Sunday, August 11, 2013

Actively Faithful: Genesis 15:1-6, Hebrews 11:1-16

This morning I was blessed to join the lovely congregation at Middle Presbyterian Church as their pulpit supply for the day. They are a cherry, friendly bunch who I enjoyed worshiping with.

Our texts this morning are Genesis 15:1-6 and Hebrews 11:1-16.

When I first read the scripture texts for today, I got excited. FAITH! That’s an easy topic, right? I can talk about faith. I have faith!
There’s a ton of stuff out there on faith, too. But then I thought about it a little bit. I have 15-20 minutes to cover something as huge as faith? Yikes! It’s not really the sort of thing most of us, are able to define succinctly.
Christians tend to throw the word “faith” around a lot. We put it in book and conference titles, on bumper stickers and magnets, we use it to talk about our beliefs. . . It has become a sort of cornerstone word in the Christian language, but it’s not always used in quite the same way.  So perhaps it’s not that surprising that we struggle to actually define it. Ask 5 different church folk to define “faith” and you’ll probably get 7 different definitions.
In preparing this sermon, I did what many people do today when they want to learn more about something: I got on the computer and looked up “faith” on Google. It seems that even religious people have trouble defining “faith”, so I was curious how the strange world of the internet would define it.
            The first link was a sponsored link that went to a Church of God site that had a pretty decent and theologically sound definition of faith.[1] Unsurprisingly, the next two links were to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia and to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary. Both sites that are not associated with any one religion. The Wikipedia definition was interesting and seemed to sum up how many people I know view faith:
Faith is confidence or trust in a person, thing, deity, or in the doctrines or teachings of a religion or view (e.g. having strong political faith). It can also be belief that is not based on proof.[1] The word faith is often used as a substitute for hope, trust or belief.
In religion, faith often involves accepting claims about the character of a deity, nature, or the universe. While some have argued that faith is opposed to reason, proponents of faith argue that the proper domain of faith concerns questions which cannot be settled by evidence.[2]

            The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines faith as:
1a : allegiance to duty or a person : loyalty
  b (1) : fidelity to one's promises (2) : sincerity of intentions
2a (1) : belief and trust in and loyalty to God (2) : belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion
  b (1) : firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2): complete trust
3: something that is believed especially with strong conviction; especially : a system of religious beliefs

            If you didn’t pick up on it, I like words and definitions. I like them in all languages. My advisor once teased me when I said I was loving my Hebrew class that, “there’s probably a pill for that.” But this definition didn’t seem to do it for me. I was left saying, “Oh. That’s it?” These definitions just seemed shallow. There had to be more to an important word like “faith.”
The author of Hebrews is answering this exact same problem for his readers. Faith was not an unfamiliar concept to Christian Jews when the book of Hebrews was written. The Old Testament tells countless stories about faith: stories which were an important part of the Jewish tradition. But the word often missed some of its luster, especially in the eyes of those on the outside looking in. Greek culture liked to separate the mind and the body, ideas and action, so the word faith was for them an entirely thought-related word.
Many people saw the concept of faith as “mere belief.” All in the head. It looked like people blindly believing in something they had no proof of. The original audience of this book needed a solid, meaty definition of faith – something they could grab ahold of. They needed a definition that had depth, that wasn’t just a shallow shout out to na├»ve belief in things they couldn’t see.
The Hebrew church was not nearly as privileged as we are today. They were difficult times for the followers of this relatively new religion. They faced plundering, ridicule and prison on top of all the regular struggles and trials of life in this world. The people needed encouragement and a reminder of the depth that the faith of those before them had.[3]
They needed a deeper definition of faith and they needed examples of what that faith looked like. It’s one thing to define a word – it’s another thing entirely to embody it. The Hebrew church needed a reminder that faith isn’t just something that helps to ease the pain. It’s not just a belief in something that helps to ease the burdens of life a little bit.
The author of Hebrews seems to know how difficult faith is to define and does not try to say everything there is to say about faith. He settles for honing in on the important parts and focusing on people who have shown great faith. He’s picked out the essentials and a list of people who show us that faith can have many different appearances.[4]
The passage begins with a feeling of certainty. Faith is assurance. It is conviction. These are dynamic, solid words. And after the brief definition, it gets even more dynamic as it describes what one of my professors likes to call, “Our older brothers and sisters in the faith”.
The faithful people described in the rest of the passage didn’t just sit back and have a heady belief in something. They didn’t just sit around believing and talking about faith. They acted. They obeyed. Even when it was difficult and didn’t make sense and their obedience looked strange to the rest of the world, they acted.
By faith, Abel offered. . . and even though he’s dead, through his faith he still speaks.
By faith, Enoch was taken up. . .taken up because he pleased God.
By faith Noah constructed an ark. . .
By faith Abraham obeyed. . . and went out. . .
By faith Sarah received power to conceive. . .
Their faith went past being just a belief in something. It triggered action. It was the spark that started flames of change. Their faith could not be severed from action, motion, obedience.
It’s not just that these people had faith because they were in the best of circumstances and it was easy to have faith, either. They all exemplify dynamic, active faith in the face of difficulty. Abel’s family had been booted out of the garden and was trying to figure out how to tend a broken earth. Noah faced big time ridicule for his ridiculous boat building antics. And having faith in a promise of children would have been one thing if Abraham and Sarah were young, but there were way past childbearing age and were heartbroken to have no children.
Even when the going got tough, these tough kept faithful and they kept moving toward the promises that they knew God made to them. The promises they knew God would keep. Even though the promises were so far off in the distance, they could only greet them from afar, they stood on that assurance, that conviction and it carried them through unimaginable difficulty.
The Word Commentary says this is “a living faith that acts in terms of God’s promise, even when the realization of the promise is not in sight. Such a faith is able to move beyond disappointment and the sufferings of this world and to bear vibrant testimony to future generations regarding the reality of the promised blessings.[5]” THAT is what faith is, my friends. It is a living thing!
A friend shared a quote with me the other day. “Faith isn’t an epidural. It’s a midwife standing next to me saying, Push! It’s supposed to hurt![6]” Faith isn’t a bandaid or something that covers up the pain. It is what keeps us walking through even when things seem to be falling to bits. Faith is what moves us past disappointment and suffering so that we can bear vibrant testimony. That vibrant, LIVING testimony is the evidence of our faith.
Faith is all too often taken for being something that just is, but that is a shallow definition and takes away the exciting action that faith stirs. Faith is something that we live and breathe and DO. The author of Hebrews goes so far as to say that faith is a belief in things that are more real than what we can see.  MORE REAL! It’s not less real just because we can’t see it! Faith is believing in what is MORE REAL that what we see!
Faith is not just belief. It is belief that spurs obedience. Belief and obedience are inseparable when defining faith.[7]
And the world needs more dynamic faith. We live in a culture that is long on words and ideas and short on action, but that’s not the kind of faith that we’re called to. We’re called to action. We are called to live up to the example set forth for us by Abraham and Noah and Enoch and Abel. Not just to believe in God. . . but to trust God enough to go out and DO.
Just like when I did the faith fall with the kids in the children’s sermon, there is this connection between faith and action. Faith is shallow and undefined without response. And the thing in which we put our faith cannot be proven without our faithful action. Our action - our obedience to act in love and justice and to seek God’s will – is so connected to our faith we cannot separate the two. Faith without response is not faith at all. It is mere belief and those are two very different things.
We as Christians are called to be actively faithful. To set aside passive, passionless faith and to become active recipients of the gifts we are given by our gracious and faithful God. We are to offer freely like Abel, to seek God’s pleasure like Enoch, to act out of reverent fear like Noah, to obey and go forth like Abraham and to actively receive God’s gifts like Sarah. It is by actions like these that our faith is proved and our testimonies written.

[3] Shelley, J. C. (2010). Theological Perspective on Hebrews 11:1–3, 8–16. (D. L. Bartlett & B. B. Taylor, Eds.)Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year C, Volume 3 (p. 328). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
[4] Attridge, H. W., & Koester, H. (1989). The Epistle to the Hebrews: a commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (pp. 307–308). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
[5] Lane, W. L. (1998). Hebrews 9–13. Word Biblical Commentary (Vol. 47B, p. 315). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.
[6] Attributed to Brene Brown via a Facebook “meme.”
[7] Attridge, H. W., & Koester, H. (1989). The Epistle to the Hebrews: a commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (p. 308). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

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