Text: Hebrews 11:1-16
Wendell Berry, farmer, poet, turned 85 this past week. He once wrote: “Put your faith in the two inches of humus that will build under the trees every thousand years.” These words come at the end of his Mad Farmer Liberation Front Manifesto in which he chastises the many other things in which humanity has placed its faith: the quick profit, mindless consumption, the generals and politicos. At 85 and counting, Wendell Berry is living a full life. But according to his own math — 1000 years to form two inches of humus – the full stretch of his life, so far, is only enough time for .17 inches of that richest of soils to accumulate in the healthiest of forests. Barely visible to the human eye. Which of course is his point about the nature of faith.
In chapter 11 of the letter to the Hebrews faith is at the forefront of the author’s mind. Having just finished writing about the importance of provoking each other to love and good deeds and staying in the habit of meeting together, the author ends chapter 10 by stating, “But we are not among those who shrink back and so are lost, but among those who have faith and so are saved.”
That sounds like a pretty definitive statement. We don’t shrink back. We have faith. But the author seems to know that simply naming the importance of having faith is not enough. So the letter continues with the specific purpose of going deeper into what is meant by faith. What precisely is it that we have when we have faith? And so chapter 11 begins, “Now faith is…”
One of the places I notice the word faith showing up regularly is in these ecumenical and interfaith gatherings we’re a part of – BREAD, the monthly Interfaith Justice Table bfasts of Faith in Public Life, and immigrant justice groups. The most common way we refer to one another in those settings is “people of faith.” When we make collective statements, they often begin with something like “As people of faith, we believe…” This phrase, “people of faith,” has come to serve as ecumenical shorthand for two simultaneous realities. 1) We come from different faith traditions – Reform Jews, Methodists, Muslims, Conservative Jews, Roman Catholics, Mennonites. 2) What we have in common is faith. We are people of faith, speaking from a faith perspective. Which provokes the question: What is it we are of as people of faith?
Hebrews 11 starts by offering a definition: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” That’s how the NRSV puts it. The word assurance doesn’t mean certainty. The same Greek word is translated elsewhere in the letter as “very being.” The word means the underlying substance on which all else is dependent. Faith is the underlying substance of hope. Faith has to do with seeing things currently not seen.
The author also seems to know that definitions with subtle Greek words aren’t enough. And so the rest of the chapter about faith is short stories. Stories about people of faith.
These stories are drawn from the Hebrew Bible and range all the way from creation, through the unnamed martyrs, up to Jesus and the present day of the author and readers. Faith is not some kind of abstract idea, something to pin down like an insect with the correct label, but something that has been living inside the human story since the beginning of time. All of these stories start with the phrase: “By faith…”
The first story: “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.” As we’ve talked about before, Genesis One was not an amateur attempt at evolutionary science, but rather a birth story for the Hebrew people who were living in the belly of a foreign empire. Had those conquered and exiled Jews in Babylon only looked with their physical eyes at the world around them, they would have believed the Babylonian faith, that creation happens through domination, by conquering and destroying one’s enemies, then fashioning a new world out of the corpse of the old. This is the Babylonian creation myth. We have the preserved text – the Enuma Elish. All signs were pointing to this being the truth. But, by faith, the exiled Jews believed that creation doesn’t require violent conquest. God, they believed, is able to create through the spoken word even if this new creation seems barely visible right now. And by faith, the Jews told this creation story to one another while they were in exile and by faith their own words became the word of God speaking light into the darkness, making visible the invisible. By faith.
The first person mentioned by name who acted by faith is Abel. This may not seem very noteworthy to us, but given the broad theme of how history usually gets told, it is striking. History usually gets told from the perspective of the winners, from those who have gained power and from those who hoard power by putting their own spin on history. We hear about the heroes who conquer. Those who get conquered slip away as the nameless and forgotten. But Abel, son of Adam and Eve, younger brother of Cain, is the first major loser of history, the first murder victim. It would be possible to forget Abel and all those who would come after him who were silenced. But by faith, as it says, he “still speaks.” Faith takes into account the story of Abel, even elevates him in this account as the prototype of faith, even though he is invisible to the dominant story of history.
With this kind of awareness, we might notice that nearly all of the names mentioned throughout Hebrews 11 are those of men. In the Spirit of Abel, the invisible one made visible, we could supplement the overall list of Hebrews 11 with something like this:
By faith Ruth left her homeland of Moab, and lived as a foreigner in the land of her mother-in-law Naomi.
By faith Mary Magdalene rose early on the first day of the week and went to the tomb of Jesus.
By faith Julian of Norwich sat alone in her anchorage, writing of the wonders of divine love.
By faith Harriet Tubman guided friends and strangers out of captivity, and returned again for more.
By faith migrant women leave the familiarities of home and travel through desert and river to find safety for themselves and their loved one.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The timeline of today’s reading continues from Abel through Enoch and Noah and lands on Abraham.
The New Testament holds Abraham to be the father of all who have faith. The apostle Paul especially uses the story of Abraham as a way of saying that all people have access to the reality of faith. Through Abraham, all nations shall bless and be blessed.
Strong faith often gets confused with certainty. But the part of Abraham’s faith that is commended is exactly his unknowing. By faith, Abraham set out for a new place, “not knowing where he was going.” He is an example of faith not because he knew how things were going to turn out and everything was clear for him, but because he set out on the way despite not knowing where he was going. Faith was for him a direction and not a clear destination.
The key to this passage is how the author chooses to make the connection between the faith of these people mentioned. What is the thread that weaves its way through these stories of faith that helps us better understand the very nature of faith itself?
Verse https://joelssermons.files.wordpress.com/2019/08/20190811sermon.mp313: “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.”
What these people of faith hold in common is not something that happened to them in their lifetime, but something that didn’t happen to them. They didn’t receive everything they were hoping for. Their life expired before they could measure the amount of new humus accumulating under the trees.
Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century, wrote a statement on faith that fits well here. He says: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.”
Hebrews 11:13: “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.”
What do they have in common? 1) They’re dead. 2) Their hopes were unfulfilled in their lifetimes, but they did see and greet them from a distance. Like faith is what gives us legs to walk toward the horizon we will never reach in this lifetime. Or faith gives us the eyes to see that there is a horizon worth walking toward.
Fortunately we in this room have only one of those two things in common with the Hebrews 11 crowd, so far. But that one thing, so far, is still a big one.
This means even if we all live the full length of our years we will not get to see everything we hoped for come to fruition. We will not solve injustice. We will not complete all of our personal projects. We will not perfect our personalities.
Here’s an even harder reality. Of all those people in the Hebrews 11 Faith hall of fame the span of our lives might be most like Noah, who lived through a time of great destruction. When so much of the beauty of the world was washed away. According to those who study this as a profession, all the best measurements are indicating that we will continue to live through a time of massive species die off and strain on the earth’s life support systems. Which means it’s a very difficult time to be alive if you require widespread visible healing, repair, betterment within your lifetime to maintain your faith.
When speaking of faith the author of Hebrews instinctively knows that it is something far more than what can be possessed and contained within a single lifetime. Our lives are too short for the ongoing presence of faith in history to be resolved within us, or for the problems that faith addresses to be ended. We see, at best, fragments of the big picture. We participate in incomplete ways in what is true and beautiful and good.
To repeat the words of Reinhold Niebuhr: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.”
Niebuhr sites faith, hope, and love, those same three gifts Paul names in 1 Corinthians 13 right after he has said, “but now, we see through a glass dimly.” Our lives are mostly characterized by partial understandings and blurred vision.
The kind of faith that we are being introduced to here is a faith that enables us to live with integrity in such a reality — a faith that lifts our eyes beyond the immediate circumstances of our lives and puts us in a broadening relationship with time and place and puts us in touch with God’s movement throughout. Rather the being restricted to the confines of our limited vision, we are invited into a spaciousness that helps us see what otherwise may be unseen.
Can you see the light of God in the person sitting next to you? Can you see the holy flame in your own soul? Can you see the invisible people of history and see the creative possibilities of God where others see only unending problems? Can you see around you the beaten and crucified Christ, the laughing and resurrected Christ? Can you trust that fallen leaves will become humus long after you’ve become humus?
I don’t expect any of us can answer Yes to these questions all the time. Faith is itself a gift we’re not always able to receive on its own terms. In fact, I think not having faith is one of the best reasons for showing up at church. Because when we don’t have faith it’s good to be a part of a body that can hold that faith for us.
Faith takes into account the absolute goodness, overwhelming generosity, incalculable mercy and lovingkindness of God. Faith is joining in a particular flow of the creation story, or at least dipping your toe in the river to make sure it’s still flowing: from Abel, to Abraham, to Ruth, to Mary Magdelene, to Jesus, to Columbus Mennonite Church 2019 to whatever this place and the living ones who call it home will look like in 10 years and 1000 years from now.