Sermon Series: What Does Faith Mean Today? (Hebrews)

Sermon series, “What does faith mean today?”, no. 1, “The courage to stand alone” (Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16)

Eastminster United Presbyterian Church, Pentecost + 9C, August 11, 2019

Tom James

 “He marches to the beat of his own drum.” “She keeps her own counsel.” “He’s a bit of an odd duck.” We’ve all heard these kinds of statements about people who are independently minded or, in some cases, just kind of quirky. Sometimes they are meant as praise, and sometimes not. Sometimes, people who march to their own drum can be kind of annoying.

When I was serving another church years ago, there was a member of Session who seemed always to have an opinion or a perspective that went against the grain of the group. It was frustrating because just when I thought we had achieved a consensus about something, she would interrupt that good feeling. She would start by saying, “I guess I’m confused.” And then we’re off onto some tangent that would confuse the rest of us. I guess the frustration went both ways because there were a few occasions when she got so mad, possibly with me, that she shut down and quietly left the room. She marched to the beat of her own drum, and very often I could not pick up the beat.

I have come to believe, though, that there is something a little bit like her in every person of faith today. There has to be something of an independent streak, a willingness to refrain from conforming, maybe even a little quirkiness, if we are to remain faithful in a world where faithlessness has become the consensus.

But, actually, this is nothing new. Our New Testament text for this morning recalls the story of Abraham and his search for “a better country.” Abraham was well established in his town before he took his family and his livelihood out into an unknown countryside and into a life of wandering from place to place. He must have had family connections and friendships and a good reputation. Maybe he was patriotic. We can imagine that he would have loved his native homeland. Who wouldn’t? We can imagine that it afforded opportunities for him and his heirs. We know that it was a significant place for trade. But he sought a “better country.” His heart told him that all the familiar things, all the comforts of what he knew as home, were not enough. He longed for something better. And so he dared to buck his instincts and all the social pressures to conform to expectations. He dared to stand alone.

I’m not sure the pressure to conform is any less today than it was for Abraham. In a land where we think of ourselves as free, the pressure to conform is perhaps more subtle, but it is probably all the more powerful. The way you get free people to conform is through manipulation and deception. Give them the illusion of choice, when all the while the choices amount to pretty much the same thing. Thirty-five different kinds of toothpaste or an aisle filled with a hundred different varieties of yogurt. You need to buy this car, this house, this tablet; you need to take this vacation, wear these kinds of clothes, or you won’t be living the American dream, and the worst thing you could ever do, the most treasonous and unpatriotic thing, would be to refuse to live the American dream. But, look, here are five different ways to finance it!

But Abraham refused to buckle to the pressure. He refused to conform to the expectations of his home country. He sought a better country. Abraham had the courage to leave the old life behind because he longed for something better.

But the author of Hebrews does not celebrate Abraham for his courage. Abraham is lifted up in Scripture because of his faith. The key thing that we need to remember about Abraham, Hebrews tells us, is that he died without ever seeing the fulfillment of God’s promises for a better life. Sure, Abraham was rich. But he was rich back in his hometown. In the countryside, he wandered. He never stopped, settled, and found his land of promise. He never had the security of knowing that he and his family were rooted and secure. And then, he died. He died without reaching his destination. Like the people who left Egypt for the promised land, he never got to where he was going.

Throughout Abraham’s life as it is recounted in Scripture, he remained a stranger and a foreigner, with no land to call his own. This wasn’t all that uncommon in the ancient world. Most people’s survival was tied pretty closely to the fertility of the land, and, during periods of drought or other changes in weather patterns, a region’s fertility wasn’t reliable. So there were quite a few nomads. It wasn’t until agricultural technology advanced to the point that surplus crops could be harvested and laid up for the future that everyone could settle in a city or town. And, of course, being a stranger and foreigner is not that unusual today, either. In a world in which gang violence and failed states and climate change drive people away from their homelands, migration is very common. This week I was horrified to read about a Chaldean man in Detroit (the “Chaldeans” are Christians of Iraqi descent who migrated to the U.S. and other places many decades ago). This man, in his late forties, was a diabetic, and had lived in the area since he was six months old. Because he never gained U.S. citizenship, and because he had been arrested (though never charged) with disorderly behavior when his disease was causing him to become irritable and difficult, he was rounded up and deported to a country he had never lived in (he was born in Greece), where they spoke a language that he never spoke. In a matter of months, he was found dead in Iraq, having lost access to insulin. Now, I know there’s a lot of politics around questions like these at the moment, and perhaps people will say that I’m not telling the whole story: maybe he deserved to be deported. But my point is not about this man’s merits or his faults. My point is that here is a man who represents the fate of people whose entire lives are spent as strangers and foreigners, who have no secure home, tossed around by a world filled with brutal conflicts and mortal danger. Here is a modern child of Abraham.

But migrants are not the only people with no place to call their own in our world today. There are also the unhoused in our communities. There are people who are chronically unemployed or (more commonly today) underemployed, whose place it the world is precarious at best, who are isolated from their communities because of a loss of income. There are millions of people who are disenfranchised because of previous felony convictions. There are millions more who live in urban neighborhoods across this country that are forgotten, as money and resources have left for the suburbs. There are many strangers in our midst, many Abrahams, if you will, people who can’t live the American dream and who are therefore bound to a better country than their own.

In Scripture, we people of faith are called “the children of Abraham. If we are Abraham’s offspring, then we, too, are strangers and foreigners in the land. How so? For starters, it is because we believe in a better country. It sounds like heresy, and, in a way, it is, but Abraham knew his home country was not all there is—he believed there is so much more! If he didn’t believe that, as we are told in Hebrews, he would have turned back at the first sign of difficulty. But he didn’t turn back. He knew that all the ways in which his home society protected its most privileged members and neglected its most vulnerable was not the best humanity could do. He knew that things like child sacrifice and exploiting peasants and constant wars to expand territory and gain trade advantages were not the best life before God has to offer. And, so, he was an oddball, because these are the very things that his society relied upon and valued. To reject these things, to seek a better way, would have made him seem like a dreamer, like someone who had lost his connection with his country. And, in a way, so he had.

As Christians, we believed in the coming realm of God. We believe the stories Jesus taught us, stories of prisoners being released, of the sick being made well, of the poor receiving good news, of humanity and community among all people being treasured and restored. We believe that life is not a matter of owning things or controlling people. Life isn’t about achieving status or recognition. Life isn’t about lifting ourselves up by tearing someone else down. Life isn’t a mad rush to compete or succeed. To be a Christian is to reject those things, to believe that there is a better country, a better life. To be a Christian is to seek to live that life and to offer it to others, many of whom do not even understand that their own lives are miserable and anxious, who don’t even believe that there is a better way. To be a Christian is to live by grace, and to offer grace without reserve when the world seems only to understand achievement, and private accumulations of wealth and prestige, and fighting to keep what is one’s own.

The sermon series we have begun this morning is entitled, “What does faith mean today? And our first point follows from the story of Abraham. Faith, today, means the courage to stand alone so that we remain loyal to that vision of life that we learn from Jesus. Faith, today, means the courage to dream that dream with God, even if we never see it become a reality. There are all kinds of ways that the dream is being trampled on. There are plenty of people who say that it’s time to give up on it. It would be nice if we could point to definitive evidence that the dream is real. But that’s not what faith is. Faith is committing ourselves to the dream, even if it remains a dream. Because it is a dream that makes all the difference for how we live our waking days. In the name of God, our creator and redeemer. Amen.

Sermon series, “What does faith mean today?”, no. 2, “The joy of being together”

Eastminster United Presbyterian Church, Pentecost+10, August 18, 2019

Tom James

Last week, we talked about faith today meaning the courage to stand alone. Being faithful means resisting the expectations of a culture that is in many ways lacking in faithfulness.

But Scripture never actually talks about “standing alone.” In the biblical view, there really is no such thing as being alone. Not really. We can be lonely in all kinds of situations. We can be lonely in a crowd of people. Some of the loneliest places are the most crowded places. And we can be alone in the literal sense of not being around other people—we can be at home alone, or we can work in an isolated environment, or we can go off by ourselves to get some “alone” time. But we are never actually and totally alone. We carry with us the faces of others in our minds. We are mindful of how so-and-so would feel or what they would think about much of what we do. We are social creatures by nature, even if we are the type for whom being in a large group is very uncomfortable. And the Bible adds to this the conviction that who we are as people of faith is never a series of isolated individuals but members of community, participants in a history, characters in a story. In other words, we are part of something much bigger than us, and that stretches way beyond our physical reach in space and well beyond our lifetimes in time.

You could say that our faith teaches us that our “selves” are much bigger than meets the eye. We are much more than we appear to be. There’s more in us than we might expect to find.

Our text from Hebrews this morning begins at the end of a long list of faithful people and their exploits in the Old Testament. Chapter eleven ends with an impressive summary of what they did (they shut the mouths of lions; they quenched raging fire; conquered kingdoms…!), and we might be tempted to think that we have just read an account of heroic deeds by heroic individuals—people we should admire and be grateful for, and maybe, in our best moments, try and emulate.

But that is not what we are invited to do. The faithful are not there for us to admire. In fact, we shouldn’t think of them as a series of impressive individuals who have accomplished great things. We shouldn’t think of them as individuals at all. Instead, for us, they are a cloud.

Have you ever been in a cloud? In a plane, or on a mountain, or in dense fog on the ground: there are some clouds that are so cloudy, so dense and soupy, that you can’t even see individuals in them. Clouds are a space in which all individuality gets blurred a little. The droplets that make up a cloud are invisible as individuals—they get lost in the blur. And not only that, the droplets in a cloud have virtually no effect as individuals. It isn’t as individuals that they are interesting. Instead, it is their cumulus—or cumulative—effect that makes a cloud what it is.

And, in the same way, it is the cumulative effect of the faithful that is important here. The faithful have a remarkable power to do remarkable things, but it isn’t because they are remarkable individuals, but because there is something very special that the faithful share. The remarkable thing is that these people listed in Hebrews 11 are actually quite ordinary people, like you and me.

The fact that ordinary people can become part of a great litany of saints shows the power of the church. We are much more than a gathering of individuals. We do more together than we can alone not because of simple addition: it’s not just that my strength and my gifts are added to yours. No, we can do more because my gifts themselves are not what they could be until they interact with yours. I’m a much worse preacher when I’m preaching to an empty room, or when I’m preaching to people with very little capacity to connect with God. I’m not a very good leader without other good leaders around me. And, I’m sure, we can all say similar things: anyone’s gifts become much more powerful when they are challenged and inspired by the gifts of others. The power that we find as we gather as people of faith is in our being together.

One of the things I’m convinced that we must do to be a vital congregation today is to be faithful in mission. And this isn’t just a matter of giving money. Faithfulness in mission means allowing those walls of discomfort we have about other people to be broken down. It means extending that sense of togetherness. A leading theologian today has said that the most important word in Christian tradition is the word “with.” “God with us” is the most powerful, game-changing thing that we can say. And, along with it, the “with” that we share among each other, a “with” that can be expanded to encompass the whole world.

And the miracle of the church is exactly that that amazing “with” can expand and grow when we engage in concerted action for the benefit of others. I like that word, “concerted.” Like a concert. We can’t be the church God intends unless we learn to do mission like a concert, where your sounds and my sounds become much more than they could ever be when they blend. When we act together, we become bolder and less afraid. We experience joys in serving together even if the results of what we try to do are not evident. Even if the community around us doesn’t rapidly change or if people don’t flock to our building or even if we can’t see visible signs of improvement in people’s lives, we experience joy just in joining our gifts and our actions and acting together. We get the blessing of being “with.”

This phrase at the beginning of Hebrews chapter twelve—the “cloud of witnesses—is similar to another great phrase we sometimes use to talk about the church: the “communion of saints.” When we recognize that the list of the faithful that we find in this chapter extends across broad sweeps of history, we realize that the cloud of witnesses, the community of the faithful that inspires and challenges us, extends far beyond the horizon of our own experience. We are in communion with many, many more people than we can see, many more than those who have lived during our lifespans. We share a church with Abraham and Sarah, with Elijah and with Daniel and with Jesus and with Mary Magdalene. And with our parents and our grandparents and with hosts of others.

While it may not be true in a literal sense that those we have loved are looking down on us and smiling, or cringing, or whatever—we could never know what people who have gone before are doing—we do rightly feel that their lives are joined to ours, that we are in real communion with them, because we could not be the people we are without them.

Pastor Thomas Lane Butts tells the story about a bad football player. Some years ago Columbia University had a great football coach by the name of Lou Little. One day Lou had a boy try out for the varsity team who really was not very good. But, the coach noticed there was something unique about him. He had an irrepressible spirit of enthusiasm. The coach knew he was not good enough to actually play, but he thought: “This boy will be a great inspiration on the bench. I will not be able to play him, but I will leave him on the team to encourage the others.”

As the season went on Lou Little developed a tremendous love and admiration for this young man. One of the things he noticed about him was that when his father came to visit him, they would walk arm in arm around the campus. He and his father were very devoted to each other. One day Coach Little got a phone call informing him that the boy’s father had died, and he was the one who had to tell him of his father’s death.

When he got back from the funeral, the coach said to him: “Is there anything I can do for you, anything at all?” To his astonishment, the boy said: “Let me start the game on Saturday.” It was the final and biggest game of the season, and the coach was really in a jam. But, he decided he would let him start, leave him in for a few plays and then take him out. The team was puzzled when the coach started someone who had not played all season. “He went on to play inspired football, play after play. The coach left him in the entire game. He was voted the outstanding player of the game.

When the game was over the coach said to him. “Son, what got into you today?” And the boy said, “You remember my father used to visit me here at school and we would walk arm in arm over the campus. Well, my father and I shared a secret that nobody here at school knew about. My father was blind, and today was the first time he ever saw me play.”

Our power as a church is the power of being “with.” We are with God, with each other, with our neighbors, and with all the saints who have gone before. The power and the joy of being with breaks through all the isolation and the loneliness of modern life. It is the greatest gift we have to offer the world. And it is the greatest gift we have to share with each other. In the name of God, our creator and redeemer. Amen.

Sermon series, “What does faith mean today?”, no. 4, “Being at peace” (Hebrews 13.1-8, 15-16)

Eastminster United Presbyterian Church, Pentecost + 12 C, September 1, 2019

Tom James

Today we conclude a four-part sermon series on what faith means today, in our contemporary world. In previous weeks, we talked about (1) the courage to stand alone, (2) the joy in being together, and (3) recognizing the gift of grace. Today, we are talking about “being at peace.” It’s hard to think of anything that is more misunderstood than peace. It’s strange because we’ve all experienced it. We know peace when we feel it. We certainly know what it feels like to have no peace. But we have a hard time talking about it. And we have an even harder time aiming at it because too often we just don’t what it is, or what it takes.

Sometimes we think of peace as an absence of noise and clamor, a stillness or a calmness. We think of peaceful moments, maybe early in the morning before everyone else is up, or perhaps late at night after everyone else has gone to sleep. We think of a warm cup of coffee or tea on a balcony overlooking a sunrise, or the quiet of a mountaintop after a long hike. Maybe, we think of church, singing old familiar hymns, sitting in the pew we’ve been sitting in for years, hearing words of comfort, assuring us that the world hasn’t gone insane, or, that if it has, there is still a safe refuge among God’s people, people that we have known much our lives.

What is it about these things that makes them seem peaceful? Well, there can be a lot of things packed into a moment. But one thing that all of them have in common is absence. They are moments of abstraction, being removed from the busyness of life, its concerns and its clamoring. Or, if I may put it more pointedly, they are moments in which we are not challenged or bothered by things that unsettle or disrupt. When we long for peace, or when we aim at it, sometimes what we are really aiming at is a break, a time-out, a respite from things that put demands on us or that pull us in too many directions.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. Our world seems to be getting faster and faster. In our work lives, the boundaries around work are getting thinner and thinner, and we sometimes find it hard to actually get away. With recent communications technologies, we are bombarded with images and feelings and opinions almost non-stop. Our lives are getting more and more crowded, it seems, and so sometimes we need for all of it just to stop, or at least to pause. We need a warm cup of coffee or tea and a vision of beautiful sunrise; we need a few quiet moments on a deck or a patio; we need people that we are comfortable with, who relate to us in ways that are reliable and helpful for us. We need a respite from the turmoil and the busyness and the chaos of life.

But, as we all know, these moments cannot last. And that is why aiming at peace like we are aiming at a vacation cannot work. Moments of respite, as necessary as they are, cannot be sustained—nor are they meant to be. Moments of respite are not the stuff of life. Life in God’s world is a life that involves motion and change and even challenge. Life in God’s world is a life where differences confront us every day, where not everyone looks alike or speaks alike or thinks alike, and where we sometimes have to put forth effort to get along with people. Life in God’s world includes mistakes, and difficulties, and pain. And, so aiming at peace as if aiming for those moments of respite to be lengthened into days and years, would be to aim at something less than life, something that is more like death, in fact.

But we all know this. We know that we can’t be on the patio forever. The question is: can we be at peace in the midst of all these things that are not outwardly very peaceful—can we at peace in the middle of life in God’s world, with all of its motion, its changes, its challenges and its difficulties, its discomfort and its pain? Can we be at peace when things are happening, when we are engaged in living life rather than taking a break from it?

What I want to suggest is that being at peace is not something that is passive—it is not something that simply happens to us, or that happens when we do nothing or remove ourselves from everything or everyone else. This passive understanding of peace does great harm, I believe. It teaches us obedience in the worst possible sense–obedience to systems that destroy us and others. It teaches us to accept momentary pain-killers in the form of temporary good feelings. It teaches us to run from one pleasant experience to another searching for the quick fix of a happy moment, meanwhile allowing our lives and our communities and our society to continue to be worn down and out; it means allowing modern life to destroy people in its constant search for profit; it means being idle and docile while the fabric of creation itself is being unraveled; it means dutifully cultivating a record of what we think of as our peaceful, happy moments on our Facebook or Instagram while ignoring the pain of the world.

This is not peace. It is a fake peace, at best—it is an empty image of peace. It is an obedient acceptance of a life that has no real peace in it. Instead, what the author of Hebrews gives us is a set of practices of peace. Being at peace, we find in Scripture, isn’t a matter of stopping or pausing or of experiencing comfort or moments of happiness. Peace isn’t passive in this way. Instead, peace is something you do: peace is an activity, a way of living. In Hebrew, the word we translate “peace” is “shalom,” and it means something quite the opposite from passivity. It means active participation in the goodness of creation that promotes the well-being of all. Wishing someone “shalom” doesn’t mean wishing them a good vacation or a few good moments on the patio, as nice as those things are. It means that we wish that they flourish as human beings, connecting with God and neighbor and living lives that are meaningful and just.

To be at peace in a biblical sense means that we practice a life of peace. Our passage for this morning talks about three such practices, and I want to spend a little time talking about each of them. The first practice of peace is what we usually call “hospitality.” It’s hard to overestimate the importance of hospitality in the Bible. Scholars point out that hospitality was a value and an expectation that was central to social life in the part of the world that the Bible comes from. There was a lot of traveling around from place to place to find food and pasture. In a sometimes harsh and unforgiving environment, a mutual expectation of hospitality was perhaps the only way to survive. But, more than a way to survive, hospitality is the way to form and to preserve community. Hospitality suspends and even overcomes the natural suspicion we may feel about strangers. Hospitality undermines hostility and forges bonds between people who may speak different languages and have different cultural backgrounds but who find that they share a more fundamental solidarity in just being human. Although we don’t live in quite the same kind of world as the ancients, hospitality still has the power that it had for them. If we want to be at peace, we must practice hospitality, because that is how we make those scary and threatening borders and boundaries places where human beings come together, sharing their lives with each other in the way God intends rather than fighting and imprisoning one another. To put it bluntly, no hospitality, no peace.

A second practice Hebrews talks about is faithfulness. Our passage puts it somewhat negatively, reminding us of our accountability before God. But it is important to recognize that faithfulness is a crucial part of being at peace. We are not only to be welcoming to strangers but mindful of the bonds that unite us more intimately with those we love. We can’t have peace if we cut ourselves off from those who share our lives through our lack of faithfulness to those relationships. But, as we know, faithfulness, too, is something we have to practice. It isn’t just a matter of abstaining from certain things or trying not to slip up. It means cultivating and strengthening relationships. It means doing what it takes to make relationships work. It means investing in them—building our marriages but also our friendships for the long haul. Without faithfulness, we find ourselves isolated, and isolation is the opposite of the kind of peace that God intends for us. Isolated people don’t flourish. Isolated people don’t have shalom—when we isolate ourselves, we don’t have God’s peace.

Finally, Hebrews commends contentment with what we have. Being at peace means being contented. It means not being resentful or envious, not hoarding more than we need or seeking to acquire more than our neighbor. It might seem like contentment is an attitude instead of a practice: something we feel and not something we do. But sometimes attitudes and feelings have to be practiced, too. In a world that constantly bombards us with images of wealth and tries constantly to make us want what we don’t have, contentment doesn’t always come naturally. So how do we practice contentment? By learning to rejoice in small things; by constantly reminding ourselves not to take things for granted; by making ourselves familiar with the struggles of other people to have the basic necessities of life. Like hospitality, contentment is an insistence that we are all in this thing called human life together, that we each, as God’s children, have a right to what we need for a decent life, but none has the right to take so much that others will not have enough. That’s not how we think in a culture that actively promotes greed, but from the point of view of the Bible, it’s just that simple. Once again, the point is quite the opposite of passive acceptance. In a world of abundant provision, we shouldn’t accept that some people are hungry or unhoused. Contentment means that, once we have what we need, we strive to make sure that everyone has what they need, too. That is how we make a peace that can last.

These are the things that faith means today, I believe. It means the courage to stand alone, joy in being together, recognizing gifts of grace, and being at peace. None is a perfect model of this. We all struggle, and we all struggle together. We are part of what the author of Hebrews calls the great cloud of witnesses, and, like everyone else in that cloud, we see only in part—and, for the rest, we are learning to trust. In the name of God, our creator and redeemer. Amen.