Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Keep the Faith

Sermon preached on August 11, 2013 at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene:  Proper 14C(II):  Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

          Can there be a more central word for spiritual people?  For Christians?  Is there no greater assumption of we churchgoers that we are people of faith?  Can you be a Christian without faith?

          So what is faith?  Let’s start at the beginning.  We use the word “faith” five times in our celebration of Baptism, the Sacrament that most completely defines who we are as followers of Jesus.

·       We say that there is “One Lord, one Faith, One Baptism, One God and Father of all,” quoting Ephesians 4.
·       We ask the parents and godparents of children if they will “be responsible for seeing that the child you present is brought up in the Christian faith and life?”
·       We pray for those to be baptized that God will “Keep them in the faith and communion of your holy Church.”
·       As we proclaim over the water of baptism that what we are doing is bringing “into his fellowship those who come to him in faith…”
·       And, finally, when we, as the community, receive the newly baptized, we say, “We receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified…”

          Whatever faith is, it is clearly a part of what binds us to Jesus and to one another in this thing we call “church.”  Faith seems to have a content. We call it the “Christian faith” and “the faith of Christ crucified.”  It also seems to be communal in nature, which is to say, it unifies us.  There is “One Faith,” and there is such a thing as “the faith and communion of” the church.  It also, although a noun, seems to have a verbal side, an active side.  We come in faith.  Faith is an experience.  The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews uses two words to describe this experience:  assurance and conviction.

          So let me propose the three “C’s” of faith.

·       content
·       communal
·       conviction

          Those three “c’s” tell me three things:

·       Faith is not simply a “feeling.”  It has content.
·       But faith is also a feeling, for which we use words like assurance and conviction.
·       And both the content side and the feeling side of faith have a context.  They are communal, which is to say that they are understood and happen in community.

          The writer to the Letter to the Hebrews has this well known definition of faith:

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

          Now that seems to question one of my three “c’s”:  content.  And this is where many people find a huge stumbling block.  How can I have faith in something I cannot see, and, therefore, cannot prove?  How can I have faith in something for which I can only hope?

          The biblical answer to those perfectly reasonable questions is that the content of faith is not a set of propositions or provable facts.  The content of faith is story.  That’s exactly what the writer to the Hebrews is saying.  He says that faith is the conviction of things not seen.  But then he goes on to tell the biblical story as he knew it in outline form.  We heard the section about Abraham and Sarah this morning, but before that he has mentioned Adam and Eve’s son Abel, their grandson Enoch, and Noah and his household.  And after Abraham and Sarah he goes on to speak of Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, and Moses and the people he led out of Egypt, and then he mentions Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and “the prophets.”

          Faith is a story.  How many of you have ever been asked by someone, “What do Episcopalians believe in?”  “What does your church believe?”  You know there is only one way of answering that question.  “Come and see.”  You can only tell what we believe by seeing how we live, and that living begins and ends week by week around a font and a table.  Don’t get suckered into some propositional answer.  Give the answer that Jesus gave to Andrew in the first chapter of John, “Come and see.”

          One very important aspect of this faith whose content is story is that they story has not ended yet.  The story is ongoing.  It is the story of our biblical ancestors as referred to in Hebrews.  it is the story of Jesus and his first followers, and Paul and others and the communities to whom they wrote.  It is the story of those we call saints through the ages.  It is the story of the ancestors of our own memory.  And it is our story.  And it is our children’s story and it will be their children’s story as long as it takes for us to arrive at our homeland, the better country for which we seek, the city that has been prepared for us.

          That is why faith is fundamentally communal for us.  Because it is the story of women and men in relationship with God and one another, and the story ends in community.  The story does not end in isolation.  The story ends in a city.

          To stick with this faith that is a story does take conviction, assurance, or, perhaps the better word, hope.  Not optimism, by the way, but hope.  Optimism too easily flirts with un-reality, illusion, delusion.  It is not bad to be an optimistic person, but it is much harder to be a hopeful person, because hope is fiercely realistic.  Hope can survive the reality that the writer to the Hebrews feels so strongly about he says it twice in chapter 11.

All of these died in faith without having received the promises. (v. 13 and v. 39).

          So much of what passes for Christianity in our culture seems to depend on people getting goodies from God right now.  Prayers for prosperity answered.  Have enough faith and God will give you whatever you ask.  I know the Bible seems to say that in some places, and even Jesus seems to have said something like that, but the writer to the Hebrews is honest enough to say, no, that is not what it is all about.  He doesn’t say that God does not answer prayers, but he does clearly think that is not the point at all.  Faith is not about having prayers answered in this life, it is about seeking a homeland, desiring a better country, and resting only sometimes, often times, in the un-ashamedness of God.

          So faith is a conviction, an assurance, a fiercely realistic hope, a glimpse of a promise in the distance that you greet as your long lost friend even though you cannot quite make out its shape and size.

          This is yet another reason why faith is fundamentally communal.  If faith is an assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things unseen, a glimpse of a promise in the distance, then I need you to have it with me, and you need me to have it with you.  Because sometimes I cannot see, and sometimes you do not feel assured, and on any given day any one of us can do time on the wrong side of conviction.  But we can always have faith together.  And that is always true because of this church we call “catholic.”  The community we depend on to have faith is a community in all places and all times. 

          That’s why I think keeping the memory of the saints is so very important, knowing their stories, including their foibles.  This week we will remember Clare, the female equivalent of St. Francis of Assisi, the courageous nurse Florence Nightingale, Jeremy Taylor, a priest and bishop who lived through the difficult days of the reign of the puritans in England in the 1640’s, and Jonathan Myrick Daniels, a seminarian in the 1960’s, who was so inspired by the vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary of the mighty being cast down and the lowly being lifted, that he joined those marching for civil rights in Selma and was shot dead shielding a young girl named Ruby Sales.  People like these keep faith for us in death even when we cannot keep it in life.

          So what is faith?  Faith has content, the content of a story begun with time and ending with a promise finally fulfilled, a story that includes your life and mine.  Faith is a conviction, a fiercely held hope that does not depend on the circumstances of the present to keep our eyes on the prize of the promise fulfilled.  Faith is communal in that it is ultimately only something we can have together, and the “we” is as big as we need it to be, and getting bigger all the time.

          I end with a song, written by Sylvia Dunstan, sung by a duo called “The Miserable Offenders,” who put out a couple CD’s in the 1990’s.

Bless now, O God, the journey that all your people make,
the path through noise and silence, the way of give and take.
The trail is found in desert, and winds the mountain round,
then leads beside still waters, the road where faith is found.

Bless sojourners and pilgrims who share this winding way—
whose hope burns through the terrors whose love sustains the day.
We yearn for holy freedom, while often we are bound.
Together we are seeking the road where faith is found.

Divine Eternal Lover, you meet us on the road
We wait for land of promise where milk and honey flow
But waiting not for places—you meet us all around.
Our covenant is written on roads, as faith is found.

Words: Copyright © 1991 Sylvia Dunstan, GIA Publications. Used by permission.  Reprinted under OneLicense.net A-707684.

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