The Assurance of Things Hoped For

The Lessons of the Day: Genesis 15:1-6; Psalm 33; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; & Luke 12:32-40

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Hebrews 11:1

Thus begins the beautiful tribute to our ancestors in faith found in the eleventh chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews. Since the selection read this morning includes only a part of that chapter, it would be worth getting out your Bibles and reading the whole thing! It is not just a tribute to the righteous deeds of those good men and women who have gone before us; what is held up, rather, is the power of the faith that enabled their actions. By faith, Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice; by faith, Enoch was taken; by faith, Noah heeded the divine warning; by faith, Abraham obeyed and went to a distant land.

Today’s passage from the Letter to the Hebrews is a paean of praise to our ancestors in the faith, which the author sums up in the next chapter as the “great cloud of witnesses” by which we are surrounded. The Book of Genesis recounts the stories of the matriarchs and patriarchs who listened when called and were formed through covenant into God’s own people. The section of Genesis that was proclaimed this morning is a part of Abraham’s story that tells of the seemingly impossible promise made to him by God,

“[The Lord] brought [Abraham] outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’”

Genesis 15:5

And Abraham, an old man with a barren wife, we are told, 

“[Abraham] believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

Genesis 15:6

Most of us cannot claim actual, physical descent from Abraham and Sarah, but we may claim spiritual descent. Their stories, as well as a myriad of stories of other Old Testament heroes, are part of our common story. Indeed, as we hear the stories of how God dealt with God’s own people (with Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Ruth, and David, and all the rest), we notice the responses, though sometimes flawed, made in faith. When we hear those responses, our own responses to God are informed, formed, and transformed. The responses of our flawed but faithful ancestors help us to understand what our being in the world means, and they help us to understand what is our true human vocation: To bear the image of God and to stand in the liminal place as a royal priesthood and a holy nation, witnessing to God on behalf of creation and witnessing to creation on behalf of God. 

So, we bear witness to God on behalf of creation. This is what we call worship, the offering to God on behalf of creation the first-fruits of grace, “the sacrifice of praise, that is, the fruit of our lips that acknowledge God’s name” (Hebrews 13:15). This is what it means when we are called a priestly people, for we make the offering to God on behalf of all creation. Abraham did that in today’s narrative when he trusted in God’s promise, and became the mediator of God’s covenant. Likewise, others amon the ancestors of the faith were mediators – Adam, Noah, Sarah, Isaac & Rebekah, Jacob & Leah & Rachel, Moses, Naomi, and David; and, Jesus and the saints who would follow. We are invited, in other words, to be a royal priesthood as mediators of covenant between God and creation. Remember when Abraham bargains with God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah (if only 50 are righteous, if only 40, if only 10 are righteous…). And remember Jesus on the cross, “forgive them Father, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). That was a moment par excellence of priestly intervention. Jesus, the royal priest, was standing in the liminal space between God and creation, and begging for forgiveness – for reconciliation into relationship. That is our vocation, too – to bear witness to God on behalf of the creation.

So, we stand in the liminal space bearing witness to God on behalf of creation; but, we also stand in that same space bearing witness to creation on behalf of God. In other words, we (i.e. humanity) is to be the image of God for creation, the very image in which we were created. The truth by which we live must be rooted in this reality, providing a framework for all that we are and all that we do. To be sure, the living out of our image-ness will look different for all of us, and it will look different within us at different stages of our lives. Nevertheless, there are two keys to understanding the image of God in us. Recall the first narrative of creation in Genesis 1, in which the creation of humanity in noted with a double blessing:

“God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’”

Genesis 1:28

First, the image in us is life-bearing to the world. While the command to “be fruitful and multiply” has clear implications to child-bearing, the metaphor can and should be extended to all of our relationships. Our vocation is to be life-bearing in the world. Second, the image in us blesses us to have “dominion” over creation. It must, however, be dominion that bears in mind the root meaning of “Lordship,” suggesting that our dominion should mirror the Creator, the Lord of heaven and earth.  The creation narrative in Genesis 2 provides a further clue when Adam is planted in the garden and told to “keep it and till it” – or, maybe better in the Hebrew, to “care for” and to “order” it. This is a clear command to intentional and purposeful stewardship of creation. In the end, image-bearing is about life and love.  

Today’s passage from the Letter to the Hebrews is indeed a paean of praise to our ancestors in the faith, called the “great cloud of witnesses” of which the biblical heroes are a part. So also, down through the centuries, there have been men and women of faith who have added to their number. The Episcopal Church Calendar commemorates the lives of some of these witnesses. In just this week past and this week coming we celebrate John Mason Neale, Dominic, Clare of Assisi, John Henry Newman, Florence Nightingale, and Jeremy Taylor, among others. 

One of those others is Laurence (August 10), a deacon in Rome in the middle of the 3rd century. Laurence, a righteous man known to be of honest character, was placed in charge of Chruch finances used to support the poor. Having been arrested, the Prefect (who knew of Laurnece’s position) promised to set Laurence free if he would surrender the wealth of the Church. Laurence agreed but said that it would take him three days to gather the wealth together. During those three days, he placed all the money at his disposal in the hands of trustworthy stewards. He then assembled the sick, the orphaned, the aged, and the poor, and presented them to the prefect, saying, “These are the treasures of the Church.” The enraged prefect ordered him to be roasted alive on a gridiron. Laurence bore the torture with a tremendous peae, the spectacle of his courage making a great impression on the people of Rome.

We also celebrated the Feast of Mary, the mother of Jesus (August 15). Inspiring generations of Christians, her response of faith – as covenant mediator and covenant bearer – is embodied in her words to the angel sent from God: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Mary’s “yes” to God played a central part in the story of God’s people, and it reverberates down through the centuries.

We remembered, also, Jonathan Myrick Daniels (August 14). Felt called to the priesthood, Daniels entered the Eastern Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with anticipation of becoming a parish priest. He would have turned 80 years old this year, probably retired after having baptized, married, counseled, and buried a large number of parishioners. But, in March 1965, Jonathan Daniels would heed a televised appeal by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was asking for workers to come to Selma, Alabama, to secure the right to vote for all citizens. An initial impulse strengthened during the singing of the Magnificat at Evensong:

“He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things. …I knew I must go to Selma….The Virgin’s song was to grow more and more dear to me in the weeks ahead.” 

Jonathan Myrick Daniels, Letters

Having thus gone to Selma, Jonathan and several others were jailed on August 14th for the work they were doing. Upon their release, they went to a small store where they had previously shopped. Sixteen year-old Ruby Sales, an African-American with whom Jonathan was jailed, was the first to reach the door of the store. As Ruby approached, she was met by a deputy sheriff armed with a shotgun. Cursing Ruby, the deputy prepared to fire but Jonathan pulled Ruby aside and took the shotgun blast himself, square in the chest. Jonathan Daniels was nourished by Holy Scripture and the sacraments, encouraged by the example of the cloud of faithful witnesses. Meeting a martyr’s death, Jonathan had learned to be a living example of faithful image-bearing.

Today’s passage from the Letter to the Hebrews is indeed a paean of praise to our ancestors in the faith, the “great cloud of witnesses” of which the biblical heroes and the Saints of the Church are a part. But so also, down through the centuries there have been men and women of faith who have added to their number. Have there not been in our own lives, in our own congregations, those whose examples of faith have been used by God to encourage us, to strengthen our own faith?

I want you to think of those people in your own life your encouraged you in the faith. Go ahead!! Remember them! During our prayers today, when we pray, “We thank you, Lord, for all the blessings of this life,” I want you to name them, to remember them. Maybe we can talk about some of them over coffee after today’s service.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews calls us to follow Jesus, to hold fast to Jesus.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings to us so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”

Hebrews 12:1

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