Faith is a process, Pentecost 11, Proper 14 (C) – 2007

[RCL] Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 or Genesis 15:1-6; Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23 or 33:12-22; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40

As it says in today’s reading from Hebrews: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Have you ever noticed that so many of the words Christianity uses are little words? Little words packed with big meanings. Words like God, Christ, love, sin, and the word for today: faith.

Words like faith often have a “churchy” sound to them; maybe they even sound boring or irrelevant. But in reality, they are rich words that point to vital realities. While even everyday words can have a spiritual dimension, just as the ordinary events of our lives can speak to us of holy things, a word like “faith” points to the realm of mystery and depth that lies beyond our ordinary experience, perhaps in the land of “beyond-words.” Words alone cannot convey their power.

There are many things in life that are indescribable: the power of music or art, falling in love, the death of a friend. As Frederick Buechner writes in his book, Beyond Words: “How can we begin to describe such things other than to say that they are ultimately indescribable? You can know them only by experiencing them for yourself.”

Even things that are really beyond words can still be talked about. The words we use might not encompass the subject, but they help us to get a handle on it, to look at it from various angles in the hope that we might gain a little understanding. So here goes.

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

Did that line make you think, “Huh?” or did you just let it blow past? Did you notice that even the author of the Letter to the Hebrews wasn’t very clear on exactly what faith is? He throws out that one-liner and then treats us to a recital of actions by the faithful men and women of old. If we were to look up these stories in the Hebrew scriptures, we would notice that there is almost no reference to faith as a moving force in the lives of the characters. It may be implied, but it is rarely there for us in black and white.

The author of Hebrews uses the word “faith” in a variety of ways. Sometimes it will indicate trust or belief, and sometimes it will refer to the quality of loyalty or faithfulness. One thing is clear: as used here, faith cannot be severed from hope. The lives of our ancestors are important to the author because those men and women lived lives of faith. The brief sketches we read and hear are to be read and heard as God’s testimonies about their lives.

When we think about having faith, we often mean assenting to intellectual propositions. Do we believe there is a God? Do we believe that God is the creator, redeemer, and sustainer of creation, of humanity, of us? Do we believe this or that about the Bible or the teachings of the Church throughout the ages?

Faith, as used by the author of Hebrews, is much more than belief that there is a God. Rather, it is trust that God rewards those who seek God. Faith has a long memory and profits from the experience of those who have gone before us. Faith also hopes, looking beyond the immediate to God’s future and our part in it. Faith is tenacious and enduring, able to accept promises deferred in the conviction that even death does not cancel out God’s promises. Faith is indeed the conviction of things not seen, a conviction firmly held, but it is more: it is the substance, the essence, the very being of things hoped for. Faith is not the permanent state of once and for all, but is often fragile and elusive.

God entrusts us with a holy freedom; people of faith always have the option of returning to “the land that they had left behind.” We know that land; it is the one we always view with the rose-colored glasses, the one that the Israelites in the wilderness longed for, the land with the leeks and the garlic, forgetting they were slaves in that land.

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

Our God is a God who is always calling us into new life, into the future. Faith is future-oriented, trusting that God will keep God’s promises. In a nutshell, faith and hope are one, and the life of faith is pilgrimage, a journey. As an example, the author of Hebrews reminds us of Abraham and Sarah. The author focuses not on God’s call, but on Abraham’s response. Abraham’s response is expressed in obedience; Abraham sets off for the place God has promised, not knowing where it might be. Even when he gets there, the place is not his to claim. Indeed, he and his children and his children’s children sojourn as foreigners in the land of promise. Abraham anticipated a city with sure foundations even though he spent his life living in a tent, a city with a river flowing through it, even though he lived in a desert.

The God who calls us into new life gives us a vision of the homeland we seek. Such vision enabled Abraham to remain faithful to the elusive, unseen God who called him. Such vision enabled him to live as a resident alien in the new land, and to see with fresh eyes the goals, values, and relationships of the society encountered in the new land. The faith of Abraham and Sarah was more than right thinking; it also involved right acting. It involved not just their minds, but their whole beings.

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

If you’re thinking, “This is all too much for me on a warm August morning,” I want to offer you another way of thinking about all this, about faith.

Have you made pancakes lately? Or muffins? Anything that involves a batter containing a leavening agent like baking powder? The batter doesn’t look like much, does it? Before they are baked, yeast breads give us a hint at what’s to come after their time in the oven. But it’s the quick breads that really surprise us. There they sit, batter in a bowl. We old-timers know what to expect, so the miracle is often wasted on us, but make waffles with a young child, and you will be reminded of the miracle effected by a hot waffle iron and a little patience. Batter goes in, wait until the steaming stops, and voila! Breakfast! Slathered with butter and anointed with maple syrup, it becomes a feast!

So the next time you are trying to wrap your mind around faith, or worrying that you don’t have any or enough, just think about making waffles and trust that what comes out of the waffle iron will look and taste better than what went in. Frederick Buechner reminds us: “Remember that faith is more of a process than a possession, on-again-off-again than once and for all. Faith is not being sure where you’re going, but going anyway. A journey without maps.”

Written by the Rev. Mary K. Morrison
The Rev. Mary K. Morrison is pastoral associate at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Los Gatos, California. E-mail: mkmorrison@stlukeslg.org.

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