Not Yet, But Soon
Passage: Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Date: August 6, 2017
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
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A theologian Mary Pellauer once said, “If there’s anything worth calling theology, it is listening to people’s stories, listening to them and cherishing them, and asking them to become even more brightly beautiful than they already are.” (God’s Fierce Whimsy)
I find it interesting that as the writer of Hebrews talks about faith, he does it not by using grand theological terms and philosophy, but by telling stories about people in the Bible who followed God. We get a taste of Abraham’s story this week, this man who followed the call of God, a call that had a lot of blank spaces and unknowns and uncertainties.
Perhaps Frederick Buechner captured the essence of Abraham’s faith best. He said, “Faith is the word that describes the direction our feet start moving when we find that we are loved. Faith is stepping out into the unknown with nothing to guide us but a hand just beyond our grasp.” (The Magnificent Defeat)
I’m not sure that any of us have faith as much as we act in faith. Does that make sense? Faith isn’t really anything but a word or an idea unless it has an action to back it up. Abraham and Sarah could believe in God all that they wanted, but their faith wasn’t seen until they packed up all their things in Ur and set out with their camels and their tents and some hope.
We all have faith in something. Some people have faith in the free market system, that it is the best way to do economics. Some people have faith in the Portland Timbers, that they will play well and be amazing athletes. Some people have faith in their alma mater, that the college or university will teach well and turn out students who are prepared to make a contribution to the world.
Some people have faith in their family, that there is a group of people who will always be there for them, who will not turn them away, no matter what. Some people have faith in nature, that the great outdoors will endure and support us and inspire us.
Maybe all of us here today have faith in God, too – maybe not, but something drew you here on this hot day in this very warm and very beautiful space. In these postmodern times, we understand faith in God not as intellectual acceptance about theology and doctrine, but faith as relationship. Faith in God is more like a trust that God wants good for us; faith in God is about hope that God and no one else is guiding the stars and all manner of human things; faith is the hope that we have not been left to our own devices.
It’s hard, though, to describe our faith, just as it can be hard to describe our love for a person. If someone were to ask me about my relationship with Gregg, I might answer in different ways. I might say that I love him because I admire his patience, or because he finds me funny (in a good way), or because his mind works so differently from my own, and I find that enchanting.
But if I really wanted to convey my love for him, I would more likely tell a story about the time when we were dating and I was going to spend Thanksgiving with him, but my car got a flat tire on a back road between Chicago and Indianapolis, so I went home and the next day – Thanksgiving Day – he drove up with the turkey in the brine and with his parents and we all spent Thanksgiving at my place instead. You get a better picture with a story.
So it is, I think, when we talk about our faith in God. We tell each other stories about our lives and how sometimes we find God there in the midst of the stories. Sometimes those stories are about unbelievable miracles that we hesitate to share, lest others think we’ve gone off our rockers a little. Sometimes those stories are about prayers that were so clearly answered in a timely manner.
But more often than not, I think, the stories are told and we go back and look at them and we see these little stepping stones, these miniscule points of connection or grace that make us sit back and say, hmmm, that’s a funny thing, a strange thing that really doesn’t make any sense without God.
Like Abraham and Sarah – it makes no sense that these people left all their creature comforts in Ur of Chaldea and set out across the desert, into Egypt and out of Egypt, with nothing but the promise of heirs and the hope of a home that would never be reached. There’s no way to explain it – unless you put God in the picture.
125 years ago, a group of people who had faith in God enacted that faith and chartered this congregation. In faith, over a hundred years ago, they built this sanctuary, expecting it would stand and hold the ministry of this place for a good long while. In faith this congregation sent its sons and daughters out into World War II, welcoming some but not all of them back. In faith the congregation struggled through the 1960s and the awakening awareness that our society had work to do, that our church had work to do as it understood God’s call for peace and justice for all people. In faith we came together in those awful days after 9/11 and held each other and prayed and sang together.
In faith we gather every week even now, in a time when our nation is about as divided as it’s ever been, in a time when we categorize each other too quickly and don’t take the time to hear each other’s stories. In faith we live our lives, hoping still that God is with us, stepping out with nothing to guide us but a hand that is just beyond our reach.
Corrie Ten Boom, who suffered terribly in a World War II concentration camp and never lost her faith, once said, “Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.” I wonder what it would be like if we spent time talking with each other about our day, or about our week, and what happened, and where we saw God in our day and in our week, and how we did something a little scary or a little courageous because we trusted that God was there.
As I said, this passage from Hebrews was one requested when I asked folks to send me scripture that they’d like to hear a sermon on. The person who asked for this text said that it always bothered him that Abraham and Sarah, and others in this passage, never received the promise. The person wondered if the writer of Hebrews implied that because they lived before Christ, they could not receive the promise.
I read it differently. I think we act in faith that God will fulfill God’s promises, but sometimes our actions are seeds we plant that others will harvest. Abraham and Sarah did not – could not –live to see his innumerable descendants. That does not mean that God was not faithful to them. That does not mean they trusted in the wrong God. It means, I think, that faith is a hope we have for the present time, but a reality that we will know later.
So in this present time, we tell each other stories about our lives and about our God and about the seeds we plant. We trust our unknown future to this God we know, this God whose hand is still just beyond our grasp.
But some day, we will take that hand. Not yet – but soon.