Sunday, August 21, 2016

What is Faith?

Tonight, the plan was for me to be with the good people at The Cuttyhunk Union Methodist Church. Plans don't always work out, however. As readers of this blog know, that plan got changed last Saturday morning when my stepfather passed away. Life happens in the interruptions; I suppose that death does too. I am glad I was able to be with family and friends in my hometown to celebrate the life of a good man this week; no regrets. But I did miss out on being in a beautiful place with my wife and kids. Here is what I would have said to those gathered tonight in Cuttyhunk if I'd been there. The text that I would have preached on was Hebrews 11.

This is my second summer with you all here on this beautiful island. In my experience, second things are very different from firsts, whether you are talking about a second year in college or a job or an anniversary. Last year Hathy and I didn’t really know what to anticipate when we stepped off the ferry and were met by Tim and Judith and Ned and Bev. And I’ll confess that by the time we got to Sunday night last summer, I was still a little bit nervous about whether or not anyone would show up, and if they did about whether or not we’d connect.

This second year, Hathy and I have been anticipating coming back to be with you for almost exactly fifty-two weeks. All by way of saying “thank you” for the invitation and for another wonderful week on this beautiful island.

For those whom I have not yet met, my name is Rich Simpson. I’m an Episcopal priest who spent the first five years of my ordained life in an ecumenical ministry on a college campus in CT (as a United Methodist pastor) and then, after moving into the Episcopal Church, the next twenty years as a parish priest in two places: Christ and Holy Trinity, Westport and St. Francis. Holden.

Three years ago my bishop asked me to serve as Canon to the Ordinary in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts, which is basically all of Massachusetts west of 495 to the New York border. Episcopalians love fancy titles, but what this means is that I work for the Bishop as a member of his executive team. I’m now in a different congregation every week and one area of great interest to me in this work is that I work closely with our congregations that are in the midst of clergy transitions.

Just one brief comment about this work and what I’m learning in it and then we’ll get to the work that is before us tonight. Regardless of denomination, what I learned as a parish priest over two decades is that you are “on the ground.” You are close to the action. Ministry happens in the details. What I love more than anything else about parish work is that you are in the midst of people’s lives from baptism through confirmation, to marriage and burial. You get to know people’s stories: their joys and hopes and dreams and struggles. You realize that life is complex.

It’s not that you lose that as a Canon, but my focus now is more on larger patterns now; on how congregations work. Which are, of course, made up of people. But I’ve discovered that congregations are bigger than the sum of their parts, as I’m sure this one is too. It’s more than those gathered here tonight. They take on their own character and their own personality, even. Founding pastors and long-serving pastors and members leave their mark, long after they are gone. There is a shape to congregational life that makes each one unique. I’m not going to talk much more about any of that other than to say this is where I come from now, a part of who I am a based on the work I do and what I’m learning. Parish life is wonderful, but parish life can also become parochial and insular. Diocesan life part of a larger narrative and seeing that there are patterns to our life together.

Now, to the text at hand. Which might not yet seem to have anything to do with all of this, but I think it does. Rehearsing the history of a people – whether it’s a religious tribe or a denomination or a congregation or a family -  reminds us not only where we’ve come from but who we are and where we are going. You’ve heard a long reading from scripture tonight that I take as my sermon text tonight – all of Hebrews 11. In fact this reading was read over two weeks - the first and second Sundays in August – in denominations like mine (and others) that use the Revised Common Lectionary. So perhaps some of you have heard it quite recently in other contexts. But I have been on vacation and so I decided to save these two readings up for you and put them together tonight.

What is faith, the writer asks? How’s that for a lighthearted easy topic for an August night?

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.
Notice that the writer doesn’t suggest that faith is best understood as listing the seven doctrines you need to affirm to be counted as “in” some club. In fact, I invite you to notice that in this way of thinking about faith, faith and belief are not synonyms. They may be cousins, but they are not the same. Beliefs matter, but beliefs change over time. Sometimes very sincere people tell me that they aren’t sure they are really Christians because they either don’t believe (or maybe even understand) what it means to say the words of the Nicene Creed, that the Son was “begotten, not made and of one Being with the Father” for example. Let me be quick to add these are questions a parish priest gets – and in the past three years no one has come up to me on a Sunday morning to ask me about this. These days the questions I get are usually related to something the bishop has done!

But it is a serious misunderstanding of faith to think we have lost our faith when what we are in fact doing is questioning our beliefs. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen. Faith, in other words, is about trust. Trust is in fact the closest synonym I know for faith. The opposite of faith is not doubt – it’s fear. When we are afraid we feel like there is no tomorrow – or that what is coming tomorrow will be our undoing. Faith is about trusting in the assurance of things hoped for, it’s about the conviction of things not yet seen. It’s not primarily about what’s in our heads or even our hearts, but in our bellies.

So tonight we heard a litany of saints- those who lived in ages past who showed faith—who did this in large and small ways. They were lights in their generations. Some of them are huge names and familiar to all of us. Some have stories we have forgotten. If I were to preach on this entire text tonight we’d be here at least until sunrise which might be beautiful for us to do, but I think it’d be quite safe to say that my second time here would also be my last time here.

So tonight I want to focus on just two of those names. One is, I am guessing, very well known to you and the other one less so. One is male and the other is female. One is Jewish and one is Canaanite. The two are Moses and Rahab. Let’s start with Moses.
By faith, Moses was hidden by his parents; by faith, Moses (when he was grown up) refused to be called son of Pharaoh’s daughter; by faith, Moses left Egypt unafraid of the king’s anger, by faith he kept the Passover, by faith the people of Israel crossed the Red Sea…
Whether we first heard the story from The King James Bible or Good News for Modern Man or from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, most of us know something about Moses and the Exodus. It’s a story immortalized on film by Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments and more recently in the animated film The Prince of Egypt (which I personally like better.)

A new Pharaoh arose in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph, the dreamer… And that new king became nervous about a political uprising. He did what dictators always do when they get scared; he flexed his muscles and started coming down on hard on the Israelites until finally he started ordering the deaths of male children. The people cried out to God and God heard and God saw their misery. And then God called Moses. You remember at the burning bush, how Moses turned aside and encountered I AM, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? God said, “I’m sending you to tell old Pharaoh to let my people go.” And so the story goes...

We learn something about God in this story, and we learn something about faith as the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not yet seen. God cares about the plight of all people, but especially people who are being oppressed. All lives do matter to God, because God remembers creating us all of the same earth, and breathing God’s own breath into us. We are all created in God’s own image. So says our sacred text. So Egyptian lives do matter. But the problem was this: in Cairo at the time everyone knew that Egyptian lives mattered. Pharaoh’s entire economy was built on this premise and Hebrew slave lives were seen as means to that end. So God takes sides. God always takes sides because when the world says all lives matter, God insists that slave lives matter too, that refugee lives matter too, in the New Testament that Samaritan lives matter too and in our world that black lives matter, too. God cares about justice for all. But God refuses to ignore the injustice that hurts some more than others. That’s what the Moses story is about and that’s what it tells us about the living God.

But God doesn’t do any of these things by waving a wand. So we also learn something about ourselves and about what it means to be a person of faith from this text. Because in Egypt and in the world today, when God sees and God hears, the next thing God does is to call people like Moses and Aaron and Miriam to act. They are asked to become instruments of God’s peace. They are asked to bring about the change God desires in the world. God hears and God sees, and then God sends.

The story of the Exodus and the subsequent time in the Sinai is a long one; in fact it takes up four of the first five books of the Bible. All those plagues and Pharaoh’s hard heart, a heart that would not be softened with reason, is only the beginning. An escape filled with intrigue and followed by four decades in the wilderness. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things not yet seen. Or to say it another way, faith must always take the long view, because when there is an easy answer or a short-term fix it doesn’t require faith as much as a good engineer. Faith requires a long-term commitment. It’s a story passed on to children and grandchildren, a story relived by every generation. Faith like Moses and those Israelite refugees and you and I gathered here tonight requires patience and courage to see beyond one election season.

Perhaps not everyone here remembers who Rahab the prostitute was. After forty years in the desert, after the death of Moses, his assistant, Joshua, became the new leader in the sixth book of the Bible, appropriately named the Book of Joshua. Joshua’s ministry is very different from that of Moses. Moses led the people out of Egypt; Joshua will lead them into the Promised Land. Their gifts are different and their leadership styles are different because the work they are called to do is different. Joshua will fight the battle of Jericho because as it turns out, the Promised Land isn’t an empty parking lot; there are people living there (the Canaanites) and it turns out they like living there. So the long battle begins, a theological and political conflict that has still not been resolved thousands of years later. (But we’ll leave this for another time.)

Whose land is it? The theological answer the Bible gives, of course, is that it is God’s land and at best humans are called to be stewards of it. But nonetheless, the writers of the Bible believed that God promised the Israelites would take care of it and not the Canaanites. And so they take to battle because when you want something that someone else has,  it doesn’t usually work to tell them, “God said you should give it to us.” Before Joshua ‘fit the battle of Jericho, there is reconnaissance work to be done. Even if you believe God is “on your side” that doesn’t mean you forsake good military practices.

So Joshua sends some Navy Seals into Jericho to see what they are looking at. And they head to the home of Rahab, the prostitute. I won’t belabor the fact tonight that this is a pretty good cover. Suffice it to say that somebody sees these foreign men at Rahab’s house and they don’t look like the usual clients. So someone calls the police, who promptly show up at Rahab’s door.

She’s savvy, however. And she sees which way the wind is blowing. So she lies to the police. She tells them that the men were in fact there, but they’ve left and if they head out really quickly they might be able to catch them. In fact she has hidden the spies on her roof. (Now having spent some time in the Middle East, let me just add that middle eastern roofs are not sloped because they have no worries about snow; they are flat and often have little terraces where you can go and sit and drink and smoke.)  So it’s a credible escape.

The main point here is that if Rahab is caught, she is guilty of treason. She has hidden two enemy spies who are in her city doing reconnaissance work, spies who intend to destroy her city and conquer it. She tells them all she wants in return is for her life and the life of her family to be spared. She tells them the whole city is worried, but she heard about their God and about what he did to the Egyptians and she’d rather be for ‘em than against them.
By faith, Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace. Because she knew (even if she didn’t say the Nicene Creed) that faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not yet seen.
Now with no disrespect intended to good old Moses, I worry a bit about hero worship that paralyzes ordinary people from being faithful in ordinary ways. When we turn people into superheroes we tend to worship them, rather than emulate them. I love St. Francis of Assisi and for fifteen years served a parish named for him. But he is the most revered and least emulated saint in the Church! Don’t forget that before he started talking to birds he stood stark naked in the public square and gave away all of his money. In our own day, Martin Luther King, Jr. gets a holiday, no doubt well deserved. But King was like Moses, and if that’s the case then maybe Rosa Parks is something like a modern-day Rahab, an ordinary woman who just got tired of being told where she could sit. She wasn’t a superhero; just someone who said, “enough is enough already.”

Now I don’t want to push the comparison too far. But I do want to push the notion that you can find saints anywhere you choose to look and if you are only looking for Moses and Martin you will miss the most amazing people who cross your path every day. You can meet them at work or at school or at tea or over coffee, and sometimes even at Church. We need Rosa and Rahab and I bet you could add a whole list of people who have born witness to the living God in your own life – people who were lights in their generation and who inspired you to be something more of an instrument of peace.

I can also tell you that this is true of congregations too – which as a rule do better with smart, capable, healthy clergy leading them. But superhero clergy are not only a challenge to find but even when they are successful the success is often fleeting if there aren’t a whole lot of Rahabs in the altar guild and in the choir and serving on the governing board and handing out bulletins to newcomers. Are you with me?

Now I don’t want to go all political on you tonight – we’ve got almost three months left until this next election. And I don’t want to remind you that summer will soon be coming to an end, but you know that as I do which is why we savor every day in August. So let me just say this: sometimes I worry that we focus too much on the top of the ticket and not enough on who is in Congress. And we focus as a nation too much on who we send to Washington and not enough on governors and state houses and mayors and town councils. If we want to imagine a renewed nation and a renewed commitment to democracy that truly moves closer to justice for all, then we need to stop worrying only about identifying the next Moses and start seeking out the Rahabs among us.

Biblical faith, according to the writer of Hebrews, is not about certitude, nor is it about telling others what they need to believe. It’s about believing that another future is possible than the one we are on a trajectory towards and then finding the courage to do what we can in the circumstances in which we find ourselves to move toward that future. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things not seen.

And faith is a journey. There is no more Biblical statement about faith that I can make than that. From Genesis to Revelation, God’s people are a pilgrim people, a people “on the way.” Come, and follow me. Faith begins when ordinary people are willing to put their trust in the living God. Faith begins when we entrust the future to God, so we are freed to listen for God’s call to each of us to live one day at a time.

If faith is something we discover, and uncover, along the way in our journeys, then that suggests to me that the Church is more like a community of explorers than anything else, that our work is to try to create a space where we can become the people God means for us to become. There are ups and downs, uncertainties and questions, along the way.

Again and again we are called to remain open, to keep discovering, to keep growing, and to follow the Way which unfortunately isn’t always so clear as a Yellow Brick Road. With God’s help, we continue to follow the One who is the Way, the One who is the Truth, the One who is Life. And if we follow him, then we don’t need to worry about getting lost, because He is with us along the Way. That, I think, in a nutshell what faith is about. And I think that it’s good news that is worth sharing with the world, news the world desperately needs.

Faith compels us to better learn the story of God’s people. We cultivate faith when we pay attention to the births and marriages and deaths that are part of our extended lives in community. When we pay attention to that first day of college or the last. And better still, to all those parents’ weekends in between and the challenges with a roommate and the giddiness of a new romance. When we pay attention to changing a diaper or teaching that same child to hit a golf ball or to drive. When we unload the dishwasher or take a long walk along the beach or pick up our kids from summer camp and can see it in their eyes, they have been changed somehow. Changed for good. And by God’s mercy, so are we.

We are part of a pilgrim people—a communion of saints, a great cloud of witnesses. And I think the journey itself is home, which is to say that it is along the way that we discover the God we seek. By faith we, too, do the best we can and by faith we sometimes even do great things. By faith we discover and rediscover that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things not yet seen.