Rev. Adrianne Meier
August 7, 2022
Saint Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church, Bloomington, Indiana
Faith for Impossible Situations
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Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
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 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 Abraham 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 faithful the one 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. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, God has prepared a city for them.
The Swiss theologian Karl Bath once said we should pray with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. I wonder if he had a modern-day newspaper in mind when he said it. Then again, Barth was forced from his professorship at the University of Bonn because he refused to swear an oath to Hitler. He lived in a time where it was incredibly difficult to be faithful. Maybe we do, too—when powerful countries invade their tiny neighbors and bring to a halt grain exports that feed the world’s hungry; when the lives of women and children are pitted against each other and the powerful seem to benefit the most; when it gets harder and harder for families to afford groceries; and diseases bring life to a halt. It is impossible to be faithful under these circumstances. The problem is, we’re confused about what faith is. We think that faith is the way that it is easy, but faith is what sustains us when the way is hard. We think that faith is arriving, but faith is the wilderness way that leads to the promised land. Faith is the sound of capital-L Love calling us, teaching us on the way a new way to live that is fit for the kin-dom and which we practice as we travel.
We not really sure who was suppose to receive the Letter to the Hebrews, in fact, we’re not even sure it is a letter, it has all the right closing matter, but the beginning looks like a sermon. We don’t know who wrote it, though we do not believe it is Paul. The book does suggest that the audience of Hebrews was under persecution. For example, in chapter 10, it says, “But recall those earlier days when, after you had been enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and persecution, and sometimes being partners with those so treated.” It seems that the persecution might be continuing, and some folks have turned back to their old ways. Facing more hardship, more suffering, it is as if the audience here is saying, “It is impossible to be faithful under these circumstances.”
I cannot deny that I have no idea what it would be like to live under persecution. I get a mailers from Amnesty International and the Voice of the Martyrs to remind myself of the real, actual persecuted church. A reminder that there are places in our world where a person can be put to death for following Jesus and Christians take real risks to gather together. I don’t live under persecution. Yet…there are moments in this country, in this day, where it seems impossible to be faithful. People are publicly claiming to be Christian—claiming that they speak for me—to speak for all Christians—but their definition of Christianity and mine are completely foreign to one another. They use the name of Christ for nothing but personal gain; they cling to power at the expense of the oppressed. They stand on principle as if the principles—and not Jesus—will save them. They believe the point of Christianity is create a homeland—metaphoric or otherwise—where their morals are the law of the land.They believe that they—themselves—can create the kingdom of God on earth. They believe that they can create a place where it is easily possible to have faith.
But I think that misses the point. If faith is the Promised Land, rather than a guide for the wilderness journey; if faith is heaven rather than a gift from heaven for life on earth, then we can justify anything—no need for rest or recreation, no need to care for our neighbors, no need for concern for the earth. We can pillage, destroy, ruin, or—which is sometimes worse—ignore one another, practicing completely indifference toward our neighbor. If faith is heaven, then we can justify any of it there. All we have to do is get it right in the end.
But I think it is true in my life, too—that I’m always convinced that if I can just get everything in order, if I can just make it, just arrive, then…what? I seek the perfect routine, the perfect children, the perfect activities, clothes, hairstyle, the most energy efficient this, the most ethical that, and on and on, always convinced that once I get it just right everything will be easy everything will be perfect. I will have arrived. I’m sure it is true with my faith, too, that if I can just find the right devotion, the right practice, the perfect way to worship. I’m convinced that I can somehow “arrive” in this life and everything will slip into place. That I can create for myself the circumstances where faith is an easy, natural thing, where I can be sure.
But faith isn’t arriving, it isn’t certainty. Faith isn’t created when the conditions are right. Faith is journeying, the walking day by day, even through some really terrible, heart-wrenching stuff, moving steadfastly in the direction of eternal life. Our text today omits some of the other examples of faith—Abel who sacrifices were pleasing to God; Enoch whose death is not recorded in scripture; Noah, who certainly lived in times where it was impossible to be faithful. As it says in Hebrews, “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 on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, God has prepared a city for them.” They are seeking a homeland, but their faith is not about creating it on Earth, but their faith is about moving toward what God is preparing for them, and letting that bright future direct their ways. They are called forward by Love, through impossible situations, and the name of their journey is faith. Frederick Buechner once said in a sermon, “Faith is the word that describes the direction our feet start moving when we find that we are loved. Faith is stepping out into the unknown with nothing to guide us but a hand just beyond our grasp.”
On Friday, a bill was signed into law in our state that almost completely restricts abortions. We have been living in an impossible situation when it comes to abortions since, well, forever, really. Pregnancies and family life are complicated, and women have been—and will be—compelled to protect their own well-being in whatever way is possible. This feels like the kind of circumstances where it is impossible to be faithful. But this is not a situation where it is impossible to be faithful; it is a situation where we are tasked with discovering how to be faithful – faithful to our goal (which is God), faithful to the direction our feet are walking in, faithful to our neighbors who walk this way with us. But if it is love that has called us on this way, then we know that the way to be faithful in these circumstances will be to trust that our feet have been directed in the way of love, and to act accordingly.
Beloved, we are called to be faithful when faith seems impossible. True, this is a challenge, but it is also a gift, because if we do not have faith in impossible situations, then all we have are impossible situations. And maybe that’s all the evidence we need: that even when everything seems stacked against us, we know that this impossible situation is not all there is, but we believe that God is preparing something more for us.