Sunday, August 11, 2019
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
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, descendants were born, “as many as the stars 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.
When I lived in New York City, I loved the color and the movement and yes, even the noise. But the noise I liked most of all was the clang of the deadbolts on my apartment door at the end of the day. It meant that I was in and the world was out. And that nightly ritual gave me a feeling of control over my environment. I needed those deadbolts in order to make sense of and to live successfully with whatever was on the other side of that door the next day.
Over the years I’ve realized that those deadbolts were a metaphor for the way I have lived much of my life. I do love the world in all of its glorious unpredictability. And I do love a good adventure. But I also want some order and guarantees.
I think we all want that – we just reach for it in different ways: some of us through money, others through power or position or education. For me, it was religion. It was the amassing correct doctrine and the believing of all the right things through which I endeavored to exercise control over my environment. A sure faith was as good as a deadbolt. If I had enough of that faith; if it was the right kind of faith, then nothing bad could really happen to me.
Was I delusional? Maybe. But then again, so were all the people around me. Back when I was a teenager and a young adult, my family was involved in what is now commonly called “the Prosperity Gospel.” The basic idea behind the Prosperity Gospel is that with a proper belief system, one can, by faith and sheer determination, control one’s environment. You can literally stave off sickness. You can literally bring on riches. All of this is possible, the teaching goes, because you possess the Truth – with a capital T. And it’s a very popular message because it promises to save us from our fears. With the right kind of faith, we will not lose our jobs. We will not get a serious illness. A hate-filled gunman in Walmart will not snatch our life away.
Now maybe this way of believing sounds like craziness to you. Maybe you don’t think of your faith as magic. Perhaps. But over the years, I have seen a bit of magical thinking in most religion. We may not be looking for wealth or fame, but we still think that if we have the right intellectual beliefs, that this will save us. Believing all the right things is what will get us into heaven.
But is that what faith really is? This year I had to ask that question again and again as I led the Confirmation class. Each time we met, I wondered: what is it that I am supposed to be teaching these young people? Should I be articulating the details of the Apostle’s Creed? Should I be teaching them Congregationalist history and theology and polity? Or should I be trying to teach them a way of life? Should I be helping them to see God, especially when there are no easy answers?
The patriarch Abraham is called the Father of our faith. And in this fractured world of ours, it is so vitally important to remember that Abraham is also father to the Jews and to the Muslims. He binds us all together as siblings. But what do we mean when we call him the father of our faith? What kind of faith did he practice? And how does that relate to our own experiences of faith in the world today?
Abraham, we are told, was a rich man from the land of Ur of the Chaldees. He was, like all his neighbors, a pagan and a polytheist, meaning that he worshipped false gods. But one day, when old Abe was just minding his own business, he heard a voice. He heard a voice that, for whatever reason, he came to believe was the voice of the One True God. And this voice told him to set out for a place he had never been before and to settle there. And this voice told him that he would be a father, despite the fact that his wife Sarah could not have any children, and they were both already too old. And furthermore, this voice told him that he and Sarah wouldn’t have just children, but that their descendants would be as numerous as the stars of the sky or grains of sand on a thousand beaches. So Abraham, with only an inner voice to guide him, set out on this journey.
He set out with only his inner experience to guide him. There was no Bible for him to consult. There were no temples or priests or traditions. There was no one in authority to tell him that he was right. All he had was the voice and his own convictions that he had been called. The book of Hebrews says: “(Abraham) set out, not knowing where he was going.” That is an astonishing statement. And Abraham is the father of our faith.
Abraham’s experience is so different from what most people think of as strong faith. Strong faith is usually defined as propositional truths, as doctrine, as tradition. But Abraham’s faith is defined as restlessness and “in betweenness.” This is faith as inspired intuition. And it requires trust that one day you will arrive where you are supposed to be.
Recently I’ve been having trouble with my iPhone. You see my phone doesn’t always switch between a Wi-Fi connection and the network connection automatically. And what that means is that sometimes when I get in my car after having been indoors, I can’t connect to the network. And that means I cannot get a GPS signal. And that means that I feel lost and frustrated and angry. The only way I can reconnect to the network is to restart my phone. I usually know how to get from point A to point B, but I want to hear Siri’s reassuring voice of authority that I am headed in the right direction. I don’t want to just depend upon my instincts and experience.
Abraham set on, not knowing (exactly) where he was going. And since we are his children, that means that, in order for us to grow in our faith, we have to set out. We have to move. And we very often do not know where we shall end up.
The medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich, was the first woman to write a book in the English language. And that book entitled Revelations of Divine Love is a record of the mystical visions she had as she lay dying. Well she didn’t die, even though they gave her the last rights. Instead she recovered and wrote about all that she saw in her fevered state. This little book is a little strange, as so many mystical things are. But the reason it spoke so powerfully to me is that its underlying message is that there is no place in this universe where the love of God is not present. And there is nothing that we can do to make God not love us. And that assurance gives us the courage to set out, even though we do not know where we’re going. As Julian put it: “All shall be well. And all shall be well. And all manner of things shall be well.”
And that is the essence of true faith. That is the truth that allowed our Father Abraham and our Mother Sarah to set out on their great adventure. And that is the truth that accompanies us every step of the way. No matter where the voice calls us to go, no matter how implausible it may all seem, no matter how many mistakes we make or people we hurt or sins we commit or doubts we have, in the end: “All shall be well. And all shall be well. And all manner of things shall be well.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.