We Gotta Have Faith
Hebrews, chapter 11
Who first taught you what it meant to have faith?
From as far back as I remember, when I was a child my mom would tuck me in at night and she would lead me in praying. Our prayer, not really very original, began “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep.” But that would be followed by our praying God’s blessing, God’s faithful “keeping,” over members of my family and friends and people in our church that were sick or in need. In general, it was the naming of those we wanted God to keep. Although I didn’t fully grasp it at the time, I was being taught that prayer was an act of faith in God’s trustworthiness and ability to “keep” his own. Prayer was my response of faith to God’s faithfulness.
Let me repeat. That process of prayer as a child taught me that prayer was an expression of my faith in God’s faithfulness and ability to “keep” his own.
But the lesson, I doubt, would have ever sunk in had it not been demonstrated by my parents as they lived their lives.
My memory of childhood begins at the age of 4; the very day we moved from Johnstown, PA to a tiny community north of Dayton, OH for my dad to attend seminary. My memory was “jump started” that day because of the trauma of the event. My parents had three children ranging in age from 4 to 17 and, if you are a parent, you know that 17 is a very difficult age to move a child. My parents had always lived in the same small city surrounded by the support of family. They were moving 300 miles away where they did not know a soul. They were poorer than church mice. They did not know or comprehend the culture of the people whom they were called to serve. The church parsonage had been unoccupied for a time. There had been difficulties with the oil-burning furnace and the last occupants had been fond of leaving the baby’s dirty diapers lying on the cracked linoleum floor. When we pulled into the driveway, there was no one to meet us. My parents instructed we kids to stay in the car while they checked the house – it was dirty, it was smelly, it was in poor condition. I have a vivid memory of my mother and big sister hugging and crying in the gravel driveway of that parsonage. And so, I began to cry too. It was a long and hard three years. But, we made it and we made it because my parents firmly believed that God was “keeping us.” We were in his care because, crazy though it appeared to friends and family around us, we’d made that move because we believed it was God’s purpose for us. We followed the call believing that the God who called was worthy of our trust.
Who first taught you what it meant to have faith?
Today I’m concluding a brief mini sermon series on the book of Hebrews. If you’re anywhere near my age, the title “We Gotta Have Faith” might remind you of the 1980’s pop hit song by George Michael, “I Gotta Have Faith.” But you’ll notice I’ve made use of a different pronoun. It is the plural personal pronoun, “we.” Just as there is no “I” in team, there is no “I” in Church. And faith is not a private matter. In fact, faith that is not visible, observable to those around us is an oxymoron.
This morning’s verses from the book of Hebrews were just a small portion of a section of scripture that encompasses 40 verses and highlights the faith of 16 people by name and thousands of others who remain nameless. This is the Hall of Fame of the Faithful and here’s what’s important to notice: that faith can’t be defined in a vacuum or in any abstract sense. It can’t be defined apart from the faith-ful, those who make it visible. Faith is seen and comprehended by observing and interacting with the faithful. I learned what faith was by seeing my parents demonstrate it in bold and powerful ways. Faith was the only possible explanation for that crazy move to Ohio. It wasn’t done to make life easier; life got harder. It wasn’t done for financial gain; we got poorer. It wasn’t done for notoriety. When my dad returned to PA, no one particularly knew or cared about any ministry “success” he’d achieved during his Ohio sojourn. Faith, my friends, is not a system of beliefs designed to earn us convenience, progress, prosperity or comfort. In fact, it will often earn us the opposite. Well-known southern preacher and story-teller Fred Craddock writes that:
Hebrews 11 offers two portraits of the life of faith.
One image is filled with triumph and victory over all enemies,
with dramatic deliverances from all threats and dangers,
even death; the other is marked by torture, public mocking,
imprisonment, beatings, stoning, homelessness,
destitution, hiding in caves, and violent death.
Hebrews simply entitles both portraits “faith.”
Faith does not calculate results and thus believe…
Faith, my friends, isn’t taught. Faith is caught; we catch it by observing the faith of others. Who first taught you what it meant to have faith? Who first taught you by their boldness and courage that faith was absolute reliance on Jesus; that faith was hope put into action? Who first taught you what it meant to have faith?
Too often, Christian faith gets reduced to a belief system or a set of moral rules. But faith is about living out a relationship with Jesus, the one who is worthy of our trust; who was faithful to us even unto death. Faith is about living in a way that makes clear that our relationship with Jesus permeates, influences, determines every area of our life, every moment of our days.
We can’t notice it in English because of the way that it is translated but in the original Greek of the New Testament, Hebrews chapter 11 is framed by what’s known as an inclusio. Verse 2 of the chapter reads: “Indeed, by faith, our ancestors gave witness.” Then, verse 39 reads, “Yet all these, giving witness to the faith.” The word there is martureo, to give witness. Friends: to give a witness implies speech or behavior of a public nature, right? When we were living in Dayton, I saw a man pull a gun on another man in the alley behind our house. I called the police who showed up at my house later that night. They had found the two men – the one with the gun and the one it was pointed at. The gun slinger had been taken to the city jail. Now they wanted to know, “Would I come by the station the next morning and ID the man? And, if I agreed and charges were pursued and it went to trial, I could be called to give witness under oath in court.” I had a sleepless night. I lived in that neighborhood, diagonal to a crack house. That’s where the men had been. Giving witness could be, potentially, a very dangerous thing ‘cause discreet and witness don’t go together. There’s no “giving a witness” on the down-low. It’s about being obvious and visible and bold.
Friends, who first taught you what it meant to have faith? Now, here’s an even bigger question, “Who will you teach?” Who will YOU teach about what it means to have faith? What are people learning about the boldness of faith by watching you? If we want to inspire others to develop a life-changing, life-transforming relationship with Jesus, they’ve got to be able to see the results of that in us. This is what I believe folks: I am firmly convinced that people aren’t passing Christianity over because it asks too much of them. I am convinced that people in America today are passing Christianity over because, when they observe us, Christianity seems to ask too little of them. If people can’t look at us and see that they way we live our lives isn’t entirely different because of Jesus, then what is there to see? Nothing; they can just move along.
So I want to challenge us this morning as individuals and as a church: where in your life is Jesus calling you to be bold, to take a risk, to step out of your comfort zone… ‘cause if you notice that list of bible folk, that’s all about folks who heard a call and took a giant risk. Think about Abraham. That dude was old, really old. And God just told him to pull up all those tent pegs and get moving. I mean, don’t you think he might have had Sciatica and he must have had at least some arthritis at that age. But off he goes. So where in your life is Jesus calling you to be bold, to take a risk, to step out of your comfort zone? And, if you don’t know, start praying more and listening harder cause faith that’s not visible and observable is an oxymoron.
I’m done preaching. But here’s the thing… you still might not beat the Presbyterians to lunch and here’s why… because this morning, after the offering, I want to ask you to tell me, really, who taught you what it meant to have faith? I want you to tell me, who are some of the people in this church or other churches that taught you what it meant to have faith? Now, I don’t want to hear about people who were hard workers and showed up reliably to help out. That’s important. We appreciate folks who are loyal servants in the church. We do. But it doesn’t take great trust, great risk, great boldness to make coffee every week or count the offering or mow the lawn, right? Again, that doesn’t mean those things aren’t important and it doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate the people who do them. But I want to know, who were the people who said to you that it didn’t matter if there weren’t enough people or enough money or enough time or enough whatever but that, if it was something God wanted us to do, we could do it AND we would do it because God would faithfully keep us. Who are the people who taught you what it meant to have faith?
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