Sunday, August 7, 2016
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
When we were in Portland on vacation in June, we had the opportunity to catch up with Pastor Rich’s old friends from high school and college and his girlfriend, a couple that now lives in Portland. We didn’t plan on seeing them because we weren’t even sure if they were still in the area. You see, the last we had heard from them, they had planned to quit their high-powered jobs in downtown Manhattan and move from Brooklyn, New York to Portland, Oregon with basically no plan: no job prospects, no house to live in – just a few family and friends they were connected to out west. And when we were able to meet up for dinner in Portland, they told us for a few months after they moved to Portland, they were basically homeless…sleeping on friends’ couches and camping while they tried to find a decent apartment to rent and jobs to pay the bills. It turns out, Portland is the place to be these days – they’d show up to look at an available apartment and 30 other people would be there, too. It took them months to find somewhere to live and new employment. They were tired enough of the rat race of New York that they acted on a new vision for their lives: a place with a yard for a garden, a shorter commute to have time for one another, meaningful jobs in the non-profit sector that could make a difference in other people’s lives.
I would say that our friends had faith – faith that they could set out on another path with a pretty drastic move and career change, and that in the end their lives would be better. And I would also say that the kind of faith that inspires people to turn their lives around, to live for something greater than themselves, and to have the patient endurance that the future WILL be better than the past, is the kind of faith that can only come from God. Our reading this morning from Hebrews says just that: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” But as we talked in awe with our friends about this huge move of faith, I wondered if I would be courageous enough to make a life change like that, too – would I have enough faith to leave my job, my home, most of my friends and family? Do I trust enough that God has this, ALL of this, even if I can’t see it yet?
Our friends in Portland in a way are a modern-day Abraham and Sarah. In our readings from Genesis and Hebrews this morning, we’re reminded of Abraham and Sarah’s journey of faith. First, God tells them to leave their homeland for the promised land – they don’t know exactly where they’re going, but they go. Abraham and Sarah end up living a nomadic lifestyle in tents as foreigners, but they trust that God will give their descendants a land to call home, which God does. They have faith that they themselves will have a heavenly home with God forever. And finally, God gives Abraham and Sarah a son in their old age. What they have to trust and what they do not see in their lifetimes, is that their descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky, from this one miracle baby Isaac, their only son. God makes these promises to Abraham and Sarah, and they have faith that God will keep his word, that these promises are true, even if they don’t see everything to completion themselves. Faith is trusting that God is at work for the good and WILL do what God says he will do, even if we won’t see it in our lifetime.
One of the things I love about the scriptures is that it reminds us that people are people, and even Abraham and Sarah, while we can certainly lift them up as heroes in the faith who model trust in God, aren’t perfect people. Before Abraham and Sarah get pregnant, Sarah laughs – it’s impossible that she could conceive! She can’t believe it. Abraham has his son Ishmael with Sarah’s slave Hagar as a back-up inheritance plan – it’s the practical thing to do. Even strong, faithful, God-fearing people have times that they try to rely on their own strength, their own plans, their own timeline, rather than God’s. Certainly we are no different – we try to trust and believe that God truly loves us and cares for us BUT… So, what do you struggle to hand over to God in faith right now? When I thought about this question, a few things come to mind: fixing our air conditioner at church. That our country will be OK regardless of who gets elected this November. That my family and friends travelling overseas will be safe. That our congregation in the near future WILL have more young people and young families as an active part of our ministry. Those are just some of the things I struggle handing over to God.
I was convicted about my lack of faith this past week when I was reading a great evangelism book for some continuing education time called Unbinding the Gospel. The author, Martha Grace Reese, told a story about meeting with a group of four ladies who were just starting an evangelism team at their church. They were gung-ho and passionate about helping their church be more inviting and excited about sharing the gospel. They were ready to implement all of this evangelism expert’s tips for what they could do, how they could start. Martha instructed them to first take three months to meet weekly to pray. To pray specifically about their congregation and how God might use their evangelism efforts. She said it was very hard for these action-oriented ladies to think about just praying for that long without doing anything. The council laughed and gave them a hard time when month after month all they had to report was that they were meeting weekly to pray. But then Martha said that when she checked in with those ladies after their three-month period dedicated to prayer, they reported that 65 people from the congregation had asked to be a part of the evangelism team. Evangelism became a whole congregation’s effort, rather than a group of four ladies doing all of the work – they saw the fruit of prayer exponentially. They had started first with faith in God that God would give them the direction they needed.
When the writer of Hebrews talks about Abraham and Sarah trusting God on their whole life’s journey “BY FAITH,” the word the author uses in the Greek is connected to two words that mean, “standing under.” We might say, “support,” in English. Theologian Paul Tillich said that for Christians, Jesus is the “ground of being.” When we as Christians say that we put our trust in God or that we live our life by faith, that doesn’t necessarily mean we won’t ever have doubts or put ourselves before God and try to take control. We’re human beings and we make mistakes. Our faith in God roots us and grounds us. We stand on the firm foundation of Christ who is there to support us when we falter – when the air conditioner unexpectedly breaks, when we think about making a career change or a big move or trying to eliminate our debt, when we pray for our country and wring our hands about this presidential election. Faith isn’t just about how much we can trust God – it’s about knowing that God is strong enough, big enough, stable enough to support us when we realize we’re not in control! Sometimes all we CAN do is put our trust in God, and take it to the Lord in prayer. When we reconnect to Jesus as the ground of our being, as the only support that will truly hold in this life and the next, then we can start to see the fruit of our prayers – even if we don’t see everything we hope for come to fruition. This morning, I invite you to look to God as your first and last support in prayer. Before you act – take it to God, and listen for how God might be at work. Take longer than you might otherwise take before you act to let God take control before you take over. Ask someone else to pray with you and for you. And when you’re ready to act, know that as you step out in faith, God is right there supporting you as sure as the very ground you walk upon, leading you into that promised future. Amen.