Why the Church Matters: Why We Matter

Sermon delivered at the parish dedication festival of St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Sunday, August 28, 2016, in Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: 1 Chronicles 29.6-19; Psalm 122.1-9; Ephesians 2.19-22; John 2.13-22.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

On this feast day of Augustine of Hippo, our patron saint, we celebrate the fifth anniversary of the founding of our parish. It is therefore appropriate for us to look at the nature of the Church. What is it and why should we care?

When I say “church,” what comes to mind? Do you think immediately of a building, like when we say, “Oh goodie! It’s time to go to church so we can hear another one of Fr. Maney’s brilliant sermons”? Or did you recognize church more readily in our OT and psalm lessons this morning, when they talked about a place to gather, than in our epistle and gospel lessons, with their emphasis on something quite different? If you did, I suspect you are probably in the majority. Most of us today equate church with a building or a place to worship. Now on one hand, there is nothing wrong with this thinking. After all, we do need a place to assemble to worship and serve God together, and there is something to be said about having a beautiful worship space to evoke a proper sense of wonder and awe as we assemble before God. On the other hand, this kind of thinking is so, well, first and second temple kind of thinking, and not at all consistent with the NT’s vision of what really constitutes church.

What do I mean by this? What does first and second temple thinking mean? As David makes clear in his prayer in our OT lesson, the temple for Israel was much more than a building. It was the very place where heaven and earth came together, the place where the Creator of this vast universe chose to come and dwell with his called-out people Israel. Now certainly no building can contain God, as David acknowledged in his prayer. But it was critically important for God’s people to believe that the same God who had called them to be his people would continue to be with them to guide, protect, and redeem them. This was the function of the movable tent or tabernacle that God had ordered Moses to construct as God’s people wandered in the wilderness. You can read about that in the book of Exodus. If God was going to call a people for his own, it would be quite unsporting of God to leave them to their own devices. As David acknowledged in his prayer, without God’s abiding presence, God’s people would be nothing but wandering sojourners on earth and without hope. After all, who among us can have any real hope for this life and beyond without God? So here in today’s lesson, as David’s son, Solomon, prepared to build the first temple in Jerusalem, God’s people rejoiced that there finally would be a permanent dwelling place for God to live with and among his people.

As we know, the first temple was eventually destroyed by the Babylonians in 586BC because of Israel’s unrepentant sin and chronic rebellion (you do know that, right?). The only way for that to happen was for God’s presence to leave his temple, which God did. You can read about that in the book of Ezekiel. After deportation and exile to Babylon, God graciously restored the remnant of his people and returned them to the promised land, where a new or second temple was built. But a funny thing happened. God’s presence never apparently returned to this temple, even though God had promised through the prophet Ezekiel to do so. This was the state of the temple in Jesus’ day and it is what makes our gospel lesson so important. Jesus came to Jerusalem during the Passover festival, the great celebration of God’s rescue of his people from their slavery in Egypt, to pronounce judgment on God’s house because it had ceased to fulfill its function as God’s dwelling place. Instead, it housed all kinds of false and unreal practices, religious and otherwise, much like some church buildings do today. As Jesus told the authorities, no longer would the temple be the place where heaven and earth came together, where God dwelt. No, the new temple would be his own body, because he was the Word made flesh (John 1.1,14). You want to experience God’s presence among you, he asks? Then look to me and you will find the true temple of God, the place where God dwells with you on earth. I came because my Father and I love you greatly and want you to live with us forever. My death and resurrection promise to be the ultimate Passover for you, where you will get to live a new bodily existence forever in God’s new world, the new heavens and earth, with new resurrected bodies like mine, incomprehensibly beautiful and indestructible. You will finally get to be the fully human beings my Father created you to be, free from the sin and brokenness that plague your mortal bodies, and you will be safe from evil and death forever.

This gets us ready to hear what the NT says about what constitutes church. Church for the NT writers isn’t about a building or specific location, precisely because Jesus has become the new temple where God chooses to dwell with his people in the power of the Spirit. No, church for the NT writers as well as the apostles, is about a living organism, specifically the body of Christ, you and me and anyone who claims the faith once delivered to the saints.

In our epistle lesson, Paul lays out a breathtakingly beautiful vision for the reconstituted Church in Jesus. Speaking to the gentiles of his day, Paul calls them former strangers and aliens who were hostile and alienated to God. They didn’t have God in their lives and were without hope, and their lives showed it. Death was their inevitable and permanent end. But now because of what God had done for them in and through the cross of Jesus, and because they had come to believe in Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life, through whom, and only through whom, folks come to God to find healing and new life, they were no longer on the outside looking in. They were part of a new family, the place where they could be themselves and be assured that they were accepted. This is the kind of security nuclear and extended families provide when they are stable and functioning according to God’s good purposes for families.

In our day, of course, we don’t think much of the Jew/gentile divide, but that does not diminish the truth of Paul’s words. Sadly, there are Jews and gentiles alike who are still hostile and alienated to God because they have not yet discovered God’s great love for them in Jesus. But for those of us who have, everything changes. Jesus’ death has brought reconciliation with God and each other. To be sure, we are all very different personalities who come from different backgrounds and experiences, and that is a good thing because it makes us richer and more complete as Christ’s body. But we all have one thing in common. We are all greatly loved by Jesus and we have given our lives to him. Not perfectly to be sure. We are all works in progress and some of us are further along than others. But we have all been rescued from evil, sin, and death by the blood of Christ shed for us and have been given the Holy Spirit to live in us and to make Jesus readily accessible to us on a continuing basis.

Why does this matter? Because as Paul tells us, we have a heavenly citizenship where we are citizens with a hope and a future. Our mortal bodies will die but because we are Jesus’ people, we will share in his resurrection one day, so that life is our future, not death. And because we are a forgiven and redeemed people in Christ, we are called to be his body, the Church. As we say each week during the eucharist, “Though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in the one bread” [of Jesus’ body given for us]. The living God now seeks to make his home in our hearts, lives, and bodies. He has called us together in a new family with Jesus as our head so that we choose to live our lives in ways that are fundamentally at odds with the ways of the world. In other words, we are the Church where the love and presence of Jesus is embodied in and through us. We are living stones as the apostle Peter tells us (1 Peter 2.5). We choose to live our lives in obedience to Jesus in love and humility. And we are called to live our lives together, as part of the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

This exposes the lie that many embrace that there really is such a thing as an isolate Christian, that we can find God walking on the beach or looking at the stars at night. To be sure, this is true. We can find God anywhere. But the Christian faith is much more than finding God. It is living out our lives consistent with the will of God most powerfully expressed in Jesus Christ. We aren’t saved so that we can go around acting snotty and thumbing our noses at the rest of the losers who aren’t Christians. No, we are called to live our lives in ways that are patterned after Jesus’ love for all people, and that use our individual personalities and gifts for God’s glory, not our own. And part of our calling is to call others to this way of life, whether they accept our invitation or not. When we do this, regardless how imperfectly we do it, two things happen. God uses us to advance his kingdom on earth as in heaven and to pronounce judgment on the disordered ways of the world. But this can’t happen unless we live our lives together. If we are truly living stones, healed, redeemed, and greatly loved by Christ, how can we be a temple in and of ourselves? Whoever heard of a one-brick house or temple? It simply can’t exist, let alone stand.

No, we are called to be Jesus’ people together. It means that we love each other and bear with each other despite our differences because we realize Jesus has rescued us all, even the folks we don’t much care about. This, of course, requires great humility on our part, a humility derived from the knowledge that there is nothing inherently deserving in us to warrant God dying on a cross to rescue us from ourselves and our sin. When we get this fundamental truth, it changes us and helps us love in the manner God created us to love. We do this not only as individuals, but as a community, because we are part of God’s new living temple that has Christ as our chief cornerstone, the most important stone of the building, the stone that determines the shape, function, and features of the rest of the building, i.e., our lives.

To be the living church of Christ means that we need to know our own story and how greatly loved we really are in God’s eyes. It means we must reject the tribalism that is inherent in each of us, the aftermath of trying to build the tower of Babel (Genesis 11.1-8), so that we really can love each other and work for the other’s best. It means we must grow and mature in our faith and in our living, all the while confident that God loves us and accepts us, warts and all, even as he remains faithful and present to us, and helps us grow together. This growth doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it happens when by the grace of God and in the power of the Spirit we as Christ’s living stones overcome our differences and the things that can separate us, and dare love each other enough to want to live out our faith together. It means we encourage each other and study together. When that happens, we discover what real joy and power of living means.

Will things be perfect? Not a chance. We all have our troubles and sorrows. We all are profoundly broken and fragile. There will be disagreements and conflict at times. The difference is that when we realize we are the Church and not some building or location, we commit ourselves to caring for each other and learning how to resolve conflicts in a Christianly manner so as not to let the things that can separate us become more important than the thing that joins us together—the love of God made known to us in Jesus Christ. In that way we ensure the structure of the church always remains strong. It is the necessary and ongoing maintenance of Christ’s living Church, so to speak. It means too that we will always have someone to share our joys and sorrows with, confident that because we are Christ’s, we will love others as we love ourselves. Life is meant to be lived together and when we are faithful to our call to live as living stones who constitute the Church, the Church becomes the supreme example of what that looks like. This is no small or insignificant witness to a world starved for real relationships.

As we celebrate our fifth anniversary today, I look at the living stones of St. Augustine’s with whom God has blessed us—you all, those here and those absent today. And when I see you interact with each other and how you love the Lord and each other, it is enough to bring me to tears. I rejoice in seeing the tribes and nations represented in our parish being called together by the love and power of Christ. I see a real unity of spirit amongst us and a real love that is expressed in a variety of ways, internally and externally. This is what it means to be truly catholic, i.e., universal, and that is something we all should desire—to be catholic for the sake of Christ and in obedience to his prayer that we all might be one (John 17.20-23). Don’t let this praise go to your heads, my beloved. You’re good, but not that good! Rather, let your faithfulness be a call to even greater love and humility so that we can continue to honor the one who loved us and gave himself for us, using the individual and collective gifts with which he has blessed us. Not only will that help us be faithful to our mission statement to be, “Changed by God to make a difference for God,” it is also the essence of living the Good News, now and for all eternity. To him who is the foundation and chief cornerstone of his Church be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

ABC News: Tribute to WWII Veteran Goes Viral When Group Sings ‘Anchors Aweigh’ at His Doorstep

God bless ‘em all.

dcdfede0-6a36-11e6-a5e6-2bb7b8f0db19_14034735_10210231665696964_2768258516483648When one WWII veteran could no longer visit his local battleship to relish in stories of his days at sea, a special group brought the memories of his Navy days right to his doorstep.

Ernest Thompson, of Gardena, California, got the surprise of a lifetime when the Chief Selects of the Fleet Anti-Submarine Warfare Training Center showed up on his neighborhood street to serenade him with “Anchors Aweigh.”

Read it all.

Fr. Philip Sang: The Call to Our Freedom and  Freedom of Others Too

Sermon delivered on Trinity 13C, Sunday, August 21, 2016, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH

Lectionary texts: Jeremiah 1.4-10; Psalm 71.1-6; Hebrews 12.18-29; Luke 13.10-17.

Jesus calls us to freedom, but what kind of freedom? What does that look like on the ground? What does being free mean for his body, the Church? Listen to Fr. Sang’s sermon and see what you think. There is no text for today’s sermon.

RJS (Jesus Creed): They Will Know We Are Christians By Our…Politics?

A helpful and insightful analysis/reminder for those of us who claim the title, Christian. See what you think.

Despite the title this isn’t a post about the current US presidential election – although I hope it gets people thinking about how they frame their position, whatever that may be. In fact, the title may distract from the theme of the post. But it is an attention grabber.

“They,” that is the non-Christians in our increasingly diverse and secular culture, will not know we are Christians by our political affiliation. They will  not know we are Christians by the logic of our words, by our fancy buildings, popular orators, rules, or philosophical arguments.

They will know we are Christians by the way we live. Christianity will also be defined (in their minds at least) by the way we live. Try asking people some time “What is the first word that comes to mind when I say Christian?”

It goes beyond this though. They will know that Christianity is true (or not) by the way Christians live.

One of the commenters on Tuesday’s post Testable Faith made a point worth a good deal of consideration.

Should our views be verifiable or at the very least subject to falsification on matters of faith?

I think yes. And can give you some examples of how that could work.

If the claims of Scripture are true, we should see a qualitative difference between Christians filled with the spirit and non-Christians in the “world.” We should see “fruits” of the spirit. Light and salt. In a way that is striking by way of comparison. And this should be even more pronounced the more devout one is in their faith. In a way that does not compare with how devout one is in another non-Christian faith.

Subjectively, one ought be able to say something qualitatively more compelling in their Christian “testimony” than the sincere “testimonies” of those from other faiths.

We should see greater wisdom and discernment in devout Christian communities than those of other faiths or non-faith.

Read it all and think it through during this tumultuous election season.

Deacon Terry Gatwood: Endurance and Joy

Sermon delivered on Trinity 12C, Sunday, August 14, 2016, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 5.1-7; Psalm 80.1-2, 9-20; Hebrews 11.29-12.2; Luke 12.49-56.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

I’ve been a fan of A Prairie Home Companion for a very long time, so when it was announced that this would be the last season the Garrison Keillor would be hosting the program I was a little bit crushed inside. I can still re-live the memories through the texts that GK has written, recorded episodes online, and through the 2006 film.

In the film we are introduced to a familiar character from the radio program. His name is Guy Noir, Private Eye. In his opening monologue he tells us that for the last several years he’s been working security for a radio program at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota. It was an old-timey radio show; the kind that grandma and grandpa would have listened to. Recently they had found out that the station was finally giving them the axe. Yet they carried on with the show as if things were going to be all right. “They were Midwesterners,” he says, “they felt like if you ignored bad news, it might go away.” As a proud Midwesterner, I know exactly what he means.

This quote often comes to mind when I find myself reeling from whatever shocking news our papers and pundits deliver to us through the mass media. Sometimes I think to myself, the world’s not that bad. There’s not much I can do about it anyways. Eventually all these things will just clear themselves up. Even though I know it isn’t true.

So I hear today’s Gospel lesson, and I just want to gloss over it and move on to the next lesson. It’s hard to hear Jesus state the reality of things. This is uncomfortable, but we see that it has been true just as Jesus said. But maybe if we just leave everything be, do our best to go along and get along, all will be well and work itself out in the end. I mean, Jesus came, so what’s the point of even really looking into things in the Old Testament that aren’t already prepackaged for us as children? That all worked out, didn’t it?

Well, sure. Jesus has come as the Lord promised. But if we ignore all the doomy and gloomy looking bits of the Scripture we’re going to miss out on a whole history of our forbearers in the faith. We’re going to miss out on something that is vital to our perseverance in the present day; we’re going to miss out on the sinfulness of our own people, the injustice, the strife…we’re going to miss the big picture of how great and magnificent our joy and celebration could be. We’re going to miss out on how our faith can really grow, and how we can follow in the same footsteps as those mentioned in Hebrews chapter 11, who not seeing the ultimate and final promise in their day still saw it as from afar, and followed after it diligently, enduring terrible things along the way. And through this struggle and hardship found themselves gaining in their person strength of courage, greater faith, to persevere even farther down the line.

The Christian life, as we are hearing from the Words of Jesus in the Gospel today, as hard as they may be to listen to as they hit us right in our hearts, this Christian life of faith and following is hard. There are divisions within families. There are divisions and discord in our personal relationships with others simply because we have been called by and have responded to the Lord in faith.

Don’t misunderstand me; when you walk out of here today you’re likely not going to experience a car bomb set to wipe out our Christian community here. There will be no masked men with machetes on the ready to take your head a prize for killing an apostate to his lord. We’re in a part of the world where we have, even on our worst times, a modicum of security that we may rely on. But it isn’t so in the vast majority of the world where these things are happening at an alarming rate. People are being slaughtered by the hundreds, and thousands by people who have know them their whole lives; some of them are being killed by their own siblings and parents, cousins, uncles, etc. The division is quite real in the present day. Our little bubble of security and safety here has been shrinking for decades. We’re not very far from having to live like our brothers and sisters overseas.

Consider the people mentioned in Hebrews 11: Moses refusing to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the pleasures of sin. And there is the faith of those women who received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, and they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

Living this life of faith is hard. It’s truly, and deeply, on all levels of our personhood, hard. But it’s not the kind of hard thing that we should just give up. We know what Jesus has said to us, that this kind of thing would exist in the world. So Jesus, knowing this, also has given to us the example through which we can draw the faith and perseverance to continue pressing forward, and finding ourselves growing in holiness all the while.

Listen to what the writer of Hebrews does to close out this section of his sermon: “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,

“12:2 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.”

So the hard part does not always remain hard. The persecution, the problems, they all come to an end at some point. These witnesses who have already gone to be with the Lord in his presence testify to this; and Jesus, our Great High Priest, our ultimate object lesson today and all days, disregarded whatever shamefulness may be attached to being treated the way he was (and make no mistake, for the Christ of God to even have been put on trial is one of the ultimately shameless things that could happen), Jesus continued his difficult walk toward his cross upon which he would suffer terribly and die. Not even the cross could be shameful for him, for he was there as our Great High Priest to make the ultimate sacrifice for us, his beloved. He became on that cross, through his death and resurrection, the author and perfecter of our faith in real time in a real world.

So for us, we see this, and we take comfort that, as Jesus has died, and so we all shall too someday, as he was resurrected in glory we also will share in that hope. The hard means there’s hope. Otherwise it wouldn’t be worth it. Through the process of enduring in faith we may get beat up, we may endure any level of persecution, but we have a hope and joy before us that carries us forward. We shall not relent, but persevere in this life into which we have been called by God. A process that produces a stronger character, a stronger will, a softer heart for God, and a faith that endures.

Think about some of the things that any of us have had to endure in this life already? Some of us are on a path that is particularly hard with health struggles (cancers, autoimmune diseases, body parts not functioning the way they were intended, and mystery illnesses that just can’t be figured out yet). Many deal with the struggles from marriages that are falling apart, broken, or shattered like a mirror that’s been run over by a train. Some from divorce. Some from actual, intentional persecution that has cost them in one way or another. These are real, hard struggles, but the Lord is still with you in these times, and he cares for you. Tell him about your struggle. Call out to him. Cry out to him! “Oh! God, please help me! I need you!”

And imagine the joy that has come after these struggles have come to some sort of resolution, or the joy that will be there when they ultimately do resolve. The joy will be so much greater than the hardship of suffering that had to be journeyed through to get to the joyful end.

The joy of Jesus was set before him as he endured the cross, despising the shame, and now he has ascended after his resurrection to be seated at the right hand of the throne of God, where he continues his priestly work on our behalf. He wants us to persevere, through the gift of faith given to us when we were first called and we believed, a faith that has been strengthened through hardship in this life.

So it would now behoove us not to act like the typical Midwesterner as opined by Guy Noir, Private Eye. Paying attention to the signs of what Jesus has given to us in this Gospel lesson is of the utmost importance. He has sent his Holy Spirit to walk with us, to guide us, through the Scripture and through life, that we may endure whatever may come, striving forward through it, living into the world that is imagined by the whole of Scripture. It’s a glorious vision of when sinfulness and the General of the Army of Sin, the ruler of the kingdom of the air, as Paul calls him, Satan is put down once and for all, and we shall live in paradise forever. But we still know we may have many more miles to go before this happens, but we strive to live into the world imagined, the world promised in the Holy Scriptures, by seeking and doing mercy and justice, by loving God, by loving our neighbors as ourselves, and by persevering in the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church with our brothers and sisters.

Friends. According to the Scriptures we have already made it who are in the Church, but we still have many more miles to go to finally make it to what the total vision is. So press on. Live out the Gospel. Press forward through hardship, praying out to your Lord. Enlist the help of your brothers and sisters. Do not ignore problems, whatever they may be,but face them in the power of the Holy Spirit that you may grow even more in your faith in and love for God and find healing in him. We have the opportunity to begin experiencing what it shall be like now by faith. So be it.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Remember V-J Day

Today marks the 71st anniversary of Victory Over Japan (V-J) Day and the end of World War II (the formal, unconditional surrender was not signed until September 1, 1945). vj-day pictStop and remember the brave men and women who fought against the evil of Nazism and Japanese militarism in the 1940s.

Remember too our brave soldiers today who are fighting against another form of evil and keep our soldiers in your prayers.

From the History Channel.

On this day in 1945, an official announcement of Japan’s unconditional surrender to the Allies is made public to the Japanese people.

Read it all.

Also read the text of President Truman’s radio message broadcast to the American people on September 1, 1945.

From here:

My fellow Americans, and the Supreme Allied Commander, General MacArthur, in Tokyo Bay:

The thoughts and hopes of all America–indeed of all the civilized world–are centered tonight on the battleship Missouri. There on that small piece of American soil anchored in Tokyo Harbor the Japanese have just officially laid down their arms. They have signed terms of unconditional surrender.

Four years ago, the thoughts and fears of the whole civilized world were centered on another piece of American soil–Pearl Harbor. The mighty threat to civilization which began there is now laid at rest. It was a long road to Tokyo–and a bloody one.

We shall not forget Pearl Harbor.

The Japanese militarists will not forget the U.S.S. Missouri.

The evil done by the Japanese war lords can never be repaired or forgotten. But their power to destroy and kill has been taken from them. Their armies and what is left of their Navy are now impotent.

Read it all as well.

Honolulu HI Celebrates V-J Day

From Vimeo.

[On V-J Day 1945] my Dad shot this film along Kalakaua Ave. in Waikiki capturing spontaneous celebrations that broke out upon first hearing news of the Japanese surrender. Kodachrome 16mm film: God Bless Kodachrome, right? I was able to find an outfit (mymovietransfer.com) to do a much superior scan of this footage to what I had previously posted, so I re-did this film and replaced the older version There are more still images from this amazing day, in color, at discoveringhawaii.com

On this, the 71st anniversary of V-J Day (Victory Over Japan Day), a wonderful snippet from time. Watch it all and remember. Give thanks as you do for the greatest generation who have largely passed from our view.

The Nature of Faith

Sermon delivered on Trinity 11C, Sunday, August 7, 2016, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 1.1, 10-20; Psalm 50.1-8, 22-23; Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16; Luke 12.32-40.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“Since we are justified by faith [or declared not guilty and put right in God’s eyes], we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5.1). With these words to the house churches at Rome, the apostle Paul alerts us to the critical role of faith in our salvation. Simply put, without faith we cannot possibly begin to please God. But why? And what exactly does biblical faith look like in our lives? This is what I want us to look at this morning.

We start by reminding ourselves that everyone has faith of some kind, even atheists. Since only a very small percentage of our knowledge comes from direct or first-hand experience, most of our knowledge is based on faith that results from indirect experience. For example, I’ve never seen Berlin Germany (direct experience), but I know it exists based on maps and other evidence, even though I have never seen it (indirect experience). The whole discipline of science is based on faith in underlying laws and principles that exist and provide order, many of which are unseen and not fully understood. So faith plays a critical role in the human experience. We all show our faith in a myriad of ways. But as the writer of Hebrews reminds us, biblical faith consists of two things: (1) the assurance of things hoped for; and (2) the conviction of things not seen (Hebrews 11.1). It is this faith that merits God’s approval and is therefore worth our close examination.

The writer of Hebrews starts by reminding us that when he is talking about our faith in God, he is not talking about a blind faith. Faith is not whistling through the graveyard, blindly ignoring the facts or reality. No, faith is the assurance of things hoped for. In other words, hope is the sure and certain expectation that something is real and that our future is secure. This hope always has a real basis undergirding it. For example, we as Christians have a resurrection faith and hope, even though we’ve never seen a resurrected person first-hand (unless, of course, we have seen Jesus in the same way the apostles did). Our hope isn’t wishful thinking based on some kind of deluded optimism. It is based on historical reality and the present experience of Christ’s body, the Church. Because we have solid evidence that God really did raise Jesus from the dead (a different discussion for a different day), and because of the witness of those who did see the risen Lord and pass on his teachings about the kingdom of God and our role in it, we have the sure and certain expectation (or hope) that we too will share in Jesus’ resurrection (cf. Romans 6.3-5). So even though most of us have not laid eyes directly on our risen Lord, we have experienced his presence in and through prayer and the power of the Spirit, in the reading of God’s Word, and in our fellowship with each other. All these things give us the conviction that Jesus is alive and here with us. To be sure, we don’t always feel Jesus’ presence. I dare say that most of us here today have experienced the dark night of the soul where Jesus is terribly absent from us. But even his absence reminds us of the reality of his presence. We couldn’t sense the former without knowing the latter! So our faith is always informed and has a solid basis for it. As we saw last week, we must think carefully about our faith and those things on which it is based. We mustn’t let our feelings trump our thinking because our feelings about matters of faith and our current reality can be notoriously unreliable, much as our current culture would like us to believe otherwise about the importance of feelings.

When we know God exists, even though we cannot see God (the conviction of things not seen), when we know that God created us as his image-bearing creatures along with this vast cosmos, so that we look to God’s original creative purposes and intent to help guide our living and decisions about moral issues (one of the main reasons the creation narratives in Genesis 1.1-2.25 were written in the first place), when we know that God loves us with a radically redeeming and life-giving love because we have witnessed the effects of Jesus’ death and resurrection in our own lives and the lives of the other saints around us (the assurance of things hoped for), our faith in God gives purpose and destination to our life. How so, you ask? Good question! I would hate for you to remain ignorant!

We start with the destination for those of us who have faith in God through our Lord Jesus Christ. We know our destination is the new creation, the new heavens and earth. We believe our citizenship is secure because of Jesus’ death on our behalf. All this is a matter of faith, and so we follow Jesus who inaugurated the new creation at his resurrection. Likewise with Abraham and Sarah in their day as the writer of Hebrews reminds us. Even though they did not live to see some of God’s promises to them ultimately fulfilled, they still believed that God was good to his word, that among other things they would ultimately be citizens of God’s future country God had prepared for them, the new heavens and earth when they are fully revealed.

Their future hope therefore dictated the way they chose to live their mortal lives. For starters, at God’s command Abraham moved from his homeland to the land of Canaan. This reminds us that faith always leads to obedience. As the apostle James reminds us, faith without works (obedience) is no faith at all (James 2.14-26). It is an oxymoron. Why? Because faith always leads to behavior that is consistent with the nature of the faith. To be sure, Abraham and Sarah’s faith wasn’t perfect. Twice Abraham lied about who Sarah was to save himself from the natives who wanted her and who would kill Abraham to get her. That’s hardly indicative of a perfect faith in God’s protection. Then there was the fact that Abraham and Sarah both laughed at God’s promise to give them a child (Genesis 17.17, 18.12). And who could blame them? Both were well beyond child-bearing years! In fact, they tried to take matters into their own hands, so to speak, and this failure to trust God’s promises, despite how ridiculous they sounded, produced the sad story of Hagar and Ishmael (Genesis 16.1-15). When we fail to have faith in the power of God, we rob ourselves of the hope and purpose for living that can be ours. But when we put our faith in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, imperfect and faltering as it can be, we are promised that we will find the purpose for living and the promised reward of eternal life that results.

Let me give you an example of how this works from my own life. The last years of my parents’ lives were not good and it was heartbreaking to watch. In my mom’s case, she suffered from spinal stenosis, a painful and debilitating disease that robbed her of her movement and independence. She opted to have surgery to correct the stenosis because she wanted to have some purpose to her life again. She was tired of being confined to her house and not being able to interact with others. After two surgeries and months of frustratingly slow rehab, she stroked out after her second surgery and died over a three day period of time. The minute I walked into the ER I knew she was gone and the only thing left to do was to play the waiting game. But it was terribly hard. She struggled to breathe and it was clear she was afflicted with anxiety. As many of you sadly know, it is a hard thing to watch a parent die like that and it would have been easy for me to lose my faith. My daughter actually did after her grandpa’s death (yet another story for another day).

As I sat in that hospital room and watched my mother dying, it flat wore me out. But this is where my faith came into play because through it all I had the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things unseen. I kept reminding myself that despite the ugliness of dying I was witnessing, one day that ugly, sick, worn out body that contained my mom would be raised and transformed into unspeakable beauty, never again to be afflicted with the physical and emotional afflictions I was witnessing. I knew this to be true because I knew my Lord’s resurrection was a fact and that my mom was his, despite appearances at the moment. Her mortal life cycle was about to end, but her real life was about to begin, and I took comfort in that.

And even though I could not see Jesus, I knew he was there with us. In my sadness and in the burden of watching my beloved mother struggle and die, I watched Dondra minister to her. And when things were getting unbearable, two chaplains “just happened” to stop by. Coincidence, right? Yeah, right. Their love and compassion for us all were unmistakable reminders that they embodied the presence of my Lord and I found some relief from my own suffering. I want to stress that things didn’t magically become better. That’s not how faith works. I was still incredibly distressed at the prospect of seeing my mother lying there in weakness and dying. But I found some relief, and it enabled me to go on with courage and hope. My faith saved my sorry butt during those days because it reminded me my mom was going to be OK. In fact, I knew the Lord was there and that she was finally going to find release and ultimate rescue from sin and evil and death.

Does that mean I have perfect faith? Hardly. My life simply does not bear the fruit of one who has perfect faith. The reason I told you this story is to emphasize that I had to be intentional about my faith during that dark time. I had to recall the promises of God. I had to remind myself of their reality. Had I not done that, I could have easily slipped into the abyss of hopelessness as I watched that terrible scene unfold. This is why Scripture reminds us constantly to remember—remember who God is and his mighty acts of power like Jesus’ death and resurrection, especially when we are in the midst of the dark valleys through which we all must walk. We aren’t told why we have to walk through them. We are simply promised a power that is not our own to help us through the darkness (see, e.g., Psalm 77.1-20). This is part of what Jesus was pointing to when he told us in our gospel lesson to not be afraid because it pleases his Father to give us the kingdom.

We can apply these lessons to our other readings as well. As we have seen, faith leads to obedience as God’s people. In the case of our OT lesson, God’s people had lost their faith and acted accordingly. They had divorced religion from their daily life experiences. They came to worship God at the Temple and then lived in ways that produced all kinds of evil and injustice, especially for the poorest and weakest who lived among them. This did not reflect the Image or will of their Creator. So here in our lesson God reminds them (and us) through his prophet that there needs to be a radical reorientation of their lives so that their daily lives reflect the religion they espoused when they worshiped. Religion and daily life needed to be integrated.

And even in the midst of this smack-down, we see the incredible love and mercy of God show through. Once they showed their faith in God by acting the part, once they demonstrated that they believed God not only existed but that he had some very definite ideas about how Israel should act as his people, they would find God’s healing love because it had always been there in the first place, waiting for them to take it. God would be pleased with them because they were living faithful lives in the manner God always intended for them as his people. And if they were skeptical, God invited his people to reason it out with him as to why they should live faithfully because God loves his people and wants only the best for us. This is the love of God made manifest, the love of God who cannot and will not let his people go, thanks be to God.

Likewise in our gospel lesson. Notice how faith is assumed in our Lord’s teaching. Little flock, he tells us, don’t be afraid. It pleases your Father to give you the kingdom. If it pleases your Father to give you the kingdom, how can you possibly fear lacking anything? Your faith leads you to trust me and therefore enables you to give yourselves to others, to embody my great love for all the world. It will be hard at times and you will be taxed. But fear not. It pleases my Father to give you the kingdom! So be ready! This is how you live your faith. Be ready. To be sure, I have been taken from you. But one day I will return, and when I do, I hope to see you living your faith by giving yourself away to others in the manner I have lived and taught. As my servant Paul told you, this means I expect you to love each other and treat each other with charity, compassion, respect, and humility. I expect you to forgive each other, to work tirelessly for each other’s good, and to help each other when you find yourselves in dark valleys. You are to do that not only for each other, but for the world, even though they hate me—and you as well because you are mine.

And if you do these things? Well, when I return I will not ask you to serve me. I will serve you! At this point, we want to say to Jesus, C’mon, man! Everyone knows returning masters don’t serve the servants. It’s the other way around! Not so, says our Lord. Remember when I washed the disciples’ feet on the night before I died? Remember how I suffered and died for you so the kingdom can be yours, even though you are incapable of obtaining it yourself? If you believe the promises these things represent, you will live your lives in noticeably different ways from those around you. And you will live without fear and have real hope! If you don’t believe this, you’ll act just like those who don’t believe in me. They act unjustly and selfishly because they only trust themselves to get what they want/need. They have no faith in me. Don’t be like them.

When you live like me, some will be attracted to you and others will despise you because you expose their evil ways. But don’t be afraid because it is the Father’s good pleasure (and mine) to give you the kingdom. My blood shed for you is proof of that. And when you believe this, you will find what it means to live as a real human being who bears my Father’s Image. It won’t always be a cakewalk now, but the day’s a coming when it will be. And when you believe this, you act accordingly and it is pleasing in my sight. It will be pleasing to you as well because you demonstrate that you understand the Truth, and that you really know you have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.