Sunday, August 8, 2010

Hope for Tomorrow (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 old – and Sarah herself was barren – because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendents were born, “as many as the starts 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.

Three nuns who were trained as nurses had travelled out into Union County to minister to an outpatient. On their way back into Charlotte on Independence Boulevard, they ran out of gas just a few miles from home. They were standing on the shoulder beside their car when a delivery driver saw their plight and stopped to help. The nuns explained that they needed some gas, and the delivery driver said he would gladly siphon some from his tank, but he didn’t have a gas can with him. One of the nuns explained that they had a clean bedpan in the trunk – could the driver use that? He could, and siphoned about a half gallon of gas from his tank into the bedpan. The nuns thanked him, and he drove off. As they were carefully pouring the precious liquid from the bedpan into their gas tank, a highway patrol vehicle stopped behind them. The trooper watched for a minute and said, “Sisters, I don’t think it will work, but I sure do admire your faith.”

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen. This morning, we are talking about faith, which is perhaps one of the most abused and misunderstood words in the contemporary Christian lexicon. Therefore, it would seem some definitions are in order before begin.

Faith is often set up as an antidote to reality, a belief in something despite the evidence. But this is not what the author of Hebrews meant when he wrote of faith. Faith is more than having some beliefs, some propositional truths, some head knowledge, a set of memorized answers, or knowing where certain books of the Bible can be found. Faith isn’t an unshakable certainty or unassailable knowledge, and it certainly isn’t the opposite of doubt.

When the author of this sermon we call the book of Hebrews speaks of faith, we are not invited to shelve what we can see, to surrender our intellect at the door and to blindly wander off into the darkness. In certain anti-intellectual Christian circles, blind faith is often held up as a virtue, but there is no such thing as blind faith. Ignorance is blind, perhaps, but faith never is. Rather, faith is visionary. Faith sees things that can’t be perceived with our senses. Faith looks beyond what “is” and instead sees “what may yet be.”

Faith then, Biblical faith, is less like certain knowledge and more like an invitation to an adventure, an adventure described on the pages of Scripture is simultaneously too good to be true and so good it must be true. Faith is a way of seeing the world, a way of seeing the world as God sees it, a way of opening ourselves up to the preferred future set in front of us by a good and faithful God. May we pray.

Missouri is nicknamed the “Show Me” state. This phrase conotates a certain self-deprecating stubbornness and devotion to plain common sense. Saying someone is from Missouri is a colloquial way of saying a person demands hard evidence that proves a position beyond a reasonable doubt before they will believe something or be persuaded to a particular viewpoint.

Someone with a Missouri-outlook on life spends a lot of time telling other to back up their claims with undisputable facts, and if they are not responding constantly with their trademark “Show me,” they may well respond by saying “Prove it” while the more nuanced in the group say things like “seeing is believing.”

President Harry Truman was our country’s only president from the state of Missouri, so he, perhaps more than any other U.S. President, is the inheritor of this practical, concrete, provable outlook on life. And yet, it was Harry S. Truman who said, “A pessimist is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities and an optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties.”

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

In the 11th chapter of the letter to the Hebrews, we are given a definition of faith that is evocative, succinct, and beautiful. We Protestants have traditionally focused on only one part of this definition – belief. We have used the two terms – faith and belief – interchangeably: telling someone about your faith involves telling them about your convictions, what you think, what you know, the things you hold to be true. But friends, according to the Bible, this is only part of the story.

Faith is also about fidelity or loyalty. When I perform a wedding, part of the vows the couple take involve pledging their faithfulness to each other, as long as they both shall live. That means they are saying before God and all those witnesses that they are going to stick together through thick and thin.

Having faith is also about having trust in something, even when we cannot perceive with our five senses why we should. For instance, I have faith that if I walk down the center aisle of this church I will not crash through the floor into the fellowship hall. I have not seen it, but I have faith that there is a substructure underneath the floor that is strong enough to keep us from crashing through.

There are plenty of things which are invisible whose existence we do not doubt. While 7/8 of an iceberg is under water, we understand that what is unseen is still there. I mean, I saw Titanic, I know that sucker’s under there! We don’t see the wind, yet feel it on our cheek or hear it blowing through the trees, we know it is real. We cannot see beyond the horizon, but we believe that if we keep walking, we will come to a place that we currently can’t see.

And here is yet another aspect of faith I want to point out to you. According to the Bible, it has a future, outward-looking orientation. In our text, once the author has given a definition of faith in the first three verses, he gives several examples from Scripture – from the collective story of faith – of just what he means when he’s talking about faith. All these definitions have a future-looking orientation, leading us to believe that faith has something to do with looking into the future, that visionary faith looks past reality, looks past what is, looks past what is provable to our senses and says, “There is something from God out there, and while we aren’t there today, while we can’t see it today, we know that it is out there. I have faith that God will lead us toward that future, not because I can see it with my own eyes, not because the evidence is necessarily even there, but because the vision has come from God. I trust in that future and I will reach toward it, because I place my trust in the One who gave the vision.”

Faith is linked not to evidence, but to hope. Faith looks ahead to things which are not yet in view, but which are real, are known, and are hoped for with urgency. I love the way St. Augustine puts it: “To have faith is to believe what you can’t see and the reward of faith is to see what you believe.”

Sorta like Abraham and Sarah. The author of Hebrews talks about them a bit in vv. 8-16 of today’s reading. You may remember that God made a promise to Abraham, a promise about him having offspring in his old age, and that offspring becoming as numerous as the stars in the heavens and the sands along the sea, and that through all his descendents, all the people and nations of earth would be blessed.

In short, God gave Abraham a vision for the future, and Abraham stepped out in faith. Abraham stepped out into the future, not knowing exactly what he was getting himself into. Abraham stepped out, not because he had faith in the evidence around him, but because he had faith in the One who gave the vision. There was a promise out there, a promise from God, but between the place where Abraham was and the promise from God, there was a gulf of the unknown. Even so, Abraham stepped out into the separation, and we have a name for that step: “faith.”

Mike Slaughter is Lead Pastor of Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church in Tipp City, OH, just outside Dayton. Mike was appointed to the church in 1979, and he saw there the potential for a church that would transform its community and the lives of people across the globe. Since 1979, the church has grown from 90 worshippers to over 5000 per weekend – all this in Dayton, Ohio, recently named “The Fastest-Dying City in America” by US News and World Report.

In addition to being Lead Pastor, the congregation at Ginghamsburg also refers to Mike as “Chief Dreamer.” Isn’t that a great way to think of our role as God’s people in the world – as dreamers? Not as Christians who maintain this institution we’ve built up called Christianity, but as dreamers – people who are charged with having God-sized dreams, with discerning where God is leading us into the future, and to doing the things that Jesus really wants us to do. Ginghamsburg’s success has everything to do with the congregation committing itself to seeking God’s vision for them, for giving themselves permission to have God-sized dreams, for stepping out with boldness into the great unknown toward the vision God gave.

That’s exactly what the prophet Joel told us would happen. Speaking on behalf of God, he said, “I will pour out my Spirit on all people, and your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions” (Joel 2:28). On the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the earliest followers of Jesus, St. Peter quoted this verse in his famous sermon on that day.

Our visions, our dreams, and our prophecies are linked to the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. That’s why it’s imperative upon the church to pray constantly for the Holy Spirit to be poured into us, because without the Holy Spirit we cannot have God-sized dreams. Without the Holy Spirit, we will never reach our potential, our dreams will only be as big as we are, and we will flounder. But the Holy Spirit gives all of us – old and young alike, big visions of the future, and then our response is to step out with faith into the future God reveals to us.

What often gets overlooked when people recount the story of Ginghamsburg’s transformation is what happened in their first year under Mike’s leadership. He candidly admits that he was appointed to a church of 90, and by the end of the first year, he had grown it down to 60. 30 people – whose attitudes & behaviors were toxic, whose dreams were less than God-sized, whose personal agendas didn’t line up with God’s – had to remove themselves from the church before real, substantive, transformative growth could take place. Some refer to this as the pruning before the harvest.

Now, hear me carefully. I don’t want anyone to leave the church. But if there are attitudes, agendas, behaviors, priorities, plans, hopes and dreams among us that are not of God, I don’t want them getting in the way of what God can and will do here. Again, I don’t want anyone to leave. But I want all of us to look deep within ourselves, to our hopes for our church, and to pray and honestly discern if we have first sought God’s vision before we started our plans. Are we having the same grand vision as God? We must seek God’s vision before we seek our own. Before every decision we make, we need to be on our knees in prayer saying, “God, show us YOUR vision! What is YOUR plan for this YOUR church?” And, if you look deep within yourself and you realize that you have yet to seek God’s vision, God invites you to convert. Convert your way of thinking to be brought in line with God’s, that your vision will be borne out of God’s. At the very least, even if you don’t convert, I simply ask that you not get in the way. I don’t know about you, but if God is building something, if God is doing something, if God desires for something to be brought into existence, I want to part of it. The last thing I want is to stand in its way, or be the one responsible for it not being brought into reality.

In our text, Abraham could have given any number of reasons why this vision and this dream wouldn’t come into reality. He could have said, “I am too old for this.” He could have said, “I don’t fully understand the plan.” He could have said, “Show me!” He could have said, “Seeing is believing, and until I see it, I won’t believe it.”

But Abraham responded in none of these ways. He responded in faith. He said, “I don’t exactly understand the details, I’m not sure exactly where this thing is headed, I’m not sure what I’m getting myself into, but God, I trust you. So, if you’ve got a plan and you’re inviting me to part of it, I’m with you.”

That’s what we call faith. Trusting that our future is in God’s hands. Trusting that the One who calls us to step forward into the unknown will provide what we need along the journey. Trusting that even though we may not know the outcome, the destination, or the final result – God is not going to call us to take a bold step into the future and then abandon us once we do.

We have to recognize that God’s vision is for new life. Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). As we step into the future, we have St. Paul’s affirmation that God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power (2 Timothy 1:17). This affirmation is rooted in a promise as old as the prophets, for it was Jeremiah who said, “I know the plans I have for you, plans for good and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11). Abraham is described in the text as one who went from “as good as dead” to one whose descendents became as numerous as the stars in the sky or the grains of sand along the sea. He saw the promises of God far off in the distance and greeted them.

Friends, this is seeing through the eyes of faith. This is placing the uncertainty of an unknown future into the certain hands of a known God. This is embracing the future with a spirit of power and hope rather than timidity and fear. This is making opportunities of our difficulties instead of difficulties of our opportunities.

I have a friend who rides a motorcycle. Someone once asked him if he is afraid of crashing into something while he’s riding, and he responded by saying, “It’s really a matter of how you look at it. If I focused on the obstacles all around me, I would be crippled with fear of running into one of them. But, in our training, we were taught not to focus on the obstacles, and instead to look for the openings.”

This is seeing through the eyes of faith. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen.

We are called to be a people of faith, a people who look toward the future, a people who believe our best years are still ahead of us, a people who look off into a great unknown stretching out in front of us and place it into the hands of a faithful God. We are called to be a people of faith, a people who are fishers of men and not merely keepers of the aquarium, a people who see God’s plans off in the distance, and run full-speed to greet them.

Here’s my question for you this morning. What things do you see off in the future? What vision has God given you? Has the Holy Spirit been poured into your life, and if it has, what things do you see? Do you see promises? What do you see? Do you see God’s plans for our church? Off in the distance, do you see them? Not my plans, not your plans, not the bishop’s plans, not your committee’s plans, not your family’s plans, not the church council’s plans, but God’s plans? Do you see them? Out there in the distance, bigger and broader than you or me?

God invites us to march into a future with hope. That’s the good news of the Gospel. Jesus says, “I have a future for you. I don’t care who you are, what you’ve done, or what condition you’re in; you’re here because I have good and great things for you to do.”

I have hope for tomorrow because I have faith in the One who holds every tomorrow.

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