Ninth Sunday After Pentecost
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Once a month, I meet with a spiritual director. For those not familiar with what spiritual directors are, they’re people—often pastors or priests—who sit and talk with people as they attempt to grow their relationship with God or generally understand in their spirituality. For me, the sessions with my director are filled with conversations about my own understanding of my work here at Park Avenue, about how I experience God in the day-to-day life, and that I feel that God is calling me to at this precarious time in my life. My director is particularly interested in different spiritual practices, and she will often ask me what it is that I’m doing—what practices I’m trying to observe, what habits I’m forming, and what methods I use to pray—that can help facilitate my relationship with God.
There’s one practice that I’ve been recently observing, particularly in those times where I feel lost, feel a little hopeless, or just am unsure which path to take in front of me. Whenever I find myself in those moments, I take a little bit of time to just sit, preferably in silence if I can find a quiet space, and in that silence I reflect on my story; on my testimony, if you’re familiar with that kind of churchy language. Now I’m not sure if it’s technically a spiritual practice, but there’s certainly something deeply spiritual about it.
I think about where I first came from, all the way back to that one-stoplight town in Indiana. I remember growing up in Tennessee, about going to school in Nashville, and about moving to New York, and I consider all of those individuals who have had a hand in my journey. I call to mind certain snapshots of my life, some memories that I hold dear and some that I am not too proud of. I reflect on the times where everything seemed to go right for me, and I go back to those times of deep pain and doubt. Sometimes I only have a few minutes to do this, and other times I can dedicate an hour to it, but there’s something about reflecting on where I’ve been that sheds just a little more clarity on the question of where I am, what direction I’m heading, and where I’m encountering God in the midst of it all.
I can only imagine that the audience of our reading from Hebrews this morning was in need of some of this clarity. Hebrews as a whole is not a book that we know much about. Who wrote the book, who the audience actually was, and dating of its writing are all up in the air; the only thing that we know with some degree of certainty is that it was initially a sermon to communities that were experiencing quite a bit of persecution and conflict due to following Jesus Christ.
These communities likely were undergoing quite a bit of hardship, as many Christians in the late first Century were public ridiculed, had their property confiscated, and were imprisoned all because of their faith in Christ. The Roman Empire did not initially look too kindly on this early church, as a few of the emperors actively sought to persecute this small group that did not follow the imperial Roman religion, and many of the early Christians encountered alienation from their families and communities.
Some of these early Christian simply abandoned the faith, some avoided worship, and some tried to keep their faith hidden, worshipping in secret and avoiding open expressions of their religious identity. More broadly, it seems as though these early churches were becoming weary and disheartened that the coming of Jesus had not yet happened in the way that they were hoping.
And so this “letter” to the Hebrews, this sermon that was given to them, sought to encourage to those early Christ followers to not give up, to “stay in the race,” for God has begun a fresh work in Jesus Christ. Immediately before this selection, the author exhorts the community to not let their hearts be hardened, to hold fast and push on towards the goal, describing Jesus as the new or renewed Covenant, how the “just shall live by faith,” and that the opposite of faith is shrinking back to individualism and isolation.
So our passage today seeks to further their understanding of this kind of that, by describing it as “the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen” and as the way through which their ancestors received God’s approval. The preacher then gives the congregation a bit of a refresher on their history, telling the stories of all of those who had come before that were exemplars of resolute faith. Our reading particularly focuses on the story of Abraham and Sarah, but the whole chapter goes on to tell of a long host of people who lived by faith: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, the Israelites, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets.
All of these are heralded as exemplars of faith, as those who were worthy enough to be considered by the author to include in a list to a community in dire need of some kind of encouragement. And there’s a similar way in which all of these models lived out that faith. There was a calling, or there perhaps was a holy discomfort that propels them to believe that they were not there, whatever or wherever they thought there was. Yet they could see in the distance what was to come, and they welcomed it. They saw from a distance what was promised, and they kept pressing towards that heavenly city. They knew that they had not yet arrived at what they were striving for, but they had enough faith that it was coming to continue pressing towards that homeland.
Ultimately, for the author of Hebrews, that homeland is the City of God. It’s that better country, the heavenly country, whose architect and builder are God. It’s that land where the lion and lamb lay down together, where swords are beaten into plowshares, where the hungry are fed. And so these saints before us recognized that world and hoped for it; they saw glimpses of its arrival it. They believed that their homeland was there; that they must journey on without looking back until they reached it.
And somehow this message—this retelling of history—seem to have been enough for the audience of Hebrews, as we are telling their story nearly 2,000 years later. There was something about hearing the story of their faith that was enough for them to keep going, to persevere, to continue following where God was leading, even at the risk of persecution and at the risk of losing everything. There was something about hearing of the faith of their ancestors that was enough to reignite their own faith, to provide just enough clarity as to the direction they were going.
Now, to be fair, I don’t know that we’re in the same position as this initial audience. We’re far more comfortable and safe as Christians. We don’t have the Roman Empire breathing down our necks, and it’s likely that we haven’t encountered the same degree of alienation as that early church. But we know something about being disheartened about our faith, don’t we? We know something about being weary. We know how it can be difficult to carry on, how hard it is to keep faith when everything in our lives seems to be crumbling in front of us.
We know what it looks like to look around and not see the signs of that coming City of God. We know what it looks like to strive for that heavenly country in the midst of this early temporal one that can so easily cloud our vision.
But sometimes I think that Hebrews can provide a good lesson in those moments where we don’t know how to carry on. I think that we can learn something for those moments when we’re not sure that our faith can survive. For sometimes I think that our task on this journey is to sit back for a moment—to take a short respite from our work and the chaos of our lives—and look and all that has brought us to this place, to this time.
I think we need a refresher on the art of listening to the stories of all of those who have come before us, to bear witness to those stalwarts within our own histories, those who have gotten us here this far. And I think we need to relearn the practice of retelling our own stories, to be able to look back and see how far we’ve come, to look at where we came from and what we have been through. We will find painful moments; we will remember times that we may not actually want to remember.
For in those moments when we feel lost in our journey of faith; in those moments where we do not see the road in front of us; perhaps we find the way forward by looking at where we’ve already been. As Maya Angelou once wrote, “If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you’re going.”
And as we’re rediscovering the story of our faith, I think that there’s one key point that will stick out to us: God has led us this far, and we’re still here. Yes, we may be bruised and battered, we may be disappointed and dismayed, but thanks be to God that we are still here. Yes, those before us in the faith encountered adversity that we can not imagine and grief that we cannot fathom, but God was with them every step of the way.
To be completely honest, this may not show us exactly where we’re going. That is a mystery that is still unfolding. But we can know that wherever we go on this journey of faith, God’s hand is ushering us the whole time. In life and in death, God’s hand is guiding us.
And know that we do not walk this journey alone. We walk it with everyone who is in this room right now. We walk it with the church all over the world. We walk it with that great cloud of witness who have come before us. And we walk it with God, who journeys it with us through life and through death, into the City of God.
My friends, I’m not going to lie to you and tell you that faith is easy. It’s not. I’m not going to tell you that we’ll for sure see the Kingdom of God that we so desperately pray for; for sometimes this race is less of a sprint and more of a relay, passing the baton on to the person after us. But what I will promise you is that the God who has brought us this far will be with us every step of the way. Let us run this race together.