The Rev. Jennifer Whipple
The Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)
August 12, 2007
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-12
Prayer: May the words
of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts gathered here today be
acceptable in Your sight, O God, our Strength and our Redeemer.
The scripture passage for this morning is one of my favorites. Yet each time I read it I have a different thought about what it says to us. After all what is faith really? If I asked you to fill in the blank… “Faith is __________.” How would you finish it? The truth is that each of you would probably have a different answer…same major tenets but a different answer.
You see faith is big enough to encompass what folks throughout the world come together in community to celebrate, and yet is small or personal enough that each of us can name it and claim it in our own words for ourselves. Perhaps faith is what has given you the strength to make it through the times of challenge and difficulty in your life – the thing that gives us hope. Or perhaps faith is what has helped you to rejoice in the good times. Faith is what takes strangers out of their ordinary everyday lives and binds them in community with one another – in communities of forgiveness, hope, study, care, and service.
The night I led campfire vespers I told a story that I would like to share with you all. As many of you know, I have a 6-year-old nephew, James. James lends to lots of sermon material – because he does things like imagines vacations and jobs for people – my favorite was the day that he sent my mom on an all expenses paid imaginary vacation to Hawaii and me to Heaven at the same time to meet Jesus. And James now has three 5-month-old brothers, so we are more aware now than ever that he needs some individual attention. That means that I get the pleasure of playing – of taking on board & card game challenges, of making believe. A month or so ago I was over at James’s house, and as soon as I walked in the door he asked me to play pirates with him. Now the first stage toward becoming a pirate was the marker tattoo, of which I received two. Then I asked James what it was that we do as pirates. He told me that we don’t do much of anything. Now, for those of you who have ever seen the Christian Children’s Cartoon, Veggie Tales, you might know the pirates who don’t do anything. They just sit around and don’t do anything. James and I were those pirates. On our pirate ship we sat a lot, ate pretend ice cream, played games, but none of the things you associate with normal pirate behavior.
“But all good things must come to an end,” as the saying goes, so we had to go into the port and refuel – needed more ice cream and some different card games, and a Jedi light saber – just go with me here – to make it through our next voyage. But as soon as we docked our ship was taken over by bad pirates…thousands and thousands of bad pirates. And what were we to do? So James thought quickly and said, “Don’t worry, Auntie Jenny, I know!” He promptly went in to his room where he found a box. When he returned to the ship he told me that he had three very special powers in the box. When he opened it up there was a plastic dinosaur, a Thomas the Tank Engine Aquarium car, and a heart-shaped rock. He pulled out the dinosaur and told me that it was the power of all the strength in the world. No matter what size you were you could defeat any enemy with it. He pulled out the aquarium car and told me that it meant that you had the power over the water, that you could control the water in any way you wanted. And finally, he pulled out the heart-shaped rock and told me it was God power. “James, what is God power?” I asked. “Auntie Jenny, you know what God power is,” he replied astounded. “Well, sure I do, but why don’t you tell me.” (quick recovery!) “God power gives you the power to change hearts and to help people make good choices,” James told me. With God power we could change the hearts and minds of the bad pirates who were trying to take over our ship and make them join us in some fun and games.
God power is the power to change hearts and to help people make good choices. Wow! Now, as his aunt the pastor, I would love to claim the credit for that one…but he came up with that all on his own. And I would venture to guess that if you were to ask James what faith is to him, he would probably say something about faith as God power.
I tell the confirmands each year that faith is something that is dynamic. It involves progress, involves striving to be a better disciple, involves questioning things, involves growth. And faith manifests itself not only in thought and word but in action as well – not action in the sense of heroic acts – but action in the sense of love, of being the best people we can be and treating others the way that we wish to be treated. And as faith becomes active in love, it must be grounded in hope and trust – in the idea that we have something to look forward to, that there is a bigger plan than that which we keep in our own minds and calendars – whether it is in this life or in the promise of eternal life granted us through our belief in Jesus Christ. And in the very idea that faith involves progress and striving is implied the fact that faith involves endurance.
There are certainly times when people want to give up on their faith – want to allow it to fade away into the background – when we question what it is that our faith gets us anyway. Yet it is in those times, the times that seem the most challenging or difficult – the times when it seems like all other avenues are lost – that we tend to turn back to our faith, turn back to God…driven crying on our knees for guidance and care – to really feel God’s presence in our lives. It is the story that is told over and over again in the Hebrew Scriptures – and one that continues in our lives today. The endurance of faith – despite moments of weakness and turning away from God – is what our ancestors in faith knew best. People like Abraham, who is spoken of in our scripture lesson for today, believed and endured travel, testing, fatherhood in his nineties, and an unfulfilled promise. He uprooted his family from the land he knew and loved to travel to the place where God called him – and generations after him did the same – traveling and living as strangers in foreign lands. And yet they were not strangers. They were a family of faith. A family built on trust and reliance on a God who was the center of all they did. They believed that there was something better – something bigger in God’s promise even than in the land they were brought to – the land of milk and honey.
In one translation of our scripture reading for today it says, “The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see. The act of faith is what distinguished our ancestors, set them above the crowd. By faith, we see the world called into existence by God’s word, what we see created by what we don’t see. By an act of faith, Abraham said yes to God’s call to travel to an unknown place that would become his home. When he left he had no idea where he was going…Abraham did it by keeping his eye on an unseen city with real, eternal foundations – the city designed and built by God.”
In his book When God Whispers Your Name Max Lucado shares a vision of what that city might look like. He envisions the moment when we meet God face to face. In the book God says, “I will make all things new. I will restore what was taken. I will restore your years drooped on crutches and trapped in wheelchairs. I will restore the smile faded by hurt. I will replay the symphonies unheard of by deaf ears and the sunsets unseen by blind eyes. The mute will sing. The poor will feast. The wounds will heal. I will make all things new. I will restore all things. The child snatched by disease will run to you arms. The freedom lost to oppression will dance in your heart. The peace of a pure heart will be my gift to you. I will make all things new. New hope. New faith. And most of all new Love. The Love of which all other loves speak. The Love before which all other love pales. The Love you have sought in a thousand ports in a thousand nights…this Love of mine will be yours.”
It is an amazing thing to think of…the wonderful things that faith allows us to envision. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for. Faith means holding all things that might happen to each of us – holding all of the things that we are ever hopeful about – within the realm of possibility. There is an emphasis on the believer’s experience. We need not to just say we have faith but to really experience what that means for each of us – faith in God through the examination of God’s creation, faith in God through the words of a small child, faith in God through times of silence and devotion, through times of action and reflection. We need to live our faith each and every moment. And we need to be sure that we are able to share what we believe. Testimony is a powerful thing. Through testimony the ancestors who came before us shared their own experiences of God. Through testimony the disciples and their followers began a church that continues to this day. Through testimony the burden of the difficulties we face is shared, just as the joys of our lives are. Sharing stories of faith, of what we believe, gives us the opportunity to truly decide what it is that we claim as our faith – how it is that we define what faith is for us.
Which brings us back to the
beginning…What is faith? There are
more than likely as many definitions of faith in this place as there are people
worshipping here today. But for me
faith is generational – it is generations of families who have sat in these
very pews, those who have gone before us, and it is a six-year-old teaching his
aunt the pastor what God Power is. Faith
is the belief that there is something bigger than each of us in this world and
that there is a plan that is beyond our wildest imagining and dreaming that we
are a part of. Faith is hoping and
striving toward the
I share with you this morning the
things that I believe about faith. But
I am hoping that you will think about it for yourselves -- that you will decide
how it is that you would fill in the blank.
For our faith is big enough to encompass the myriad believers throughout
the world and yet as personal as what we feel deep in our own hearts and know in
our minds. Thanks be to God for both
the universal and personal qualities of our faith – for giving us the
opportunity to name and claim it both in community and for ourselves.
Thanks be to God for both humbling and empowering us as God’s people,
as Christ’s disciples, as those led by the Spirit – by what is unseen and
yet, as people of faith, is experienced each and every day of our lives.
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