Text: Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
When I say the phrase “The Old Reliable,” what comes to mind? For those of you who are newspaper readers, you know it as the nickname of the News and Observer, our local paper. Of course, the N&O has other nicknames as well. Back in the 19th century, it was known as the “Nuisance and Disturber.” I have friends who have always called it the “Noise and Disturber.” You may have your own name for it.
Today the N&O is frequently accused of having a liberal bias with leanings toward the Democratic Party. To a large degree, bias is in the eyes of the beholder, so I will leave it to you to decide if it’s a liberal newspaper. But there was a day when it clearly was not. In 1898, the paper helped lead a vicious, racist campaign to reclaim the legislature from a controlling Republican coalition, and its efforts helped bring about the disenfranchisement of black voters. Years later, publisher Josephus Daniels would express his regrets about those tactics. Seems that you could rely on the paper in those years, but the question is, “For what?”
The adjective “reliable” is typically considered to be a positive one. We want people who are reliable in our lives and we try to raise our children to be. We want computers we can rely on to do the work we need to do. Nothing can turn a day upside down faster than to get to work and find that the computers are down. Perhaps most of all, we want our cars to be reliable. I have been searching for a cheap, dependable car lately—definitely a mythical machine—and the reliability part is really important. No one wants to be left on the side of the road because the car died. That is inconvenient and often dangerous.
In my search, some of the descriptions of cars I found on Craig’s List did not engender my confidence. How about this? “Truck was complete and driving 3 years ago, only thing needed now to run is a carburetor. Has stock motor that runs good but is tired.” Or this one: “Transmission runs. Motor no good.” Or from a person who was selling several cars: “They all have AC and were good condition last time they were driven, except Toyota 94 that needs hood and dashboard.” This sounded like a good one for a new driver: “1995 Toyota Camry for sale, needs work on motor, has oil leak and does not go over 20 mph.” And then there is my very favorite ad that begins: “The car is what it is.” Well at least you can rely on it to be itself.
Today our text is that beautiful if somewhat mysterious 11th chapter of the epistle to the Hebrews. The author of Hebrews is unknown. The central thought of the entire Epistle is the role of Christ as mediator between God and humanity. Scholars believe that the primary purpose of this letter is to exhort Christians to persevere in the faceof persecution. The 11th chapter of Hebrews is known widely as a chapter about faith. “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The language is lovely as it explores the mystery of faith. Chapter 11 is sometimes referred to as the “hall of fame” of the faithful. Verses we didn’t read this morning recount the stories of Abel, who offered God an acceptable sacrifice; Enoch, who walked with God; and Noah, who trusted God enough to build an ark before the rains came. The roll call winds up with Abraham and Sarah. Their faithfulness is described in one of my favorite verses in all the Bible: “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.” His offspring, Isaac and then Jacob, were heirs of God’s promises as well.
As the lectionary lunch group suggested this week, this kind of faith requires being quiet and listening, trusting what you hear, and acting on that trust. The more you do it, the more comfortable this pattern becomes—to listen, to trust, then to act. It is never easy, but we can get better at it with practice. In our discussion, we went straight to the nature of faith because that’s what Hebrews 11 seems to be about. But today I want to raise a related, but different question. What inspires the faith of the faithful? It is the faithfulness of God. In fact, the chapter is fundamentally about the reliability of God. The ancestors listed in our text could be called the faithful who trusted God’s faithfulness; they who relied upon God’s reliability; the ones who counted on God to keep God’s promises.
So what do we mean when we say that God is “reliable”? If we check the dictionary, the term itself suggests a consistent dependability of judgment, character, performance, or result. In what ways is God consistently dependable? For what can the Divine Life be relied upon? As they used to say in Baptist meetings, let me testify for a few moments about how I understand God to be reliable—to be one I can count on to keep promises. In true Pullen fashion, I will begin with a couple of things I don’t believe.
First, I don’t believe God never changes. I do think the aspects of the nature of God most essential to my faith are consistently dependable. Yet I cringe a little every time we sing one of those lovely old hymns that talks about God as “unchanging.” Earlier we sang “Immortal, Invisible” – a great hymn about God, but it says “we wither and perish but naught changeth thee.” Many hymns contain similar language. Yet our scripture portrays a changing God. Genesis tells us that after God destroyed everything but Noah, his family, and the pairs of creatures, God promised not to do that again. Abraham and Hezekiah talked God into changing the plan. The book of Jonah actually says in chapter 3 that God changed God’s mind about the calamity that was going to fall upon the people. (v. 10) So there are numerous times when a human talks God into doing something God didn’t initially plan to do. Frankly, that makes me feel better. I like to think of God as consistently dependable in character, but evolving and changing in response to new challenges and needs of our planet.
I also don’t believe that God is all powerful in the way we understand human power. Our Creator probably has the power to do anything, but I believe that God is self-limiting. It may be the most powerful act of all to choose not to use the power one has. For example, we were given the opportunity to choose and a brain capable of making choices. In order for our decision-making ability to have any meaning, God has chosen to let us make decisions. Otherwise we would just be puppets. Sometimes I wish that whenever I make a bad choice, God would intervene to fix it. If God worked that way, things would go well for sure. Yet doing the right thing wouldn’t have much meaning because I didn’t have any choice.
Think about it from the perspective of someone who nurtures children. Certainly there are many times we would like to intervene and stop kids from making poor choices. We do it when children are young and inexperienced to prevent serious harm to them or others. Many would argue that 21st century parents do it way too much and too long, prompting the term “helicopter parents.” But what people who care about kids try to do is to teach them to make good choices on their own. Nothing is more gratifying to someone who loves young people than to watch them make good choices in difficult situations. I think God is like that. I don’t understand it all. But I believe the grand power existing in the Divine Life is exercised in ways wholly different from how we humans wield our power over others and our planet.
Now let me tell you several characteristics of God that I find reliable. Even within a changing God, I believe some things about God don’t change. In fact, I think the faithfulness of Abel and Enoch and Abraham and Sarah grew from their confidence in certain attributes of their God. I’ll name three that brought me to faith and to this work of ministry.
First, I believe creativity is the essence of God. From the very beginning of the universe—whenever and however it began – innovation was God’s hallmark. The Divine imagination is simply stunning. Evolution—the constantly developing and changing nature of life—has continued to produce marvelous beauty and complexity that, in my mind, just can’t be an accident. Giraffes and hummingbirds and leaves that turn glorious colors in the fall and pollen that generates new fruit in the spring are truly amazing. So are the softness of a baby’s skin and an animal’s fur; the scent of honeysuckle and baking bread; the sound of the ocean and a Mozart symphony; the taste of fresh summer peaches and a hot cup of coffee or tea on a cold morning. I just don’t believe those wonders of human life just happen. God is ingenious. In fact, I think our most faithful ancestors like Abraham and Enoch trusted God to figure out what they couldn’t. It’s as if they said, “We don’t know where this life will take us, but something larger than us will create a future for us.” As our text says, they knew what they could see was made by something they could not see. Creativity began with God and as people made in God’s image, a spark of divine creativity abides in each of us.
Second, I believe God is always present, in and around us and everything in our universe and beyond. The Divine Life is like the air we breathe, so constant and close that we are apt to be unaware of the holy presence that infuses our lives and the world at every moment. When we talk about God in this way, however, we have a problem with hymns again. We sang that lovely “Come Down, O Love Divine” a little while ago. The title seems to assume a Love that is above us somewhere—in heaven perhaps. Yet scripture tells us God’s spirit is within us.
Christopher Morse wrote a wonderful, mind-twisting book entitled “Not Every Spirit: A Dogmatic of Christian Disbelief.” The whole book considers and critiques claims about what Christians believe from the perspective of what we don’t believe. It takes a while to wrap your head around his backdoor approach to belief, but he has one way of describing God that I love: “God’s otherness is one of communion.” In other words, God is “other” than us. We are not God. And yet that otherness is always seeking communion with humanity—is always present, always pursuing us. John Wesley spoke about “prevenient grace”—the activity of God that is wooing us like a lover even before we know or are willing to accept that the Holy even exists.
The faithful ones whose stories are recounted in the book of Hebrews knew this well. Their ancestors had believed in many gods whose absence was felt as strongly as their presence. But Yahweh, the one God they came to know, was different. Yahweh was always there. Their faith was “the conviction of things not seen.” The Divine might not be visibly present in a conventional sense and I’m sure sometimes God felt distant. They were human like us. But ultimately their faith was rooted in the constancy of God’s presence.
Third, I believe I can rely on God because God is love and that love never ends. This may be the hardest concept to take in. Just think about it. We are loved no matter what. Nothing can separate us from this great love. Nothing we do or say or feel, no matter what choices we make, no matter how fearful or confused or willful or misguided we are, we are loved. We use the term “unconditional” to describe this kind of love. Without condition. Without prerequisites or expectations or limits. It is a love that works for justice for all because God dearly loves all of creation.
Now I’m aware that some of you are sitting there agreeing with me. Your understanding of the Divine is somewhat similar to mine. Others of you are thinking, “Whoa. Cathy’s been eating too many Vienna sausages. This is a real stretch—especially the part about God’s power being self-limiting and God always changing.” If you’re in the latter category, bless you. If everyone at Pullen agreed on a theology of God, I would worry. But I want to remind all of us that faith comes in many flavors. Some of them are harmful, for sure, but many are not.
No doubt some of you read the article in the “Old Reliable” this week about Reverend Mark Rutledge. He is the United Church of Christ campus minister at Duke. The article reported that he “does not believe in a supernatural God with supernatural powers. ‘The cosmic guy in the sky is not a credible image,’ he said.” To Rev. Rutledge, “God is a mysterious cosmic creativity that makes for greater love and justice. He thinks of God as a force working within human beings and nature, and he sees his role as trying to imitate that divine character…” For him, Jesus is its best example.
Like many of you, I read the article and thought, “So? What’s so strange about that?” I may describe God using some different words, but what I believe doesn’t seem much different from the beliefs of Rev. Rutledge. I’m guessing many Pullenites reacted the same way—unlike those who wrote letters to the editor in this morning’s paper! For me, the interesting aspect of the report was that these views were included in a book entitled “Preachers Who Are Not Believers.” The book included the views of five ministers who no longer view God in the traditional sense. It is based on a study by Daniel Dennett, who was referred to as the “superstar of the New Atheism movement.” Since when did not viewing God in the traditional sense based on ancient orthodoxy make one into a nonbeliever?
But even if some of us agree with Reverend Rutledge, some do not. So I want to argue for us to continue to work at being open to many understandings of God. It is easy for us here at Pullen to be critical of more traditional views, and some of you here may have felt that criticism. The tendency is for those of us who have wide-open, mysterious perceptions of the Divine to find more traditional views confining. And that’s okay.
For some of us here at Pullen, this in-all-things Divine Presence is the only one that makes sense. Others of us need to feel that “Someone” is listening to our prayers or understanding our needs or calling us to a new place. For them it is helpful or comforting to personify God in some way. Unfortunately we sometimes trip over those differences when we try to be community together. For me, God is some of both. I know God is not a “person” and yet I admit that there are times I need to have a conversation with the Holy. Both perspectives and their numerous permutations all have positive and negative potential. But I believe whatever helps us to feel that the Source of All Being is present and loving us here and now, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, within and beyond us, is a good thing. As Old Turtle said when she tried to mediate the different understandings of God held by the rocks and the breezes and the creatures, God simply is.
So I don’t want to put words in the mouth of Abel or Noah or Abraham and Sarah, but I think the message they offer us is clear. The root of human faithfulness is the Divine Life who is faithful. The creative, loving Presence that inspired our ancestors resides with us now—inside of each of us, in our relationships with each other, in the crazy, broken world outside these walls. The Holy has promised to be present, promised to love us, promised to go on creating in and through and around us. The lives of the faithful ones teach us that God is reliable. I guess the question is, are we?