Selections from Hebrews 11

by | Aug 7, 2022

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Jarret McLaughlin
August 7, 2022
Hebrews 11, selections

 

A couple weeks ago Meg, the girls and I spent a week at a family camp in a Wi-Fi-free, impervious-to-cellular signal corner of Vermont. Getting away from our ever-present devices is good for everybody’s soul.

Whenever I send my daughters to camp I remind them that camp is a time for finding your brave; for trying new things even if they seem scary. Camp is a time for proving to yourself just how capable you are.

The problem with saying such things to your children is that every once in a while you have to live into them yourself – and that’s precisely what happened when Naomi informed me that she needed an adult to go with her on the high ropes course and that adult would be me.

After donning our hard hats and harnesses and having the safety briefing from a young woman with one of the best Irish brogues I’ve ever heard, they set us loose in pairs on the course. After trying a more basic climb to warm up, we decided to go ahead and do the scariest feature on the course. When they added an additional harness and an extra belay rope I should have known I wouldn’t like this very much.

This challenge involved climbing a telephone pole – that part wasn’t a big deal. But upon reaching the top of the pole, you then had to stand on top of that pole with nothing but a rope to steady you. Mind you, the top of the pole was skinnier that the width of both my feet. Now, you might be saying to yourself “Wow – that does sound pretty scary…but at least the pole was sunk solidly into the ground, upright and immoveable.

Nope! The pole wobbled…a lot. Of course the shaking of my knees didn’t help the situation.

Once standing on the pole – you were supposed to give a nice 3-2-1 count to the Irish girl below before leaping off the log towards a trapeze bar hanging about 6, maybe 8, but probably just 4 feet away. If my palms weren’t sweating so profusely I would have held on but I didn’t.

I fell – and in that moment my faith was renewed in the harness around my chest, the rope tying me in and all 110 pounds of the young Irish girl on the other end of that rope.

When I put it like that – it can make the facts supporting my Faith feel pretty flimsy – but you know, it held and my feet touched gently back on the ground. My heart was hammering in my chest but I found my brave and I tried something new. I proved that I could do it and didn’t look like a complete idiot in the eyes of my first born. I’ll claim that as a win.

Our reading today comes from the book of Hebrews which is called the Letter to the Hebrews but more likely what we have here is a sermon delivered to some early collection of Christians…a sermon that speaks to us as well about the nature of faith. As we prepare to listen, let us first pray.

God, you are the object of our worship and the only one worthy of our deepest faith. Speak to us through these ancient words that we might live for you. Amen.

Scripture:

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.
By faith Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir to the righteousness that is in accordance with faith.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.

By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.”
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make
it clear that they are seeking a homeland.
This is the Word of the Lord
Thanks be to God

 

 

Doris was born and raised – and honestly trapped in – a 10-city block radius.
She had been abused in all the ways you could imagine since she was a child.
Later on, her addictions became the coping mechanism to numb the trauma she had endured.

Those 10 blocks were literally the horizons of her life. She had never traveled beyond them. That’s how captive she was.

Doris tells the story of being home with her mother one day, about to fail at yet another attempt at sobriety. She called anyone and everyone to come get her. Nobody answered but she left messages with all of them: “I have money. Please come pick me up. I have to get out of here.”

The phone rang and, brushing past her tearful, pleading mother, Doris answered, not even bothering to ask who it was on the other end: “Are you ready to come get me?” she asked. An unfamiliar voice on the other end said “Yes, Doris, I am ready to come get you.”

The voice on the other end of the phone belonged to Regina.

Regina was one of the first graduates of the Thistle Farms rehabilitative program for women.
If the name Thistle Farms sounds at all familiar – you may have read it on the side of a bottle of lotion or on the wrapper of a bar of soap.

Thistle Farms is a line of bath and body products completely made by women who, like Doris, have been the victims of abuse; survivors of addiction, trafficking, incarceration.

While Thistle Farms offers immediate rehabilitation for women, they also recognized that poverty is what still awaits these women and so they created an engine for economic opportunity to sustain women in the healthier lifestyle they have chosen.
Doris is now the senior Ambassador for Thistle Farms, interpreting their mission and promoting their business. Reflecting on that phone call from Regina, Doris would later say “That day I thought that I was getting a ride back to the streets, but really I was getting a ride into the will of God.”

This sermon that we call Hebrews has a great deal to say about faith. It rather famously defines faith as “the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen.”

I don’t know if writers know when they have struck quotable gold. I do wonder if the author of Hebrews knew that this would be one of those phrases that was going to land on countless posters, memes, coffee mugs and greeting cards.

It is a lovely turn of phrase that has nourished countless Christians through difficult times.
I imagine it has nourished some of you through difficult times. I know it has for me.

At the same time, I imagine that others may be dismissive of such platitudes.
“Why should I believe in God?” some might say, “what evidence do we have that a benevolent divinity ‘has the whole world in his hands?’ You know, the rope doesn’t always hold. Sometimes people get hurt…bad…so why should I believe?”

All to say that we have accumulated an awful lot of baggage around the word “faith.” My hope today is to unpack some of that baggage and throw away that which may be less useful.

We could probably chalk it up to the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason but somewhere along the way faith came to be defined in a very rational manner.
Faith turned into a set of propositions I accept about the nature and character of God.
It became doctrine and dogma; cold, cerebral facts that have little to do with our actual lives.

But faith was never meant to be so divorced from actual life.
Our belief in God is meant to change how we act in a visceral way.

You’ll permit me to keep going with the fear of heights theme.
If you’ve ever been to, say, the Grand Canyon, though for the purposes of this illustration any steep perilous cliff will do, you’ll know what I mean when I say that “I believe in gravity.”

I deeply, existentially trust that gravity is a real thing…and that is precisely what keeps me from acting the fool and walking too close to the edge.
That belief in gravity is anything but an intellectual exercise.
I believe in gravity like my life depends on it.
And that belief changes the way I act.

When Scripture speaks of faith in God, I think it’s going more for that kind of belief – the kind that you feel and experience so deeply in your core that it changes how you behave.

The other misconception about faith is that it somehow shields you from suffering.

In a religion built around a guy who literally hung on a cross I am not sure where that one came from. And yet I can also see how you might get there with some of the exemplars of the faith invoked here in Hebrews.

Noah, Abraham – things did work out fairly well for them…but I think the author of Hebrews is going for something deeper than “everything worked out for them in the end.”
To paraphrase:
By Faith Noah built an Ark when the ground was dry and there wasn’t a cloud in sight.
By Faith Abraham and Sarah left the only home they’d ever known and set out for a strange land with nothing but a promise tucked in their back pocket
By Faith they lived as foreigners in that land for the rest of their lives, never possessing it themselves.
By Faith they trusted God would make of them a great nation even though they were so far past child-bearing age.

Nothing about these examples tells me that their lives were easy or free of suffering or uncertainty. Instead, what I see is that they took risks…they swam against the stream. Even when everybody thought they were crazy, they took a chance on God.

The Greek word for faith is Pistis and while it is often translated as ‘faith’ or ‘belief,’ it also means ‘trust.’ Do I trust God – not to give me all the answers; not to shield me from pain or disappointment – but do I trust God to hold my life? Do I trust God to show me that so much good can come from the risks that I take?

The first time Doris spoke for Thistle Farms it was in Florida.
Of course, this meant that, like Abraham, and Sarah, she had to go beyond the ten city blocks that had hemmed her in her whole life long.

She boarded an airplane with Becca Stevens who is the founder of Thistle Farms. As the plane took off Doris just started laughing…loudly! She has a big voice and an even bigger personality so even before takeoff she had already charmed all of the fellow passengers and so everyone in a ten-person radius from Doris was laughing too.

Once they hit their cruising altitude the flight attendant said
“First drink’s on me Doris.”
Becca quickly interjected: “Whoa whoa whoa – she’s in recovery – that is a terrible idea.”

When they got to the hotel, Becca took Doris out to see the beach for the first time.
They took their shoes off and stepped onto those fine-powder white sands.
Doris stepped into the tide and let the waves wash over her toes.
And then this completely grown woman who lived her entire life in a square mile of concrete turned to Becca and asked “Has it been doing this the whole time?”

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for.
Faith is the conviction of things not seen.

Faith is standing on a wobbly pole or on a white sand beach for the first time and trusting – really trusting – that God has got you and that God has always had you, as steady as the tides, this whole time.
Amen.