who was a priest and a daughter who was a nun. I say my grandmother was a woman of faith because she was a strong woman who endured much with the help of the trust she had in God. She had to raise small children on a farm while my grandfather found work in the city in order to support the family. Two of her children died. She suffered many illnesses in her life, including tuberculosis, and gave birth to triplets ó at home, at the age of thirty-nine ó in 1929! No sophisticated medical facilities or skilled surgeons were there to help her.
However, my grandmother never wavered in her trust in God's loving care for her and for those she loved. She loved my grandfather very much, and just a few months after he died ó both of them were 88 years old ó she hurt her back reaching for one of her great-grandchildren. She spent a few weeks in the hospital, saying good-bye to all of us who loved her, and then slipped into a coma. At the very end, surrounded by her daughters, she suddenly sat straight up in her bed, lifted up her arms toward the end of her bed and looked beyond them all, saying with a wonderful smile on her face, "Oh...itís so beautiful!" And then she died.
Seeing the invisible
Now I'm not saying that all people of faith have such a beautiful experience of death. For many people, death is much more difficult, and I'm grateful to God that my grandmother did not suffer as much as she might have. But I do wonder about what happened that day when my grandmother died. My mother and her sisters didn't see anything at the foot of the bed. But my grandmother did. You might say that she "saw" something that day, something that was "invisible" ó and yet that is what my grandmother did all of her life ó she had faith, she had conviction in what was not seen, she had the assurance of things hoped for. I have a feeling that my grandmother would have said that God is good all the time, and all the time, God is good.
Trusting in God means setting out on a journey, like Abraham and Sarah and so many other people in the Bible, a journey of faith toward a future where God's design for creation will be fulfilled ó a journey toward that "Heavenly City." Trusting in God means seeing God's goodness in the worst of times, and believing that God's blessings will outnumber the stars in the sky, even if we could count them (which, of course, we can't). Trusting in God means seeing beauty and grace in what may seem like the smallest of wonders.
The substance of hope
It is faith that gives substance to our hope. When it looks like life is just too hard to bear, when we struggle with that pain or loss or loneliness or doubt, faith enables us to reach out and feel the grasp of God on our lives, to know that we are headed on that journey to the heavenly city where all of God's purposes will be fulfilled. Faith is not agreeing to a doctrine, rather, but trusting that God, and not we humans, are in charge. It's not all up to us, after all.
In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we believe that God has conquered sin and death. We believe in our hearts that what we see is not all that there is. We believe that we will come to our journey's end and will finally understand what all those statements of faith, catechism questions, and theological definitions really meant. We believe that we will once again be with those we love, those who have loved us. We believe that we will be with God.
Reckoned to righteousness
There are days, along the way, when this faith is what carries us through. We know, for example, that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., suffered a great deal on his journey toward that heavenly city. He endured physical attacks, verbal abuse, threats to him and his family, the bombing of his home, and, finally, death itself. As the story goes, on that motel balcony in Memphis, just before he was killed, he turned to his musician friend who was to play that evening at the rally for the sanitation workers, and asked him, "Play 'Precious Lord, Take My Hand' for me tonight ó play it real pretty." A few seconds later, shots rang out. But that was not the end. No. Dr. King knew where he was headed. He knew whom to trust along the way. And we know in our hearts that the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
When was the last time that you, or your church, did something bold, simply out of faith? 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?
What promises of God motivate and animate your congregation and the life of the people in it? How do these promises challenge as well as console you? How do they call you toward others, beyond the walls of your church? (This week's reading from Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 is a powerful call to justice that reflects the integrity of a community's worship life.)
Awaiting the fulfillment of God's promises
What are the "tents," the temporary places, in which you live as you await the fulfillment of God's promises? How are you "strangers and foreigners on the earth," even if you are in your own "homeland"? 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?
Each one of us can think of people we have known as people of faith, names to be added to the roll call in Hebrews. Perhaps it was a parent, a grandparent, a family member, a teacher, a pastor, a friend, a spouse. Can we number ourselves among them? Can we see ourselves as ancestors as well as heirs? Do we trust in God and in God's infinite mercy and love? Do we believe in what we cannot "see" ó that is, in modern, post-Scientific Revolution terms, in what we cannot prove with scientific certainty?
A faith full of surprises
One of the most elusive experiences in life is perhaps that feeling of "having one's ducks in a row," of "getting it all together," in just about any area of life. The life of faith is no exception. As Frederick Buechner puts it, "Faith is different from theology because theology is reasoned, systematic, and orderly, whereas faith is disorderly, intermittent, and full of surprises." And the writer of this Letter to the Hebrews would agree with Buechner as he writes that faith is much more about experiences of the heart and the gut: "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."
One of the most marvelous things about this beautiful Letter to the Hebrews is the way it somehow looks backward and forward at the same time, finding strength and grounding our faith in what has been, and yet letting our hopes soar on the wings of our imagination as we dream of what is yet to be.
A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired in July from serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection
Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, 20th century
"Believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it."
C.S. Lewis, 20th century
"I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else."
Corrie ten Boom, 20th century
"Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God."
Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century
"All I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen."
Marilynne Robinson, Home, 21st century
"There's so much to be grateful for, words are poor things."
Madeleine L'Engle, 20th century
"Some things have to be believed to be seen."
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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