A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on August 8, 2010.
Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
When I first started out in the preaching business, I developed a system for cataloguing subjects for my sermons, and I still use it. I think I’ve mentioned this to you before, but thought I’d do it again.
As I read books and come across subjects that might come in handy, I index them in the back of the book. I have an example with me. This is a book entitled Everything Must Change, by Brian D. McLaren. I use it as an example solely because, as I was preparing this sermon, it was nearby and handy.
I read this book in the spring, a year ago. Inside the back cover I have written down, in addition to scripture references, such subjects as “Following Jesus,” “Violence,” “War,” “Security, and “Despair.” Sounds like a downer of a book, doesn’t it? Trust me, it does get more positive as you read along... although not so positive that the author changes his mind. After all, the title of the book is Everything Must Change!
I do this with every book I read, which is why I prefer to purchase my books rather than borrow them. You see, for some strange reason, other folks don’t particularly care for me marking up their books! Once I’m finished with it I will put the information in my sermon preparation folder on my computer, in alphabetical order of course. If I’m preparing a sermon and I want to discuss the subject of – let’s say “forgiveness” – I’ll look it up in the file, see where I read about it, and pull the book off the shelf. Sometimes, what I have read is a big help. Other times, not so much.
This way of doing things has been a good source of information and help to me for as long as I’ve been preaching. If I had a photographic memory like one of my former professors, I wouldn’t need to do this. But I don’t have that, so this is what I do. I suppose, if I’m still around when books are no longer published on paper, I’ll have to figure out a different system. I would think it’s hard to index on a Kindle or a Nook, though the way electronics are advancing, they’ll probably figure out a way to do that too.
Back in the day, when I first began doing this, we didn’t have personal computers. I would type – yes, type (and if some of you young folk have never seen a typewriter, we have one in the history room) – these subjects on three-by-five cards and put them in a file drawer. I have one of those with me today too. It’s a bit yellowed with age, but still quite usable. This card is on the subject of “compassion,” and refers to a paper one of my seminary professors wrote in 1974 on the parables of Jesus, which I have tucked away in a file drawer. It also says I can find a discussion on compassion in the book entitled The Alphabet of Grace by Frederick Buechner. It’s on page 75. On page 137 of For God’s Sake, Be Human, by John Killinger, compassion is written about as well.
That’s my system, folks, and I’m sticking to it. It has served me well for well nigh forty years, so why change it?
You can imagine, then, that as I began preparation for today’s sermon, I looked up the subject of faith. I couldn’t help but notice that down below it, after subjects such as fallenness and family values, not to mention fasting and fatigue, is a listing of my reading on the subject of fear. What I discovered is that I have read as much about fear as I have faith. I wonder why. Could it be because fear and faith so often go together? You wouldn’t think so, but they might just be more closely intertwined than we are readily willing to admit.
If that is true, you won’t get an argument out of the people to whom the writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews is corresponding. And if it is true, it might just say to us that we really don’t know what faith is... not really. Not at its core. Not at its rawest stage. Not when push comes to shove. After all, how many of us can honestly say, or would be willing to admit, we live in fear?
Those who were reading or hearing these words for the very first time were undergoing significant persecution, and no doubt living in daily fear. To us, the eleventh chapter of Hebrews is simply the New Testament reading for our worship this morning. Chances are, when this hour is over and we return to our homes, we’ll pretty much forget what was said, or certainly will put it behind us. Just file it; that’s what we’ll do. Another Sunday, another day at church. All things considered, we’ll plan to be back in these pews next Sunday, unless something prevents us from doing so. I have no illusions about that. And when we come together again, there will be a different text of scripture for us to consider.
But to these early Christians, these words bring hope in the midst of great difficulty, and helps dispel their fear, gives them the assurance that what they are enduring, because of their devotion to Jesus, is worth it in the eyes of the God who will somehow see them through, if not on this side of the veil, certainly on the other.
And that is why the author of these words doesn’t just give them the definition of faith. He offers them a flesh-and-blood example of it. There are others who have come before us who have lived out the meaning of faith, he is telling them, walking illustrations of the reality which he is defining.
The primary subject of his discussion is that fellow named Abraham. You’re familiar with him, aren’t you? Left his homeland to follow what seemed to be the fickle and capricious guidance of God. Kept hearing this God of his whisper in his ear... something about having a child... at his advanced age. Imagine that! Was told that he would be the father of a mighty nation, whose inhabitants would outnumber the stars in the sky and the grains of sand beside the sea.
And day-by-day he and his beleaguered wife Sarah, along with their kinfolk and servants and animals, would pick up and move on, pitching their tent and breaking it down again, pitching it and breaking it down... on land that was not their own, entirely at the mercy of someone else’s hospitality. On and on, day-by-day they would wander. For a quarter of a century this was their daily destiny. All because Abraham thought that somehow he was in the hands of his God.
It’s no wonder he is lifted up as an example of faith.
But that doesn’t mean he didn’t occasionally take matters into his own hands. Remember Ishmael? And before that, Abraham, on a couple of occasions, passed Sarah off as his sister, thinking it might just save both their lives. And when the angels of the Lord came to visit them as they were camped near the oaks at Mamre, and told them Sarah, at the age of 90, would conceive a child, Sarah laughed at such a ludicrous idea. Go figure! No, Abraham and Sarah weren’t exactly 24/7 with their faith. But go ahead, look through the pages of the Hebrew Bible and see if you can come up with a better example of faith. Think you can do that?
Maybe it would be a good idea at this point to talk about the definition of faith that is set forth by the writer of this New Testament book of Hebrews. He says that faith is “the assurance of things hoped for.” That means, I suppose, that if we hope something will come to pass, being people of faith, we have the inward assurance that what we hope for is indeed what will happen. Then, he says that faith is “the conviction of things not seen.” We believe in that which is not visible to the human eye, that there are realities all around us that do not fall under the heading of empirical evidence and are not subject to limited human reasoning.
The word for faith in Greek, which of course is the written language of the New Testament, is the very unglamorous sounding pistis. Some people name their daughters Faith, but I doubt anyone would be tempted to use the name Pistis. Just doesn’t have much of a ring to it, does it? While it may not sound like much, Paul seemed to have liked the word. In fact, he used it 35 times in Romans alone.
Actually, the word pistis has been used for a name. In Greek mythology, Pistis was one of the spirits who escaped Pandora’s box and fled back to heaven, abandoning humanity. And though Jesus, in his conversations, used Aramaic as his verbal language, his words were recorded in Greek. “Will the Son of Man find faith on earth?” he wants to know (Luke 18:8). “He was speaking to a Hellenistic (i.e. Greek) culture that believed the spirit of Pistis had already left.”1 In other words, when Jesus asked this question, faith was in short supply. That makes his question a very good one indeed, not only for his day but also for our own.
Just goes to show that mythology isn’t going to do us a whole lot of good. That is why we appeal to flesh-and-blood people like Abraham and don’t rely solely on human imagination, which, of course, is the source of ancient mythology.
But there’s another reason as well, and I think the writer of Hebrews had this figured out. The point of our being here today is that we try to figure it out as well. There is a certain poetical cadence – a rhythm, if you will – to the definition of faith we find in the book to the Hebrews. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction (or perhaps evidence, some of your Bible translations might say) of things not seen.” Let’s hear it again. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Sounds good, doesn’t it? Just kind of rolls off the tongue.
But faith is not found in its definition, as remarkable as that definition may be. It doesn’t do any good if it stays on the pages of your Bible or is kept on your tongue. It has to translate into something beyond just the definition. Faith is not a definition, it is a relationship.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes about the Bible...
If I am not careful, I can begin to mistake the words on the page for the realities they describe. I can begin to love the dried ink marks on the page more than I love the encounters that gave rise to them. If I am not careful, I can decide that I am really much happier reading my Bible than I am entering into what God is doing in my own time and place, since shutting the book to go outside will involve the very great risk of taking part in stories that are still taking shape. Neither I nor anyone else knows how these stories will turn out, since at this point they involve more blood than ink. The whole purpose of the Bible, it seems to me, is to convince people to set the written word down in order to become living words in the world for God’s sake. For me, this willing conversion of ink back to blood is the full substance of faith.2
What she means – or at least I think she means – is that this book we have on our laps, or the one you see in the pew rack there in front of you, does not do us any good unless it translates into something real. It’s worthless unless it inspires us in our living and gives us hope for the days to come. If we love the words of scripture more than we love living out those words, we are a people most to be pitied. The Bible is more than a book, it is the means by which we discover and involve ourselves in the most significant relationships of our lives.
What is true of the Bible is just as true of faith. We can come up with all kinds of definitions for faith, but if they do not cause us to experience faith, faith simply remains a doctrine or belief, and that is not what it is meant to be. Faith, above all else, is to be found in relationship... with God and with others. Faith is “found in right relationships, not in right ideas.”3
We treat faith as if it were a briefcase filled with proper belief, that if we believe correctly all we have to do is carry it around with us. If we are willing to do that, our faith will then be authentic. In truth, we do not carry faith; real faith carries us, if for no other reason than it is a gift from God that we do not, and cannot, earn. Or, as Thomas Merton puts it, it is a gift God gives us when we forget ourselves on purpose.
I said earlier that some Bible translations use the word “evidence” in defining faith, others employ the word “conviction.” Do they mean the same thing? Not in my mind. I think I’ll go with the word “conviction,” though it might not sound as pleasant or poetic as “evidence.” And do you want to know why? Because conviction is something we believe despite the evidence. Conviction is a living reality that permeates our actions and makes us move on in life when our courage has failed us, and compels us to live for others when it would be far easier to give up and withdraw unto ourselves. It picks us up and carries us when we cannot move on our own.
I believe with all my heart that your life story, and mine, is just as compelling as Abraham’s. I doubt our names will ever make it into scripture, but if they are written on the hearts of those we touch and with whom we have relationship, the journey of faith will have been worth it, whether we live in a tent or not. And the only way to make that journey is by faith.
We ask for faith, O Lord, undeserved though it may be. And when we come to the edge of our light, go with us that we might take that next step into the darkness. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.
1David E. Gray, Feasting on the Word, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors, Year C, Volume 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p. 330.
2Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church (San Francisco: Harper, 2006), p. 107.