Ninth sunday After Pentecost: August 11, 2019
Year C, Proper 14: Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14 ; Luke 2:1-14, [15-20]
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By faith… by faith… by faith… These words pulse through today’s epistle like a heartbeat, buh-buh, buh-buh-buh.
It’s a pretty safe bet for a preacher is a word like faith occurs repeatedly in a passage that’s a good thing to focus the sermon on. “By faith our ancestors received…by faith we understand… by faith Abraham obeyed… by faith, he stayed… by faith he received.” If we add in the verses our lectionary reading skips today, we would hear even more: By faith…by faith….by faith…for the musicians among us, it’s like the resounding or repeating beat that keeps music moving. I couldn’t help but remember as I was thinking about today’s reading about my band director in high school. I think he had illusions, more like delusions, of me being a music major. He had me play baritone, alto and tenor sax, in addition to the tuba and bass guitar. He always told me that the most important of those was the bass guitar because the bass and the drums provided the rhythm and the beat for whatever music we were playing.
That’s exactly I think what the word faith does for this reading from Hebrews today.
We don’t know who wrote the Letter to the Hebrews. While the text is traditionally attributed to Paul, and you’ll sometimes hear it referred to as the Letter to the Hebrews, his authorship was disputed as early as the third century. Modern biblical scholars consider it author unknown, perhaps written in deliberate imitation of the style of Paul.
But what we can tell from reading the whole letter and hearing its concerns is that it’s written to people who are giving up, who are leaving the church, who are leaving the faith. It’s written to people who have made sacrifices for their faith, who have even endured suffering, but now, these people are growing weary. It was hard enough in the short term—they can’t see staying in it for the long haul. They can only see what’s immediately in front of them, and they don’t like it. They think they can get a better deal somewhere else. So, Hebrews is the sermon of a preacher to people who are heading out the door.
This is the preacher’s message: Don’t give up. Have faith. Trust. Jesus Christ is the one in whom we can hope. Jesus Christ is the one in whom we can trust. Jesus Christ is the one in whom we can place our faith because Jesus Christ is faithful. You have not seen the future, but Jesus holds the future. Have faith in Jesus because Jesus is the faithful one.
But instead of thinking of faith as an accomplishment, something done by our own efforts and through gritted teeth, think of it more like openness, like acceptance, like receiving something life-giving and empowering because it’s Jesus’ faith and faithfulness that really matters. In baptism, we are connected to Jesus’ faith and faithfulness. In baptism we receive Jesus. We are baptized into his death. And if we are united with Jesus in a death like his, we will be united with him in a resurrection like his (Romans 6:5). Whether the trust that is faith comes easy to us or feels like it takes great exertion, we all receive the same strong Jesus. Jesus is enough to carry us into a future that is unseen by us.
Our epistle writer’s by faith… by faith… by faith… is encouragement to stick with the community of Christians and to stick with Jesus Christ, to trust that by living with willing hearts, hearts open to the future God has prepared, like our forebears in faith did, we too become inheritors of that future, a future better than anything we can ask for or imagine.
It’s Jesus’ faith that makes the difference. Our faith in Jesus, our confidence in Jesus lets us do things we couldn’t do otherwise. What Jesus did for us, what Jesus does for us, and our sometimes tiny, mustard seed-sized faith that connects us to him, means we can hope, serve, enjoy. Jesus can see a future we can’t, but we can look for, prepare for, and do our part for. Jesus made a future for us that we couldn’t make for ourselves.
Yes, we cannot see the future, but God in Jesus has made a future that awaits us and it’s that future that forms us and can inform our present if we let it. Yes, we cannot see the future, but in Jesus, God shows us a future of which Jesus is the first fruits, the first of those living fully a resurrection life, a life marked by love and meaning and possibility and peace beyond death. Stick with Jesus.
In the beginning of the following chapter of Hebrews, the author writes freely of the “great cloud of witnesses” by which we are surrounded. During biblical times and down through the centuries there have been men and women who are part of that great cloud. And have there not been in our own lives, in our own congregations, those whose examples of faith have been used by God to encourage us, to strengthen our own faith? We’ve just witnessed the funerals of two of those saints, Jack Bauserman and Nancy McCord.
The Episcopal Church Calendar commemorates the lives of some of these witnesses. This week, two of those whom we remember are St. Mary the Virgin, Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and Jonathan Myrick Daniels, an Episcopal seminarian and witness for civil rights in our own country.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, is, of course, a well-known figure. She is one of those biblical saints whose stories have inspired generations of Christians. Her response of faith, recorded by Luke, is perhaps best embodied in her words to the angel sent from God: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Mary’s “yes” to God played a central part in the story of God’s people, and it reverberates down through the centuries. Her feast day on August 15 is a Prayer Book Holy Day.
Jonathan Daniels did not set out to be written up in our commemoration of saints that are outlined in the books of “Lesser Feasts and Fasts” and “A Great Cloud of Witnesses”.
He felt called to the priesthood. Assuming that all went well, Jonathan could look forward to a long life as, perhaps, a parish priest. He would be eighty years old now – having retired, serving as supply clergy somewhere. He would undoubtedly have celebrated the Holy Eucharist week after week and no doubt have faithfully fulfilled the duties of his office. He would have had plenty of opportunities to live out his faith. There is every reason to think that his life would have been an inspiration to many.
And his life would be an inspiration, but fate would have it for another reason. Jonathan Daniels followed a call by the Reverend Martin Luther King, asking for workers to come to Selma, Alabama, to help in the work of securing the right to vote for all citizens. Jonathan Daniels died in Selma, Alabama protecting a sixteen-year old African American girl from a shotgun blast.
In his book, Brightest and Best, Sam Portaro theorizes that the man who threatened the girl, Ruby Sales, that day in August had been taught to fear and hate those who differed from him. He had been taught that to grant someone else – especially someone of a different race – any entitlement is to, in some way, diminish one’s own share.
Jonathan Daniels, on the other hand, nourished by Holy Scripture and the sacraments, encouraged by the example of that cloud of faithful witnesses, had learned faith, hope, and love. On that top step of the little store in Selma, Portaro writes, “fear met faith, greed met hope, hatred met love. The outcome could have been predicted.”
The forces that were at work in Selma in l965 are at work in the world today. We have seen them repeatedly in recent weeks. A man who went hunting Mexicans in a Walmart filled with shoppers getting ready for school.
We must “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief”? Do we sometimes not struggle with fear, greed, and hatred, even as we thank God for the gift of faith, hope, and love? These are the same forces that met in the events we commemorate at every Eucharist, that we recite when we proclaim the mystery of faith: “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.”
If we draw strength from the example of that great cloud of witnesses, even more do we draw it from the power of our Lord Jesus Christ. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews calls us to follow Jesus, to hold fast to Jesus. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings to us 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.”
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