Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Hebrews 11

Hebrews 11:1: The writer concluded the previous chapter by saying that the readers were not those who would shrink back, but were those who had faith. He will now spend time delineating what it means to have faith. We find not a “definition” of faith; after all, the word “faith” will sometimes indicate trust or belief and sometimes refer to the quality of loyalty or faithfulness. Rather than offering a definition, the author provides thematic unity to the discussion…. As used here, faith cannot be severed from hope. (People’s New Testament Commentary) I am not sure I agree entirely with the commentary writers here. The author of Hebrews is not engaged in an abstract discussion of the meaning of “faith,” to be sure, but he is trying to characterize it in order to encourage it in his readers. These readers are suffering for being Christian, and they need faith, an assurance that they are on the right path – the path of life and of God’s promise, even though the way is difficult at present. The remaining commentary will be edited excerpts from my Sunday sermon, March 30.

Hebrews 11:1-38: I think it is helpful to see the first verse of this chapter in various translations:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. (KJV)
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (NRSV)
Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain about what we do not see. (NIV)
Faith makes us sure of what we hope for and gives us proof of what we cannot see. (CEV)
Now faith means putting our full confidence in the things we hope for; it means being certain of things we cannot see. (Phillips)
The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see. (The Message)

All of this still seems a little difficult to grab hold of. What we can be certain of is that for the writer of Hebrews, out of sight should not be out of mind, but, in fact, what is “out of sight” seems quite important. He defines “faith” in terms of what cannot be seen. “Faith” is an important word for us. As Christians, we are sometimes called “people of faith.” But if the definition of the writer of Hebrews is a little hard to get a hold of, maybe the history of Christian thinking can help. As a theologian, in my training, I encountered a number of definitions of faith. Let’s see if they can help.

“Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned” Paul Tillich (Dynamics of Faith, 1)
“Wonder and expectancy are its barest psychical manifestations. Trust, connoting a psychical resolution of issues raised by wonder and expectancy… can be regarded as a more settled form of faith.” Bernard Meland (Faith and Culture, 14)
“Faith looks to an ultimate order beyond the incoherences, incongruities, and cross-purposes, and creates or accepts the presupposition of a divine providence, related to the ultimate source of the temporal process.” Reinhold Niebuhr, (Faith and Politics, 8)
“Faith… is primarily a matter of the basic emotions, attitudes and commitments from which one’s behavior follows…. Faith is fundamentally a mode of existence.” John B. Cobb and David Ray Griffin (Process Theology, 31)
“Faith means fighting against the prevailing cynicism and standing up to it…. To have faith means to have a vision… Without faith our life can only go as far as we are able to see right now.” Dorothee Soelle,(Choosing Life, 11; Not Just Yes and Amen, 55, 54)

Though she is not a theologian, I cannot help but bring one of my favorite theological writers into the mix. Anne Lamott writes about hope, but her words are a wonderful definition of faith – “choosing to believe this one thing, that love is stronger than any grim bleak [stuff] anyone can throw at us” (Plan B, 275)

I have shared these various translations of Hebrews 11:1 and displayed this theological parade to remind us all that faith is a complicated matter. It is complex because life is complex. The writer of Hebrews doesn’t do too bad, in trying to define faith in terms of confidence and assurance even when we don’t see everything we might like to see. Faith has to do with a basic trust – a trust that things we cannot touch with our hands or see with our eyes or snap a picture of, deserve our deepest commitment and loyalty. They deserve our time and attention and effort. Out of sight should not only not be out of mind, it is that which is out of sight that should be foremost in our hearts, our minds, our lives, according to the writer of Hebrews and others who have tried to describe “faith” in words eloquent and complicated. God cannot be seen, but is to be trusted. The world as God would have it, God’s dream for the world, is not the world we live in. God’s dream for the world is of a world of beauty, peace, justice, forgiveness, reconciliation, love, care, healing, kindness, gentleness, compassion. It is not the world we see around us, and much of what we see tells us that to live in the way of God’s dream for the world is to live foolishly, naively. Faith says, live it anyway. Trust that this is the way of life. Trust that life lived in this way has value well beyond its years.

The essence of faith is trust (assurance, certainty, conviction – synonyms). Faith as trust is both an inner attitude and a motivation to action. Genuine faith needs to be both.
Deep within myself I find conflicting tendencies. Some lead me to affirm life, some to deny it. Each day there is a struggle. The issue is which tendencies will prevail. It is up to me whether I call upon the life-affirming tendencies or ignore them, whether I resist the life-denying tendencies or acquiesce in them. (Donald Evans, Struggle and Fulfillment, 1) The most crucial personal struggle in religion, morality and life is between trust and distrust (2). With basic trust, “the initial assumption… is that something positive may emerge” (2).

Faith as an inner attitude of trust is to trust that God is present and active in our lives and in our world so that something positive is always possible. It is to trust that God is present and active in our world so that the world can be different, better, sometimes dramatically so – the Easter message continued. To have such an inner attitude is to pay attention to the world differently – to be willing to look wide-eyed at it, its beauty and its ugliness, its joy and its pain, and to trust that beauty and joy and justice are stronger, that love is stronger than any grim, bleak stuff life can throw at us. To have such faith, such trust means to be willing to quiet the mind so that we can see more clearly.

Sonya Vetra Tinsley – singer, songwriter and activist: Every day presents infinite reasons to believe that change can’t happen, infinite reasons to give up. But I always tell myself, “Sonya, you have to pick your team.” It seems to me that there are two teams in this world. And you can find evidence to support the arguments of both. The trademark of one team is cynicism. They’ll tell you why what you’re doing doesn’t matter, why nothing is going to change, why no matter how hard you work, you’re going to fail…. Then there’s another group of people who admit that they don’t know how things will turn out, but have decided to work for change…. They’re always telling stories of faith being rewarded, of ways things could be different, of how their own lives have changed…. They believe we’re partners in God’s creation, and that change is really possible…. There are times when both teams seem right…. We’ll never know who’s really going to prevail. So I just have to decide which team seems happier, which side I’d rather be on. And for me that means choosing on the side of faith. Because on the side of cynicism, even if they’re right, who wants to win that argument anyway. If I’m going to stick with somebody, I’d rather stick with people who have a sense of possibility and hope. (The Impossible Will Take a Little Time, 346-347)

Faith is not only this inner attitude of hope and possibility, of quieting the mind and of seeing the world differently. Faith also means to live and act differently. If we trust God, if we trust that God’s way in the world (justice, peace, beauty, joy, reconciliation, peace, healing, care for the earth, care for others, kindness, gentleness, compassion) is the way of life, we will live differently. When you read the entire eleventh chapter of Hebrews, though it begins with a definition of faith as inner attitude, it becomes clear very quickly that such an attitude finds its way into living. In many ways, this is the first rhythmic Christian sermon. By faith, Abraham obeyed… By faith, he stayed for a time… By faith, he received the power of procreation… By faith, Abraham offered up Isaac… By faith, Isaac invoked blessings on Jacob and Esau… By faith, Jacob blessed the sons of Joseph… By faith, Moses was hidden by his parents… By faith, Moses refused to be called a son of Pharaoh’s daughter… By faith, he left Egypt… By faith, he kept the Passover… By faith, the people passed through the Red Sea… By faith, Rahab the prostitute received the spies in peace - - - And what more should I say – Gideon, Barak, Samson, David, Samuel, the prophets – through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness……

Faith as trust is both inner attitude and outward expression. In 1970, Miles Goodwin was discharged from the army after serving a year in Vietnam. He was on a plan from Oakland back home to Dallas. He was concerned about encountering hostility and just wanted to get home without incident. Sitting on the plane, in uniform, in a window seat, he avoided contact with others. He felt alone and isolated. A young girl, not more that ten years old, suddenly appeared in the aisle. She smiled and without a word timidly handed me a magazine. I accepted her offering, her quiet “welcome home.” All I could say was, “Thank you.” I do not know where she sat down or who she was with because right after accepting the magazine from her I turned to the window and wept. Her small gesture of compassion was the first I had experienced in a long time. Miles Goodwin is now a real estate attorney in Milwaukee, and he shared this story on NPR’s “This I Believe” series. He ended by saying: Since then, I have followed her example and tried, in different ways for different people, to do the same for them. Like me on that long-ago plane ride, they will never know why a stranger took the time to extend a hand. But I know that my attempts since then are all because of that little girl. Her offer of a magazine to a tired, scared, and lonely soldier has echoed throughout my life. I have to believe that my small gestures have the same effect on others. And to that little girl, now a woman, I would like to take the opportunity to say again, thank you. (81ff).

When Bishop Oscar Romero was appointed Archbishop of El Salvador in 1977, he was seen as conservative, timid, “spiritual,” and in poor health. In other words, he was viewed as a safe choice in a difficult social situation – in an El Salvador of death squads and rebels. The Catholic Church found itself in a difficult situation. It had long been associated with the rich and powerful in the country, but some prominent priests were not voicing support for the poor in the country, and some of these priests were being killed by paramilitaries, some associated with elements in the government. Not long after Romeo became Archbishop, a flyer circulated in the country – “Be a patriot, kill a priest.” Romero grew to become a more active Archbishop as he saw priests killed, as he watched the plight of the poor in his country. In 1979, Romero issued a statement including these words: “The conflict is not between church and government, it is between government and people. The church is with the people and the people are with the church, thank God.” (The Religious Roots of Rebellion, 137) March 23, 1980 in a sermon, Romero appealed to soldiers and police: Brothers, you belong to our people. You are killing your own brothers and sisters in the peasants. God’s law, which says, “Thou shalt not kill” should prevail over any order given by a man. No soldier is obliged to obey an order against God’s law. No one has to carry out an immoral law. It is time to recover your conscience and obey it rather than orders given in sin. The church, defender of God’s rights, God’s law, of human dignity, of the human person, cannot be silent in the face of such abomination…. In the name of God and in the name of this long-suffering people whose cries rise every more thunderously to heaven, I beg you, I implore you, I order you, in the name of God: stop the repression. (150) The next day while celebrating communion, Archbishop Romero was shot and killed. Persons linked to paramilitary groups with ties to the military and some powerful people in El Salvador seemed responsible for this act. But Romero’s speaking out for his people, even in the face of a violence which eventually took his life was a way of living faith, faith that justice and dignity are what God requires, that poverty is not a part of God’s dream for the world.

Faith really is confidence, assurance, trust in what we hope for, a kind of certainty that the unseen God is trustworthy and God’s unseen dream for the world is coming and our task is to live it now. It is what makes life worth living. Faith really is to be ultimately concerned about life and love and justice and peace and beauty and forgiveness and reconciliation and care for the earth and care for others and kindness and compassion and gentleness. Faith trusts that though there are incoherences in life, incongruities, we move forward to do the good we can anyway. Faith really is about wonder and expectancy. Faith really is about a way of life. Faith really is about standing up against cynicism – and in faith we trust that love is stronger than any grim, bleak stuff life can throw at us. Faith is an inner orientation that trusts that life is about love, justice, peace, beauty, forgiveness, reconciliation, care for the earth and others, kindness, compassion, gentleness. In faith we trust God and God’s dream for the world, we trust that as we live this dream now God will use our lives, our work to bring that dream closer. In faith we see the world differently – with wonder and expectancy and hope, with a sense that something positive may emerge. We pay attention differently, keeping our minds both keen and quiet so that we can truly see. In faith, because we see the world differently, we live in the world differently. We make what is out of sight the center of our minds and hearts and lives.

Hebrews 11:39-40: Having delineated a history of faith, the writer goes on to say that none of these persons received all that God had promised. Only with the people of faith to whom he is writing will God’s promises for a new world be fulfilled.

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