Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Sunday, August 11, 2019
Rev. Elizabeth Mangham Lott
St. Charles Ave. Baptist Church
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2 Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. 3 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.
8 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. 9 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. 10 For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 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. 12 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.”
13 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, 14 for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 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.
It is good to be back here with you, beloved ones, in this sacred space after a couple of weeks away. Two weeks ago this morning, I gathered with a group of 15 from St. Charles at the beach for closing worship. With gritty sand beneath our feet and the slow bustle of beach life around us, we sang, we prayed, we named the ways we encounter God in creation, and we blessed each others with bubbles at benediction. Then I tucked in with my family for some good quiet, a lot of lazy, playing in our city, and soul rest. Nathan and I even managed to squeeze in a weekend alone! It is vital (albeit a luxury) to step away and rest like that. To be present to one’s life. To go from pajamas to a bathing suit and back to pajamas again. To reassess what matters most and what is piled around the periphery of our lives, merely taking up space like boxes and bags to be sent off for donation.
In the weeks I was away, we also watched more news headlines of great tragedies. Specifically, tremendous gun violence in Texas and Ohio and a shocking ICE raid in Mississippi. I know you prayed and brought the burden of those events here into worship last week. I was thinking of you and asking myself: What more can we do? What more can we say? How are we to respond? And how does our faith compel us to action when we see the broken shadows of our world?
I tend to ask myself these questions anyway, but particularly while I was away, intentionally not preparing words to be spoken in this pulpit. Purposefully giving myself to rest so that I can be of some good to you and our community and this old world. I wondered what could I have said that hasn’t already been said? And what could I do that hasn’t already been done? What is my calling in 2019 not just to a changing church but to a complicated and divided homeland?
What is it that we are doing when we gather here? What is it about this place and this shared experience that inspires us to give our time, our energy, our money, and our lives? What do we do here that nurtures our souls like a much needed summer break? What do we do here that equips us to speak the world’s pain and shadows in meaningful, impactful ways? How does this gathered hour propel us into a movement of Christ Faith-ers who love the world in Jesus’ way and name? That is what I want us to be about, after all. A radical love movement shaped by our Christ faith.
While I was on leave, I was interviewed by a reporter for the Washington Post who had learned about the closing of an Alliance of Baptists partner congregation in the D.C. area. The church is not quite out of funds yet, and they could push on fumes for a bit longer, but the faith community has chosen to close its doors, sell its building, and give away the proceeds of the sale to organizations doing the work closest to the heart of that church.
The reporter reached out to me because she came across something I’d written about trends in churches and my stubborn belief that churches must innovate and adapt to the trends of younger generations not engaging any institution in ways previous generations have. She asked me if I thought other churches would close, and I told her “yes.” It’s already happening. It will continue to happen. But not because people are less interested in faith, not because people are less interested in a spirituality that has legs and can move in the world, but because people want to have impact beyond supporting a building and an old, internal facing structure.
I’m back at work after a lovely summer leave. What is my work? What is our work? What is this thing that we are doing here together? It’s something old and something new. It’s something dying and something being born. I have one foot in an old world and the other in a reality waiting to be realized.
I’m also between generations—taught and shaped as a young child by the WWII generation, witnessing their fidelity to their local church and its activities, mentored by Boomers who echoed the legacy of commitment to a faith community with time and energy and money. But born into Gen X, an in-between group that has not fully left but also not fully engaged the traditions that raised us. And now I’m watching Millennials and Gen Y shape the space they want to inhabit with a mix of earthy spirituality, direct activism, and strong community among peers.
The way we FAITH won’t look like it did 20 years ago and already doesn’t look like it did 50 years ago. But I also believe our faith is calling us to a truer, more honest spirituality and engagement of our world.
And so I ask again: What is it that we are doing when we gather here? How do we hold onto the best lessons from the past but let go of what is piled around the periphery of our lives, merely taking up space? I have returned to this question for a couple of years now because I am still determined we can model a way forward here at St. Charles that is a fresh expression of our faith tradition. We are innovating with integrity from within our tradition. Our eyes are open to the changing religious landscape around. We are telling the truth about our lives, our fears, our hopes, our joys. We are moving in a Christ direction that excites me and energizes me because we are giving ourselves to the unseen NEW THING God is going. I believe that. I really doo.
If we’re not here out of duty or obligation, then what is it that we are about? Why aren’t we somewhere, anywhere else? And when we’re not here, gathering together for nurture and soul care and inspiration, what is the thing that gets us out of bed in the morning, motivates our work, guides our days, shapes our path? What is this faith?
The Hebrews Preacher is speaking to the heart of this question, too, as we revisit this old sermon to the early church. Recall, it is a sermon passed around to be shared in house churches by an unknown author. In the passage we read together earlier, the preacher builds toward the end of his sermon and challenges both early church and those of us eavesdropping today to consider what is happening in the life of a gathered people. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen….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.” (vv 1 and 3)
What do we hope for in our lives? For each other here in this community? For our vulnerable neighbors who are undocumented? For all those traumatized by gun violence? I don’t think we keep showing up here week after week because we are hoping for a space out there in the sky somewhere that we will inherit after death. I think we are grasping for something already proven that we have not seen, the mystery that draws us out and draws us together and draws us forward. We are hoping for something that we can hold right here and right now that connects us to each other as siblings, draws us to the best of ourselves and empowers us to release the shadows, and motivates us to make this world a better place in our own lifetimes.
This is verb faith. We are doing this. We are faith-ing. We are embodying this way and living it out. Faith like this is somewhere we are going, a path we are on. We will doubt our direction at times, but we’ll tell the truth about those doubts and come to learn that even that doubt is part of the journey. The kind of faith we are about here, in this place, as people of God on the way of the Christ, is a particular kind of journey.
To that, Frederick Buechner adds, “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”
My nephews have been swimming with us this summer, and these beginner swimmers often like to start from where they can set there feet on a step or on the ground of the shallow end and then push off to glide toward the person teaching them to swim. There’s no kicking, no scooping the hands and pulling back the arms, just stiff gliding with the hope of running into the adult waiting for them. To push them a bit farther, I inch backwards as they glide, still keeping my hand outstretched where they can see it, but encouraging them to kick a little, move those arms a little, reach for my hand.
I love that image of a mama God in the water with her hand just beyond our grasp. She isn’t going to let us drown. She’s watching us closely. But she has more faith in us to move our bodies toward the goal and make the water our home than we do. She’s inching backward, but we’re inching forward—moving ourselves clumsily toward her hand.
Now that’s taking us somewhere, isn’t it. We are on a journey without maps, moving in faith and through faith, reaching for the guiding hand that is just beyond our grasp. We keep showing up because we know that somehow in our confessing and praising and singing and silence-holding and justice-plotting together (not alone but together), we encounter utter and total mystery.
The Hebrews Preacher is challenging an audience ready to give up and walk away from the faith they have claimed. They don’t know if they want to keep doing this thing anymore. The culture around them surely isn’t. Why are they spinning their wheels and squandering their time? The preacher asks them to consider: What can we do by faith? What do we already do by faith?
Faith is something we’re doing, somewhere we are going, a path we are on. Faith provides a place to stand from which we can hope. Faith presents proof of things (even a rebuke of things) that we have difficulty seeing.
And when we are about to give up, at the end of our rope, ready to walk away, we have the stories that guide us from the beginning of time to the beginning of this congregation to the beginning of our lives to the beginning of this next breath. By faith, we keep walking. By faith, we stand under the great hope that covers all people and all time and assures us that God is at work. By faith, we see what really is, even when what is revealed is ugly and cruel, in need of repentance and repair, and we set to work making it right. By faith, we discern the future of this congregation and our stewardship of this physical campus. By faith, we give birth to a nonprofit Center committed to calling others to action. By faith, we let go of the excess physical and emotional and mental baggage that has piled up at the peripheries of our lives so that we are free and energized to move forward. By faith, we step into Monday and a new school year and the uncertainties of a year to come. By faith, we step out into the unknown, confident we are guided by a hand just beyond our grasp.