NRSV HEBREWS 11:1-3, 8-16, 29-12:3
11 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
2 Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. 3 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.
8 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. 9 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. 10 For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old – and Sarah herself was barren–because he considered him faithful who had promised. 12 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.”
13 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, 14 for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 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, he has prepared a city for them.
29 By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. 30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. 31 By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.
32 And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets – 33 who through faith
conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions,
34 quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35 Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented –
38 of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
39 Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
The four passengers knew the small plane they were riding in was in trouble, even before the pilot came back to them with a parachute on his back.
“Well the bad news is that we have, obviously, developed engine trouble and will be going down. The good news is that there are parachutes. The bad news is there are only three of them for the four of you. So good luck, and thank you for flying Forget About It Airlines.” With that, he jumped out.
A woman grabbed the first parachute, saying “I am a very famous physician and my patients desperately need me,” and out she jumped.
The next one was a man who said, “I am the smartest guy in the world and of course I am needed,” so he grabbed a bag and jumped out, too.
That left only a minister and a teen-age boy. The minister said, “Go ahead and take the last parachute, son, I’ve lived a good life.”
The boy smiled at him and said, “It’s okay, pastor. There are two parachutes left. The smartest guy in the world grabbed my backpack.”
If you think you have heard me tell this story before, you’re right. But I like to tell it not just because it is funny but because there is a connection with our world and this wonderful, cranky organization we call the church. Celebrating 175 years of chartered ministry like we are doing today is a rare one in our time. More often than not we are hearing of churches struggling, searching for relevance, or closing. We all know that the church we grew up in and love is going through some tough times. It may seem like the airplane is going down, and everyone is scrambling for parachutes.
But that’s why it is so important to mark this occasion. Not just because it is a good reason for a party, though we might want to say: why not? We can always use a reason to bring people together, have a lunch, share stories, see people we haven’t seen in a while, or connect with someone we have heard about but have never met. But it is even more critical to celebrate the continuing ministry of Farmville Presbyterian Church because with all of the doom and gloom forecasts maybe we need a wake-up call that the church may not be going down as much as we think. I know I need the reminder that the church is not dying, but is reforming; it is changing. One of our main slogans as Presbyterians is: Reformed church, always in the process of being reformed. We cling for all we are worth, not to a parachute that may or may not open, but to the grace of God, which still has work for us to do. How we go about that may look different in the future than it has in years past, it may take a form that looks strange to us. But the future is in God’s hands. God’s story with God’s people is not done.
It’s also why this reading from Hebrews is so important. It gives us a snapshot of the early church, and what that snapshot reveals is a church not too unlike our own. In the chapter immediately preceding this one the writer has urged this congregation to hang in there, to keep meeting and not give up meeting like some people have done. Sounds a lot like our time when we bemoan all of those sports events and entertainment opportunities that now occur over what used to be the sacred 11 o’clock Sunday morning time slot. Now we are in competition with all of that, a competition we have not always been very good about facing.
And yet in the face of all of that the writer urges this congregation to stay strong in the faith. They start off with what sounds like a definition: faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. They are to live their lives with the trust that what God is going to accomplish in their lives and through their ministries is already happening. They may not see it, it may all seem futile. Maybe they, like we, are too hard on themselves, or they cannot conceive of what God is doing because they are looking at something else, they are expecting all kinds of spiritual fireworks that are not there. But they are urged to keep moving, to keep the faith – not in the sense of just sitting back and letting God do all the work but to keep moving and trust that God will take whatever they give in faith and make it into something fantastic.
After mentioning some earlier giants of the faith, the writer lands on Abraham – as any good Hebrew would, given that he is the first of the patriarchs. To Abraham is given the call to go to a new land, and the promise of descendants innumerable. I hope you noticed the footnote on the 11th verse; it says that either Abraham or Sarah were the ones who considered God faithful, the God who had made the promise. I guess some people want to think of this as an either-or situation, and so it must have been Abraham; after all, he is always the one who is lifted up as the paragon of a life of faith. But why not both-and? Why not both Abraham and Sarah, even with them laughing at the promise, even with their sense of skepticism that such a thing could happen to an older couple, to them? We are all like them, chuckling under our breath at the new thing God is doing, the new thing that gives us life, the new thing that gives us a future with a hope, even if we cannot see right now the fulfillment of that new thing. Some things take nine months, or longer. But God’s new birth will happen.
To help this community receive the encouragement they need to pursue that new thing, the writer lifts up example after example of those patriarchs and matriarchs of the faith who demonstrated what a life immersed in faith looks like. It is somewhat similar to our list of the charter members of this church, which is in an insert in your bulletins. We can only wonder what people like Abraham and Sarah, David and Samuel thought when God sent them out. They didn’t always get it right. That list has some pretty suspect characters: Jephthah, who sacrificed his own daughter because he thought he was doing God’s will; David and his exploits with Bathsheba. The folks who made up our charter members weren’t perfect either. But that didn’t stop them from getting something special going on this side of the Appomattox River. Rather than waiting for ourselves to completely get it right, maybe God is just telling us to get going and do something, and let God mend and shape it on the way.
But lest we get a little romantic and rose-colored glassy-eyed about all of this, the writer goes on to remind them of those who suffered for that faith. People who were stoned to death – like the prophets Zechariah and Jeremiah; others who were sawn in two, supposedly the end of Isaiah’s prophecy and life; those who wandered all over, seeking to be close to God and share God’s love with others, and wound being persecuted and tormented for their efforts.
Living a life of faith is not always easy. No kidding. People might look at you strange, they may not want to talk with you at all once they find out you are in a church. I know the best way for me to sabotage a growing conversation and friendship is by telling somebody I’m a minister. Right away the walls go up and people think they have to watch their language and show off how pious they are. Little do they know me.
But then I remember that none of this is about me. It is about God moving in our midst, calling forth new life even among older folks, and gifting them with the Spirit so they can be witnesses of good news. That’s what it means to be a part of the great cloud of witnesses. That’s not just a title for all those folks whose names are on that insert; or the ones whose stern faces look out at you from the wall here in the foyer, the “rogue’s gallery” of former pastors. The great cloud of witnesses is that list of people in our lives who have made us who we are, who have taught us what Jesus’ love looks like. They are the people who come with Jesus when our Lord is spiritually present with us in the Sacrament of Communion; when the Prayer of Thanksgiving is intoned, and we remember who we are, and whose we are. We are connected again, and we remember that the great cloud of witnesses is not just those in the great hereafter, but all of us, here in this place, and those who will come after us. We are being called to live in the faith that God’s Kingdom is being fashioned even in our time.
That’s why we come to this table. It is not just to remember Jesus’ sacrifice for us. It is to keep in mind that the risen Christ still has work to do, and he has the audacity to do it through us. Even with all of our shortcomings, even when we don’t come to church very often, even when we question the teachings of the church, even when we laugh at the promises contained in Scripture. Even when we laugh at God.
We laugh because what God is calling for us to do is so outrageous, so beyond our imaginations that we cannot conceive it. And yet, God gives the call anyway. To be a people of peace; to speak a kind word to someone whose political opinions you find offensive; to look at immigrants and white nationalists and all kinds of people with love. We dare to do all this, because God is at work in our midst, and that work will continue beyond us.
But first, let’s eat. Let’s drink. Let’s remember. Let’s take it all in, the presence of God in Jesus Christ, the Spirit of God in this place and beyond this place. The movement of God in our lives, giving us faith, giving us hope, giving us love. Maybe the plane won’t crash. Amen.