8/11/2013 sermon: The assurance of faith

Location: Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, VA
Text: Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
12Pentecost/Proper 14, Year C

The assurance of faith

Our epistle lesson today says that faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” And when I think about the assurance and conviction of faith, I remember Jay.

Jay didn’t grow up in church. He found Jesus in an Episcopal congregation right here in Alexandria, where he was baptized as an adult. Not long after his baptism Jay was diagnosed with AIDS. This was in the days before the wonder drugs that we now have. So being diagnosed with AIDS meant a long, slow, awful death. Jay decided that he didn’t want to go that route. So he declined all treatment.

I tried to talk Jay out of this decision. I didn’t have the VISION then to muster up what would have been the very best argument. I simply didn’t foresee a new reality coming into being soon; I was stuck in those days in our material world, with what I could see and feel and touch—stuck with logic. I didn’t argue that, if Jay could just hold on a few short years, there would be miracle drugs that could halt the disease’s progression. No, I didn’t have the VISION to assure myself of that coming reality. Instead, I argued that Jay was, in essence, committing suicide.

Jay saw much more clearly the things that we cannot see with our eyes. Jay simply asked me whether I believed in Jesus, whether I believed in baptism, whether I believed that there is a heaven after we die where there is no more sighing, no more crying, no more dying there. And in my stunned silence—shamed into shutting my mouth—Jay added that he was bound for a place where there was no more racism, no more homophobia, no more joblessness, no more old age, no more poverty, no more sorrow. And to top this all off, because he was truly Episcopalian, Jay said that he was going to join the best choir in the world there: no more sharp, no more flat, just eternal hosannas.

Yes, Jay had the assurance of things that each and every one of us hope for, and the conviction of things not seen. Today’s epistle lesson tells us that this is faith, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Yes, Jay had faith.

Indeed, by faith our ancestors were saved. By faith we understand that everything that IS comes from God, who made the things that we see from things that are not visible. By faith we know and are assured that the material world all around us, the world of atoms and quasars and pulsars, is not all that is. We learned this lesson from our ancestors, who taught us about faith. And now science is catching up.

By faith, Abraham obeyed when God called him to go to a new place. I’ll bet Abraham was pretty comfortable in the old place. God had given him a lot of good times there. Then came that clear call from God to begin a journey to a new place.

Every time I think of Abraham since I have been at Resurrection, I think of our own ancestors at Immanuel, that Episcopal Church on the Hill next door to the seminary, just two miles from us. Do you know that some 50 years ago the West End of Alexandria had grown so big that the people at Immanuel were squashed in their pews, not having enough space to fit everyone in? If this isn’t a sign from God that something new would be required, I don’t know what is.

After a year of discernment, the folks at Immanuel realized that they were called to help the Diocese of Virginia plant a new Episcopal congregation here on Beauregard Street. A whole bunch of those folks ended up leaving their parish, leaving the fellowship of the friends that they held dear and going to THIS new place.

Those folks—our ancestors—had faith. They saw a new reality, one that did not yet exist in our world, and they acted to bring that new reality into existence. And God blessed them and did what God always does: God always provides every single thing necessary to do what God calls us to do. That’s so important I’m going to repeat myself. God always provides every single thing necessary to do what God calls us to do.

By faith Abraham stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents. Our own more recent ancestors also lived in tents, so to speak. They worshiped in Hammond School right over here on Seminary Road. They worshiped there for almost two years, there, and when this building we are in today wasn’t ready on time, they worshiped at The Hermitage, the Methodist retirement community right over here across Beauregard Street.

Do you know that two women who were living at The Hermitage provided sizable donations in those early years that allowed Resurrection to purchase our organ? Mrs. Lee and Miss Ethel Springer. AND they were instrumental in persuading Resurrection’ first Vestry to embrace civil rights, despite the Vestry’s very real fears about safety. By faith our congregation led our Diocese in supporting civil rights of people of color.

Our epistle lesson today says that Abraham was able to respond, in faith, to God’s call because he looked forward to the heavenly city of God. Abraham saw clearly the new reality that God called him to bring into existence, and he acted on that call.

By faith, Abraham was able to bear children, even though he was too old and his wife couldn’t have children. Therefore from these two people, and they as good as dead, descendants were born, as Genesis says, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.”

I wonder if you identify with Abraham as much as I have since I have been at Resurrection? Each week I marvel anew that we—who are “too old” and (truth be told) maybe a bit barren of hope, are having hope and joy and excitement kindled in us anew.

Isn’t this the way that God always works? God chooses the too-young (such as Jeremiah, who was a mere child) to do the spectacular. God chooses the too-old (such as Abraham and Sarah). Yes, God chooses unlikely people—too young, too old, too poor, too rich—the most unlikely people. I am utterly amazed that God has chosen us to do God’s big thing. How do we know? Our parish has grown so small that we wonder how we will survive. If this isn’t a sign that God is requiring something new from us, I don’t know what is.

I firmly believe that each and every one of us who are here at Church of the Resurrection are here AT THIS TIME for a reason. God has been preparing us to do something big, something new. And God has been stripping away all of our comforts, all of the things that have been preventing us from seeing that new reality that God would have us create. God is painting us a picture, whispering a description of that picture in our ears, sending people to us who know all about what is required to make that God-picture into concrete reality here in our City of Alexandria.

If that doesn’t scare you, I don’t know what will. Because we are old and tired and all of our parts don’t work the way that they used to. But remember this: God always provides everything necessary to do what God calls us to do.

Our epistle lesson warns us that some will die without having received the promises, without having seen the fruition here on earth of the work that God is calling us to do. According to our lesson, this is all right, fitting, even, because we are all bound for heaven, where God’s promises will all ultimately be fulfilled. But for those of us who aren’t there yet, we have faith, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

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