(A sermon on the RCL Readings for August 8th, preached at All Saints' Episcopal Littleton, NH)
This morning is one of those rare lectionary moments where all of the readings speak to each other with vivid images:
---Abram is assured by God as he looks at the heavens, counting the starts
---faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen
---be dressed for action, with your lamps lit
---the owner of the house misses the thief
The setting for this entire lot of scripture this morning is uncertain times. The place is one of anxiety: ranging from old childless Abram (Genesis 15:1-6), a group of persecuted followers disappointed that Jesus’ return was not imminent (Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16), and a group of disciples disturbed by what Jesus was teaching and concerned about what was to come (Luke 12:32-48).
The overarching message to those who are uncertain (which, in reality, is all of us) is this: do not be afraid. God is gracious. God is loving. God is present. God sees our good intentions. God is architect and builder. And, perhaps most radically: God is coming, and those who are ready will be fed and served by God.
Good news, indeed.
The question for us today, deceptively simple, is this: how are we going to wait?
All of us are waiting for something. The child wants to be older. The student yearns for the day of graduation. The worker strives for the promotion. The couple waits to be parents. The family seeks security. The sick person waits for health to return. The woman turns towards a day of retirement. The man waits to be visited by family. And, finally, the one whose health is fading for the last time, waits to die.
Arriving to the place that we are hoping for may require some action or choices on our part. At the same time, some of what we wait for remains out of our control. The vision of what is to come remains out of focus, and the truth of the matter is that some of what we wait for, for one reason or another, will either not happen, or be so different in reality that we might not recognize it.
Through it all, we are called (by the Hebrew Scriptures, by Paul, and by Jesus) to wait in faith: trusting God as we live our lives.
Now, faith is a rather elusive thing. Paul writes, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
They are beautiful, poetic words which are easily misunderstood.
The problem is, we hear “faith”, and we often think this means being certain. But in truth, perceived certainty is often what counters faith.
In the most extreme example, we’re seen that terrorists are able to do atrocious acts of violence because of their perceived certainty in their rightness. On a lesser extreme, most of us have at one time or another encountered people so “certain” in their faith that they are blinded to love and truth, and consumed by fear and hate.
While it’s easy to point out the extremes, I believe that most of us have areas where we think we have it all figured out, and places where we think that we have nothing left to learn.
It’s usually these “certain places” that get us into trouble.
One such “perceived certainty” is that money gives us security and will protect us. That was the rich man’s folly in last week’s Gospel lesson (Luke 12:13-21).
Money isn’t a bad thing. It can be quite useful for living in today’s world. We tend, however, to become obsessed with acquiring a certain amount, believing that reaching that point will protect and fulfill us. Jesus spends a great deal of time on money and possessions, and our tendency to rely on them.
Money, of course, isn’t the only thing that makes us certain. Some believe that our technology will answer every question. Some believe that our particular talents will always sustain us. Some think that self-denial will make us worthy, and some think our reason will answer every question.
As the Psalm says: “There is no king that can be saved by a mighty army; a strong man is not delivered by his great strength.” (Psalm 33:16)
Good things, when they reach a perceived certainty, become the enemy of faith.
Faith is not certainty. It is not set in stone, nor is something that always seems strong. It is something that demands questioning, openness, and redefining.
So what, then, is faith?
John Shelly writes: “faith is both the gift of God’s unconditional love and the human response of trust and gratitude that issues in deeds of love and justice.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, eds. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, 2010, p. 330)
I like that so much, that I’m going to repeat it: “Faith is both the gift of God’s unconditional love and the human response of trust and gratitude that issues in deeds of love and justice.”
Returning to the Gospel story, faith is being “dressed for action and having your lamps lit.”
This is another saying that gets us into trouble. “Dressed for action and having your lamps lit” isn’t remaining indefinitely on edge. Constant “level orange” is no way to live. Jesus further says: “If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into.” This illustrates the problem: no one can forever stay on watch. Eventually, one will finally fall asleep, and that’s when the thief will come. Holding on to everything too tightly will raise anxiety, cramp your fingers, wear those around you out, and ultimately be fruitless.
Faith that stays alert is, in Gene Lowry’s words, “positioning ourselves to be surprised.” It is an active state of being where we are ready and open to the possibilities of life: ready to be interrupted by God and each other.
David Schlafer writes, “Being “rich towards God” involves a “generosity of spirit” that opens our perceptions toward manifestations of God’s generosity that are always present, but often at the edges of awareness, easily overlooked when focus gets obsessive.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, eds. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, 2010, p. 330. Gene Lowry's quote comes from Schlafer's article as well.)
Part of faithful waiting is alertness towards God.
Finally, there’s this image of faithful waiting for God as a stranger or foreigner in a strange land. Here lies yet another challenge for us listeners. The tendency is to hear this as suggesting that we don’t belong to this world, leading to an understanding that heaven is all that matters.
The experience of foreigner or stranger (in the Bible, in history, and in my own observations) seems to suggest something more. To be certain, there is a sense of journeying towards an unseen place that truly will be home. But there is also grateful anticipation in the here and now, not just in what is to come. Home is seen not just as the place one is going, but in the actual journey itself. The stranger or foreigner experiences faith and joy not just at a final destination, but in the people and opportunities that present themselves along the road home.
As strangers and foreigners on this journey of life, it is my hope that we see that the uncertainty of our wandering lives is made complete not by arriving to a particular, waited for moment, but by God’s and each other’s faithful presence along upon the way.