"Faith is the assurance of things hoped for / the conviction of things unseen."
The verse lends itself to being on a plaque, don’t you think? It’s easy to memorize and it’s comforting because we know in our bones, that it is true. Who among us has not experienced being assured of something that hasn’t happened yet – but that you know will happen? Or been absolutely convinced of things you can’t see or feel or touch?
But also just as surely – who among us has not doubted, not questioned, not had those wondering/wandering thoughts? It’s a popular misconception that if you have faith – you don’t have doubt. But that is not the case. Doubts and questions are not the opposite of faith. They are often the indicators of a faith that is pulsing with life and that is strong enough to welcome questions and wonderings and dark doubts as members of the family with secure places at the table. So don’t let doubt scare you. Don’t let questions frighten you. They are part and parcel of mature faith.
Mature faith is also filled with paradox. The author of this letter to the Hebrews isn’t shy about that. He holds in creative tension to very different directions that faith takes. The first direction is into the past / faith holds fast to that which has been received and experienced. The past is how we get our bearings. How we know who we are. Active, mature faith is grounded in tradition and in experience. And that tradition and experience is passed on – mostly through stories.
In my family – a hold fast story is about my great grandfather who was a banker in the Midwest and lost everything. He sold all his possessions to try to make his depositors whole, and then, penniless, brought his family to California. He never recovered from that disaster, his sons did somewhat, and succeeding generations have even more – but the story is carried forward in the McConnell clan, to say, this is what faithful people do – they hold fast to integrity, regardless of personal cost, and they move forward, regardless of fear.
The author of Hebrews immediately follows the verse that defines faith with stories about the ancestors – Abel, Enoch, Noah, and Abraham. And interestingly, he re-interprets the story of Abraham – smoothing out the rough edges of that mixed bag of an Old Testament man and making him into the epitome of New Testament faithfulness. Kind of like I just did with my great grandfather’s story!
So, the first movement of faith is for the past to be made useful – for definition and direction- and the second movement is into freedom of action. I am not speaking about linear or hierarchical movements. In God’s realm, in the realm of active faith – these can happen simultaneously as well as in a back and forth sort of way. The important things is that as you listen with one ear to your life and to the life of your community and world - as you listen with one ear to the actual circumstances and times in which you live – and with the other ear tuned to the Living God – as you listen this way – the way Noah listened, and Abraham listened, and the people who built this parish listened - you are summoned into a new way of being, into an open future of possibilities you could not have imagined on your own.
I’m guessing that as my great grandfather and great grandmother drove their rickety car across the Rockies and into Los Angeles, they had absolutely no idea what to expect. From a grand home with a grand piano and parties and horse racing across the plains of the Midwest, to a small, dark home in a crowded California city – they had no way of knowing how things would turn out. What they did know, just as Abraham knew, and countless people of faith have known, is that God not abandon his people, AND he calls them forward, even through the terrors of the unknown.
It is true – what the author of Hebrews reports – that some of these died before they reached the promised Land – the promised hope. Moses acted out of the assurance of God’s dream of freedom for slaves, but he died before he entered the promised Land. Martin Luther King lived in the conviction and assurance of the hope that God’s dream of justice and righteousness could be realized in the United States of America, but he did not live to experience it.
And back to Abraham – he too died before God’s promise of starry descendents and a promised land had been realized. The point is – the life of faith is not necessarily about the full realization in your lifetime of the hopes that God has planted in your heart – the life of faith is about faithful action in response to God’s call. God called Abraham out of his ease and into the unknown – and Abraham obeyed. He took care of all the practical details– and then … then …. He waited, because there was a long gap of many years – over a decade – before he ever heard from God again.
As if no time had elapsed, God appeared to him in a dream with the preposterous statement that Abraham’s descendants would be as numerous as the starry heavens….at which point, Abraham talked back. “Not sure if you’ve noticed, God – but I’m an old man, and my wife Sarah, is WAY past the time when it would be possible for her to have children.. It’s ok and all….I don’t regret having followed your call / but let’s get real here.”
And then, lo and behold, Isaac happened. Isaac – meaning Laughter! They named their son that because Abraham and Sarah had laughed so hard they cried when the angels came and let them know that they were going to have a baby. Can’t you just hear those two old people having the time of their lives – “Laughter, come here, your mom wants you.” “Laughter, stop that right now!” “Laughter, dinner’s ready!”
And then, without any smile in his heart….“Laughter, come, we’re going to the mountains to sacrifice.” “But dad, I see the wood and the knife – where’s the lamb?” “God will provide, Laughter, let’s just keep putting one foot in front of the other.”
This is faith. When there is no joy, when there is no peace, when there is no reasonable explanation – there is still trust. Because ultimately Faith is not a noun. It is not something we can possess and patent. It isn’t something we can conjure up. It is a gift. It is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. To pour it out for you – this is God’s desire and God’s pleasure. What is your part? Well – how do you receive joy? You open yourself up as much as you can – and receive it and it creates a state of being that makes things possible for you that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.
It was all gift. Abraham and Sarah’s wealth was a gift, as was their journey, as was their trust in the God who promised descendants more numerous than the stars, as was their continued trust when their one son, “Laughter” was almost snatched away from them.
Can you receive your life this way - as pure and total gift - your resources, your bank account, your home, your spouse, your children, your employment, your lack of employment, your situation, whatever it is – happy or sad – whatever it is? This is the groundwork of faith. This is the substance of things hoped for - to participate in in the Great Thanksgiving, the Great Eucharist of thanksgiving for the brokenness that is our wholeness. This is the life of faith – lived in both directions – re-interpreting the past and moving with freedom into the future – offering thanksgiving for life, and bread, and wine, and water, and the shelter of companions – thanksgiving for the very life of God that is with us and in us.