A sermon for the ninth Sunday after Pentecost, August 11, 2019
Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
This verse is very well known and it’s often treated as a philosophical definition of faith. But our reading from Hebrews isn’t a philosophical treatise—it speaks of people of faith and how God provided for them amidst great challenges.
This past Wednesday, I was driving over to the church for a meeting with Paula and Jennifer about some matters that relate to the financial challenges that Trinity faces. And I was listening to the radio as I was driving through the Bronx in that rainstorm we had that afternoon, and a story came on about the mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio. The reporter was talking to a woman who had lost a family member in that shooting. She had said she was a woman of faith and the reporter asked her: “Does this shake your faith?” I wish I could quote the woman’s response exactly—because it so clearly summed up what it means to be a person of faith in such a difficult time. But I was driving in the rain, so I couldn’t take notes. As I remember, she said she couldn’t really say where God was in all this, or what was happening. She didn’t think that God wanted her loved one to die like this. Her faith is that God loves her and those people who were killed. But right now, she doesn’t know what to do or think.
What she said was something like that—very real, not tied up into a neat package with a pretty theological bow, but still knowing the essential of faith, that God is love, even when we don’t feel it.
The thing is, our faith in God is our life; and when our life is shaken, our faith IS shaken. I can easily believe that that woman felt very shaky, probably still does. And I wouldn’t blame her a bit if she was afraid and anxious. That is how you feel when your life is shaken.
If we pay attention to scripture, it is at precisely such times that God acts for God’s people, even though they don’t see it, don’t feel it, don’t understand it, don’t believe it. Our Old Testament lesson and our Epistle tell the story of Abraham, who at ninety years old was childless and without an heir. His wife Sarah was about the same age and had always been barren. God sent him out to look at the stars. Remember, this is long before the electric illumination of our big cities made the stars seem so much fewer. A couple of weeks ago, when we were visiting my mother and staying at my sister’s house in central Oregon, we went out at night and looked at the moonless night sky. The sky was so vast and dark, filled with all sorts of stars, even shooting stars. The Milky Way was fully visible. A couple of dozen people might be able to divide up the sky and make some kind of count of the stars you see from New York city. But out there in the mountains, the stars are literally uncountable. And that is what God says to Abraham: “Count the stars, if you are able to count them—So shall your descendants be.” God’s promise and the hope of Abraham came before there was any way that it seemed feasible—there was no plan, there was nothing you could see, except, perhaps, the stars.
Hope is not just anything you happen to wish for. It is certainly not arrogantly thinking that God will give you the specific things you have decided you need to carry out some plan you have come up with. Hope is far more flexible than that. Hope is about living in God’s love. And sometimes … that life is shaken, sometimes our faith is shaken, and sometimes that means that our hope appears to have been shaken as well. But that’s just it. Our faith is assurance of things hoped for—things NOT SEEN. Like that woman I heard on the radio who could not see what God was doing, we wait in faith for God’s action, for the fulfillment of God’s promise.
But what is God’s promise? Is it comfort? Or wealth? Or well-being? Despite what you can hear if you turn into just the right TV broadcast, none of those things is promised by God. God’s promise is God’s love: God’s love for us and a life in which we are formed into being God’s love. That promise will be fulfilled—it is being fulfilled here each day—but the things that happen along the way? The things we like to call the results of our plans? Those things are not what God has promised. God has promised to make us his people, what more can we ask than that?
In today’s Gospel, Jesus begins, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” The promise is glorious, but our life of faith is in the real world, not some fantasy world of easy prosperity. Though we do not know what God’s future holds for us, Jesus nevertheless tells us to be prepared. To take action, live lives of generosity, giving to those who are in need, keeping our lamps lit, looking for the signs of where God is leading us, ready to serve God at any turn—even in our most unlikely or off-putting neighbor. We don’t always experience this life of generosity and discipleship as the kingdom, because it’s often hard work and sometimes disappointing, but living as God’s love in expectation of the kingdom is how we see God’s future for us.
Trinity Church has many challenges. How we respond to them will be part of how God shapes the future. I do not know what will happen, God seldom delivers according to OUR specifications. I do know that we will have life together, share faith together, and live as God’s generous and loving people together. Do not be afraid, or at least if you are, know that God will keep you safe anyway. In particular do not be afraid of living generously and of shaping our life together in ways that benefit those who aren’t part of the present community within these four walls. We are not here for ourselves, we are here as ambassadors of God’s love.
“If he comes in the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those servants. But know this, if the master of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”