A Tale of Two Christianities – 10/7/12 – Hebrews 2

his Friday and Saturday I was up at Camp Friedenwald in southern Michigan at meetings with Central District Conference Leadership Council, and I bring you greetings from our sisters and brothers of CDC.  We are a part of this wonderful and geographically far-flung conference.  Goshen in Northcentral Indiana is something of the hub of the conference, but at Friedenswald we also had James Rissler from Atlanta Mennonite Fellowship and Ron Adams from Madison Mennonite Church in Wisconsin, and Jane Roeschely from First Mennonite in Normal, Illinois, and Rachel Siemens from Wadsworth in Northeast, Ohio.  It’s a good family to be a part of and, as usual, there was plenty of laughter that went along with the discussion and planning times.

This is the first Sunday in October, which is designated as World Communion Sunday.  Even as we are a part of this far-flung CDC family of churches, we are also a part of this world wide fellowship of churches who share a common confession of Jesus as our master, the one who leads us into the heart of God and teaches us how to be human beings.  So as we gather around the Communion table today, we gather with Presbyterians in Seoul, South Korea; Anglicans in Nairobi, Kenya, and Pentecostals in the villages of El Salvador.  And we’re especially mindful that the one loaf and one cup connect us with those who gather in places of suffering and violence – Columbia, Iraq, Palestine.  What started in the hills of Galilee and the cross of Jerusalem has become a global reality of which we are part.

The epistle reading for this morning from Hebrews talks about how God has subjected the world, the created order, to human beings.  Even though we are just little pieces of dust floating around in the cosmos, we have this god-like power, which Hebrews, quoting from Psalm 8, refers to as being “crowned with glory and honor.”  Hebrews goes on to say, “As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus…now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death.”

Along with World Communion Sunday, the month of October contains two significant anniversaries in Christian history, and I would like to use these anniversaries as a way of telling two stories about two different versions of what it might mean to be a global Christian, a world Christian.  Two different ways of acting out being crowned with glory and honor over creation.  Both men, and they both happen to be men in this case, had a profound impact on the Christian tradition, and both leave a strong legacy into the 21st century.  Different kinds of legacies.

One is Constantine – the first “Christian” emperor of Rome, and the other is Francis – St. Francis of Assisi.

And we’ll look at three different aspects of their lives.

The first is just noting what the anniversary is, what’s the event that happened in October.

The second connects with that line from Hebrews, “But we do see Jesus.”  Both men had a vision of Christ that changed the course of their lives and, one could pretty easily argue, the course of the western Christian world.  So, what was the vision?  How did they see Jesus?

And third, what kind of world Christianity came from the legacy of these two leaders?  After their vision, what was the trajectory of Christian faith that they helped set in motion?

Anniversary, vision, and legacy.

We’ll start with Constantine.

He was born around the year 272 in present day Serbia.  His father, Constantius, was a skilled and upwardly mobile kind of person, serving as an officer in the Roman army, then being a body guard of the emperor, and then a governor.  Because of his father’s high appointments, Constantine received his schooling in the court of the emperor Diocletian, where he would have studied Latin literature and Greek philosophy.

Diocletian had divided his realm into four administrative districts in order to make the empire run more efficiently.  Not surprisingly, when Diocletian gave up the throne in 305 because of sickness, it set off years of civil war as leaders of these districts vied for power as to who would be the successor.  Constantine’s father had been put in charge of the westernmost district and it fell to Constantine to confront his main rival, Maxentius, who was ruling from Rome.  In October of the year 312, Constantine and his army marched on the city of Rome and engaged with Maxentius’ army in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, which spanned Rome’s Tiber River.  This month, October, 2012, is the 1700 year anniversary of that battle, which Constantine won, leaving only one other rival, whom he later defeated to become the sole emperor of Rome.

This month also marks the anniversary of the death of Francis, born in the year 1181 in the Italian town of Assisi.

He died October 3, 1226, which makes this a 786 year anniversary, which isn’t quite as round a number of 1700.  But it’s an anniversary nonetheless, marked by the Feast of St. Francis this past week, the time which honors his life.  Francis’ father was a highly successful cloth merchant, and Francis grew up in affluence.  As a young man he was attracted to the music of the French troubadours and enjoyed the pleasures of fine clothing and food.  But he became disillusioned with material wealth.  He eventually gave up all these things to become a beggar and a traveling preacher.  Although he received permission from the pope to found a new religious order, he was never ordained.  He called those who joined his order not monks, but friars, brothers.  One of the things that Francis is most remembered for is his communion with the earth and all living beings as expressions of the life of God.  In 1979 Pope John Paul II named Francis the Patron Saint of ecology.

This past week Father Richard Rohr, who is a Franciscan brother, has been writing reflections on St. Francis, and on Wednesday, October 3 he wrote this: “On this day in 1226, Francis died at sunset and asked to lie naked and exposed on the earth as he died. The friars were embarrassed, but conceded to his wish…In most paintings of people waiting for the Holy Spirit they are looking upward, with their hands outstretched or raised up, the assumption being that the Holy Spirit will descend from “up” above. In the Great Basilica in Assisi where St. Francis is buried, there’s a bronze statue of him honoring the Holy Spirit. His posture and perspective are completely different from what we have come to expect. He’s looking down into the earth with expectation and desire! This is the change of perspective that became our alternative orthodoxy.”

The reason that Constantine’s battle of the Milvian Bridge is such a key point in church history is that it was at this battle that Constantine is said to have had his vision of Christ.  So this is the second part, about how each one experienced those words of Hebrews “But we do see Jesus.”  Like other Roman leaders, Constantine would have been what we call a pagan and would have honored the Roman gods and the sun.  There are a few different versions of Constantine’s vision on the battlefield.  One comes from Eusebius, a historian employed by Constantine later in his reign.  Eusebius records that Constantine himself told him of his vision.  Constantine had been marching with his army toward Rome when he looked up to the sun and saw a streak of light in the shape of a cross, accompanied by the words, “By this sign, conquer.”  Constantine was at first unsure of what this had meant, but that night had a dream in which Christ appeared to him explaining that he should use this sign to overcome his enemies.  According to Eusebius, Constantine then created a military standard that he used in proceeding battles decorated with the letters Chi-Rho, the first two letters of Christ in Greek.  According to another version of the story, the night leading up to the battle of the Milvian Bridge Constantine had his soldiers paint on their shields the letters of Chi-Rho, which inspired them to defeat Maxentius and take Rome.  This is traditionally seen as the story of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, although he was not baptized until he was nearing the end of his life.

Just as an aside, when I was at seminary and learned about this story of Constantine I was using a computer that ran on Windows XP, and there was a very brief window of time when I was highly suspicious of Microsoft thinking they might be trying to conquer the world.  But I asked the seminary I.T. guy about it and he assured me that the XP of Windows was intended to mean “experience” which was news to me, but also comforting to know they were not pushing for global domination in the name of Christ.

Francis no doubt had multiple visions of Christ.  One that is most told occurred during his young adult years when he was still seeking clarity in his life path.  He had just been on a pilgrimage to Rome where he had gone to St. Peter’s and, after seeing the small offerings people were giving, gave all the money that he had on him.  He then went out into the street and saw a group of beggars.  He traded his nice clothes to one of the beggars and put on the beggar’s rags, joining the group for the rest of the day fasting and begging outside the door of the basilica.  He returned home to Assisi and was praying one day in a small dilapidated chapel outside of town when he heard a voice speaking from the crucifix.  It said, “Francis, Francis, go and repair my house, which as you can see, is falling into ruins.”  He initially took this to mean that particular chapel and raised some money by selling his father’s cloth to support the priest there – which his father wasn’t too happy about –  but he soon came to understand this as not only the church buildings, but also the people and the mission of the church.  Living with this vision and the discontent of his current life, in 1209, at the age of 27 or 28, he heard a sermon that gave him his vocation.  The reading was from Matthew 10:9 when Christ tells his disciples to go out and proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven had come near, and to take with them no money, or extra clothes, shoes, or even a walking stick.  Francis abandoned all that he had, embracing a life of voluntary poverty, and began preaching to whoever would listen, including, stories say, various animals, a message of repentance, peace, and universal brother and sisterhood.

Those are the anniversaries and the visions of Christ that these two men had.  So what kind of World Christianity did each of them produce and what kind of legacy do they still leave?

One of the first acts of Constantine after his conversion vision was quite positive in many ways.  In the year after his victory at the Milvian Bridge Constantine got together with his remaining rival, Licinius, to issue the Edict of Milan, which proclaimed religious freedom throughout the Roman Empire.  This was especially meaningful for Christians, as the previous emperor, Diocletian, had tried to bring unity to the empire by carrying out the worst persecution against Christians to date.  Through the Edict of Milan, Christians were not only allowed a freedom of worship, but also had their personal property and places of worship that had been confiscated under Diocletian restored back to them.  Constantine also ended the practice of crucifixion, although he did replace it with hanging.  And, in 325, he personally convened the first ecumenical council of the church, an attempt to bring about a religious and thus political unity, producing The Nicene Creed, still a standard for Christian orthodox belief to this day.

But, as Christian faith and empire continued to merge together, one might wonder whether Rome was becoming more Christian, or Christianity was becoming more Roman.  Those who did not fit the mold of the newly established orthodoxy were more easily seen as dangers to society, and church leaders became closely aligned with the political agenda of the state.  Constantine has been hailed by the church for much of history as Constantine the Great who elevated the faith to its place of global prominence.  But, if you were raised in the Anabaptist tradition, then you have most likely been taught to look at the Constantinian Shift, as we have called it, with much more skepticism, even to the point of seeing it as the great fall of the church.  The legacy of Christendom exerts power from above, often through coercion and violence.  In this land of North America where we live, it is a legacy that has had devastating effects on the native populations here as missionaries, some well-intentioned, followed on the heels of colonialism in their attempt to extend Christendom to the New World.  It’s a legacy that is still with us whenever God and country get merged into one belief system.  It’s a legacy in which Jesus’ command to “love your enemies” simply makes no sense.

The epistle to the Hebrews talks about how God has subjected the world, the created order, to human beings.  We are “crowned with glory and honor.”  We have done quite well at subjecting the world to our own desires.  We need some help in seeing what it looks like to live in a World Communion in the 21st century that looks more like Jesus.  The alternative orthodoxy of Francis’ legacy is a world embracing faith that can point us in the right direction.  There are many ways that this is the case, but I’ll end by telling one more story about Francis.  It’s one of those stories that no one is really sure where it lands on the continuum of history or legend.  It’s one of the more popular stories told about Francis and it might be fictional, but like any good fiction, it’s true.  And it can serve as a parable for what it might mean to be a World Christian, the story of St. Francis and the Wolf.

Francis was staying in the town of Gubbio with some of the friars when he learned that there had been a wolf that had been terrorizing the village, killing their animals and sometimes even killing a villager.  Francis declared that he would meet with the wolf and, despite everyone’s warnings, set out with one of the friars.  The wolf came out of the woods to attack Francis and his companion, but Francis greeted it by saying: “Come to me, Brother Wolf.  In the name of Christ, I order you not to hurt anyone.”  The wolf slowed its charge toward them and came up to them, lowering its head under Francis’ hand.  Francis then explained to the wolf that it had been causing terror to the townspeople.  He said, ““Brother Wolf, I want to make peace between you and the people of Gubbio. They will harm you no more and you must no longer harm them. All past crimes are to be forgiven.”  The wolf had never been spoken to in this way before and extended its front paw to Francis’ outstretched hand to make his pledge, and followed Francis back to the village.  Everyone came out to the town square to see Francis with the wolf.  Francis spoke on behalf of the wolf that the wolf had pledged not to harm the townspeople, but that they would need to return the peace to the wolf by giving it food.  The townspeople agreed and, after Francis and his companions had moved on, for the next years whenever the wolf would come into the town, someone would open their door and feed it and there was no more terror in the village.  (See HERE for a telling of the story)

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“Blessed Are You…” 12/20/09 – Luke 1:39-56, Hebrews 10:5-10

Abbie and I gave this sermon together.  A first for us!  Each section begins with the name of the one who wrote and delivered that part of the message.

Joel

This week I saw a cartoon picture of a nativity scene, complete with stable, star, angel, some animals, and the new parents gathered around the manger.  Over the stable it said, “It’s a girl!”  This picture was part of an essay called “Contemplating Feminine Incarnation,” (Link HERE) pondering what it would have been like had Jesus been born as a girl.  The author wonders how the girl messiah would have been received and how that would have affected humanity’s view of women for the following 2000 years.  She considers what her infancy might have been like – would Joseph have abandoned Mary instead of stay with her if the child was a girl?  How does it sound different if it is a woman sitting on the hills of Galilee and delivering the beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount?  What would it mean if we pictured a woman sacrificing her life for the sins of the world?

Jesus did happen to be a male child and that fact has no doubt impacted the shape of Christian tradition.  Luke, however, is committed to telling the gospel story with special attention given toward the women of the story, without whom none of it would have come about.  For this Advent season, Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, play a prominent role.  The feminine and motherly dimensions of Advent are something that Abbie and I have talked about from time to time throughout our years of marriage, and so we thought we would try and reflect together with you on the lectionary passages of this week that prepare us for the labor and delivery of Christmas morning.  

Abbie

Since I gave birth to Eve a week after Christmas four years ago, Christmas has taken on a special meaning for me.  At that time I was asked by David Moser, pastor of Southside Fellowship in Elkhart, to write a Midrash about Elizabeth.  A midrash is a way of interpreting Biblical stories that allows the author to fill in the gaps in the narrative regarding events and personalities that are only hinted at.  Through my own pregnant view of the world, I wrote about Elizabeth experiencing pregnancy and childbirth in her later years and what she might have thought and felt.  I realized how significant it must have been for Zechariah to be mute during this time.  I thought more about her relationship with Mary and how her relationship with God must have changed throughout her pregnancy.  During that time of advent I was preparing our small apartment for Eve’s arrival and imagining Mary and Elizabeth preparing themselves for their babies.  Christmas came alive for me that year.  It became a celebration of the women in Jesus’ life, God loving them through the joy and pain of pregnancy and childbirth.  Of course, after Eve, then Lily was born, I did not wax poetic about it all.  This is what I wrote the Christmas after Lily was born.  “Ahh, the Christmas story.   Angels, warm straw, animals singing lullabies, visitors from near and far.  Beautiful!  But as a new mother, I have some insights and questions.  As I think about Mary’s difficult circumstances and the frustrations of my own experiences of motherhood, I want to find a sisterhood with her.  Ave Maria.  Maybe she was blessed, I hope so, because she had to put up with a lot.  Anyway, I’m glad to be celebrating this Christmas season with Mary, a new mother, and I feel her pain, joy, frustration, post-partum depression, sleep deprivation and loneliness.  Mary, full of grace, be with us all.”  I’m still seeking that sisterhood with Mary, the confusing, yet understandable mother of Jesus.

What we know of Mary comes from Luke’s “orderly account” of the events of Jesus’ life, “after investigating everything carefully from the very first.”  I’m not sure what this means to him, but I know what it means to me.  I’m torn between wanting to know exactly what happened, exactly what Mary and Elizabeth said to each other, what other questions Mary had for the angel, what conversations took place between Mary and Joseph after her conception and wanting to just capture the essence of what happened without the details all lined up.  This story seems so important to me, not just background.  The place where I meet Jesus is through his mother.  I need to know how God encounters Mary so I can understand how God encounters me.  I want to know the joy, pain and questions of Mary, because these are probably similar to my own.  I would like to know Jesus in the same way Mary knew Jesus, so I can see the Christ child in my own children.  Please, Luke get it right.

Joel

We don’t hear as much from Mary as I would like, but from what we do get, I find her to be a complex person.  We know her as one who “pondered all these things in her heart.”  I can picture her sitting, thoughtfully treasuring these marvelous and mysterious things that were happening for her people through her and her son Jesus – a contemplative quiet young woman.  That’s one side.  But right after receiving the visitation from the angel and accepting the invitation to bear the Messiah, her gut reaction is to run.  Mary the marathoner.  “In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country.”  My first instinct is to imagine Mary running with joy and excitement to Elizabeth.  To tell her the wonderful news of being chosen to bear the Messiah.  I can see her running with the same kind of joy that the Samaritan man might have felt after he and nine others were healed of their leprosy on their way to the temple.  He runs back to Jesus praising God in a loud voice.  Mary is tired and almost out breath from those pesky Judean hills, but spurred on by the adrenaline rush of this divine calling on her life.  She has to share the good news with someone.

But on further reflection, I’m not sure that’s what is going on here.  Yes, Mary has just been asked to carry in her womb a child who will “reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”  And she graciously accepts this word.  This sacred labor.  But for an unmarried Palestinian teenage girl engaged to be married, an unexpected pregnancy in which her fiancé is not the father looked more like a death sentence than a cause for rejoicing.  The words in the law code were clear enough:  she had disgraced her father’s household and her fiancé and she could be stoned to death (Deut 22).  Her life was suddenly at risk.  Such so-called “honor killings” still occur in places in the Middle East, supposedly cleansing the family from the dishonor brought about through the woman in question.  Mary didn’t have much of a choice of whether or not to come out to her family, because it was only a matter of time before her belly and this baby were going to come out all on their own.  Mary’s run to Elizabeth was probably more likely a sprint for sanctuary.  More like the terror and amazement that seized the women at the empty tomb of Jesus – sure that their lives had just been changed, but frantically fleeing the scene, in fear of what it may mean for them.  Those women eventually confided in the disbelieving inner ring of male disciples.  Mary will confide in her also-pregnant relative Elizabeth.  In accepting the call of the angel, Mary becomes a refugee for God.  She’s risking her own life, and certainly her reputation, for this.

The first word out of Elizabeth’s mouth must have come as a great comfort and perhaps a revelation to Mary.  If Mary is fortunate enough to live, she has accepted the curse of a life of social ostracism, bearing the stigma of having a child out of wedlock.  Elizabeth’s greeting to her speaks a different word: “Blessed.”  “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”    

Abbie

Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary is one of many greetings I see in Luke’s account.  First the angels bring the news, then Mary and Elizabeth have their beautiful, empowered greeting to each other.  The first thing that sticks out to me are the angel greetings and the way they are received.  What would an angel encounter look like?  Surely a time to refer to as your encounter with the living God.  A break in the normal life.  A starting point for belief.  How many times did Mary long for another angel encounter?  A messenger from God to say, this is what is going to happen and it’s all going to work out (or not)? 

The Hebrews scripture that was read feels like an undercurrent of what is happening in the house of Elizabeth and Zechariah. The Psalm says “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me;”  Zechariah had been in the temple offering sacrifices, but what God really needed was a willing body.  It is time for the women to step forward with the offering of their bodies and time for the priests to fade into the background. 

The quiet presence of Zechariah must have provided a unique space for Mary and Elizabeth’s relationship.  It seems these two have a special camaraderie.  They are both pregnant for the first time, and because of divine intervention.  But why is Luke including the first greeting of these two women in his orderly account?  Whether he filled in the gaps of what he thought they might have said or if it was indeed carefully investigated, he views their time together as important.  When they come together, the unborn babies and their mothers are filled with the Holy Spirit.  Elizabeth sees Mary for the first time as blessed among women, not cursed for having an illegitimate child.  She says “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”  Mary is also filled with the Holy Spirit and replies with her magnificat.  She is thankful to know the nature of God, one who lifts up the lowly and gives food to the hungry.  One who fulfills promises.   Something about Mary and Elizabeth being together brings the Holy Spirit and empowers them to see themselves for who they really are, blessed by God, blessed as women in a world where men were given the authority to communicate with God, blessed as women in a place under foreign rule.  Mary is not speaking to an audience in a temple, as Jesus later does.  She is talking to Elizabeth, another pregnant woman.  Mary’s magnificat is similar to Hannah’s when she takes her miracle baby, Samuel, to the temple to dedicate him.  Both talk about how God is going to feed the hungry and lift up the lowly.  They both seem like victory speeches to me.  Suddenly, it’s not just about Mary and Elizabeth,and Hannah – the whole world will be impacted by the miracle of life forming in their wombs and the love God has for them and their children.

Joel

I don’t know near as much about opera as many of you, but I do know that an aria can be a time when the narrative flow freezes and a single voice is given the opportunity to expound on the moment at hand.  I like this thought – that at various instances in our lives there could be a chance to stop to explore the significance of the moment – its beauty, its power, its danger.   Pause the flow of time, crack open the present instant, and give it all the space and poetry that it deserves. 

I see this going on in Mary’s song, the Magnificat.  Not only is this changing her own life, but Mary sees this as changing the whole trajectory of history.  It’s a pregnant moment.  It’s kind of a bold statement too, and shows yet another side of Mary.  Fierce, almost warrior like.  Everything is getting turned upside down with the lowly being lifted up and the proud being brought low – a prelude to the teaching of her son.  I wonder if she sung this song to him when he was young and he started getting these dangerous ideas…. 

Joel and Abbie alternating

So, in our many images of God our Savior, we must add this one.  An exhausted mother lovingly cradling her child.  The mother is full of tenderness and love toward this child, but is as fierce and powerful as a warrior determined to protect and defend the child against all harm.  Then add this one more twist.  You’re the mother and God is the child.  Infant God – helpless, dependent, each breath a tentative gasp at staying alive in this harsh environment.  We are the ones cradling God.  Believing in God’s ability to transform us and our world, because we know that our lives have already been transformed by gazing on one so vulnerable.  We have become both tender and fierce.  We have been saved from ourselves by saying Yes to this God.  Refugees from our previous way of life, on the run with God in our gut, seeking sanctuary.  Seeking sacred space with those around us.  Together holding this life within us that is coming into the world.  Blessing each other.  Becoming mid-wives for peace.  Dulas for justice.  It’s pretty ridiculous and almost impossible to believe.  I’m still working on that part.  I’m still working on that part.  But that’s how the story goes.  At least, that’s how Luke tells it.

What Kind of Mountain? – 8/26/07 – Hebrews 12:18-29

Mountains have long been associated with humanity’s encounter with the Divine. Think of the proverbial spiritual seeker climbing the mountain to hear the wisdom of the guru who lives at the summit in a perpetual state of meditation. Think of Moses on top of Mt. Sinai, receiving the words of the law for the people of Israel. Think of Elijah on top that same mountain years later, hearing no audible words from God, but a sound of sheer silence that causes him to hide his face in his cloak. The prophet Muhammad is said to have taken his night journey to the furthest most mosque which was on the temple mount in Jerusalem and from there to take a journey through the heavens where he encountered the prophets and was commanded to teach Muslims to pray five times a day. The Greeks associated Mt. Olympus with the home of the gods, where all the action took place that made the world the way it was. In the gospels Jesus was transfigured on a high mountain. Jesus taught his most eloquent and ethically demanding sermon on the mount.

During my senior year of college I had the chance to study for a semester in the Middle East and during that time had a fall break of sorts when we were allowed to be on our own for a number of days. I went with a group of other students to the Sinai Peninsula – partly for the good beaches, and partly for the chance to hike up Mt. Sinai. No one is exactly sure where the Mt. Sinai of the Bible is, but there is a mountain in the southern part of the peninsula that has been the traditional sight and has become the official tourist destination for those wanting to hike Sinai. The hike begins at St. Catherine’s monastery, which stands at a little over 5000 feet above sea level, and proceeds up the east side of Mt. Sinai, eventually 7500 feet or so above sea level. It’s a hike that takes 2-3 hours. The typical tourist thing to do is to begin hiking around 2am so you can arrive at the top in time to settle in to see the sunrise. This is what others in our group wanted to do, but I was wanting to spend a little more time up on the mountain, so I headed up in the evening by myself, trusting the guide book and some other tourists around who said that there are Bedouins with a small shop toward the top who have blankets and mats available for those who want to spend the night up there in the open air. I took my time with the hike, following the well-marked path and stopping to take in the scenery every once in a while – red and gray granite mountains and desert as far as the eye can see. At one point the path joins up with a series of steps hewn out of the rock, hundreds of steps, know as the steps of penitence, created by monks of St. Catherine’s centuries ago. This part is slower going, and if I remember right, the steepest part of the climb……

The reading from Hebrews is a difficult passage. It’s full of abstract, theological language, heavy on symbolism that the 1st century reader would have understood but which seems distant to us. The central symbol here is that of the mountain, a metaphor for how we encounter God. There is a certain kind of mountain we are being led away from, and one that we are being led towards. Throughout the letter to the Hebrews the writer has been taking the listener on a tour of sorts over the landscape of faith. The letter begins by stating, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days God has spoken to us by a Son whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom God also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” That first generation receiving this letter had experienced a kind of seismic shift in their environment in how they came to perceive of God. The love that Jesus had lived out toward all people became for them like a carbon copy of what God is like, the exact imprint of God’s very being. And this caused a big enough rupture to the world as they knew it, that it could have been as if they were standing there stunned, looking around, dazed, trying to figure out what just happened and what this new geography might mean for how they thought things should be ordered. The author of Hebrews takes it upon himself to attempt to give them a guided tour of this terrain and better understand this altered lay of the land. The 11th chapter that we’ve looked at these last couple weeks is part of this long prelude to the present moment that the author has been working with. These are familiar stories of people who lived with faith, all framed in such a way so as to be anticipating something on the horizon. Something they can’t quite perceive, but something coming into view, coming into focus, something erupting from within this story.

The eruption comes in chapter 12 v. 2: “Looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter 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.” Jesus the pioneer, carving out new space in which to live. Arranging a certain kind of geography where shame is disregarded, and God’s throne, God’s presence, is right along side those whom others consider most shameful and despised. A pioneer offering a certain shape of what it means to be human together and of how God encounters us in our humanity. Weakness, the cross, the defeated fragile human life, being the place where God loves to dwell. This is indeed a strange terrain, an odd arrangement of things.

As a way of summing up what has been said throughout the entire letter, the author asks us to imagine that we have been brought to a mountain. That place in this strange landscape that represents humanity encountering God. Given the seismic shift that has occurred through the ministry of Jesus, What should we expect with this kind of encounter? What kind of mountain is this that we are at?

The first task undertaken here is to describe what kind of encounter it is not. Chapter 12, v.18-21. “You have not come to a mountain that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them. (For they could not endure the order that was given, ‘If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death.’ Indeed so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I tremble with fear.’” The reference here is to the Israelites experience at that mountain where they were given the law. You have not come to this kind of mountain. What is being said is that encountering God need not involve terror and gloom. “You have not come to a mountain that is a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest.” Inasmuch as God is associated with utter terror and fear, this is not the kind of mountain, the kind of encounter we have been led to. This is a part of the landscape that Jesus has helped overturn, not the landscape that has been set before us.

Religion and fear have long been too closely wed together. Fear and terror are powerful motivators. We’re learning about that more and more in our political climate. People fall in line a lot easier when they’re afraid. Fear has a way of gelling people together for a common cause against a common enemy. Fear has far too often been the motivating energy behind religion.

The early 20th century mathematician, Bertrand Russell, who also happened to be an atheist, had this to say on this subject: “Religion is based, I think primarily and mainly upon fear… Fear is the basis of the whole thing – fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand. It is because fear is at the basis of those two things.”

A tough critique of religion. One, it appears, the author of Hebrews would share. Fear and the attempt to escape punishment have been a part of the religious experience of many, and what would religion be without fear of punishment? What would it be? What kind of mountain is it that we’re looking at here?

1 John chapter 4 offers some key words that apply here: “Whoever does not love has not encountered God because God is love. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment. We love because God first loved us.”

The kind of mountain we have come to, Hebrews goes on to suggest, is one we could call Mt. Zion, the city of the living God. Led away from terror, away from perceiving of God as one out to get us, we have come to Mt. Zion, where there appears to be a party going on. “innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn, and to the spirits of the righteous made complete, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” The author is again using complex imagery to say something very simple. We are invited to be a part of a community of celebration where we are slowly discovering that we are loved. This is the picture that the book of Hebrews has been leading up to. The invitation to slowly leave behind the life of fear for the life of living as one who is welcomed into something like a festal gathering.

At the risk of being anticlimactic, I will say that my experience hiking up that literal mountain was good, but nothing out of the ordinary or life changing. I made it up the steps of penitence not very focused on things I would like to repent of. When I reached the top I did what I could with the one hour of daylight left. I rented my mat and blanket from the Bedouins, found a spot where I would sleep, ate my supper that I had packed, and soon was down for the night. I slept pretty solidly until about four in the morning when loud German tourists began arriving at the summit all pumped up for the sunrise that was still a couple hours from happening. Probably the most amazing miracle that happened while I was up there was that I somehow managed to get my contact lenses in my eyes when it was still dark, not having a flashlight or any other way of seeing what I was doing. I watched the sunrise along with perhaps one hundred other people, found some folks from my group, walked down with them the way I came, and soon headed off to the next destination.

When I think back on that semester in the Middle East there wasn’t any one particular mountain top experience that stands out. No earth shattering moment of revelation. The mountain of God’s presence that I encountered there was more like this Mt. Zion of the living God that breaks into the landscape right in the middle of our everyday lives. The ongoing challenge to see the world as Jesus sees it. To encounter God in the face of the other, even if we have been taught to fear that other. The challenge to listen openly to those of different faiths. The chance to experience the ways that love breaks down barriers and draws people into community.

Mt. Zion is that place in the terrain of our lives where all these things are taking place. Where fear and terror are giving way to loving community.

In the Fire, Under the Great Cloud of Witnesses – 8,19,07 – Hebrews 11:29-12:2

The year he turned 40 years old, in 1989, Billy Joel released the song “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”  The song gives a whirlwind tour through significant headline events of the second half of the 20th century, starting the year Billy Joel was born, 1949, and going up through what was then the present day.  The song was a number one hit in the US.  It begins in a rapid fire style and keeps the same intensity throughout:    

Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray
South Pacific, Walter Winchell, Joe DiMaggio
Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Studebaker, television
North Korea, South Korea, Marilyn Monroe

The chorus that gets repeated throughout is a brief but pointed commentary on Billy Joel’s baby boomer generation and their place in all these events.  

We didn’t start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world’s been turning

We didn’t start the fire
No we didn’t light it
But we tried to fight it

The events are mostly in chronological order and slowly approach the late eighties.

Birth control, Ho Chi Minh, Richard Nixon back again
Moonshot, Woodstock, Watergate, punk rock
Begin, Reagan, Palestine, terror on the airline
Ayatollah’s in Iran, Russians in Afghanistan

“Wheel of Fortune”, Sally Ride, heavy metal, suicide
Foreign debts, homeless vets, AIDS, crack, Bernie Goetz
Hypodermics on the shores, China’s under martial law
Rock and roller cola wars, I can’t take it anymore

We didn’t start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world’s been turning

We didn’t start the fire
No we didn’t light it
But we tried to fight it

My main memory of listening to We Didn’t Start the Fire is of me and my siblings gathered around our little stereo in the living room listening repeatedly to a copy of the song we had made from the radio on to a cassette tape.  My older sister Rachel, who later went on to become a history/ journalism double major in college, had the idea that we should write all the lyrics down so we could memorize the song and remember what all different events were being covered.  And since we didn’t have any intention of actually going out and buying the album so we could see the lyrics printed there, we would listen to five seconds of the song, press stop, write down a few things we understood, rewind it and listen again to what we understand, rewind it again if we still didn’t understand, and on and on until we had most of the lyrics down on paper.  If I remember correctly my older sister was much more interested in the words and the history while I was much more fascinated with starting and stopping and rewinding the cassette.    

                Now being at least a little more in tune with history and culture, the lyrics of this song do interest me.  And not just the specific items mentioned, but the overall effect of how the song presents forty years of history in several minutes.  The song does have a sense of order to it.  Things are moving chronologically, the rhythm and meter stay consistent throughout.  But more overpowering than the order is the sense of disorder, the sense of instability and – almost – randomness that comes out of the song .  These are supposedly culture-shaping events and people, headline items in bold print that have impacted the flow of history.  But the flow feels disjointed and scattered.  The listener, and the person experiencing these events, can get the overall feeling of being pulled in multiple directions by all of this activity, having very little sense of how things fit together and almost no control over what is coming next.  Getting bombarded with soundbites that don’t hold together in any meaningful bigger picture.  This is perhaps why Billy Joel uses the analogy of the fire rather than any kind of sensible flow, like a river.  Each event that gets named becomes more fuel for the craziness of the fire of history that has always been burning since the world’s been turning.  Turning, and, it often seems, spinning out of control.  

Had the song been written more recently, it could have included a verse that may sound something like this:

9/11, Enron, Martha Stewart, Simpsons      

genocide in Darfur, Iraq and the terror war,

Katrina hits, levees fail, Karl Rove reads your mail, 

Global warming, Virginia Tech, You Tube, chrystal meth,

Roadside bomb, Tony Blair, immigration, health care,

Harry Potter final book, heat wave, nation cooks,

Steroids in sports, Aaron’s record is no more,

Obama, Clinton, Romney, Gulian, The ‘08 race is on

We didn’t start the fire, it was always burning since the world’s been turning.  We didn’t start the fire.  No we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it.     

I doubt if Billy Joel was reading Hebrews 11 while he was writing this song.  I could be wrong, but his source of inspiration probably came elsewhere.  Likewise, I doubt if the writer of Hebrews 11 ever anticipated a song like “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”  But however much cultural and historical space there seems to be between these two texts, I have a hunch that it could be valuable to hold them alongside side each other for a short while and allow them to read each other and speak something fresh to us.    

Part of the message of Hebrews 11, written to a group of people who were among the first generations to receive the faith that came out of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, was the message that “We didn’t start the faith, it was always churning since the world’s been turning.”  Writing to first century Christians who were experiencing the newness of the Jesus movement, we see a message that this all did not appear out of thin air.  Hebrews 11 traces a line from the birth of the world up through the present moment, a line that follows the active presence of faith throughout history — people and events who are the closest thing to headlines we get in the Bible: “God creates world through spoken word”, “Abel, the brother who was the victim of murder and not the triumphant killer, receives praise from God”, “Abraham set out not knowing where he was going,” “Moses leads Hebrew slaves out of Egyptian empire,” “Prostitute Rahab is hero in Jericho battle.”  “Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets conquer kingdoms, administer justice, shut the mouths of lions, win strength out of weakness, receive back dead by resurrection, suffer mocking and flogging and imprisonment, wander in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground, of whom the world was not worthy.”

A continuous naming of people acting out of faith all the way up to the present moment.  “We didn’t start the faith, it was always churning since the world’s been turning.”

But Hebrews 11 is much more than the rock song with a biblical twist.  There are some significant differences to note.  Whereas one song focuses on the image of us living in the middle of the unpredictable fire of history, the Hebrews 11 song culminates in the image of us living under a great cloud of witnesses.  Hebrews isn’t as concerned about all the main players of history, but rather a particular story going on within history.  A story of those whose lives included the element of faith, of hope, of living out the active presence of God in their lives.  Those events and people are more than just fuel for the fire.  Events, interpreted in a particular light, and people, driven by faith, form something more like a living, hovering cloud that surrounds us with meaning and connection to a historical legacy.  I’m glad this great cloud isn’t just the perfect people who teach all of us imperfect people how to get it right.  I’m glad it includes deeply flawed individuals who still found their way into God’s embrace.  I’m glad Moses is in there, a guy who lost his temper and killed an Egyptian and had to be a fugitive for 40 years before those other forty years when he lead the Hebrews through the desert.   I’m glad it includes a prostitute who apparently gets on the team for doing one act of grace, she welcomed the Hebrew spies in peace and kept her end of a bargain.  I’m glad we can continue adding names and faces to this ever expanding cloud of witnesses.  We’ve got those troublemaking early Anabaptists as part of our witnesses who decided to actually try and live out Jesus’ teachings.  Gandhi, MLK Jr., Dorothy Day, and Oscar Romero are among the 20th century heroes of nonviolence.  We each have mentors and family members who are part of that blanket of faith and grace surrounding us.     

Also, more than just a rapid fire sequence of seemingly unconnected events and experiences, Hebrews 11 presents us with a center.  Something/someone present in the middle of it all who draws us in toward the center.  The pioneer who carved out that center.  The perfecter of our faith.  Jesus, the Christ, through whom history is transformed.  The one whose faith enabled him to live within the disjointedness of the world as it is.  Who walked with people who would never make the headlines and called them the first to enter the kingdom of God.  Who chewed out the Pharisees and other religious people for misusing their soundbites from Scripture while not seeing how they all hold together in God’s big picture of doing justice and acting with mercy.  Who called together a group of followers who were to help continue creating this center after he was gone.  Who eventually experienced the raging fires of crucifixion, who absorbed the randomness of violence.  Who, we believe, somehow came out on the other side not as one consumed in the fire, but as one able to now live within it and beyond it, present in the brokenness of history, as well as present at the center of the great cloud of witnesses who watch over the living. 

                So which is it?  Are we living in the middle of the fire that’s always been burning since the world’s been turning.  Is our culture just one big bonfire of headlines?  Is history just one rapid fire event after another?  Are we in the fire, or are we living under the great cloud of witnesses, having access to the aliveness of Jesus and others who live by faith?  Who got it right? Billy Joel or Hebrews?

A certain stream of the Mennonite tradition has thought in very dualistic terms between culture and faith.  Faith was the realm of Christ, the realm of the saved, and there was a strong sense of separation between the churchly life of faith and the worldly life of culture.  To stick with these metaphors we’ve been using, there was the attempt to live peacefully under the great cloud of witnesses away from the unpredictable fires of the rest of the world.  In the North American context, especially after the World War II experience which brought many Mennonites doing alternative service into closer contact with the troubles of the world, this kind of separation is no longer possible or desirable.  We have found ourselves much more integrated with society, and we’ve had to give up thinking in such black and white terms between the kingdom of the world and the kingdom of God.  We have had to re-think what it means to be ‘in the world but not of the world,’ as Jesus instructed us to be.  To be in the fires of history without allowing ourselves to be burned up by those flames.  To be engaged in our context, involved in our culture, even helping form and create our culture, without our identity being completely consumed by it, or the instability of world events.

                So Billy Joel pretty much nailed it.  History is messy, ambiguous, tragic in many ways, and in most ways, well beyond our ability to control.  His “text” challenges us to recognize the many, many influences coming at us from all directions that we live with on a daily basis.  Not necessarily good or bad influences, but events that shape us and the way we interact with each other.  Whether we like it or not, we’re right in the middle of the fire, and, I would venture to say, this is exactly where God is calling each of us to be.

                But this is not all there is to the picture.   Hebrews 11 challenges us to recognize that there is more than just a fire that we live in.  There is also something like a cloud, a great cloud hovering over all of this, a cloud with a faith lining, alive with Jesus and all those who have lived out the story of faith.  One of the most important things that we do as a Church – and I’m using Church with a big “C” – anybody and everybody identifying themselves with the mission of Jesus – whether it’s a group of 1000 or a gathering of two or three…one of the most important things we do as Church is to continue identifying together with this particular story of faith; to continue speaking of this canopy of meaning that we live under, this cloud of witnesses whose faith is alive and well.  We believe that our primary identity comes from God’s story of the world and from history as transformed by Jesus.  The story of God’s loving activity of redeeming history and our involvement in that activity, our faith. 

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.