The Promise of Faith

Hebrews 11: 29-12:2

Every community has its own unwritten culture and mores. If you moved to the North Shore from suburban Naperville or from a high rise in Lincoln Park, you would soon become aware of the differences between the communities – some obvious, some more subtle.

When Sue and I moved back from Birmingham, Michigan we wanted to live close to the church, so we bought a home in Kenilworth. In many respects, Birmingham and Kenilworth share a number of similarities. However within the first year, it became apparent that there was one particular characteristic of this community that was decidedly more pronounced than any other place we have lived.

I first became aware of it as I began to get to know the congregation of Kenilworth Union. Time and again I would meet a couple and then later discover or be told they were the parents or a daughter of another family in the church. It became apparent that there are quite a few two and even three generation families who belong to our church. Then in June of that first year, I was invited to speak at the Sears School graduation. At one point during the program, the principal asked those parents of graduating students who had also graduated from Sears to please stand. A good number of people stood up. Next the principal asked those grandparents of the graduating students who had also graduated from Sears to stand as well. I was surprised at how many were on their feet.

This community and this church are blessed with the presence of generations of family. It is more like a small town in that way than part of an urban area. Families have a natural connection from the past to the present. Knowing how things once were, and how things have changed and evolved, provides a living history that tells the story of where we have come from and who we are. From generation to generation this link to the past forms a foundation for the present and a bridge to the future. In the words of Harriett Beecher Stowe, “The past, the present and the future are really one: they are today.” And there is something reassuring about that in our ever-changing world.

Looking around the congregation today, we represent roughly three generational groupings. Growing up, some of you were young men and women during that time in the 30’s and 40’s when our country experienced the hardships of the Depression and pulled together to fight World War II over in Europe and in the Pacific. It was a time of sacrifice and duty, of coming together as a nation. Tom Brokaw has named your group the “Greatest Generation.”

Others of us are part of that generation social demographers have termed as the “Baby Boomer Generation.” We were young people coming of age in the 60’s and 70’s when the Viet Nam War divided our country and the experience of Watergate called into question basic assumptions of trust and respect for authority. It was a time of radical change, of a breaking with the past.

And then there is also among us a few GenXers. At the time of your growing years during the 80’s, there was a tremendous revolution in technology. Computers, cell phones, and the internet became commonplace. The globalization of the world marketplace became the driving force of a new economic order. It was a time of accelerating change, and ironically despite increased facility in communication ever more fragmentation of community. Three generations of people who grew up during very different circumstances. Each looking at the world through a lens that was shaped according to your life experience as a young person. Yet for all our differences, together we share the challenge of living with difficulties and struggles that were a part of yesterday and are part of living today. And so we come here to church to discover the deep truths that bind us together. We are a gathering of God’s people, young and not so young, sharing a faith that has been handed down through the centuries…from generation to generation to be received and understood in our own time. Ours is a historical faith. It is a faith with a long memory that connects the past with the present in every generation.

A little over 2000 years ago, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews wrote to a generation of people in the early church at a time when they needed to be reminded of who they were and where they came from. These Jewish-Christian men and women, living in the last decades of the first century, were under tremendous pressure to abandon their faith in Jesus Christ. There weren’t many of them; they were small in number, weak and powerless. They faced the threat of persecution whenever the government in Rome decided to make an example of them.

To give these beleaguered folks encouragement to persevere in faith, the writer of Hebrews devotes the whole of chapter eleven to a long roll call of the faithful of Israel. What a strange list it is. Or is it? As is often the case in scripture, the saints the writer chooses to name in today’s reading prove not to be all that saintly.

Now we can all understand why a person like Mother Teresa is considered a saint. But Gideon? Gideon was a judge in the early history of Israel who led a great victory over the army of the Ammonites. However, read the account of Gideon in the book of Judges and you find that he was really more hesitant than courageous, though in the end he did serve God’s purposes.

And what of that fellow Barak? Before achieving victory for Israel over the Canaanites, Barak had to be goaded into action by Deborah. Then there’s Sampson – a man very clever in word games and mighty in battle. Also a fellow who couldn’t keep his mouth shut when he should have known better. And the woman Rahab is named. She was an inn keeper of questionable repute who cut a deal with Joshua’s spies to save herself and her family in the battle of Jericho. Then there’s King David. As you may recall, King David not only committed adultery with Bathsheba, but then sunk even deeper into sin by trying to cover up his actions in sending Bathsheba’s husband to the front lines of battle to be killed. Some group of saints!

It seems that God is not very discriminating about who God calls. God is forever making the most outlandish personnel choices. I mean God really should have looked into using an outside consulting firm. So why is it do you suppose that whenever God chooses someone, they inevitably have flaws? Why? Because there really aren’t any other kind of human beings. We all have flaws. We all have shortcomings. We all make mistakes.

In Ursula Hegi’s book, Stones from the River, which takes place during World War II in Germany, Herr Blau awakes one night to pounding on the downstairs door. He is fearful that it is the Gestapo coming for him. But when he looks out his kitchen window to see who is there, he sees a man with a frayed, yellow Star of David on his coat. Opening the door a crack, he tells the man to go away. The man pleads for help, saying he just wants a safe place to stay for that one night. “Go away. You, you must go away.” Blau tells the poor man and closes the door on him.

Herr Blau goes back up to bed, but finds it hard to sleep. Over the next days, he discovers that denying the man in need is far more devastating for him than his fear. With a heavy burden of regret, he goes to a friend and confesses he turned away the man with the Star of David on his coat. Then Blau tells his friend, “If you ever know of someone who needs help, someone who might need to hide…Please, please let me know. I will help,” adding sadly, “I’m so sorry I made the wrong choice.” To which his friend answers, “Yes, but you didn’t stay with it.”

Gideon, Barak, Samson, Rahab and David didn’t stay with their wrong choices. Through faith they found strength within their weakness to serve God with their life.

Well, after naming the unlikely saints of Gideon, Barak and the rest, the writer of Hebrews goes on to list other unnamed persons who suffered and died for their faith.

There is a strange sort of symmetry to these two portraits of these ancient people of faith. On the one hand are those who failed in some way at first, but then went on to do the right thing. And on the other hand are those who held fast to their conviction of faith from the start, only to endure suffering and death because of their commitment. The writer of Hebrews does not paint a rosy picture of faith. He honestly acknowledges that faith is a part of all of life…the disappointments as well as the joys, the losses as well as the successes, the sorrows and the pain. And he concludes, “Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised.”

There are painful times in our lives when we do not feel we have received what is promised…a relationship grows cold no matter how hard you try and sacrifice to bring it back together; a prodigal son or daughter does not come to their senses and return home; disease strikes unexpectedly, an accident occurs, and suddenly the future is clouded over. Scott Peck, author of The Road Less Traveled, began his book with a famous three word sentence. “Life is difficult,” he wrote. “This is a great truth” he says, a truth that many people don’t want to believe.

As a minister I have come to understand how very true it is in listening to the stories I am privileged to hear. Life is difficult. There are few, if any, easy lives. Some may look easy to others; they may appear smooth and effortless from a distance, but it usually turns out that there is more than meets the eye. Even at its best, there are times that life is tough for all of us.

And what of the promise of faith when your world becomes clouded and dark? The answer given in Hebrews is: “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 protector 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.” Take heart from the people of your past, persevere, and look to Jesus.

It may not be the answer we want to hear. It does not say that God will make everything all right. This faith of ours offers no guarantees that God will keep us from troubles, sickness or heartache. The promise is simply that God will be with us through it all. Just as God was with Jesus in the darkest time of his life. That is the promise.

Jesus is the pioneer and protector of our faith because he demonstrates in the words of the poet, Sydney Lea, “Life is hard but for some promise.” Life is hard but for some promise.

The reason that Jesus is called the Christ is that he was present to those who suffered and knew great pain himself. He was, as the old hymn put it, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. He compassionately attended to those who were in physical or spiritual pain in his ministry among the people of his time. Upon the cross he took the tragedy and brokenness of the world to the heart of God. His Spirit continues now to guide and uplift. Which is why for generations, women and men who know that life is hard have taken courage from his example.

There is not a life in this room that has not been touched by some pain. Members of our church have experienced difficulties, trials and loss. We’ve had our faith shaken. Nevertheless, our community of faith has found God to be reliable. For in Christ, God has promised to stand with us in the cross-shaped places of our lives.

I believe in God more deeply now than I did 20 years ago. A big reason is that I am convinced the promise of faith is greater than the pain of life. Once upon a time I thought of Jesus as a special person; however he was a figure from my youth. He was the Jesus of my Sunday school class. I believed in him. I admired him for his courage and sacrifice. But as I grew older, I kept him comfortably at a distance. I did not look to him or relate his life to my own.

It wasn’t until I found myself sitting beside a friend in the hospital who was suffering. I felt helpless. There was nothing I could do to help my friend…except pray. Pray that God would ease his suffering; pray that he would know some peace. I let down my defenses and the prayers I spoke silently at his bedside touched me deeply. In praying for my friend and others who I knew were struggling, Jesus became real in my life. I found strength out of weakness in putting them in God’s hands.

Back in the 60’s when he was a college chaplain at Yale, William Sloan Coffin was delivering a speech that was interrupted by student hecklers. One of them kept yelling, “Coffin, don’t you know that religion is nothing but a crutch?” Finally, Coffin did what they say you should never do; he answered the heckler. He yelled back, “And you think you don’t ever limp?”

Generation after generation, Sunday after Sunday, families have come through the doors of Kenilworth Union church to claim the promise of our faith.

The promise that gives courage to those who live with cancer and chronic pain.

The promise that enfolds you and helps keep you going after losing a dear loved one.

The promise that enables you to pick yourself back up after life has knocked you down.

The sure promise of God’s presence in the midst of the hard places of life.

Life is hard but for some promise. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.   .