Proper 15, Year C, 2013

We pick up this week with Hebrews where we left off last week.  The author of Hebrews is trying to inspire and encourage second generation Christians who are starting to question their faith.

He continues his greatest hits account of the Old Testament.  His rhetoric is really ramping up, so he doesn’t get into a lot of details, he just starts rattling off names:  Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets.

Except for Samson and David, these are not the usual heroes of the Old Testament.  Even those of you who spent your entire childhood in Sunday School may be drawing blanks when you try to remember their stories.

And when you do hear their stories, you may raise an eyebrow!

Rahab was a harlot who helped out some Israelite spies, Gideon was a warrior against the Midianites who took a lot of convincing to follow God, Barak was Deborah’s general who refused to fight unless she came with him, Samson was a strong warrior defeated by love of the wrong woman, Jephthah ended up killing his own daughter after making a foolish promise to God, and David wasn’t exactly a prince.

These people had faith, but most of them weren’t role models.

And maybe that is why the author of Hebrews chose them as examples.  Because faith is not really about us.  Faith is not some moral characteristic we exhibit.  Faith is a gift from God.  God’s power isn’t dependent on perfect people to act in the world.  In fact, in the Gideon story, God commands Gideon to fire a bunch of his warriors so that the world would know that God, not military might, caused Israel’s military victories.

The author of Hebrews is writing to ordinary people.  Ordinary, scared, discouraged people.  They need to be reminded that the heroes of faith were also ordinary and often scared and discouraged!

And the new Christians needed to be reminded that often these heroes did not even see the end results of their faithfulness.  Abraham and Sarah did not get to see the multiple generations born that would become Israel, Moses never got to enter the promised land, David did not get to see a temple built in Jerusalem.

As we turn towards kick off Sunday next week and the beginning of our Christian Education year let’s think about how these two ideas—that ordinary people can have extraordinary faith and that even the faithful may not see results they hope for—can give us courage to minister to our young people.

Those of you who do not have children or whose children are grown may be tempted to tune out now.  Please don’t.  Remember, the children of this parish belong to you.  Every time you witness a baptism you make a vow to do all in your power to support that person in their life in Christ.  So you’re on the hook here, too!

As you know, we have been searching for a youth minister all summer.  We are very close now, but before this person joins our staff, I want to name something.  When we hire a youth minister, we are going to run a risk of outsourcing our youth’s faith formation to that person.  We are going to run a risk of forgetting that we have all made these promises to the youth in this room.  We run that risk by having a children’s minister on staff, too!

Ministering to children and youth can feel really intimidating!  Kenda Dean, in her book Almost Christian, argues that people avoid teaching junior high and high school Sunday School not because they don’t like teenagers, but they feel like their faith is inadequate to do the job.  Potential volunteers are afraid they don’t know enough about the Bible, they don’t pray enough, that they aren’t faithful enough.

But children and youth learn how to be faithful by being around people who are faithful!  And if everyone abdicates responsibility, we are in a lot of trouble!  Parents are the strongest influence in a young person’s life of faith, but other faithful adults are important, too. Dean argues that a person doesn’t need to be an expert to be a great teacher or mentor to a young person, but they do need to be seeking a life with God.  She writes,

What awakens faith is desire, not information, and what awakens desire is a person—and specifically, a person who accepts us unconditionally as God accepts us.  We may question what we believe, but most of us are pretty clear about who we love, and who loves us.  it is such a preposterous claim—God-with-us (oh please)—that young people are unlikely to believe it unless we give them opportunities to do some sacred eavesdropping on us as we seek, delight, and trust in God’s presence with us.  . . .People are not called to make their children godly; teenagers are created in God’s image, no matter what we do to them, and no matter what they do to disguise it.  The law called upon Jewish parents to show their children godliness—to teach them, talk to them, embody for them their own delight in the lord 24/7.  Everything they needed for their children’s faith formation, God had already given them.  In the end, awakening faith does not depend on how hard we press young people to love God, but on how much we show them that we do.  (Dean p. 120)

The best thing you can do for your child’s life of faith is to seek to deepen your own relationship with God.  It is just as important for you to go to a Bible Study or prayer group as it is for your child to go to Sunday School.  And Sunday School teachers, it is just as important to show children that you understand you are loved unconditionally as it is for you to teach them the ten commandments.

And this is where Hebrews can help us.  Because realizing that the children around us need us to model faithfulness can make those feelings of inadequacy rise up in us like bile.  But God uses ordinary, flawed people.  God’s faith grows in imperfect people.  Are you selfish?  Great, then people will be more impressed when they see God at work in your life.  Are you really materialistic?  Super. Then God’s power will be truly evident when you decide to pledge a little more to church or charity this year.  Are you Biblically illiterate?  Perfect, then you can demonstrate humility by learning Jesus’ parables right along with the second graders.  Are you crazy busy?  Maybe God can’t wait to teach you about the joys of Sabbath.

The other thing that can be frustrating about teaching Sunday School is the lack of obvious results.  You show up week after week and sometimes kids are there and sometimes you have a faithful remnant staring at you blankly.  Sometimes you feel like you are connecting and sometimes you feel like everyone is wasting their time.

But remember our message from last week—faith is the conviction of things not seen.  There is always more going on than we can see.  You may have a child in your class who says not a single word the entire year.  But in twenty years, that child may remember your kindness to him and decide to come back to church.  You just don’t know.

In fact, you kind of have to have faith.

As a church, I hope we will all take a leap of faith to support the children and youth in this place.  I hope we will surround Audi and our youth minister with supportive, encouraging words and actions.  I hope we will show up to teach, to chaperone, or just to give a parent wrestling with small kids in a pew an encouraging smile.

I hope we will, as the author of Hebrews writes, “run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”




Proper 14, Year C, 2013

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

This is one of the most iconic statements in Scripture.  It has been emblazoned on plaques and embroidered on sweatshirts.  People have cross-stitched it, framed it, and hung in on a thousand living room walls.

But what does it mean?

The author of Hebrews is writing to discouraged, second generation Christians.  These aren’t the disciples who stood with Jesus as he was transfigured and listened to God praise his Son.  These aren’t the crowds that surrounded Jesus and saw his miracles.  These aren’t the friends who noticed the empty tomb and experienced the resurrected Jesus.

These followers of Christ have heard those stories, of course, but those stories are fading.  These followers have been through terrible persecution, seen their friends thrown in jail, know those who have been killed for their faith.  Now they are wondering, “Was it worth it?”  They aren’t seeing any results.  Jesus hasn’t come back.  There has been no revolution.  All they’ve got is the Holy Spirit and some old stories.

The author of Hebrews is encouraging his readers. He’s reminding them that faith is more than looking at the evidence around you and sighing in resignation.  Faith requires a person both to look ahead in hope and to look more deeply at the reality around them.

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for—faith reminds us that Jesus promised us the kingdom.  Jesus promised us a new way of life.

But faith is also the conviction of things not seen.  That is, faith is the belief that there is more than meets the eye to the present.

Think of our news coverage.  Whether we open the Times-Dispatch or go to the New York Times online or turn on CNN, we are inundated with the fifteen most horrible things that have happened in the entire world the previous day.   On top of that, we are reminded that we are slowly poisoning our planet and that we probably have some terrible disease we just haven’t been diagnosed with yet.  Getting a bird’s eye view of the world is enough to make us want to hide under our covers for the rest of time!

Detroit is a perfect example.  What do you know about Detroit from the news?  Detroit is a big city that has collapsed and is filing for bankruptcy, right?  You probably picture poverty and violence and decay.  And all that is happening.  Buildings are abandoned, some with squatters living inside.  The drug trade and gun violence is all a part of life in Detroit.  But what happens if we have “the conviction of things not seen.”  What if we believe that God is at work in Detroit?

On her wonderful program “On Being”, Krista Tippet interviews people who examine the bigger questions in life, whether they are religious persons, scientists or poets.  Recently she re-aired an interview with a woman named Grace Lee Boggs.  Grace is a 98 year old philosopher who has lived in Detroit for decades.  She and her husband were instrumental in the civil rights movement in the area and she continues to live her life with energy as she tackles the big questions of what it means to be a worker in an era in which all the jobs have left your community.

As Tippett spoke with Boggs and others in Grace’s community, they talked about community gardens which have been springing up in blighted areas. They talked about artists gathering and expressing themselves.  They talked about people in Detroit gathering and breaking bread together, sharing life together.  You heard stories of true community.  Community rooted in love and respect.  Community that sounded quite a lot like a community of God.  There is more than meets the eye in Detroit.  God is at work, even amidst the blight, even if we cannot see that on the evening news.

Abraham and Sarah certainly had to draw on deep reserves of faith.  God send them forth without any real instructions!  God made promises about their offspring that he didn’t fulfill for decades.  Year after year Abraham and Sarah plodded forward, somehow trusting that God was at work, even when promises were not yet fulfilled.

We are not alone in those moments when we wonder whether God is a faithful, loving God.  We are not alone when we have moments in which we think the resurrection story is a little far fetched.  Waaaaay back, just a few years after that resurrection, people were already starting to think it sounded too good to be true.

So how do we nurture our own faith two thousand years, hundreds of generations later?  How do we keep ourselves holding on when the evidence seems thin?  When our own suffering, or the suffering of others makes us start to doubt the presence of God?

The author of Hebrews would encourage us to tell the stories.  Remind ourselves of all the people in the bible, all the people across history who have had encounters with God.  Remember our own stories of God’s faithfulness and listen to the stories of others.  Whether you choose to read about the saints or a more modern memoir of faith by Lauren Winner or Kathleen Norris, reading about the faith of others can encourage our own faith.

Worshiping together can also be helpful.  When a friend first invited me to attend a service at an Episcopal Church, I was a 21 year old evangelical who had just spend the summer on a poorly organized mission trip in Delhi, India.  The trip raised all kinds of questions for me about poverty and God’s work in the world.  It also made me doubt the church, whose cheerful attempts to lead Vacation Bible School amongst people who barely eked out livings in the slums of Delhi seemed patronizing, at best.

I came home uncomfortable in the cheerful, hand clapping worship services of the church I attended.  So, when I walked into the doors of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Richmond, I did not know what to think.  But then the liturgy started.  And I teared up because for months I had not been able to pray, but now, praying these old prayers in unison with hundreds of other people made me feel deeply connected.  I had never seen the Nicene Creed before and thought it was the most brilliant thing I had ever read.  At the time I had no idea it was a statement of faith that had been cobbled out in the 4th century, but I could tell it was rooted in something deep and true.  I actually still have a scrapbook where I cut the Nicene Creed out of the bulletin because it moved me so much!

When we say the Nicene Creed every Sunday, we say it together and we always say it in the plural.  We help each other keep the faith.  When one of us doubts, another can believe for us.  We may have weeks, months, years at a time when we aren’t able to say the words of the Creed with confidence, but we can stand there silently listening to the chorus of voices around us and remember that faith surrounds us, even if faith is not within us.

And if you are struggling with faith today, know that we will believe for you.  We will hold onto the hope that God is at work in your present and that God has a future for you.

We hold onto the faith together.  No one has to go it alone.