Text: Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Possibly the three most overused and misunderstood words in the English language: faith, hope and love. It is the first of these—faith—that I want to reflect on this morning.
This past Tuesday when seventeen of our young adults met at my house for conversation about matters of faith I asked them the question: “What do you think when you hear the word faith? And what role if any does faith play in how you live your life?”
It was surprisingly the person who holds a Masters in Engineering that answered first: “Faith” he said, “is that thing that takes a person beyond reason. When reason is at its end, faith moves us forward.” Did he know that he was quoting the French Enlightenment writer, historian, and philosopher Voltaire who said: Faith consists in believing when it is beyond the power of reason to believe. Perhaps not but it was his statement about faith that seemed to resonate with the others sitting in the circle Tuesday night, including me. “Faith is that thing that takes a person beyond reason. When reason is at its end, faith moves us forward.”
Faith has been on my mind a lot lately. As we stand on the stormy banks of American life right now, I have struggled to make sense of the role of faith in the facing of these days. And as I have personally been through a season of darkness and uncertainty, I have questioned the role of faith in my life each and every day. I recall not too long ago as I was sharing with a colleague my thoughts about our world and nation and about my own family struggles which included some of my deepest worries and doubts and questions, my colleague said to me: you’ve just got to have faith that it will all work out. I thought silently, faith in what? In whom? How? Why?” Now I know this person loves me and cares deeply for me. And I know the statement was meant to be comforting and encouraging. But it wasn’t. For when it feels like the world is going to hell and your life is falling apart, hearing “you’ve just got to have faith” is akin to taking the sharpest needle you can find and sticking it in the biggest balloon imaginable. “You’ve just got to have faith.” It’s so deflating. Unintentionally, my colleague’s comment left me thinking and feeling that if I just had a little faith all would be well. But I know better. And shortly thereafter I was able to remind myself that faith is not magical, it does not make things easy or take away our pain or confusion or anxiety.
So, as I said, I have been thinking a lot about faith—what it is and what it is not. And I’ve been thinking about what it means to have faith or as our scripture suggests to live by faith?
The first verse of Hebrews 11 is one of the most often quoted texts on faith. In response to my question “What do you think when you hear the word faith?” (and before I introduced the Hebrews text to the young adults), one of them quoted Hebrews 11:1 “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” I must say I was very impressed. Indeed, the writer of Hebrews begins with this “definition of faith.” But definitions can fall short of truly expressing what something means. And it seems that the writer of Hebrews knew this. So the writer goes on to illustrate faith. First with the stories of Abel, Enoch and Noah; and then through the lives of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob. It was, the writer suggests, by faith that each of these people lived their lives—even and especially in times of great struggle, doubt and uncertainty. By faith, Abel offered to God an acceptable sacrifice. By faith, Enoch skipped death completely by pleasing God with his devotion to God. By faith, Noah built a ship in the middle of dry land. He was warned about something he couldn’t see, and acted on what he was told. By faith, Abraham said yes to God’s call to travel to an unknown place that would become his home. When he left he had no idea where he was going. By an act of faith he lived in the country promised him, lived as a stranger camping in tents. Isaac and Jacob did the same, living under the same promise. And by faith, barren Sarah was able to become pregnant, old woman as she was at the time, because she believed the One who made a promise would fulfill the promise.
But here’s the important part of living by faith that we learn from these stories. Each one of these people of faith died not yet having in hand what was promised, but still believing. How did they do it? They saw it way off in the distance, waved their greeting, and accepted the fact that they were transients in this world. People who live this way make it plain that they are looking for their true home. If they were homesick for the old country, they could have gone back any time they wanted. But they were after a far better country—a promised land—a land where young black men are not gunned down daily in the streets; a land where the stranger, the foreigner, the immigrant are welcomed; a land where a hard days work pays a living wage; a land where hateful speech that divides people against people is not tolerated; a land where the tired and the weary and the huddled masses find opportunity and hospitality.
What of this promised land? How are we to understand it? The Promised Land, according to the Hebrew Bible, is the land which was promised and subsequently given by God to Abraham and his descendants, and in modern contexts an image and idea related both to the restored homeland for the Jewish people and their liberation. The promise was first made to Abraham, then confirmed to his son Isaac, and then to Isaac’s son Jacob. This “promised land” was described most accurately in terms of the territory from the River Egypt to the Euphrates river.
In more recent history, the imagery of the “promised land” was invoked in Negro spirituals as heaven or paradise and as an escape from slavery, often which is only reached by death. The imagery and term have also been used in popular culture in sermons and speeches such as MLK’s famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech where King says:
I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
Those words still have the power to inspire people to keep moving toward the “promised land.” Not a land far away, or in heaven. Not a land to escape to. But rather a land here on earth that those who seek a better country still march toward. But before we consider more fully this “promised land” and what it looks like today, I want to say a couple of things about faith.
The first thing I want to say about faith is that we have set it up as one of the great binaries in the human experience. Faith is most often spoken about as either something we have or don’t have. “Once I was a believer, but now I’m not.” Or faith is assumed to be a commodity. “Once I had faith, but now I have lost it.” And so, we talk about how we either have faith through belief or we don’t have faith because of our disbelief. But faith is not about belief. Nor is it a commodity that one can purchase at the store or lose as if it were our favorite ring or necklace.
The second thing I want to say about faith is, as Robin Myers points out, is that “strangely, we still equate ‘faith’ with certainty, and lack of faith with doubt.” Myers says, “We use the word faith to describe an unwavering, unquestioned allegiance to some doctrinal proposition. But certainty is not the flag of faith. Certainty is a symptom of faith’s demise. Certainty eliminates the need for faith by replacing it with absoluteness.” Doubt is not the opposite of faith. It is rather a central element to faith. And I would even go so far as to say that without doubt our faith is in danger of being small-minded.
So where does that leave us in our thinking about faith? And what does it mean for us to live by faith? So here is what I would say to you this morning about faith. Faith is, as the engineer student noted, when we risk taking that first step beyond our knowing and beyond certainty. It is the risk we take when we love beyond that place that we thought possible. It is those moments when we widen our circle and welcome in those who make us uncomfortable. Faith is that functional part of your day when you don’t think you can keep putting one foot in front of the other but you keep moving forward and by the grace of God you make it through your day. Faith is when you can no longer carry your own burden and you take a risk to share it with others and they pick it up and carry it with you, and sometimes for you. Faith is that which makes things possible, not easy. In the darkest season of the soul, when uncertainty takes you under like a big ocean wave and you can’t fight your way to the surface, faith is, in those moments, being able to doubt and question the existence of a benevolent God. Faith is when we keep our eyes on a “promised land” while confronting the most brutal facts of our current reality, whatever they might be. And faith is trusting in a “love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and [then having] faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.” (Rilke, Letter to a Young Poet) Faith IS NOT about belief or certainty or not having serious doubts about a benevolent God. “Faith is taking that first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” (MLK)
And so, as we keep moving toward the “promised land”—that land, that better country, where all people are treated with dignity and respect; where love trumps hate; where our institutions and systems are guided by justice and equality for all; where skin color does not determine one’s path; we must be the people who live by faith and risk that next step in the face of all uncertainty to make a better country for all. When violence erupts in our streets daily and young black men are gunned down in our streets at alarming rates, we must be the people who live by faith and risk taking the next step. When it seems that the world is going to hell and life feels like it is falling apart, we must be the people who live by faith and take the next step with love and compassion.
We live not by certainty, nor by an empty faith that denies our doubts and our questions or says that things will be easy. But by faith, a faith that stands in the tradition of Abel and Enoch and Noah; of Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Jacob; of Sojourner Truth and John T. Pullen; of Rosa Parks and Mary Ruth Crook; of Robert McMillan Sr. and Janet Freeman and of the countless saints of this church. A kind of faith that does not say farewell when the road darkens. But by a faith that takes us beyond all reason and certainty toward the promised land of God’s blessing on all of humankind. Then and only then, by faith, will we reach the promised land.