“By Faith”

Download a PDF of this sermon here.

 

Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

August 11, 2013

Scriptures:  Genesis 15:1-6; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

 

It is so good to be here this morning!

We have waited a long time for this day of new beginnings, haven’t we?

Matt and I deeply appreciate the warm welcome you have extended to us in the past week.  We are enjoying getting to know this beautiful corner of the world, and we are enjoying getting to know all of you.  We look forward to continuing to make your acquaintance at the upcoming cottage meetings, and here at the church, and out in the community.

I feel a great sense of gratitude for the patience and perseverance of this congregation, and especially of the Search Committee.  And I am grateful to our East Woodstock friends for the companionship you have continued to share with the Hill Church in this time of transition.  I am so glad that our paths have intersected here, and I look forward to journeying together into the future God has in store for us.

 

*          *          *

            And now, will you pray with me?

 

Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your presence, for you are our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

 

Six months ago today, on February 11, I entered this building for the first time.  It was just a couple days after that enormous blizzard, the one that dropped two feet of snow all at once—remember?

Bruce Lyman and Leslie Sweetnam met me here and took me on a driving tour to show me a little of the area.  But I have to tell you, I didn’t actually see very much…  The snowbanks on the sides of the road were so tall that in places it felt like we were driving down a white-walled hallway.  And elsewhere, the warmer air had turned some of the snow into fog, so everything was blanketed in thick white-gray mist.  They tell me we drove around Woodstock, and through Pomfret, and into Putnam… but even now that we live here, I have no idea where exactly we went, because all I could see as we rolled up and down hills and around winding corners was fog everywhere.  This was no fault of Bruce and Leslie, of course—it was just New England weather doing its thing—and the rest of my experience was lovely.  I felt a wonderful connection with the Search Committee, and as I headed back to Boston that night, I felt the beginnings of a sense of call stirring within me—but the truth is, I had pretty much no idea what this place was like that I was feeling called to.

Of course, I returned to Woodstock again, and the weather was clearer, so I did get a glimpse of the beauty that surrounds us here as the Search Committee and I continued our discernment process.  And now that Matt and I are settling into the Quiet Corner, we’ve driven what is most probably the route of that original tour and seen that it is, in fact, quite a beautiful one.  But when I first felt God drawing me here, it felt like a call into the unknown.

 

It turns out that that’s often how our God works.  Certainly that was true when God called Abraham.

Do you remember that story, the story of Abraham and Sarah?  Diane read a little snippet of it for us today, but the story starts several chapters earlier in Genesis and continues on for several more chapters after this morning’s excerpt.

Abraham was the first of the three great Israelite patriarchs, and Sarah was the first of the matriarchs.  But before they were patriarch and matriarch, they were just another couple in the Ancient Near East, living a normal, quiet life, minding their own business and keeping themselves to themselves.  All of a sudden, seemingly out of the blue, God burst in on them with a startling set of instructions.  “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you,” God said.  “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”[1]

Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  Leave all you know and all you have.  Leave your country, leave your homeland, leave your family and your friends, and set out for a place you do not know.  Not an easy call, right?  The story doesn’t tell us anything about the conversations that must have ensued between Abraham and Sarah, but I’m sure there were many of them… and in the end, somehow they decided to go, to follow this call from God without knowing where it would lead.

They set out on foot, or perhaps by donkey, on a journey that turned out to be very, very long.  The story tells us they traveled from Haran, in what is now Turkey; to the land of Canaan, which we now call Israel; on south to the Negev Desert, toward the Sinai Peninsula; and, when a famine hit the region, on into Egypt for a while.  Eventually, back they came to the Negev, and back to the land of Canaan, where they settled down again.

For a very long time, they journeyed across the land, living as nomads, getting into and out of trouble, still not knowing where they were going.  And don’t you think Abraham can’t help but have felt pretty lost some of the time, not knowing whether the next day would bring feast or famine, safety or danger, companionship or loneliness?  Don’t you think he had more than a few moments of doubt, more than a few times when he questioned God, questioned God’s promises, questioned who, if anyone, was leading him?  Don’t you think he had more than a few times when he questioned himself—his prospects, his sanity, his decisions, his worth?

There must have been more than a few times when it felt like the fog had settled in, and all he could see was gray-white mist everywhere.  He didn’t know what lay ahead.  He couldn’t see the way forward.  But he know he had to go on, so he crossed his fingers and hoped for the best and kept on moving.

Several times in this story, including in the part that we heard this morning, Abraham turned to God with his questions and doubts.  He wondered whether he and Sarah would ever find a homeland.  He wondered whether he and Sarah would ever have children.  He wondered whether God would make good on the promises God had made.  He wondered whether God even remembered him, whether God even cared any more.

And several times, God reassured him.  Yes, they would have a homeland, as vast as all the eye could see.  Yes, they would become the ancestors of a great multitude, as numerous as the stars in the heavens.  Yes, God remembered; yes, God cared; yes, God would keep those promises.  So Abraham and Sarah continued their journey, still without knowing where exactly they were headed or what exactly was to come.

 

If you’ve read ahead another few chapters in Genesis, then you know that the story of Abraham and Sarah does not end here, but continues on to a resolution in which God does indeed make good on all those promises.  The story does not come to a quick and simple conclusion; it is not tied up with a pretty bow when all is said and done.  It continues to be a story of journey and struggle, but it is also a story of great blessing—the blessing of a homeland, the blessing of children, the blessing of God’s presence.

The story of Abraham and Sarah is an important one in the Hebrew Bible.  It’s an important one to our Jewish sisters and brothers, and it’s an important one to us as Christians.  As we heard, it is cited in the New Testament book of Hebrews as an example in a chapter about living by faith.

The book of the Bible that we call Hebrews is often thought of as a letter, but it is more accurately described as a sermon—an early Christian sermon.  As the author exhorts his hearers to faithful living, he turns to scripture for examples, and he lands on Abraham—and thanks be to God for that.

Abraham was a faithful guy, for sure.  By faith he and Sarah set out, not knowing where they were going.  By faith they lived as nomads, without the familiarity and comfort of home.  By faith they persevered, even when they did not know what to do or where to turn.  But this faith—this exemplary, celebrated faith—did not come without doubt.  Abraham’s faith did not come without doubt—and I think that’s a cause for hope for mere mortals like me and you.

It’s easy when we hear those first few verses from this chapter of Hebrews to think of faith as pure belief, simple certainty.  “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for,” the author of Hebrews writes, “the conviction of things not seen.”  Well, if faith is assurance, if faith is conviction, then to my ear at least, faith starts to sound pretty fixed, pretty permanent, pretty unwavering…  It starts to sound like something that humans like us could strive for and strive for and never achieve.

But if Abraham is our example of faith, then perhaps there is room for a little humanity after all.  Perhaps faith is not so much about pure belief, not so much about simple certainty.  Perhaps it’s more about adventurousness, more about persistence.  Perhaps it’s more about daring to follow God’s call even when the destination is not yet clear.  Perhaps it’s more about persevering on the journey even when the going gets tough and the fog settles in.

Because here’s the thing:  I think this whole conversation should really be less about our faith and more about God’s faith.  What if it’s not so much about us having faith in God, but about God having faith in us?  Then faith becomes not an achievement, but a response; not a labor, but a gift.  Then we can turn our attention to the way that God was present with Abraham and Sarah all throughout that long and arduous journey—in every step, in every challenge, in every hardship, in every joy, whether they recognized it or not.  Then we can notice the ways that God is present with us, even in the foggy times, whether we recognize it or not.

 

Human life, it turns out, is rarely a clear and simple proposition.  And if we’re honest, Christian life is no clearer or simpler.  To acknowledge that our direction is not entirely up to us is no trivial proposition.  To embrace the idea that God makes a claim on our lives does not always simplify things.  To follow God’s call is not always easy, for in my experience at least, God’s voice is not usually as clear and obvious and intelligible as it was to Abraham.  And so we may set out to follow as faithfully as we can but find ourselves wavering when we stumble into unknown territory, unsure of where to go.

But if I am convinced of anything, I am convinced of this:  that God is faithful, whether we are or not.  That God is constant, even when we stray.  That God is confident, even when we are full of doubt.  That God is there whether our vision is foggy or clear, always leading us on to the next steps of our journeys.

 

As we begin our ministry together here in Woodstock, we don’t know where this adventure will lead.  If Abraham’s story is any guide, it will not always be an easy journey.  We will encounter times of struggle and hardship and doubt, and we will also enjoy times of confidence and joy and blessing.  I promise that I will strive to be faithful, and I trust that you also will try—and we can all rest in the assurance that God is faithful even when we cannot be, and that, by faith, God will see us through.

Thanks be to God.


[1] Genesis 12:1-2