Sunday, August 12, 2007

Aug. 12 Sermon: A hand in the Dark

Psalm 50
Luke 12:32-40
Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16

Recently I was delighted to receive a question on Myspace from one of our youth. The question was so earnest—it filled me with joy that I am the minister of this congregation, and I get to engage in these kinds of conversations. It read:
From Jessica
“Faith, it's easy to explain the grace of God to people that have faith already...but what about the people that can't see anything but bad in the world and wonder where God is to do something about it. Of course, its a very cliche question but it is so common because its a question nobody can truly answer. But you have somewhat touched on you thoughts over the situation but never had the opportunity to go into further detail. I would just like some scriptures and verses to help with my journey.”
I commend Jessica for taking time to formulate and ask the question, for taking the time to think about sharing her faith, and for struggling with the very real call that is given to each of us who profess to be members of the Body of Christ to share what it means to have faith with our neighbors.
I share it with you today because I believe our selection from the Hebrews really enhances it. Faith: how to explain it. The first verse from Hebrews gives us something to start with, something to orient us in this pursuit. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Let’s say it together:
Faith is a way of seeing. St. Augustine put it perfectly. He said, "To have faith is to believe what you can't see and the reward of faith is to see what you believe." Isn’t that a beautiful way to think about faith? Paul talked about “seeing with the eyes of our hearts.” This is the same concept. Though the world may seem ugly and malicious and scary, faith is the “assurance of things hoped for.”
Faith is linked to hope, but faith and hope are distinct qualities. Hope is what Emily Dickenson called "the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words, and never stops at all." George Iles knew hope as “faith holding out its hand in the dark.” And Bern Williams claimed that “The day the Lord created hope was probably the same day he created Spring."
Yes, we can become romantic about hope. It is a wonderful thing. Hope, though, can be elusive. It is a state of mind which can be wrenched out of us. Without faith, it can fly out of our souls as easily as it perched there. It can go unfed and whither. George Eliot said that "What we call despair is often only the painful eagerness of unfed hope.”
While hope may be a what Emily Dickenson called "the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words, and never stops at all." Faith is the words that fit the tune perfectly. While “The day the Lord created hope was probably the same day he created Spring,” faith, as the assurance of what is hoped for, is the act of planting the summer harvest. Indeed, hope is “faith holding out its hand in the dark,” and faith is the “confirmation of things unseen.”
There’s a scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade that elaborates this idea pretty plainly.

When I was young, I had an incredible belief in the unseen.
I believed that every night, aliens were standing right outside my window, trying to peak through the blinds. I remember calling out to my mom, much like Wesley now does with us, to come quick because there were monsters in the closet. My parents would lovingly walk over to the closet, open it, and turn on the closet light and look around. “No, son, there aren’t any monsters here!”
I remember being mystified about how brave my parents were to so boldly walk over to the closet and open the door to inspect the closet. I had a firm belief in things unseen. But it was my parents who were exemplifying faith. You see, their action, their boldness was a “confirmation” that the closet didn’t contain any monsters. Their willingness to open the door without any fear of monsters coming out and devouring them alive was an assurance of what I deeply hoped for—that monsters weren’t really in the closet after all! You see, fear and faith don’t occupy the same zip code. If I’m afraid of things unseen, I’ve just got an overactive imagination. But if the unseen gives me confidence and hope and boldness, then my faith is a confirmation or proof of the existence and goodness of the unseen.
So, if we are contemplating our faith in grace, as Jessica was, we might look at the lives of those who have faith in grace and see how it compares to those lives lived without faith in grace. Some people orient their faith life around the notion of God’s wrath. What kinds of lives do we see lived in those circumstances?
I have known people who orient themselves in this direction, and I have found them to be full of fear or spitefulness. An over-emphasis of the wrath of God in our faith life turns us into little children quivering under our blankets, afraid of the monsters in the closet. They either turn God into that monster, and are at their core afraid of God, or they turn those people they believe earn God’s wrath into that monster in the closet and live with a heavy reproach and torment in their souls.
If our faith is a reflection of God, then that kind of faith doesn’t reflect God: perhaps we are worshipping something else. That is a faith of fear. There is no fear in God’s wrath. God’s wrath is born of a deep seeded concern for justice for the widow and the orphan, the poor and oppressed. Dare I say that this is not typically the concern of our contemporaries who put a put an emphasis on the wrath of God?
I like to witness lives of faith that are molded by the deep conviction in God’s grace. In my opinion, that faith is a proof of God’s unseen grace. That faith is the essence of what is hoped for. That faith mirrors God’s love and generosity and forgiveness and transformative power. Those are the kinds of people who are just magnetic. Their faith is a great joy to carry, not a burden on their backs. Why live in a way when you have to go around carrying all that scorn? Is that what God created our hearts to do?
You know how it is when a young couple falls in love. Jack and Jill. Some of the old gossips say over their bridge cards, "I don't know what he sees in her," or "I don't know what she sees him." They are absolutely right. They don't know, but Jack knows. He sees in Jill the fulfillment of the ideal of womanhood and she sees in him a very wonderful man. There has been nobody like him ever. Who is right, the old gossips or Jack and Jill?
William James once gave his attention to that question. He said, "It's Jack and Jill who are right, and for this reason, they are right because love and trust and openness reveal what suspicion and hostility and cynicism will hide."
Perhaps this is another way to get inside this “conviction in things unseen:” Do you believe in the wind? I do! I “see the wind” because I can see and feel and hear it move things. I see and hear it rustle the leaves in the sweetgums outside my window. I feel it when I’m riding my bike around town. I have faith in the wind (and in Oklahoma, that’s not hard to do).
I believe in the Holy Wind—the invisible Holy Spirit, because I can see and hear and feel it move things as well! I have witnessed it move people to act charitably when you would expect them to respond with anger or vengeance. I have heard it when I have read inspired words or heard inspired music. I have felt it urge me to respond to the world around me by reflecting God’s grace.
The Psalm we heard today says God “speaks to and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting.” Do you hear that? Do you hear the summons? The Psalmist is expressing the ever-present-ness of our God. Here we witness a testament to God’s closeness, to the majesty of God’s presence. Yet, it happens all day, every day! God doesn’t keep silence, around him are things as inconspicuous as fires and storms. If we open our eyes to the unseen, perhaps we will see the illumining fire. Perhaps we will see Christ in “the least of these,” perhaps we will see the Divine face in a flower or a tree or a thunderhead or a neighbor. Perhaps we will see God’s provision in the neat haybales and the produce section of the grocery store. Perhaps we will live with faith and trust.
So, as Jesus told his disciples, be attentive! Watch with hope and excitement for the return of our master. Keep the house clean and ready to celebrate. Don’t fall asleep with your faith. Don’t be lazy with your spiritual life! Don’t settle for the treasure that will eventually tarnish and rot. Don’t become distracted by the empty calories that leave us feeling full only for a while. Seek the fullness of God! Cultivate your spirits as carefully as do your careers. I believe that this opportunity I have mentioned with the covenant discipleship groups is one method to be attentive to our Spiritual lives. By tuning in to the pulse of faith, we will become instruments of God’s grace and love. We will become proof of things unseen. We are reaching out for that hand in the dark. Keep your faith stirred up and fresh. It is the essence of all we hope for. It is the proof of things unseen. Don’t hide it under a bushel! Let it shine God’s sunlight into all you say and do. Let it reflect God’s grace into a world that needs love.

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