Proper 14C

July 31, 2016

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Luke 12:32-40

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 33:12-22

    Author: Stan Mast

  • Lectionary Epistle

    Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

    Author: Scott Hoezee

    Technically one of the confessions adhered to by my church (The Belgic Confession) semi-commits me to believing the Apostle Paul wrote Hebrews. But we now know to a high degree of certainty that is incorrect. We don’t know who wrote Hebrews, or even if it was a single author. Some think it’s a collection of sermons from the earliest days of the Church, and that is possible. But one thing is certain: whoever wrote Hebrews 11 had a tremendous flair for composition! These words are elegant, poetic, and deeply moving. They also manage to capture the dynamics of faith as well as—if not a lot better than—most any single passage in the whole of Scripture.

    Preaching on Hebrews 11 provides a rich pastoral care opportunity from the pulpit. Because when people are able to realize that their lot in life is not so different from the situation faced by even these biblical pillars of the faith, they may find themselves comforted and encouraged. It’s too easy, of course, to assume that being one of God’s holy saints is just a wonderful thing all along the way. It’s too easy to imagine that the roads traveled by people like Abraham or Isaac or all the others listed in Hebrews 11 were smoother than most roads, free of spiritual potholes and sharp, dangerous curves. But it’s not true. As Frederick Buechner somewhere wrote, had you been able to tap any of these people on the shoulder at any given point in their faith journeys to ask them how it felt to be specially chosen by God, their answers would likely have surprised you.

    Because to a person they probably would have told you that it’s tough, that dark nights of the soul were common, that they went for long stretches in between hearing from God or seeing some tangible sign that they were on the right path. (Not long after Mother Theresa’s death, it was discovered in her journals that she had spent most of her blessed life of amazing ministry feeling disconnected from the very God whose clarion call once upon a time set her on that path in the first place.) And as Hebrew 11 poetically, yet bluntly, admits: when the sun set on each of their lives and they prepared to exhale their final breath, none of them were exactly home yet. None really saw the full riches of anything God had ever promised. God’s promises remained for them just that to the very end: promises. They traveled to what Shakespeare called “the undiscovered country,” by which he meant the future but they did not quite arrive in the country when they died.

    Abraham is a great example. Living a comfortable life in Ur with riches aplenty, Abraham and his tranquility and equilibrium were upended one day when God came to him with a one-word comment: “Leave!” By faith Abraham did, and nothing would ever be the same. He had a series of ups and downs, tests and failures before arriving at one searingly faithful moment of very nearly offering up his only beloved son He passed that weird test of God’s but that hardly ushered him in to a new stretch of shalom in his life. Next thing you know the love of his life, Sarah, dies and this once-prosperous man who back in the day had had plenty of land holdings in Ur discovers that he’s so homeless and poor that he has to parlay with the locals to buy a 6×6 plot of earth big enough to bury his dear wife.

    “All these died without having received the promises . . .” I’ll say.

    But isn’t that the situation of so many of us? How many people do we preach to every week who come to church heartbroken and sad? I know a woman who lost her son when he was just shy of 20. And every time I see her—even years after that tragic accident—the corners of her eyes tell me she’ll never really recover. Not fully. She’ll never square this up with the God who made promises at the boy’s baptism, who said and says that never will he leave or forsake us. She, too, will just have to keep greeting the promises and the reality beyond them from a distance until that day when our oft-shaky faith is made sight and we arrive home.

    But what I really love about Hebrews 11 is what we get in verses 15-16. After describing these saints who lived in suspense, had their doubts, and admitted that they were strangers on earth who could not ever quite fit in, we are then told that BECAUSE OF ALL THAT, God was not ashamed to be called their God. In other words, the honest experience of these saints—warts and incompleteness and all—made these folks God’s kind of people! God doesn’t want us “to fake it until we make it.” God doesn’t want plastic saints who paste yellow smiley-face stickers over everything (“Put on a Happy Faith” as church signs often declare) in an effort to cover over the insufficiency of life as it really is. No, he wants honest saints, honest believers, honest strugglers and stragglers who somehow manage to keep longing for that better country that just is the kingdom of God, all the while not denying the utter pain of still having to slog through life on this broken planet.

    As Hebrews 11:1 says, faith is both assurance and conviction, but not easily or lightly or tritely. If it were that neat and tidy, the chapter would not have gone on to list the honest struggles of so many of God’s chosen ones who did not in this life make it home. Too often we who preach—and ordinary Christians as they interact with each other in Bible studies and the like—pick up on the assured conviction part of faith to the detriment of acknowledging also the tough slog of faith. As often as not, good people feel hurt and put upon—and their faith called into question—on account of this. Preaching on Hebrews 11 may give us an honest, biblical, refreshing opportunity to counter-balance some of that unhappiness and mischief in the church.

    Illustration Idea

    “Faith is better understood as a verb than as a noun, as a process than as a possession. It is on-again-off-again rather than once-for-all. Faith is not being sure where you are going but going anyway. A journey without maps . . . Almost nothing that makes a real difference can be proved. I can prove the law of gravity by dropping a shoe out the window. I can prove the world is round if I am clever at that sort of thing—that the radio works, that light travels faster than sound. I cannot prove that life is better than death or love better than hate. I cannot prove the greatness of the great or the beauty of the beautiful. I cannot even prove my own free will; maybe my most heroic act, my truest love, my deepest thought, are all just subtler versions of what happens when the doctor taps my knee with his little rubber hammer and my foot jumps. Faith can’t prove a damned thing. Or a blessed one either.” Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC. Harper & Row, 1973, pp. 25-26.