The video above includes the full service, except for the time for sharing.
Permission to podcast/stream the music in this service obtained through One License with license A-727859. Copyrights for songs given after the sermon text
Sermon | Having faith
Text: Hebrews 11:1-16
Speaker: Joel Miller
Wendell Berry, poet and author, Kentucky farmer, turned 88 on Friday. 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 88 and counting, Wendell Berry is living a full life. But according to his own math -- 1000 years to form two inches of humus – the length of his life, so far, is only time for .176 inches of that richest of soils to accumulate in the healthiest of forests. Barely noticeable 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…”
“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. And 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 what it looks like to have 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. 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.” 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 in Hebrews 11 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 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 chapter 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?
V. 13. “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 any noticeable amount of new humus accumulated under the trees.
20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr 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 projects. We will not fully optimize our skillset. 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 era we are living in 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. That’s a lot of loss, a lot of grief. Now is a very difficult time to be alive if you require widespread visible healing, repair, betterment within your lifetime to maintain your faith.
When Yasir Makki is in our area, visiting from South Sudan, we usually go out for a meal together. The last time we did this I was feeling particularly discouraged with the state of things in the US. And I made some off-hand comment about how I didn’t have a lot of hope right now. And he quickly corrected me. Something to the effect of “No, we cannot think like this.” And he was absolutely right. There is a big difference between believing or not believing in American optimism and progress, and having 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.
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 we’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. And then when faith does become visible, it becomes something else, like love.
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 2022 to whatever this place and the living ones who call it home will look like in 10 years and 1000 years from now.
Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life - Voices Together #48. Text: George Herbert (England), The Temple, 1633; Music: Ralph Vaughan Williams (England), 1911, Five Mystical Songs, No. 4; adapt. for Hymnal for Colleges and Schools, 1956. Public domain.
Ask the Complicated Questions - Voices Together #440. Text: David Bjorlin (USA), © 2017 GIA Publications, Inc. Music: Joan Fyock Norris (USA), © 1989, Joan Fyock Norris. All rights reserved. Podcast/Streamed with permission under ONE LICENSE, license #A-727859. All rights reserved.
Faith Begins By Letting Go - Voices Together #585. Text: Carl P. Daw Jr. (USA), 1995, © 1996 Hope Publishing Company. Music: David J. Gonzol (USA), © 2019 David J. Gonzol. All rights reserved. Permission to podcast/stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE, license #A-727859. All rights reserved.
Go My Friends in Grace - Voices Together #810. Text: David Wright (USA), 2004, A Field of Voices, 2007, © 2004, David Wright; Music: James E. Clemens (USA), 2004, A Field of Voices, 2007, © 2004, James E. Clemens. All rights reserved. Permission to podcast/stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE, license #A-727859. All rights reserved.