Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Texts: Hebrews 11:29-12:2 | Luke 12:49-56
This sermon is the second of a four-part lectionary sermon series entitled Sight Unseen. This week focuses on the “Eyes of Faith” – Faith helps us to discern the will of God and see what lies ahead.
“Why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” Jesus calls the crowds out for their inability to perceive what is happening right in front of them. Can’t you see the sin and oppression that we live in? Do you not notice the forces of Empire that are keeping us from true justice and peace? Why don’t you understand the kingdom movement that God is calling us to join? Where are your eyes of faith?
This question cuts to the core for me, for us. I feel this question in my gut today. Why don’t we know how to interpret the present time? Why can’t we understand why things are happening in our families, in our communities?
This week’s headlines read, Deadly Week in the Windy City, 100 People Shot in Seven-Day Period. And, Boy, 10, wounded as Chicago marks deadliest day in 13 years. We see press release after press release calling for “greater cooperation and understanding” between police and communities. The newspaper prints articles of varying opinions about the cause of all this blood and death, experts and politicians weigh in, we worry and pray, and… Nothing changes. In fact, statistics show that violence in Chicago is getting worse.
And I know, I know we are human; there is a limit to what we can understand, and for the rest, we are called to live in the mystery of not knowing. That mystery is beautiful and freeing. But, here, on this side of the limit, there is also a lot that we can know, a lot that we can and must interpret – because lives are at stake. There are things we are responsible for interpreting. This is what Jesus is pointing to today.
Here at St. Luke’s we are in the midst of a four-week series that we’re calling “Sight Unseen,” focusing on how faith enables us to have hope in a future none of us have yet seen. We spent last week with the heroes who courageously set out, spoke out, acted out, swam out towards “a better country, a heavenly one.” And this week in Hebrews, we hear this rich litany of the countless faithful others – named and unnamed – who lived lives of faith and who are gathered together into this “great cloud of witnesses.” (This week, I can’t help but think of an Olympic stadium of faithful ancestors, cheering us on!) They serve as encouragement and example for us who are running this leg of the race. And we will run! In my first two weeks here at St. Luke’s, it’s been clear to me that this past year of leaving a space, moving into a new space, and enjoying some well-deserved rest is now winding down. We are warming up for a new year to begin, full of new possibility and new challenge.
As I soak in this litany of faithful people, I recall the rich stories behind each of those names – fantastic, miraculous, sometimes hilarious stories! Barak, who was hired by Deborah to fight an oppressive king, and might have failed were it not for a sharp tent stake and the good aim of a woman living nearby… Samuel, whose mother Hannah prayed fiercely to conceive him, who as a young boy heard God’s call while he slept, and who answered, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening”… The unnamed widow at Zarephath whose son, nearly-dead, Elijah revived, because she had received Elijah in her home at a moment when she had nothing left to give…
These people acted boldly; they changed the course of history. By faith, they could interpret their present time, and they acted according to God’s will. Centuries and millennia later, here we are, remembering their stories. The world is different because their eyes of faith saw a future that did not yet exist.
And how did they come upon such eyes of faith? And why do we, people of faith, still have so much trouble seeing what is happening in our present time? Maybe we’ve just gotta have more faith!?
But the problem with this language – the language we have to talk about faith – is that it gives the wrong impression about who’s acting. To talk about their faith or my faith, or having faith – as if faith is something that we possess and control – is just not true.
Faith is not belief – like knowledge or understanding – that we can get by just trying harder. Faith is trust, deep trust in God.
When I think about experiences of trust in my life, I think about close friendships, or my relationship with my partner or other family members. The fact that I trust them has little – if anything – to do with my own ability or efforts, and everything to do with the trustworthiness they have shown me. I don’t trust my husband Josh, for example, because I have made some great effort to trust him more – No, I trust him because he has shown me, time after time and over many years, that he will be there for me. Even though the grammar suggests that “I” trust “him,” it is really more accurate to say that he has shown me trustworthiness.
We do not, by our own efforts, have faith in God. The language we have suggests that the cloud of witnesses had faith in God, and that we likewise ought to have faith in God, but what’s really going on is that God shows us faithfulness: over and over, throughout history: faithfulness in the stories of Barak and Deborah, of Hannah and Samuel, of the widow at Zarephath and her son; faithfulness in the person of Jesus; faithfulness in our own lives and into the future. It is God’s history of faithfulness, not our own capacity to trust, which builds our faith in God.
And if you think about trust in our human relationships… We don’t even have a chance to figure out whether someone is trustworthy or not until we take a risk. Like in those (kinda dangerous?) summer camp exercises, we fall and see if they’ll catch us. Or maybe at first, we reach out a hand and see if they reach back. We show a little bit of who we really are – the “we” we prefer to hide – and see how they embrace us.
With each risk, deeper and deeper trustworthiness is felt, and the risks can start getting bigger. What once seemed too scary, too ambitious, is now within reach; what used to feel like despair now has glimmers of hope. Our eyes of faith open us up to God’s vision, in which nothing is beyond God’s power to transform.
Now, the writer of Hebrews knew this is not easy. (You know that it’s going to be a hard race when your coach’s pep talk begins with Genesis and continues through the entire salvation history up till now.) Hebrews makes clear that the weight of sin that “clings so closely” will make this race difficult.
Sin wants to keep us safe, to shield us from any possibility of disappointment or failure. Sin is risk-averse; it keeps us comfortable. But this sin also keeps us complacent. (It tells us things like “Gun violence in Chicago is too big a problem; even if you understood it, what could you do about it, anyway?”) In shielding us from risk, sin holds us back from giving God the opportunity to keep God’s promises to us. It shields us from experiencing the depth and fullness of God’s faithfulness: a faithfulness that promises to go beside us when we step out, to show us mercy when we fail, and to gather up our successes and our failures into God’s kingdom.
Of course, the decision to run the risky race of faith doesn’t always lead to your name being gloriously remembered in the Biblical scrolls. Hebrews reminds us that many faithful people took risks at great cost, and many remain unnamed and forgotten. The cloud of witnesses – martyron in the Greek – is full of people we call martyrs, whose testimony to the gospel led to their death. For Jesus, the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith,” a life of faith meant coming face-to-face with Jerusalem, with the powers of empire, with death on a cross.
In the gospel, Jesus makes no promises that a life of faith will be peaceful or friendly. On the contrary, being for God’s kingdom must mean a willingness to kindle fire, to take seriously our baptismal vocations, and to create division – even division that upsets the very foundation of our society. It’s as if Jesus is saying to the crowd, “Okay, you call yourselves descendants of Abraham and part of God’s story; let’s look at the stories of those descendants and see how that worked out for them!” We come from a long line of people who kindled fire where justice needed to burn, who were willing to bring the sword of division when “unity” had been anything but peaceful.
Jesus’ words recall faithful prophets like Dr. King, who wrote from a Birmingham jail of his distrust for those he called “white moderates” who are “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefer a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice…”
The eyes of faith can see past our sinful desire to maintain the status quo, and can see where we must bring this kind of tension, division, fire, in order to give birth to God’s kingdom.
We can see with these eyes of faith. We can see, because we have been shown. We cling to the stories of God’s faithfulness to our ancestors in faith. We dig deep into our own stories for signs of God’s faithfulness, and we listen with gratitude to each other’s stories. We practice trusting in God’s promises here, at the font, at the table, and in this community. And we take risks – even risks that might burn or divide – trusting that by God’s faithfulness a new world is coming, in which our struggle, even our suffering and death, are transformed into the very fullness of grace and life.