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August 12, 2001 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.

The Meaning and Mystery of Faith

John Boyle
Parish Associate, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 50:1-6
Luke 12:32-40
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

"Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."
Hebrews 11:1 (NRSV)


Shortly after I came to Fourth Presbyterian Church in 1976 to serve as a member of the clergy staff and as the first director of the Lorene Replogle Counseling Center, Dr. Elam Davies, the pastor at that time and now pastor emeritus, made a request of me. Since he sometimes, especially in weather such as we have been experiencing recently, had difficulty speaking, he asked if I would always have on my person a sermon I could preach at the last minute in the event he had to step aside. I only had to preach that sermon once, as I recall, when on one Sunday morning he found that he was unable to speak above a whisper. The title of the sermon was "A Faith for When Things Get Desperate."

The book of Hebrews in the New Testament, from which our text comes, is as much a sermon as it is a letter and as much a letter as it is a sermon. Furthermore, it is addressed to Christians of Jewish background, although the congregation to which it is addressed is as unknown as is the author of the writing and may have well been comprised of some Gentile Christians also.

Whereas here at Fourth Church things may have appeared to be somewhat desperate on that Sunday morning, the situation with the people to whom this letter was written was somewhat different. They were not so much desperate as they were despondent. They were tired, fed up and fagged out, weary and sick of trying, tired of livin’ and feared dyin’ (as the song puts it), wondering if it was all worth it, this business of following Jesus, someone who by the time this letter was probably written sometime during the latter half of the first century of the Christian era had been dead more than fifty years, though there had been rumors of course and some sightings that suggested he had beaten the rap and had risen from the dead. But what was it getting them, trying to be faithful followers of this Jesus? At best, aggravation and ridicule; at worst, persecution to the point of death whenever the powers that were in place at the time needed a quick fix to satisfy their blood lust and their addiction to power. It was enough to make the most loyal Christian wonder and, in so doing, become discouraged and weary.

Well, I can identify with all that. I suspect some of you can, as well. It is not easy, this faith business. The world as it is with its mixture of grandeur and misery tests us at the point of both the substance of our faith and the depth of its hold upon us or of ours upon it. What Thomas Lynch, in his book, The Undertaking, says about funeral services, can be said also about the vicissitudes of life: that they "press the noses of the faithful against the windows of their faith."

A number of years ago a popular song encouraged people to:

Accentuate the positive,
Eliminate the negative,
Latch on to the affirmative,
Don’t mess with Mr. In-Between.

Made popular during a time when "the power of positive thinking" was very much in vogue, the sentiment has much to commend it. That is until you begin to realize that it is in the in-between precincts of life that many, if not most, of us find ourselves called upon to make decisions and take actions that literally are matters of life and death, as the current heated debate about stem-cell research attests or, for that matter, what to do with your tax rebate. It takes considerable time and energy invested in study, thought, dialogue, and, one would hope, prayer to figure out what to do when one stands on those ambiguous and murky borders between and among alternative courses of action, none of which shows any evidence of a guarantee that it is the right alternative to choose. No wonder a certain renowned philosopher and counselor, also known as catcher for the New York Yankees for many years, advised when you come to a fork in the road to take it. And no wonder that in the face of such conditions in life we want to throw up our hands and fuggedaboutit.

So it was that someone, having become aware of the discouragement and weariness that these Hebrew Christians were experiencing that could lead them to chuck the whole business and go off and do something else, wrote to them this letter-sermon. The message is essentially a threefold one. A warning is sounded against spiritual drifting and the neglect of God’s offer in Jesus Christ of forgiving grace. Such drift and neglect leads to being fed up and losing heart. Secondly, encouragement is given to endure suffering and to persevere in faithfulness to Christ. Third, assurance is provided that God’s promise is unfailing and can be counted upon, the promise to be with them no matter what. And the pivot point around which the message turns is our text: "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." Or as J. B. Phillips translates these words, "Now faith means putting our full confidence in the things we hope for, it means being certain of things we cannot see." It doesn’t mean "believing what you know isn’t so," as someone years ago put it. And it doesn’t mean any old thing you hope for fits the definition, especially if it has little or nothing to do with God’s agenda for the world of peace and justice.

For biblical faith is the experience of hope for the future rather than idolatry to the past. The faith-directed person is in bondage neither to the idolatry of the past nor to the idolatry of security in the present. There is a kind of creative insecurity about faith that draws us out of the cushy nest of nostalgia, where we are vulnerable to predators who count on our illusions of invincibility, such as antimissile defense or something called R.M.A., Revolution in Military Affairs. However much it is desirable to learn from the past and to be concerned about our present personal and national safety and security, to be in bondage to either, to see in either that in which we ultimately put our trust, is the antithesis of the faith of which the writer of Hebrews speaks. Faith is not confidence in our own cleverness. Faith is confidence in God’s promise.

Faith, however, is not the presumptuous expectation or demand or sense of entitlement that what I want of this, that, or the other will come to pass, preferably without my having to lift a finger to help. Perhaps you have heard the story of the woman who prayed to God to win the lottery. She prayed and prayed. The more she did so, the more frustrated she became and the more irritated with God she was. Finally, in an outburst of resentment and panic, she yelled at God, "For God’s sake, God, answer my prayer. I’ve been praying and praying and praying to you that I might win the lottery, and nothing happens. At least say something to me. What do I have to do?" Whereupon she heard a loud voice from heaven, "Buy a ticket!"

Buy a ticket. In other words, take a chance. Faith requires no guarantee, else it would not be faith. To act in faith as well as to act in love is to do the thing needed in response to God’s call, to demand no money-back guarantee and to be willing to risk your life and your well-being. Let me be the first to confess that when it comes to risk taking, I am a devout coward. Risks I have taken and will take, but I do it kicking and screaming both in fear and in protest. I can identify with the young man who was walking his girlfriend home from a date, all the while asserting his affection for her and how he would do anything for her. Suddenly a ferocious bulldog came charging out of a nearby yard at them, and before the young woman could bat an eye, her friend was in the topmost branches of a nearby tree looking down on the scene. "I thought you said you’d face death for me," she yelled up at him. And from the safety of his perch on high, he said, "I did and I would, but that dog ain’t dead yet!"

The death we face when we choose to live by faith in Jesus Christ and in his redemptive mission in the world is the death of our pride, our self-absorption, our preoccupation with our own stuff irrespective of what terror others may be encountering all around us. The death we face when we live by faith is the death of that part of ourselves that wants to be the exception, that has yet to join the human race and take its place in solidarity with others to make a difference in a world where on Sunday we talk about the lilies of the field and on Monday morning we are right back in the business of hating and hurting, cheating and stealing and damning others for having skin of the wrong color or a style of life that seems to us to be strange and unnatural. Faith’s agenda is to make a difference in all that.

Having set forth the assertion about faith, that it is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen, the writer of Hebrews realizes that his readers are in need of encouragement to endure whatever suffering may come their way because of their faith, or in spite of it for that matter, and to persevere even when they get fed up and want to quit. The best way to do that is to point to the experience of others who have kept the faith and remained faithful when it was exceedingly difficult to do so, because they were seeking a homeland different from and beyond the temporary dwelling place this life provides, a better country, a heavenly city prepared by God for them.

This conviction of things not yet seen as a manifestation of faith is a recognition of a reality that transcends and looks beyond what can be seen, analyzed, and quantified. It reflects something of the mystery of faith, not the irrational denial or distortion of empirical data, but the acknowledgment of the nonrational of which faith partakes, as it takes into consideration the presence of unquantifiable realities and subtleties that cannot be seen, as it were, by the naked eye. We don’t do well with mysteries, most of us, unless we can solve them or have them solved. We want to be in the know, not in the dark. To live with mystery is to live by faith, in the face of and in spite of uncertainty, doubt, and fear.

Put more simply, faith and faithfulness are interchangeable. They cannot exist apart from each other. To have faith, then, is to be faithful in response to the call of God, as exemplified in the writer’s roll call of the faithful who lived in hope that the future that God promised would eventually be fulfilled.

So the writer of Hebrews, in an extended exercise in name dropping, if you will, calls the names of faith’s Hall of Fame as witnesses to what faith means. Abel and Enoch and Noah and Abraham and Sarah. Isaac and Jacob and Joseph. Moses and Gideon and Samuel and all the prophets. And a host of others unnamed, all of whom, having heard the call of God and in spite of fear and trepidation, deprivation, and death, left whatever security they had, the security of the familiar, to strike out to worlds unknown, to explore new vistas, to go outside the safety of the city walls, the safety of ideas and ways of doing things that had become their refuge, to seek out the alien and the stranger in compassion and with mutual love.

Finally, the writer serves up the clincher to his attempt at encouragement by pointing to the example of 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. In other words, the proof of both the veracity and the validity of the faith about which he was writing lay in the history of the people to whom he was writing.

The Jewish-Christian mystic Simone Weil once observed that "religion as a source of consolation is an obstacle to true faith." That may be an overstatement of the case, but it bears our pondering. You get fed up with this faith business when you lose sight of the core and the call of faith and begin to think that we are here in this world to lord it over others, to feather our own nests, to get rich quick, or to just have fun rather than to look after one another, care for one another, and together work for the welfare of all and against the forces operative in the world that would do otherwise. As one writer put it recently, "We are no better than the magnitude of our compassion."

In his moving account of his life with and his care of his wife, Milly, in her struggle with Parkinson’s disease, Morton Kondracke states that doing so provided him the opportunity to go beyound the self-absorption and the petty jealousy he was given to. He writes, "In taking care of Milly I’ve become a different, better person–someone I never expected to be. I have put someone else’s happiness above my own. And I’ve become dedicated to causes greater than my own advancement–those of conquering Parkinson’s disease and increasing support for all disease research. I am not a saint, but I am certain that all of this is God’s work." Perhaps his name should be added to the list as well, along with that of the late Eudora Welty, who said, "My wish, my continuing passion, would be not to point the finger in judgement but to part a curtain, that invisible shadow that falls between people, the veil of indifference to each other’s presence, each other’s wonder, each other’s human plight."

If it is true, as a song years ago suggested, that you are a nobody ’til somebody loves you, it is also true that you are less than a somebody until you love somebody and care for somebody. To be loved and not to love is a contradiction in terms. To receive the blessing of God’s love and to hoard that blessing is the height of ingratitude and irresponsibility.

The writer of Hebrews knew that if his readers were to stay the course on this faith journey, no matter how arduous the journey might become, they needed to be reassured that they would not be alone and that God would be their companion on the journey. So he concludes his sermon-letter by reminding them that God had said, "I will never leave you or forsake you." So we can say with confidence, "The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?" Love never forsakes. Love never abandons.

A few weeks ago a vividly realistic film about the international traffic in drugs, particularly heroin, was shown on our public television station. It told the story of a Pakistani father of three small children who worked in the poppy fields in Pakistan and later became the lackey of a ruthless drug lord who eventually forced the man’s wife to ingest a large quantity of small bags of heroin so as to smuggle them out of the country to places where the demand for heroin was high. The woman died tragically when the bags burst inside her stomach before she could complete the mission.

A parallel story was that of the man who headed the so-called war on drugs. Obsessed with his work and conscientiously committed to stem the rising tide of drugs entering his country, he shuttles back and forth to Pakistan to determine the source of the drug supply and to develop a strategy to bring down the drug lord, whose callous disregard for anything other than money and power had resulted in the destruction of countless numbers of people who had become addicted to heroin.

When he discovers that his daughter is a heroin addict, something he had been blind to for a long while, and that his emotional and physical absence from her and from his wife may have contributed to his daughter’s condition, he initially becomes defensive, angry, judgmental, and punitive, even to the point of refusing to acknowledge her as his daughter and to allow her entrance to their home when she arrives one rainy night on the doorstep, stoned and remorseful.

Finally he realizes that the drug traffic cannot be stopped until the demand for drugs is eliminated or at least significantly reduced. He eventually acknowledges that his preoccupation with his work and his emotional aloofness helped set the stage for his daughter’s addiction and that, in part, her behavior was a cry for help. But more than that, it was a cry for his attention, his love, and his interest and involvement in her life. In a profoundly moving scene and with obvious agony of soul, he at last gathers his daughter in his arms, holds her close, and says, "I love you. I love you unconditionally. You don’t have to get off heroin if you don’t want to. I will not abandon you. I love you, no matter what."

No matter what. She had heard the "I love you" part many times before, the words, as it were, flung over his shoulder to her as her father swept out the door to be gone for days and weeks on end, trying, ironically, to stamp out drugs. She had never before heard "no matter what." And no matter what is what mattered. The good news of the gospel is that God’s love for us and for all people everywhere is like that. I will love you no matter what. I may not like you at times. I may be angry at you at times. My heart may break at times. But I will not abandon you or turn my back upon you. I will love you no matter what. And the message of faith, its meaning and its mystery (for who can comprehend or understand such love?), is enveloped in those three little words: no matter what.

Fourth Presbyterian Church now faces exciting and daunting challenges regarding program, service, and educational space and personnel needs, as well as incredible opportunities for the expansion of our ministry of compassion in this community and beyond to persons in need, and especially to those who live on the back wards of the world. We are faced with the choice to act by and in faith and courage or to shrink back in fear to the presumed safety of things as they are. My hope and confidence is that our name will be added to faith’s Hall of Fame as a people who will have heeded the warning, received the call, and acted upon the assurance. Not a bad formula, come to think of it, with which to begin a life–and end a sermon. Amen.