Archive for August 2nd, 2010

By Faith–Hebrews 11: 1-3,8-16

We recently discovered “Scaredy Squirrel” by Melanie Watt at our local library.  He’s a very funny squirrel who is very scared of “The Unknown.”  So he served as a wonderful metaphor for those of us who understand that God often calls upon us to take risks and jump into the unknown. Scaredy Squirrel also made for a very fun Children’s Time.  What follows is the sermon from the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

“By Faith”

Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

August 1st, 2010

Today’s text requires us to use our imagination.  In today’s text the unknown author of Hebrews recalls how Abraham and Sarah faithfully follow God to an unknown place, an unknown people, and an unknown way of life.  The text describes this incredibly huge and difficult move by saying simply, “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.” Surely it could not have been that simple, though.  Surely such a move could not have been as easy as the text makes it sound.  So we need to use our imagination to fill in the gaps and discover why Abraham and Sarah really do deserve to be honored as heroes of the faith in the book of Hebrews.

It’s not difficult to imagine that Abraham and Sarah struggled when God called them to leave their country and their kindred and their family’s home and follow God into a yet to be seen land.  It’s not difficult to imagine that Abraham and Sarah needed some time to discern whether or not that was really what they wanted to do.  Sure, they were faithful people.  But when God calls you to something risky, even the most faithful need some time to decide whether they have the courage within themselves to make that leap of faith.

So I imagine Abraham and Sarah struggling with this decision.  Do we follow God into the unknown? Or do we stay here on this land that we have always known?  Do we step out in faith?  Or do we stay here where we have been happy and comfortable and secure?  Is it worth the risk?  Is God worth the risk?

I imagine God’s call weighed heavy on them, consuming their thoughts and distracting them from all their every day tasks.  I imagine Abraham getting up in the morning and going through his morning routine, washing his hair, brushing his teeth, combing his beard and then having to repeat the whole process over again because he was so distracted that he couldn’t remember whether he had actually washed his hair, brushed his teeth, and combed his beard.  I imagine Abraham driving his goats home after a long day of shepherding, his head full of thoughts, his head full of all that God had been asking of him…..and then, dog-gone-it, he goes and misses his exit.  Now he has to take the long way home.  I imagine Sarah up in the middle of the night in a fit of stress-induced insomnia.  I imagine her keeping her mind busy by folding the clothes and cleaning their home in the wee hours of the morning and then feeling bone tired when the new day finally arrives.  I imagine the struggle.  I imagine the angst.  I imagine how Abraham and Sarah must have discussed God’s call, foremost in their thoughts, every time they were together.

Yet in the end they decided to take the risk.  This is why they deserve to be hailed as heroes of the faith in the book of Hebrews.  They took the risk and they stepped out in faith in spite of their fear, their discomfort, and their doubt.

Faith brings risk.  Faith means following God into the unknown without a signed contract or any legal proof that says all your needs will be met.  Hebrews defines faith as the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Faith is assurance.  Faith is conviction.  But because faith is believing in things not seen, faith is not certainty.  So faith brings risk.  We all know that those who step out in faith, those who follow God’s call, do not always live into happy endings.  Sometimes things just don’t work out.  Sometimes the faithful must face disappointment.

I read a pretty heartbreaking story in the Christian Century this week written by Craig Barnes.  Dr. Barnes teaches at Pittsburgh Seminary and writes to tell the story of one of his students.  “Martha Tidwell,” he writes, “sat before me wearing a blue pants suit and a weary face.  Four years ago she left her high-paying job as an accountant after having discerned, with her church’s help, that she was called by God to begin the process of becoming a pastor.  Her husband, Ted, was supportive and quit his job as well so that they could come to Pittsburgh to begin her studies.

They sold their house at a loss and moved their young family into a seminary apartment.  Although they lived frugally with Ted’s new, lower-paying job, they still had to take on considerable debt.  Over the next three years Martha devoted herself to theological studies while concurrently progressing through the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s lengthy process of discernment.  Finally she graduated with honors and was ready to serve as a pastor.  All she needed was a [church].

But after a year of applications, she hasn’t received even an interview.  The economic pressure is so great that she wonders if she should get another accounting job.  She was neither tearful nor angry as she told me this story,” Barnes writes.  “Mostly she was just confused as she wondered aloud if she and her church had misread the will of God.”[1]

Martha Tidwell’s story is not unique.  There are lots of people who feel called to a certain profession but who cannot find work.  There are lots of people who feel called into marriages and then find themselves facing the heartbreak of divorce.  There are lots of people who feel called to take stands on certain issues and then have to face the disappointment of friends turning their backs.  There are lots of people who feel called to do something, to say something, to be something, to follow God into unknown and risky land, only to find heartbreak, and disappointment, and confusion because things just didn’t work out like they had hoped and believed they would.

Abraham and Sarah’s own story could in fact be told as a story of disappointment.  Our text today says that “all of these (which includes Abraham and Sarah) died in faith without having received the promises.” God blessed Abraham and Sarah with children, with a family, with multitudes of descendents.  But Abraham and Sarah died before God made good on the promise of a homeland and of their people becoming a great nation. Abraham and Sarah lived the life of nomads, moving their tents from one place to the next.  Such a lifestyle certainly could have been a disappointment.  Such a lifestyle certainly could have left them confused and heartbroken and wondering why God had made them leave what they had behind.  “What’s the point of this?”  They could have easily been asking God.  But instead, our text says, those who died in faith without having received the promises saw those promises from a distance and greeted them. In other words they kept on believing.  They kept on hoping.  They kept on in their faith even though it was a faith in things that are not seen.

Not everyone understands faith.  Not everyone understands faith in a God whose promises can often only be seen from a distance.  Faith, for some, is just some overly sentimental delusion that keeps us from facing the realities of life.  Faith, for some, is simply not worth the risk.

But those of us who have taken the risk, those of us who have decided to go with God, go because we have faith that we do not go alone.  We trust that we are not left hanging all alone on this adventure of faith.  We trust that God is with us, just like God was with Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob, and Joseph, and Jesus.  The author of Hebrews reminds us today that the faith of those who have gone before us is a trustworthy faith and the God of those who have gone before us is a trustworthy God.  So we persist in faith even when the job doesn’t come.  We persist in faith even when our marriages break.  We persist in faith when we lose someone to death.  We persist in faith when we face challenges and situations that keep us up at night with worry and make us miss our exit on the drive home.  We persist in faith, not to delude ourselves from the realities of life, but to face them, head on, with hope, and conviction, and assurance that a better day, a new day is on the horizon, a better day, a new day is to come, a better day, a new day can be seen from the distance and can be greeted by all of God’s children.

And so we carry on by faith.  We move forward by faith.  We face our disappointment by faith.  We live through our heartache by faith.  We sort through our confusion by faith.  We risk everything and follow God by faith.

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Faith brings risk.  Faith is not certainty.  Faith does not always lead us to the happy ending in this life.  But faith does keep our eyes tuned to the horizon.  Faith keeps our head up in hope, because we know that although God calls upon us to take the risk that comes with faith, God takes an even greater risk on us.  God takes an even greater risk in loving us fearful, hesitant human beings prone more to wander than to follow our Creator’s path.

God is willing to take a risk on us.  God is willing to step out in faith for us.  God is willing to sacrifice for us.  Such a God deserves the same from us.  Such a God is worthy of our faith and the risks that faith brings.

Now to the God of all grace, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] M. Craig Barnes, “Cloud and Fire”, The Christian Century, July 27, 2010, pg. 35.

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