Sunday, September 22, 2019

God Creates Family: Wrestling With God

Have you ever seen a wrestling match in person? Now, I’m not talking about professional wrestling - although, I'll be honest, I’ve seen a few of those matches. I’m talking about real wrestling. Where you have two men (or women) in close - really close - proximity to each other. Using grappling-style techniques like clinch fighting, throws and takedowns, pins and other holds to gain points. It’s a combat sport where there is little to separate you from your opponent. One of the oldest forms of combat - there are drawings from 15,000 years ago that portray wrestling matches.

I first really became aware of wrestling in 1988. That was the year of the Olympics in Seoul, Korea. It just so happened that there were two sets of twins wrestling that year - two sets of twins from South Dakota. (That’s was a big chunk of SD’s population then! haha) One of the sets of twins - Jim and Bill Scherr - was from Mobridge, the town where I went to high school. So, naturally, my interest was really piqued and I followed them throughout the competition. 

It takes incredible strength to be a wrestler. Strength, flexibility, and just overall scrappiness to be a good wrestler. But, it’s not just about the physical. Wrestling is really a mind game. Developing strategies, psyching out your opponent, pacing oneself. Being a wrestler and participating in a wrestling match is a full mind and body contact sport.

It's this sport - wrestling - that is central to our story today. A wrestling match between Jacob and God. Between Jacob and, well maybe, God. 

A lot has happened since last week’s story. Who remembers who we were talking about last week? Yes, Sarah and Abraham. And, near the end of the story, we met Isaac, the son born to them at ages 90 and 100, respectively. The beginning of their family. The beginning of God’s family, of God’s special people.

Since then to today, we’ve jumped 10-12 chapters in Genesis. In the time between, we’ve seen Isaac married. To Rebekah. Rebekah, like Sarah, was painfully barren until her later years, when God blessed her and Isaac with a child. Well, actually, two children. Sons. Twins. Esau, the first born. And Jacob, second born. They came out of her womb with Jacob holding onto Esau’s heel. It’s why Jacob was named Jacob. His name means “heel.” 

Jacob was a heel. A trickster. A deceiver. Stealing Esau’s inheritance, something that Esau would have been entitled to as the oldest. Yet, tricked out of it by his younger brother. Then, in chapter 27, Esau is tricked once again. This time, Jacob, with his mother’s help, deceives Isaac into giving him his spiritual blessing. This deception was the last straw for Esau. He swore to kill Jacob. It was only with Rebekah’s help that Jacob was able to flee - to run away to the east to stay with his uncle, Laban. It is here where the trickster is himself deceived. In this new land, Jacob meets Rachel, falls in love, and is tricked by her father, Jacob’s uncle Laban, into marrying her older sister, Leah, before he can marry the woman of his dreams. The trickster tricks the trickster. 

As the years pass, Jacob’s household grows and grows. God has continued to bless him with children and with wealth. By the time our story opens today, Jacob is a rich man and has 66 children. Sixty-six! He has convinced Leah and Rachel that it is time to return to Jacob’s homeland. Which they do.

But, the closer they get, the more anxious Jacob becomes. He knows that, when he left, his relationship with Esau was completely broken. He is fearful that time hasn’t healed the wounds between them. That, if he returns, Esau will kill him. Jacob is worried. In the verses before our reading today, we learn that Jacob has sent messengers to go Esau, to tell him that Jacob has been staying with Laban and that he is now returning with much wealth. It is this wealth that Jacob hopes will impress Esau, erase the hard feelings, and buy his good favor. Because Jacob is convinced that Esau is bent on revenge. Jacob’s fear is real and reasonable.

It is here where our reading today begins. With a prayer. Spoken by Jacob in his fear and anxiety.

Jacob said, “Lord, God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives, and I’ll make sure things go well for you,’ I don’t deserve how loyal and truthful you’ve been to your servant. I went away across the Jordan with just my staff, but now I’ve become two camps. Save me from my brother Esau! I’m afraid he will come and kill me, the mothers, and their children. You were the one who told me, ‘I will make sure things go well for you, and I will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, so many you won’t be able to count them.’”

Jacob spent that night there. From what he had acquired, he set aside a gift for his brother Esau.  --Genesis 32:9-13 (CEB)

Have you ever prayed a prayer like this? Where you’ve done what God has told you to do or gone where God has directed you to go and you are terrified about what will happen. And you pray to God. And you say, “Remember, God? You were the one who told me to do this. You were the one who said it would go well for me.  But, it doesn’t feel like that - that everything will be okay. In truth, it feels like everything will fall apart. And that, in some way, I will be badly hurt by this, by following where you have led me.” 

Have you ever prayed like this? Afraid. Fearful of being badly hurt.

Jacob got up during the night, took his two wives, his two women servants, and his eleven sons, and crossed the Jabbok River’s shallow water. He took them and everything that belonged to him, and he helped them cross the river. But Jacob stayed apart by himself, and a man wrestled with him until dawn broke. When the man saw that he couldn’t defeat Jacob, he grabbed Jacob’s thigh and tore a muscle in Jacob’s thigh as he wrestled with him. The man said, “Let me go because the dawn is breaking.”

But Jacob said, “I won’t let you go until you bless me.”

He said to Jacob, “What’s your name?” and he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name won’t be Jacob any longer, but Israel, because you struggled with God and with men and won.”

Jacob also asked and said, “Tell me your name.”

But he said, “Why do you ask for my name?” and he blessed Jacob there. Jacob named the place Peniel, “because I’ve seen God face-to-face, and my life has been saved.”  --Genesis 32:22-30 (CEB)

As Jacob is all alone on the other side of the river, the wrestling match begins. His opponent know his tenacity. His ability to trick and to deceive. This Jacob the Heel. As the dawn approaches, Jacob’s opponent becomes concerned. Is it that he doesn’t want Jacob to see his face? Remember the words from Exodus 33 - “No one who has seen God face to face has lived?” Jacob’s opponent wants his freedom. But Jacob holds on and will not let him go. Demanding that his wrestling opponent bless him. Maybe if he can just hold on long enough, he can get it. That blessing. 

Finally, Jacob’s opponent declares that he will now have a new name. Israel. Meaning “one who struggles with God.” And, although this mysterious stranger refuses to tell Jacob his name, he blesses him. It is then that Jacob names this place, Peniel. Which means “face of God.” And we now know who this wrestler is. God. Jacob has been wrestling God. The God of his ancestors. 

Do you wrestle with God? With the God of Jacob’s ancestors? With the God of our ancestors? It is not easy - this life in God’s kingdom. Just as Jacob wrestled with God, we do, too. Perhaps it is with fear, like Jacob’s, that you wrestle with God. Seeking - no, demanding - God’s blessing. God’s assurance that everything will be okay. That everything will go well. Or perhaps it is with stubbornness. That you struggle with God's will for you or your will for yourself. Or perhaps it is with doubt, that you wrestle with God. Seeking that small blessing of faith that seems to elude us at times. 

Do you wrestle with God?

Jacob was forever changed that night as he wrestled with God. It wasn’t only his name that changed. He, himself, was changed. Wounded in the struggle. Walking from that point on with a limp. Perhaps it was that wound that was a reminder for him of God’s presence. Of God’s blessing. Of God’s love and faithfulness that night. Just as the wounds on the hands and feet of Christ are a reminder for us of God’s presence. Of God’s blessing. Of God’s love.

We are all walking wounded. Whether it is because of messes we have created, relationships we have fractured. Or wounds that have been inflicted upon us. We, like Jacob, all walk wounded. Yet, may we remember that as we, in our tenacity and in our faith, continue to cling to and, yes, to wrestle with God, we, too, like Jacob, have received God’s blessing. We, too, like Jacob, live. Wounded, but alive in Christ. And we, too, like Jacob, will see God face to face. 

Thanks be to God! Amen.

Preached Sunday, September 22, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran, Goshen, KY.
Pentecost 15
Readings: Genesis 32:9-13, 22-30; Mark 14:32-36

Sunday, September 15, 2019

God Creates Family: A Family Affair

The Lord appeared to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre while he sat at the entrance of his tent in the day’s heat. He looked up and suddenly saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from his tent entrance to greet them and bowed deeply. He said, “Sirs, if you would be so kind, don’t just pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought so you may wash your feet and refresh yourselves under the tree. Let me offer you a little bread so you will feel stronger, and after that you may leave your servant and go on your way—since you have visited your servant.”

They responded, “Fine. Do just as you have said.”

So Abraham hurried to Sarah at his tent and said, “Hurry! Knead three seahs of the finest flour and make some baked goods!” Abraham ran to the cattle, took a healthy young calf, and gave it to a young servant, who prepared it quickly. Then Abraham took butter, milk, and the calf that had been prepared, put the food in front of them, and stood under the tree near them as they ate.

They said to him, “Where’s your wife Sarah?”

And he said, “Right here in the tent.”

Then one of the men said, “I will definitely return to you about this time next year. Then your wife Sarah will have a son!”

Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were both very old. Sarah was no longer menstruating. So Sarah laughed to herself, thinking, I’m no longer able to have children and my husband’s old.

The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Me give birth? At my age?’ Is anything too difficult for the Lord? When I return to you about this time next year, Sarah will have a son.”

Sarah lied and said, “I didn’t laugh,” because she was frightened.

But he said, “No, you laughed.” --Genesis 18:1-15 (CEB)

When we left last week’s story, life was good!

We heard the story of the creation of the first family. The human family. Man and woman living in God’s garden - Eden - a word that means “beautiful.” Living in relationship with and caring for each other and God’s creation. And, particularly, living in relationship with God.

Life was good inside the garden!

Today, we move to life outside the garden. We experienced in our confession this morning how sin entered into that idyllic place, severing relationships. More has happened in between last week’s story and today. There’s been a big flood. The people built a tower seeking to make a name for themselves. God has called Abram and made a promise - that from Abram’s offspring, God will make a great nation, through whom the entire world will be blessed. 

God has continued to reinforce that promise a few more times, even changing the names of Abram and his wife, Sarai, to Abraham and Sarah - marking the beginnings of their new life. And the new story that God is now writing - a story of a peculiar people. Peculiar meaning “special.” A people through whom God intends to bless all humanity. And, especially, a people through whom God will restore the broken relationships that sin has caused.

But, there is a problem. We learn two chapters before today’s story that Sarah is barren. It must seem like a cruel joke. Because to be barren in a world where, for women, everything depends upon your ability to have children. And for God to promise that this new people would come from Abraham and Sarah. It must seem like such a cruel joke. And hard to believe.

It’s so hard for Sarah to believe that she arranges for Abraham to sleep with her servant Hagar, who then conceives and has a son, Ishmael. But, instead of resolving the problem, things become worse. Sarah becomes jealous of Hagar. And Hagar throws her newfound importance in Sarah’s face. 

It must seem like such a cruel joke. 

Then, in the chapter before today’s story, God comes to Abraham once more. Abraham is now 99 years old. God comes to him and once more promises that he and Sarah will have a child. At 99! When neither of them have the physical capabilities left to make such a child, much less the desire. When their relationship must feel so broken. When the waiting has seemed so fruitless. Yet, God continues to promise Abraham that he and Sarah will have a child. And Abraham falls to the floor in laughter. 

It must seem like such a cruel joke.

As our story opens today, Abraham is sitting in the shade under the trees at Mamre. Mamre was the first place Abraham landed in Canaan. Where he pitched his first tent in the land God had promised him. Where he built his first altar to worship God. So, Mamre was not only a dwelling place for Abraham. It was also a religious place. 

As Abraham is resting in the shade of the oak trees, he sees three men - three strangers - passing by. He jumps up and runs from the entrance to his tent to greet them. To show them hospitality. To travel in these places was dangerous. One was completely reliant upon the hospitality of strangers. Hospitality was central to life in Canaan. So, Abraham approaches the three strangers and invites them to join him under the cool shade. To wash their feet. To rest. And to have a little something to eat.

They accept his offer. And Abraham gets to work. Well, actually, it’s a servant boy and Sarah who get to work. Abraham goes to Sarah and tells her to prepare three seahs of the finest flour to make bread. A little something to eat? More like 30 loaves of bread.

Abraham then catches a young calf. The best meat available. Veal. Gives it to a young servant boy and tells him to prepare it. Then, takes the prepared meat, the bread, butter and milk and serves it to his guests.

As they eat, they say to him, “Where’s your wife, Sarah?” Not, “Where’s your wife?” but “Where’s your wife, Sarah?” This seems odd. How is it that complete strangers know Sarah’s name? As the audience to this story, we’ve already been clued in to the divine nature of these strangers. But, there’s no indication that Abraham knows. Yet, with this one question, it begins to dawn on Abraham that these are no ordinary passersby. 

When Abraham tells them that Sarah is right here in the tent - not visible, but present, one of them says that next year, he will return and, by then, Sarah will have given birth to a son.

It’s interesting, isn’t it? How Sarah is the subject of this conversation, but not present. How she is the center of this conversation, but placed on the edge of it. 

When this stranger, whom we now know to be divine, whether it is God or a messenger of God - when this stranger foretells Sarah’s future, she laughs. Behind the flap of the tent door, where she’s been listening in on this strange conversation, hearing her name, which might have been the first thing to catch her attention. When she hears what the stranger says, she laughs. But, this isn’t a joy-filled laugh. This is a cynical laugh. She is 90 years old. Abraham is 100. She has been barren all her life - a barrenness that has harmed her relationship with Abraham and with members of her own household. She has waited and waited for this son promised by God. Waited and waited as she’s grown old and has been pushed further and further to the edges of society, as we so often do with those who are barren. Who are old. Who don’t seem to have any life left in them. When she hears what the stranger says, she laughs. 

Because, it has been a cruel joke. Almost a lie. A promise that God hasn’t kept. 

What are the cruel jokes in your lives? The barren places that cause you heartache and sadness? The parts of your life that seem like such a lie. Promises by God that you’ve believed in. Perhaps it's the barrenness of relationships - the loss of relationship in so many different ways with those we love. Perhaps the cruel joke of life itself, of growing old, as we gray and are pushed to the edges of a world that values youth. Devalued, when we should instead be valued for our wisdom and our life experience. Perhaps it's the life of riches - that if we only had more money and stuff we’d be happy. Yet, finding out that the more we accumulate the more empty we feel. 

What are the cruel jokes in your lives? The barren places? The lies in your life? The promises that it seems God has not kept and that too much time has passed for them to be kept? Where in your life do you cover these parts up - like Abraham and Sarah - with cynical laughter? Where in your life do you lack hope?

Well, for Abraham and Sarah, we find it just a few chapters later, in chapter 21.  

The Lord was attentive to Sarah just as he had said, and the Lord carried out just what he had promised her. She became pregnant and gave birth to a son for Abraham when he was old, at the very time God had told him. Abraham named his son—the one Sarah bore him—Isaac. Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old just as God had commanded him. Abraham was 100 years old when his son Isaac was born. Sarah said, “God has given me laughter. Everyone who hears about it will laugh with me.” She said, “Who could have told Abraham that Sarah would nurse sons? But now I’ve given birth to a son when he was old!” --Genesis 21:1-7 (CEB)

It’s like God’s checklist, isn’t it? The Lord heard Sarah. Check. The Lord carried out what the Lord had promised. Check. Sarah became pregnant. Check. She gave birth to a son for Abraham when he was very old at the very time God had told him. Check. Then, Abraham named his son - the son borne to him by barren Sarah - Isaac. Check. Isaac - meaning laughter. Not the cynical laughter of before, but laughter that is filled with joy. With hope. Check.

Sisters and brothers, God has made the same checklist for you and I. While life may feel at times like a cruel joke, God hears us and is at work in God’s own time, checking things off that list. Restoring and redeeming us in Christ. Check. Calling each of us and naming us as God’s own. Check. Calling us back when we stray. Check. Working life out of death. Hope out of despair. A future out of the barren places. Check.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” 

In the barrenness of our lives, may we believe God’s promises, just like Abraham and Sarah. And may we trust that out of these empty places, God will bring us laughter that is filled with joy. Amen.

Preached September 15, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Pentecost 14.
Readings: Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7; Mark 10:27

Friday, September 13, 2019

God Creates Family: Created to Be

In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches. The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,

“This at last is bone of my bones
    and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
    for out of Man this one was taken.”

Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.  --Genesis 2:4b-25 (NRSV)

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Here we go again! One more time we begin at the beginning.

It’s the pattern of our Narrative Lectionary readings - we begin each fall at the beginning of scripture. In the Hebrew scriptures. With a creation - and sometimes a re-creation - story.

Last year, we started the year with the story of Noah. And that great ark full of animals escaping the flood. A story of God’s re-creation of a world that had become almost entirely evil. And a story with a promise, sealed with a rainbow, that God would never again destroy the earth.

This year we begin in Genesis 2. This is a second creation story. Yet, even though it is the second of the two creation stories, scholars believe that it actually was the first creation story written down. During the time of the reign of David. And that the first story of creation in Genesis is actually the second story. Written down during the time of Israel’s Babylonian exile - a myth that was perhaps needed to help the people make sense - make order - out of the chaos they were experiencing. 

That first story gives us the Google Earth version. From high above at the cosmic level, we see God’s hand at work. In a more general way. Separating the waters. Creating the animals and the sea creatures. The plants. And creating humanity. Creating humanity. Today’s story - the second Genesis story, but, again, the first written - is a story from Google Maps Street View. Down on the ground. With much more detail. And much more intimacy.

It’s a place that, unlike the Genesis 1 version, lacks water. A land that is barren. There are no plants and no animals. Because there is no water. And no one to care for the land. At least not yet. The only sign of life is a stream that rises out of the earth and begins to water the fertile land. A living stream that begins to turn the dry, dusty place of no life into one with life.

It’s out of that dust that God forms the first human. Adam in the Hebrew. Not a word that means man or that is the proper name of a man. But a word that means “human.” God forms human - literally, the act of an artist, a descriptive act of the life and work of a potter. There is God in the dirt, making mud, toiling over a potter’s wheel, forming and shaping this first human being. Genderless at this point. Earth creature. We might call this being, “Dusty.” Formed out of the dust of the dry, barren plain. 

It is then that God breathes into Dusty the “breath of life.” That unique gift of our holy God that makes a living being out of all of us bits of dusty brokenness. God breathes into this earth creature God’s very own Spirit. 

Then, God turns from this human to form a garden in Eden (a word that means “pleasant”). And it is into the midst of this garden where God places this adam. God continues to create, making trees - beautiful trees with fruit for eating. And two trees in particular are noted in our story, created by God. The tree of life. And the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Theologians talk about this second tree, in particular - the tree that will later on cause a problem. A rupture in the relationship between God and human. This tree brings with it an understanding of the “weal and woe” or the deep sadness and great joy that is the human condition. Hearing the story for the first time, we might begin to wonder why there is this special attention on these two trees. How will the trees and Dusty relate to each other? What will Dusty’s role be in this beautiful garden of God?

Our story continues. Soon there are four rivers placed to distribute water to the world. The source of each of these rivers - the Pishon, the Gihon, the Tigris, and the Euphrates. Rivers that flow into all parts of the civilization. Rivers that have their source in God’s garden. Then, God tells Dusty to “farm” (or to “serve) and to “take care of” (or to “guard”) the garden. If this were a church, Dusty would be the chair of the landscaping committee. Dusty’s role is not simply to guard the garden, but to work it. To make it better. To steward the entire garden. Well, almost the entire garden. Because there is one part that is off limits. Every tree laden with fruit is available to Dusty for food and nourishment. Every tree except for one tree - that tree that, if its fruit is eaten, will open Dusty’s eyes and give a full and complete understanding of the agony and ecstasy that is the human condition. Because eating of this one tree will lead to a certain death.  One wonders if that death is a death of innocence.

We already see an interdependence that God has created between the human and creation. A mutuality. A relationship. The human cares for creation. Creation responds by providing sustenance and food. And beauty.

But, God is not done yet. Because God does not want the human to be lonely. Because God has created all of humanity to be in relationship with one another. And so God creates and brings each animal to the human. Searching for the perfect partner for Dusty. One can just imagine the scene. God brings the animal forward. How about this one, Dusty? Look at this duck-billed platypus. Don’t you think it would be a great partner for you? A complementary helper? And the human just shakes the head. “No God, that’s not quite it!” Over and over God brings animal after animal to the human, who is also given the responsibility of naming each animal. That giving of a name that so often is the beginning of a relationship. Yet, each now-named animal, is not quite right. 

And so God puts the human to sleep and out of this human creates two humans, two genders. Man. And woman, who is man’s helper. The Hebrew word for helper used here is the same word used throughout the Hebrew scripture to refer to God. So this woman is not a being that is lesser than man, but a partner. In the same way God seeks to be a partner with all of humanity.

This is the end of the second creation story. The family that God has created can now live together in God’s garden. Mutually dependent upon each other and creation. In relationship with one another and all creation. The author concludes the story, saying that both the man and woman are “naked” but not “ashamed.” It’s a clear distinction between this wonderful garden and where we now live. A distinction between life without shame and life with shame.

Because that’s what sin does, isn’t it? Whether our nakedness is physical or psychological, it results in shame. Shame that makes us strike back out of our own feelings of inadequacy. Shame that leads us to hurt one another. To blame each other. To harm our relationships. To break apart our families and our communities. To destroy creation. Shame is at the root of our problem as human beings because we never feel good enough. Never feel adequate enough. In our nakedness we are ashamed.

Yet, this is not God’s desire for us. God’s will for us can be witnessed in Christ. God in human form come to us to bear the weight of our shame so that we might, once again, experience the beauty and wonder of life in God’s garden. Of the wholeness of life in relationship with God. Of life in families of all shapes and sizes. Life here, in this place. Lives of mutuality and interdependence and relationship. Lives of beauty and purpose. Lives in relationship with God, our creator. Who breathes into us God’s own Spirit - and with the holy water restores us into relationship. Relationship that is here and now. And that will continue forever into all eternity.

This is where the story begins again today. Where are you in the story?

Preached September 8, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Pentecost 13.
Readings: Genesis 2:4b-25; Mark 1:16-20.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Rekindling Our Faith, Rekindling Our Imagination - Part 5

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.

By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s. Through this he received approval as righteous, God himself giving approval to his gifts; he died, but through his faith he still speaks. By faith Enoch was taken so that he did not experience death; and “he was not found, because God had taken him.” For it was attested before he was taken away that “he had pleased God.” And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. By faith Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir to the righteousness that is in accordance with faith.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.”

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

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, 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. --Hebrews 11:1-16, 12:1-2 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from God, our Creator, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Why do you have faith? Has anyone ever asked you that question? Have you ever asked yourself that question? Why do you have faith?

I mean, come on, after all, it’s not really the “in” thing anymore in our culture, is it? To have faith in God? Sure, people say they believe in God, but do they really? Church attendance is declining. Younger people are moving away from the church. Many churches - both mainline and evangelical - are struggling. Let’s be honest. We struggle, too.

So, why should we have faith? Why should you have faith?

Over these past five weeks, we’ve been immersing ourselves in the letter to the Hebrews. It’s a challenging book in scripture, full of doctrinal statements and rhetorical arguments to back up those statements. It’s a book full of images - trying the spark the imagination and faith of a congregation of mostly Hellenistic Jews. Living abroad, away from Israel. Influenced, particularly, by Greek culture. A culture that, very much like our culture, looked down on faith, viewing it as an inferior form of understanding. “Mere belief” as one Greek philosopher called it. The congregation had lost heart.  Whether it was because of persecution. Or the long wait for Jesus’ promised return. Or just the general fatigue and doubt that any community experiences over time, this congregation had lost heart. The writer assumes that unbelief has become their baseline. And asks the question, “Why should they have faith at all?” 

And in the process of asking that question, the author works to spark their imagination. To rekindle it. To help them remember why they first believed. Why they should continue to believe. Trying to not only rekindle their imagination, but to rekindle their faith. 

So, today, we come to the last of our Hebrews texts. And, likely, the most familiar to you. We often call this the “roll call of saints.” It includes the ancestors of faith whose stories we have likely heard from childhood. The saints who believed when there was no reason to believe. 

Let's take Noah, for example. Noah was called into action before the flood came. He had no weather forecasts to prove the coming rains to anyone. Called to build an ark the length of 1-½ football fields. Imagine if we began to build an ark on our property. What do you think our neighbors would say? Or think? Oh, those Lutherans! There they go again! Yet, Noah believed even when he couldn’t see the future. Even when the world was mocking him. Even when no one else believed. Noah believed. And he took steps to move into the future.

And then there’s Abraham and Sarah. If they’d lived today, they would already have been on Social Security for over 25 years. Both of them, by the time they received the child they had longed for their entire lives. Sarah, barren. Abraham, well our text says he was “good as dead.” Both of them, living into God’s promises. And, then, when they were nearing the age of 100, finally, having the child they had longed for their entire lives. And, then trusting that, from this one son, God would create a people that would number more than the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the seashore. Were they crazy? Yet, they believed. Even when they couldn’t see the future, God summoned them forward into it. And they had faith. 

Who's on your “roll call of saints”? Who are those ancestors of faith for you - those who believed even when they couldn’t see the future? Who trusted even when they didn’t know what was to come next? Who held onto God’s promise for a future?

Just as your ancestors were called into an unseen future. Into an uncertain future. Unsure of what it would hold. Yet, trusting that God had a future for them. In the same way, throughout the letter to the Hebrews, the writer is calling the community out of despair and into hope. To trust in God’s promises. To have faith.

The Hebrews’ vision of the Christian life is like that of a race. Not a sprint, but a long distance race. More like a cross-country race. A journey of transformation moving toward a communal completion. As we run this race together, as we journey, we are cheered on. Looking up in the stands of the stadium, we see all of the ancestors of our faith who have gone before. Abel, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Aaron, Gideon, Peter, John, Mary. My ancestors. Your ancestors. All of our ancestors in faith. 

As Hebrews describes to us, through faith, all of these ancestors conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Were tortured. Mocked and flogged. Chained and imprisoned. Stoned to death, sawn in two. Destitute. Persecuted. Tormented. All of them for whom the world was not worthy. Though they were commended for their faith, they did not receive what was promised. 

As we run the race of faith, all of these ancestors of faith cheer us on. Because living by faith is not a concept. Living by faith is a way of life. This is what it means to have faith. To be claimed by the Word of God. To move into a future. Perhaps unseen. Perhaps uncertain. Not sure of where we will end up. But, moving forward, all the same. Into a future that we know by virtue of promise rather than by what our eyes have seen.

Because we have Jesus. Our pioneer - the one who has gone before us. Our perfector - who has shown us the way. Our great high priest - who in his “once and for all” act of sacrifice forever altered the relationship between all humanity and God. This Jesus: God’s participation, God’s own self-offering, God’s own self-giving act. God, who through this Jesus, this Word, now invites us into God’s presence, to go where only the high priest was privileged to go. And who calls us into the future. Into a life of promise. Into a life of hope. 

This is why we should have faith. Because, even though we may have experiences that may challenge our faith, that might call our faith into question, the only other option for us is despair. A life without hope. And that, sisters and brothers in Christ, is no life. 

So, take the promise. And run with it! 


Preached September 1, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Pentecost 12
Readings: Matthew 8:5-10; Hebrews 11:1-16, 12:1-2.