Having Faith – 8,5,07 – Hebrews 11:1-16

A faith story.  Every two months Mennonite Central Committee publishes A Common Place magazine to tell about the work we are doing and the stories of the people we are working with around the world in areas of poverty, conflict, and natural disaster.  The lead article in the May/June edition was about beginning tree nurseries and helping to plant trees in the nation of Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere.  The article is titled “Green Hopes.” 

“When Ane Jesus Fils was a boy, green forests covered the hills and mountains around his family’s farm in Haiti’s Artibonite Valley.  The soil was dark and rich around the trees, and crops such as corn, beans and sweet potatoes grew well.  But today, nearly all the trees on the hills and mountains are gone.  Only dirt, rocks, and dry, brown grass remain on the vast slopes.  The fertile topsoil is washing away, and farmers are growing less food than their parents once did…Trees are vital to the soil and water cycle that Haiti’s farmers depend on.  Their leaves fertilize the soil and release moisture that forms rain clouds; their roots hold the soil and channel water into the ground.  Trees also provide Haiti’s primary sources of cooking fuel – firewood and wood charcoal – because most people do not have electricity and cannot afford natural gas, which can cost four times the price of charcoal.  More than half of rural Haitans grow their own food and live on less than can be bought for $1 US per day.  Throughout the countryside, people earn badly needed income by cutting trees and making charcoal to sell in Haiti’s towns and cities.  Haiti’s need for wood has far outpaced its forests’ abilitiy to grow back, and the effects are devastating.  During the 90’s alone, it is estimated that half the trees in Haiti disappeared due to overcutting.  MCC is responding to this crisis by helping farmers plant trees on their land to increase their incomes and protect the environment.  In the Artibonite Valley, an important agricultural region in central Haiti, MCC began reforestation work in 1983 and has since helped to plant more than 6 million tree seedlings.  This year, an MCC team of eight workers is supporting 23 community tree nurseries that raise and distribute more than 400,000 seedlings to farmers in the valley.  In community after community, these tree nurseries are stopping and even reversing the process of deforestation.  Hundreds of people, including many children, are learning the necessary skills to raise and plant a wide variety of tree seedlings.”

The article then goes on to tell some of the ways these trees are beginning to have an impact in people’s lives and how the mangoes, oranges, and avocados from them are helping families become economically sustainable.  Being lifted out of desparate poverty breaks the destructive cycle of having to chop down scarce trees to sell for charchoal, and the trees can remain and help to start healing the land. 

I consider this a faith story.  Trees take a long time to grow.  There is a strong element of faith necessary for doing something like planting seedlings that, literally, won’t bear any fruit for a number of years and whose broader impact won’t even be experienced in a single lifetime.  MCC’s work is partial and will take generations to be fully felt, but it is a deep expression of faith in God’s redemptive work. 

Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century, wrote a statement on faith that is fitting here.  He says: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.” 

In chapter 11 of the book of Hebrews faith is at the forefront of the author’s mind.  Having just finished writing to these believers about the importance of provoking each other to love and good deeds and the importance of staying in the habit of meeting together, the author ends chapter 10 by stating, “But we are not among those who shrink back and so are lost, but among those who have faith and so are saved.”  This sentence sounds like a good way to end a letter.  A sort of rallying cry for people to have ringing in their ears to energize and encourage them as they go on their way.  “We are among those who have faith and so are saved.”  But, as if the author knows that simply naming the importance of having faith is not enough, he continues the letter with the specific purpose of going deeper into what is meant by faith.  What exactly is it we’re talking about here?  What precisely is it that we have when we have faith?  And so chapter 11 begins, “Now faith is…”

We have the saying “seeing is believing” which seems to indicate that faith begins when there is a clear and obvious object to have faith in.  We react with faith when something appears in front of our eyes or ears that inspires faith.  This is true in many ways and fits with our skeptical, rational approach to the world.  Surely an important part of faith comes from observation and experience of the visible, tangible world.  But Hebrews would like to push faith to a deeper level than simply “seeing is believing.”  It says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Faith also involves the element of hope and hope is a much less concrete visible kind of reality.  Faith also has to do with things not seen.  It is more than simply reacting to what comes in front of our eyes.  It is anticipating and helping to create what is not yet in front of our eyes but what dwells invisibly within God’s dreams for the world.  More than just “seeing is believing” faith is being able to see what is not yet present, like seeing the possibility for thriving forests and orchards where others see only barren hillsides. 

After giving this succinct statement on what faith is – the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen — the author goes on to give substance and content to faith’s presence in history.  Faith is not some kind of abstract idea, but something that has been living inside and through the human story since the beginning of time.  Chapter 11 is a grand tour through the story of the Hebrew people, from creation up to the exodus, with brief mention of the judges, kings, and prophets, eventually leading up to Jesus and the present day of the author and readers.    The section read for today runs up through Abraham.  Interestingly, it begins with an allusion to Genesis One and creation.  “By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.”  Last week we explored how Genesis One was not an amateur attempt at evolutionary science, but a birth story for the Hebrew people who were living in the belly of a foreign empire.  Had those conquered and exiled Jews in Babylon only looked with their physical eyes at the world around them, they would have believed the Babylonian faith, that creation happens through domination and conquering and destroying ones enemies and then fashioning a new world out of the corpse of the old.  All signs were pointing to this being the truth.  But, by faith, the exiled Jews believed that creation doesn’t require a conquering of the known world.  God is able to create through the spoken word even if this new creation seems invisible right now.  And by faith, the Jews told this birth story to one another while they were in exile and by faith their own words became the word of God speaking light into their darkness, bringing life out of no life.           

The first person mentioned by name who acted by faith is Abel.  This may not seem very noteworthy to us, but given the broad theme of how history usually gets told, it is striking.  History usually gets told from the perspective of the winners, from those who have gained power and from those who hoard power by putting their own spin on history.  We hear about the heroes who conquer, and those who get conquered slip away into anonymity and invisibility.  But Abel is the first major loser of history, the first murder victim.  And Abel’s life before God is considered more righteous than his brother Cain.  It would be possible to forget Abel and all those who would come after him who were silenced.  If we could also say that “hearing is believing,” not everyone has ears to hear the voice of Abel, or the voice of other victims, but here we read, “but through his faith he still speaks.”  Faith takes into account the story of Abel even though he is invisible to the dominant story of history.

After hearing of Enoch and Noah, we get to Abraham.  The New Testament holds Abraham to be the father of all who have faith.  The apostle Paul especially uses the story of Abraham as a way of saying that all people have access to the reality of faith.  Through Abraham, all nations shall be blessed.  Earlier faith was spoken of as a matter of assurance and conviction, which may give a sense of true faith meaning that you don’t experience any ambiguity or unknowing.  But the part of Abraham’s faith that is commended is exactly his unknowing.  Abraham set out for a new place, “not knowing where he was going.”  He is an example of faith not because he knew how things were going to turn out and everything was clear for him, but because he went along on the way despite not knowing where he was going.  His faith was for him a direction and not a clear destination.                          

The key to this passage is how the author chooses to make the connection between the faith of these people mentioned.  What is the common element of their faith to be lifted up and highlighted, something that helps us better understand the very nature of faith itself?

V. 13.  “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.”    

What these people of faith hold in common is not something that happened to them in their lifetime, but something that didn’t happen to them.  They didn’t receive everything they were hoping for.  Their life expired before they could taste all of the fruit that their good living had produced.  What they did see, what did shape their lives, was something they saw from a distance, and they lived in such a way so as to move in that certain direction.    

One of the lines that Martin Luther King Jr. repeated often was that “the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  He certainly wasn’t able to live far enough down that arc to actually see it unmistakably bend toward justice.  It still hasn’t bent very far toward justice.  But he must have had some kind of way of seeing things that stretched beyond his own immediate context.  He must have saw from a distance what he was moving us toward and greeted it and welcomed it.  And that kind of seeing that faith produces helps those who continue living to see with the eyes of faith.

This is where the line from Niebuhr is again pertinent.   “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.”

When speaking of faith the author of Hebrews instinctively knows that it is something far more than what can be possessed and contained within a single lifetime.  Our lives are too short for the ongoing presence of faith in history to be resolved within us, or for the problems that faith addresses to be ended.  We see, at best, fragments of the big picture.  We participate in incomplete ways in what is true and beautiful and good.  Niebuhr sites faith, hope, and love, those same three gifts that the Apostle Paul names in 1 Corinthians 13 right after he has said, “but now, we see through a glass dimly.”  Our lives are mostly characterized by partial understandings and blurred vision.

The kind of faith that we are being introduced to here is a faith that enables us to live with integrity in such a reality — a faith that lifts our eyes beyond the immediate circumstances of our lives and puts us in a broadening relationship with time and place and puts us in touch with God’s movement throughout.  Rather the being restricted to the confines of our limited vision, we are invited into a spaciousness that helps us see what otherwise may be unseen.  We see possibilities.  We trust that seeds will become trees and fruit for future generations.  Faith takes into account the absolute goodness and lovingkindness of God.  Faith is joining in a particular flow of the human story, from Abel, to Abraham, to Jesus, to Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship 2007 and 2027.     

Having faith, having an assurance of things hoped for and a conviction of things not seen.  Having the ability to see the invisible people of history and to see the creative possibilities of God where others see only unending problems.  Having the freedom to know that not all of our hopes will be achieved in our lifetime and being OK with that.  Having the sense of being called to walk in a certain direction without knowing the exact destination.  This is the gift of faith that we have.

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