Sermon; Proper 15C; Hebrews 11:29 - 12:2
Last week we began a stretch that will cover four weeks from the Letter to the Hebrews. That passage opened up with this sentence: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
The author expanded on this thought by invoking Abraham and Sarah. Back in Genesis 12, God tells Abram that he will be the father of a great nation. And in Genesis 15, God tells him that his descendants shall be as numerous as the stars in the sky. Even though both Abram and Sarai were old, as good as dead and barren, they believed in the promise. Abraham had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac – hardly as many as the stars in the sky. Isaac also had two sons, Jacob and Esau; again, hardly as many as stars in the sky. Jacob had many sons, who had many sons, who had many sons, who became as numerous as the stars in the sky. And that promise was fulfilled by faith – the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
This theme, faith in things not seen, continues in today's passage. The author recounts famous stories of old – the parting of the Red Sea, the fall of Jericho, and heroes of days gone by – Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, and Samuel. These famous men and women of old are named as faithful servants who also did not see or receive what was promised. And in one of the more gorier passages, the author recounts how faithful people of God were flogged and stoned to death, sawed in two, and killed by the sword. None of these received that promise in their lifetimes.
In thinking about the readings from Hebrews over the past two weeks, there are really two things I want to address. The first is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things unseen. This reminds me of what Paul said in 1 Corinthians: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” This whole faith thing isn't necessarily about what it or God can do for me. Faith is not about the prosperity gospel that assures us we will reap massive benefits to our health, wealth, and financial status if we simply believe hard enough and in the right things.
We need to remember that we do what we do for a bigger purpose than ourselves. We do what we do for something that goes beyond obtaining our desires. We are here to worship, welcome, serve, and encourage. All of that looks beyond us. To worship God. To welcome the stranger. To serve others. To encourage people in a variety of ways. Sometimes we are the beneficiaries of these things. But as Eucharistic Prayer C reminds us, we must avoid the presumption of coming here for solace only and not for strength; for pardon only and not for renewal.
In some ways this gets back to stewardship. We are stewards of the building, grounds, finances, and people, not so that we can have the biggest, best, richest, beautiful-est, most populous (and popular) church in town, but so that we can be a beacon of hope for others, a place where others can grow in the faith and love of God, and where generations not seen will come to worship, welcome, serve, and encourage. Our stewardship is a visible reminder of faith in things hoped for, and a conviction of things unseen. One plants. One waters. God causes the growth. In other words, this is the conviction of things not seen.
The second point I want to look at is from today's reading; and in particular the list of heroes of old. The author recalls the crossing of the Red Sea and the taking of Jericho. The author lists people such as Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, and Samuel. These are listed by name as being part of our heritage and part of the great cloud of witnesses who ran that race of faith, endured trials and tribulations, and have taken their seat in the kingdom of God.
It all sounds wonderful and thrilling. But here are the dark backstories:
An untold number of Egyptians died while pursuing their property. Rahab was a prostitute who betrayed her people. Gideon was so afraid of following God that he only did what God asked him to do in the middle of the night, as well as continually testing God to get a favorable response. Barak would not fight for God alone, but required Deborah to go with him, which led to Jael getting the fame. Samson was petulant and petty, and eventually became the first suicide terrorist when he killed 3000 Philistines who had gathered together. Jephthah became a general and, after winning a crucial battle, made an ill-advised oath which resulted in offering his daughter as a burnt sacrifice. David, among other things, raped Bathsheba. And Samuel cut an enemy king to pieces.
THESE are the people that the author of Hebrews extols as being great men and women of the faith? THESE are the people we count as being part of the great cloud of witnesses? Yes, yes they are.
We sometimes have this idea that the people of God must be lily-white pure, free from any sin, in order to qualify as his. People outside the church often think the same, and point to our failings, our hypocrisy, as a reason to not be part of the church. Sometimes people in the church expect those outside the church to be lily-white pure and free from any sin before they will invite them to join us.
These points of view are all untrue. None of us are perfect. None of us are sinless. It's not hypocritical for us to sin. But it is hypocritical for us to not acknowledge our sin and repent while holding others to a different standard than ourselves. Nor can we hold up the unsavory side of these characters and claim they are all much worse than I, so I can keep on doing what I'm doing.
No, we are not perfect. Yes, we sin. We must acknowledge that sin (confess) and work to change our actions, behaviors, whatevers (repent) so that we can more closely follow the way of God. The trick is to work on this one day, one hour, one moment at a time. The trick is to continually strive to be in relationship with God. The trick is to remember that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, both past and present, out there and in this room, who strive to follow God. And, as it just so happens, some of those who are part of that great cloud of witnesses are unsavory characters.
So let us work to lay aside every weight and sin that clings closely. Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us. Let us continually look to Jesus. Let us remember that others have gone before and others will come after. And let us keep in mind that, despite our imperfections, we hold to this assurance of things hoped for while having the conviction of things not seen.