Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
for St John United Lutheran Church, Seattle
Prayer of the Day:
Almighty God, you sent your Holy Spirit to be the life and light of your church. Open our hearts to the riches of your grace, that we may be ready to receive you wherever you appear, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
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Hear again, sisters and brothers in Christ, the words of today’s reading from the book of Hebrews. This is a slightly different translation, but it is the same reading. It begins like this:
The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see. The act of faith is what distinguished our ancestors, set them above the crowd. By faith, we see the world called into existence by God’s word, what we see created by what we don’t see.
By an act of faith, Abraham said yes to God’s call to travel to an unknown place that would become his home. When he left he had no idea where he was going. By an act of faith he lived in the country promised him, lived as a stranger camping in tents. Isaac and Jacob did the same, living under the same promise. Abraham did it by keeping his eye on an unseen city with real, eternal foundations – the City designed and built by God.
By faith, barren Sarah was able to become pregnant, old woman as she was at the time, because she believed the One who made a promise would do what he said. That’s how it happened that from one man’s dead and shriveled loins there are now people numbering into the millions.
Each one of these people of faith died not yet having in hand what was promised, but still believing. How did they do it?
They saw it way off in the distance, waved their greeting, and accepted the fact that they were transients in this world. People who live this way make it plain that they are looking for their true home. If they were homesick for the old country, they could have gone back any time they wanted. But they were after a far better country than that – heaven country. You can see why God is so proud of them, and has a City waiting for them.
That is our reading from the Hebrews, as translated by Pastor Eugene Peterson. And I don’t know about you, but I can’t hear those stories of Abraham and Sarah without thinking of other stories, of forebears in the faith who are not so far removed from us as these Biblical characters. For me, it’s the separate stories of my father and grandfather that come to mind.
When my mother was very young, my grandfather decided that he could no longer make a living farming his little plot of land in the northwest corner of Iowa. And so he and my grandmother sold the farm, packed up their daughter and two sons, and headed West. My grandfather had never been to California, but he had a distant relative there who thought he might be able to secure him a job. It was only a possibility, really – hardly the promise that Abraham had. But it was enough. By an act of faith, he set out with his family for a distant land.
Some years later, on the other side of the country, my father graduated from high school in a small town in the mountains of West Virginia. But there was no work in his little hometown. And so, at the age of 18, he packed his things and moved some 300 miles east from Appalachia to Washington, D.C., the closest city, where he hoped he might find a decent job. It was only a possibility, really – hardly the promise that Abraham had. But it was enough. By an act of faith, he set out and traveled to an unknown place.
Eventually, my father found a job working for the airlines as a flight dispatcher. After a few years, his office was transferred to San Francisco, where he met my mother. A few years later, I was born.
It has not escaped me if these two men had not set out in faith I would not be here. My very existence is the result of these journeys made on faith – not only those of my father and grandfather, of course, but those of my parents, who celebrated their thirty-first wedding anniversary last week. “By faith,” the writer of Hebrews says, “we see the world called into existence by God’s word, what we see created by what we don’t see.”
Well. You probably know some stories like this yourself. Maybe they are the stories of your own parents and grandparents, moving across the ocean or across the country. Maybe they are your own stories; maybe you have lived them yourself. And if so, then maybe you know that it is helpful, from time to time, to remember these stories for the anatomy of faith they reveal.
Always faith begins with a promise. We often think of a promise as having something to do with certainty and a clear commitment, but it is not always that. God does not begin by telling Abram exactly what will happen at 11am on Sunday the 8th. No, God simply calls Abram outside and draws his gaze toward the stars. “The life I intend for you and for those who come after you,” God tells Abram, “is as full as the sky is full of stars.” That is all the promise amounts to. That kind of promise is long on possibility and rather short on details. The promises of God are often more vision than clear visibility; they are less like photographs of the future and more like looking at the stars and finding constellations.
Abram tells God as much; he’s not thrilled about the lack of detail. But in the end, the promise of possibility, the promise of abundant life for himself, for his family, for all nations, is enough. Hope is kindled, and as its fire grows, faith is forged.
“By an act of faith,” the writer of Hebrews says, “Abraham said yes to God’s call to travel to an unknown place.”
I am not sure where God is calling you, dear people of St John United. But I do know this: You don’t have to travel as far as Abraham did to show extraordinary faith.
Perhaps you are considering a move to a new home, not across the country but across town. Perhaps you are already in the midst of one. Or perhaps you are preparing for a long road trip to see the sights or to visit family, a temporary move for a few weeks, an exercise in wayfaring. Or perhaps you are simply planning a walk around the neighborhood, which can be its own sort of adventure. Whatever the reasons for your movement, dear friends, hear again the words of Christ: Do not be afraid. The God of Abraham goes with you, and has promised you a world of possibility.
You might be a member of this congregation, trying to discern the direction this church ought to set sail for. Into what uncharted territory are the winds of the Holy Spirit blowing this place? What role will this congregation play in this community five years, ten years down the line? What new needs will arise? What new gifts will come to the fore? Where can we already see it happening? Whatever your ideas, wherever you are in discerning the answers to these questions, dear friends, hear again the words of Christ: Do not be afraid. The God of Abraham goes with you, and has promised you a world of possibility.
Or you might be picking up one of these little buttons, and you might be deciding that today is the day you get involved by writing a letter or making a phone call to speak up for ecological justice. The earth is in a state of brokenness, and we are the ones who are responsible. The word on the button says Converted? But to convert in the Biblical sense is to repent, to make a complete life change, to quite literally turn around. The call to give up our addiction to the things that warm this planet, given the state of our politics, given the state of our economy, seems at this point to be harder than anything Abraham had to do. And yet even Abraham’s journey began with a single step, a foot set forward in faith. If you think the situation is hopeless and there is nothing more we can do, hear again the words of Christ: Do not be afraid. The God of Abraham goes with you, and has promised you a world of possibility.
Near the end of Jesus’ exhortation in our gospel reading, he describes a scene in which the master sits the servants down at the master’s own table, and serves them up a meal, a feast akin to a wedding banquet. It is like what God does in our lives, serving up countless graces, day by day, each one ripe with possibility, our Lord showing up in places we least expect him to be. Step forward in faith, God says. Step forward to the table of all creation. Come and eat, come share the feast I have prepared for you and for all the creatures of the earth. Come, taste and see. Amen.