A sermon on Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
In a political satire on 19th century American economics, L. Frank Baum gave us the timeless image of a young girl from Kansas clicking her ruby slippers together three times: “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.” She was in a land of magic and wonder that many of us would love to visit. Even though she was in the magical land of Oz with witches, wizards, talking scarecrows, tin men that move, flying monkeys, and singing munchkins, she wanted to return home. She wanted to abandon a Technicolor paradise to return to a monochrome farm, where her home was destroyed by a tornado. She wanted to return simply because it was home.
Being a stranger in a place means that one is disconnected from the community around us. Strangers are unknowns, we teach our children to stay away from them. No one sets out to be a stranger as a goal. Imagine the difficulties many in our country face on a daily basis when they do not know our culture, our language, how to ride the bus, how to apply for jobs or aid. Even applying for citizenship, under entirely legal means can be daunting for someone unfamiliar with the complexities of government paperwork. The difficulties refugees, immigrants and aliens face on a daily basis highlight the horrors of being displaced.
Rather, we as a human race constantly desire to be at home, or to return home. Home is a place where our being comes to a rest. We smell the indescribable, unique smell of our houses, see the familiar placement of our furniture, and we know that we are home. We desire homeostasis, for everything to be comfortable, relaxing, and stable. These are things that Jesus did not have. We are told by Christ that he had no place to rest his head, he was always a guest in a foreign land. A truth intensified by the fact that, as a sort of technicality, Jesus himself was a foreigner in a strange land. He did not belong here, but always talked about returning to the Father.
Scripture talks often about “returning home” or of the joys of homecoming, but that event is always in the future. The Israelites in the desert wander for 40 years looking for home, Moses dies without setting his eyes upon it. Jesus himself promises that he is going to prepare a place for us. And as we read in Hebrews, this longing for home, awaiting the promises of a place that has been prepared for us is described as “faith.”
The ease that we often come to an understanding of faith is betrayed by how often we disagree about just what it means. The story I’ve been told about faith in the church starts with the fact that Jesus died for my sins. Should I be so convicted and feel guilty enough to have faith in that fact, I receive salvation. We all have heard the words of Paul “…if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom 10:9). The common understanding, the understanding I had for a long time, was that this was the straight and narrow of Christianity, believe this one truth, and salvation surely will be ours.
In our culture of immediacy, this approach makes sense to reduce the complexities of faith down to one sentence. We don’t read long books, we don’t read long emails. If someone hands us a thick document, our impulse is to give it to someone else and say “Just tell me what I need to know.”
However, reducing salvation to a formula: a one sentence mantra for eternal salvation is not going to cut it. Paul was talking about something much greater, and that’s not what Jesus was talking about when he said time and time again to have faith. We know we need to have faith, it’s our calling, but we rarely pause to think about what that means.
As Christians, we have lost touch with what we mean when we say the word “faith.” Often it as a hopeful, inspiring word: you can go to Hobby Lobby or a flower shop, you can find wall hangings of faith in fancy letters, it’s a sentimental word for us.
When we look to our faith, many of us use the definition we read here in Hebrews: the “conviction of things not seen.” We see the doubting Thomas looking at the holes in the hands of Christ and hear him say “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Those words speak heavily to us today, especially in a world where we are taught that all real thinking and knowledge occurs in the realm of “reason.” One of the consequences of the increasing reliance upon method, reason, proof and evidence is that faith began to be divided from the rational thought process. Somewhere along the way faith was put into a corner, such that popular atheist authors are able to easily define faith as “blind trust, in the absence of evidence.” Consequently Christians are painted as anti-intellectuals who turn a blind eye to scientific truth in order to chase a pipe dream that we accept as truth, without any good reason for doing so.
To come to such a conclusion is to misread the biblical account of faith. Faith is always spoken of as a gift: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph 2:8). Faith is something we receive. It is not an intellectual faculty of our brains, but rather it is something we receive as an addition to who we are, a gift of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, because faith is a gift to us, the knowledge of the one true God and the reality of Jesus Christ is a truth that is imparted to us. It is the awakening of new sight within us, we are able to experience the world and see the handprint of God all around us. It is no mistake that Jesus was constantly healing the blind in the gospels and telling people to listen who have ears to hear.
Christians are not ostriches with our heads in the sand, ignoring the calls and taunts of those more enlightened around us. As soon as we become those ostriches ignoring the world around us, we have forgotten what faith is about. Rather, we believe in God and the church because we have very good evidence for doing so. Yesterday, I had attended a funeral for Andrea, a woman I had the pleasure to work with in ministry. She lived her entire life in service to God, and was particularly skilled at visiting the sick and anyone in need. Her capacity and faith in listening speak volumes of evidence for God’s reign to me. Each of our own experiences of the grace of God certainly count as reasonable proof for faith.
In the Hebrews reading from today, faith is described in two dimensions: “the assurance of things hoped for, and the convictions of things unseen.” Faith moves beyond belief and enters into the realm of trust. God’s revelation to each of us the truth of the world, that is was created in divine hands, entails a promise to us. A promise that God would reform and restore this world, that each of us as followers of Christ would have a place prepared for us (John 14:2). Faith is “a longing for home.” Faith has a nasty habit of shaking us up, disrupting our comfortable lives, and pushing us to realize that we are in a foreign land. If we believe in the divine vision of the kingdom of God, the reign of Christ, then this world is a foreign one.
That Abraham and the fathers and mothers of faith “confessed they were strangers and foreigners on the earth.” Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus himself lived their lives seeking a homeland, and died without receiving their promises. It is their diligence, their devotion to their faith that we celebrate.
Abraham is not remembered in the history of our faith for professing a scholarly faith that trumped his polytheistic brethren. Nor because he abandoned reason, and followed some strange God without evidence. Rather, we call it the faith of Abraham because he received a promise from God. The Lord chose him to be a light unto the nations, he was to be blessed with land and an innumerable number of offspring. His legacy would live on forever. Abraham’s faith is found in him doing rather ridiculous and ill-advised things, while trusting that God would deliver. He moved to another country, living in tents. Sarah received the gift of procreation, though she laughed in the presence of God at the promise of a child, she gave Abraham an heir. And it was the bizarre faith of Abraham who placed that son on an altar, giving up the gift of faith for the promise of faith.
Abraham’s story is a lifelong quest in foreign lands with lots of hardship. Abraham was no hero, he made a few mistakes. His legacy is that he never forgot the covenant he made with God, and worked to hold that hope he received from his faith in front of him. There are few spotless heroes in the Bible, most are real people with failures, who God chooses to shower with grace. Our own journeys will also be filled with hardship, we will make mistakes, we will doubt. In times of hardship, when life hits us hard, often our mood is not a particularly faithful one. For this reason, CS Lewis describes faith in Mere Christianity as “the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of changing moods” (141). Faith as a trusting instinct, harkens back to those reasons we have felt receiving faith, and uses those evidences as a reason to press on. Abraham no doubt encountered many moods where the faithful promise of a homeland seemed too distant. Yet, it is his faithful perseverance that brought him glory. Many have described faith as a virtue, a habit that we are given by God, but that we have to train. Christians are called to train in the habit of faith, so that the vision of the promises of Christ will lighten even our most distant, and darkness day.
Faith is that “assurance” of things hoped for. An assurance is a sort of pledge or down payment. None of us would sell a house or a car without receiving some sort of assurance or down payment. God does not leave us without a tangible assurance. The gift of faith comes with a partial payment, a participation in the reality that God has promised to us. Christians live in two realities. One foot in the world of pain and brokenness, and one foot in the heavenly world of God.
Our faith gives us just enough of a taste of God’s heavenly kingdom to make us foreigners in our own land. Faith is a “longing” for home, and Christians are homesick. The pain comes when the homesickness seems to be never ending. Yet, it becomes our strength when the promises of God enable us, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to be faithful disciples of God.
Faith is a gift that enables us to not be ashamed to call God our God. And God claims us. Faith enables us to claim a far-off heavenly city as home, a place that is revealed here on earth, called the Kingdom of God, for those with eyes to see. Faith is a “longing for home” because Christians have been burdened with the wonderful, freeing truth that our homeland is not here. Though we may not see it in this lifetime, the promises we have received and the faith we are gifted allow us to live.
Faith is certainly many things: knowledge of the one true God, trust in the saving redemption of Christ, a pledge and covenant to serve God and the Church, and a hope for the future redemption of God’s creation. May our faith bring us hope, and may hope bring us the love of Christ.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.