The Book of Hebrews, from which today’s text comes, is in the form of a sermon, written to encourage the early Christian community of Jerusalem, which was suffering severely under Roman persecution. The timing is very likely a scant year or two before the first Jewish/Roman war, which culminated in the year 70 with the destruction of the city and the Temple that stood at the centre of the Judean religion. This text was written to give strength and support to a community that was under threat of annihilation; a community wondering if they, like Jesus, would be executed for their faith.

When we speak of who we are and why we are gathered here, we often call ourselves a community of faith. Yet I think many of us struggle with just what this concept means. At times I certainly feel that Mark Twain got it right when he has Huckleberry Finn say, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” Today, however, the lectionary passage encourages us to consider the matter a little more deeply.

Chapter 11 begins with a particularly resounding definition of faith. “Now faith,” the author says, “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” This seems to me to point faith toward the future, though it is a future that is not yet visible, one that may be a long way down the road.

Alan Watts a 20th century British philosopher, writer, and speaker, best known as an interpreter and populariser of Eastern philosophy for a Western audience contrasted faith with belief by defining belief as “what we wish” were the case. If we believe in something, Watts says, it has to fit with our pre-conceived notions, it has to be something that confirms, rather than challenges, our view of the world.

Faith, on the other hand, says Watts, “is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown.”

If you spend some time comparing definitions of belief and faith as I did this past week, you don’t come across any dictionary that makes the bold contrast that Watts does. Most of them treat the words as synonyms. Nonetheless I think there are two contrasting ideas here that it is helpful to be aware of. Within the concept of faith are two contradictory ideas out of which our awareness of God emerges.

Faith is not without hope and trust that the future will unfold in a certain way, but faith also recognizes that we are not there yet and the road ahead may be long and very rough. For me, faith defies definition, but comes clear through stories. That is how the author of Hebrews came at it as well. After that brief definition, he provides story after story of the ancestors in the faith, Abraham, Moses, Jacob and Joseph and many lesser prophets, even a woman.

In this sermon I will offer three stories that tell of how people lived out their faith, which I hope will provide food for thought for each of you about living out your own.

In 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of memorial built to honour the Great Emancipator of negro slaves and spoke of his dream of an integrated and just America, an America where, “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” That dream was not based on the evidence he saw from the Lincoln memorial looking out over an America that was as oppressive towards African Americans as it was the day Abraham Lincoln was shot. His dream was based on faith in God’s transformative power. That faith gave him the assurance of the things that he and all the others caught up in the Civil Rights movement hoped for. They stepped forward in faith because they longed for a better country, one that no longer sweltered “with the heat of injustice, [and] oppression, [but a country] transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”…

Rene Fumoleau served as a Basilian priest in Northern Canada for more than twenty years. Fumoleau was also a poet and published a collection of his works reflecting on all he had learned during his time among the Dene people. Charlotte Sullivan an elder of the Gitgat people of Northern BC introduced me to one that is a meditation on faith.

Truck lights.

Winter time and very cold,
early afternoon but already dark.
I’m driving from Yellowknife to Rae in my 15 year old pick-up truck,
and a Dene elder asked me for a ride.

The land has taught the Dene
to live in a world of silence.
After ten kilometres, Kolchia reflects:

“Driving the truck is like having faith in God.”

I’m trying to figure out what he means, but, after two kilometres I give up:

“Grandpa, you talked about driving and faith in God.

I’m not sure what you meant.”

Kolchia turned slightly towards me:

“You started the engine and you put the lights on. We could have said:
‘We see only one hundred metres ahead.
Further on, it’s one hundred kilometres of darkness, so we cannot go to Rae.’

But you got the truck in gear,
we started to move,
and the lights kept showing ahead of us.
Must be the way with God too
who shows us only a bit of the future,
just enough for our next move.
If we are afraid and if we stand still,
we’ll never see further ahead.
But if we go with the little light we have,
the light keeps showing us the way on and on.”

“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” …

In his best selling book on leadership and corporate success, “From Good to Great” Jim Collins introduces his readers to a principle he calls the Stockdale Paradox. It was named for Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War. Collins had interviewed Stockdale at one time and asked him how he was able to live through such a horrible experience, while others seemingly younger and more fit wound up dying in the prison. Stockdale noted that the prisoners who were either complete optimists or complete pessimists had the most trouble surviving. It was the ones like himself that combined realism with a long view that finally made it out.

Collins outlines the Stockdale Paradox like this:

When you face challenging circumstances you must retain faith that you (God) will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties.

AND at the same time…

You must confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

Admiral Stockdale woke up every morning to three thoughts that embodied this paradox in his situation:

  • I’m still in this horrible place.
  • Someday, though, I’m going to get out.
  • If that’s so, what should I do and how should I act today?

“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” …

Christian faith combines a central, core belief that the Commonwealth of God has come near in the person of Jesus Christ, with a realistic appraisal of the world today and the recognition that God’s Commonwealth is not yet here. To act in faith means that we act in accordance with God’s ways, even when to do so seems counter-intuitive or useless. When we act in faith we do affect the world no matter how frightening or oppressive the current reality is. And what is more, faith assures us that acting in God’s way despite the evidence is the only thing that will change the evidence and move the world toward the reality that God longs for.

One writer’s image of faith is that it is a substance, almost a solid, right in the center of your body. That substance is both “a persuasion and [an] expectation” that God will fulfill the promises embodied in Christ. Faith is the sure foundation on which all our hopes for the future are built, and, at the same time, a willingness to “let go and let God”.

“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”…

Rev. D. John Burton reserves all rights © 2016. You are welcome to use, copy, edit or reproduce these sermons with copyright attached. Publication is prohibited.


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