Things Seen and Unseen: A Sermon for 9 Pentecost, Proper 14
The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Roman army in 70 AD was a huge blow not only to the Jewish community, but to the Jewish-Christian community as well. And the letter to the Hebrews that we will be reading from the next four weeks is addressing this particular audience, and encouraging them to keep their faith in Jesus Christ in spite of the trauma they had experienced. Kenyatta Gilbert points out that Chapter 11 of this letter “urges the displaced and dismayed converts to remember the lives of faithful forebears who trusted God and practiced faith without the temple.” And the writer of the letter draws upon the audience’s knowledge and memory of their ancestors Abraham and Sarah, who “by faith, searched for a homeland with permeable borders, a heavenly city not walled by other means.” In other words, not only did Abraham and Sarah not have a temple, they didn’t even have a country or a city to call their home. But through faith, they set out in search of the Promised Land.
In our lesson from Genesis today, Abram had just returned from battle, and all he and his wife Sarai had was their nephew, a group of women from their community, and a whole lot of stuff. But what he and Sarai did not have was children of their own to carry on their family name. Yet, in a vison, the Lord told Abram that his reward would be very great. But the very sensible Abram pushed back, and reminded the Lord of the grim reality of his and Sarai’s inability to have children. But the word of the Lord came to Abram and said, “No one but your very own issue shall be your heir. Look toward heaven and count the stars… So shall your descendants be." And at that moment, Abram believed the unbelievable, and he went from being a great herdsman and a great warrior to a faithful visionary. First, he was faithful enough to receive a vision from the Lord, and second, he was faithful enough to believe the vison, as outlandish as it might have seemed.
But I believe that this story about Abram and Sarai is reminding us that vision and promise alone aren’t always enough. And that is why the sermon to the Hebrews focuses on Abram’s faith, and why he encourages his listeners to remember Abram first and foremost by his faith, even more so than by his vision or skills. Our psalmist today articulates this beautifully when he writes,
“There is no king that can be saved by a mighty army; *
a strong man is not delivered by his great strength.
Behold, the eye of the Lord is upon those who fear him, *
on those who wait upon his love,
Our soul waits for the Lord; *
he is our help and our shield.
The difficult thing about being a people of faith, is that, as Abraham and Sarah - and their sons Isaac and Jacob - learned, one’s faith in God’s promises doesn’t necessarily speed up God’s promises. The writer of Hebrews recognized this difficult reality when he recounted that, “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.” Neither Abraham, Isaac, nor Jacob lived to reach the Promised Land they so faithfully pursued. But the most faithful visionaries are those who pursue God’s call and promise for them, even if the promise isn’t fully realized until after they are gone from this earthly life. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Like anybody, I would like to have a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land.”
And that brings me to where we are here and now. As providence would have it, this is the second week in a row that I am going to talk about stewardship. But I am not in control over the scripture lessons that we are assigned each week, and this is the second week in a row that I have felt the scriptures pulling us that way. And I believe that when we are invited to make a pledge to the church each year, it is an invitation to do at least two things. The first thing is very present-term and pragmatic. We are being invited to support the mission and ministries of the church as they exist right now. Everything we see here, and everything that we see being announced in the bulletin insert… all that happens here…is made possible by those who make a pledge of time and money to the church. If it weren’t for that reality, the doors couldn’t stay open here, and the mission and ministries of Christ the King would cease to exist. That is a very real and present reality that cannot be overlooked, and I trust that it will not be when stewardship season arrives in a few weeks.
But the second thing we are participating in when we make a pledge to the church is faithful vision-casting. We are humbly remembering that, as the writer of Hebrews so eloquently stated, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” We are faithfully and selflessly placing our hope in the future – a future that we might not even live to see. Or, we very well may live to see it, but as of now, we just don’t what that “it” is yet. There are missional and ministry-related initiatives for our church that only God knows about right now. We just have to have faith that God will reveal them to us when it is God’s will.
Three Christ the King parishioners who come to mind when I think of this selfless, faithful vision-casting are Nat Daugherty, Stafford Smith, and Lily Greene. Now they are all in their late teens, so they by no means are at a risk of not living to see a vision become a reality like Abraham and Sarah. But I think of them because when they were at Christ the King as older high school students, we essentially had nothing here for them program-wise. Yes, they served as acolytes, helped with VBS, preached, and did other wonderful things. But they did so by themselves, with no other youth to call a Youth Group. But they hung in with us here, and found other ways to serve. Nat and Stafford got involved with the diocesan Youth Retreat ministry called Happening. And Stafford served on the staff at Happening her senior year. And she has served on the staff at Camp Beckwith – our diocesan camp and conference center – the past two summers.
Lily Greene wanted to be a part of a youth Bible Study last year, but we didn’t have one for high school students. So rather than leaving to go somewhere else, she asked if she could help lead the Middle School bible study that our parishioners Travis and Rachel Meyer host at their home on Monday nights. So she served as their Youth “apprentice” at the Bible Study. Imagine the example that she was setting for those impressionable middle school youth. She didn’t have to be there with them – but she wanted to be. What a faithful example of servant leadership!
Nat, Stafford, and Lily all graduated from high school before we were able to get a high school youth group up and running here at Christ the King. But they faithfully laid the foundation for what I hope and pray will become a thriving middle and high school youth program here. And we are working hard to make that dream a reality, thanks in part to a couple of other faithful vision-casters. These two young adults gave a financial gift that allowed us to hire Ministry Architects to serve as our consultants and assemble our Children & Youth Ministry Renovation Team. We have been working with Ministry Architects since last school year to begin laying the foundation for a sustainable middle and high school youth program that will be in place when all of these children we see here today reach middle and high school. This is just one example of how the belief that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” is relevant here at Christ the King. Our faithful stewardship of the resources God has blessed us with is for both the people and things that we see here and now as well as the people and things that we don’t yet see. Let us continue to follow in the tradition of our spiritual ancestors - and Nat, Stafford, and Lily - as we respond to God’s call to step out towards the Promised Land in faith, trusting that even if we ourselves don’t taste the fruit it bears, those who follow us will.