Sermon
August 16, 1998
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Pat Nicholas
Pat Nicholas is a recent graduate of Yale Divinity School. She lives in New Milford with her husband Dave, and children Kevin and Caroline. For eight years she served as the Director of Christian Education at the First Congregational Church of New Milford. This past year, Pat served an internship at the South Britain Congregational Church. Currently, she is In Care of the Litchfield South Association, and is seeking a call to ordained ministry.
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Scripture Reading

Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16

The author of Hebrews defines faith saying, "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." Today, we see that saying done in beautiful calligraphy on cards, and on posters. As often happens in our society this complex concept has been turned into a catchy phrase, a kind of like a commercial jingle, it’s short, it’s easy to say, easy to remember. I remember when I first came across this phrase beautifully scripted on - a coffee mug - and I thought, "Oh, wow just what I was looking for – a definition for faith - a simple answer for the question I had been grappling with for so long." And here it is right on the front of this coffee mug. But the more I thought about it the more I thought - - OK - "The assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." Now what does that really mean? And I was right back where I started. Now after three years of seminary and many books of theology later, after reading the thoughts of the Christian Fathers, and assorted dissertations on the meaning of faith– I keep coming back to this definition in Hebrews because the author of this sermon goes on to show what he means by this definition of faith, there’s more to it than just this catchy phrase, and his definition makes sense to me in a very real way – a way that I can apply to my own life.

The people to whom this sermon is written are second or third generation Christians. They are living in a time after the apostles, so most likely their Christian education has been passed down to them from missionaries spreading the Good News. They themselves have not experienced the first hand knowledge of Jesus, but they have experienced first hand the struggle, the work, and the persecution of being Christians. They are tired and losing confidence. What good has their faith brought them anyway. They have given their lives to Christ. The worst of the persecution is over, but the promises they had looked forward to have not yet happened. So why should they go on believing in the promises of God? Haven’t they become Christians, aren’t they followers of Jesus? Haven’t they done their part? Hebrews is a response to their questions, and the author urges them to ‘keep the faith’ to hold fast to what they know is true, even though they can not see it God’s love for them is assured. In this part of the text he gives them a very clear and pragmatic way of seeing themselves not just as Christians, struggling in the here and now, but as members of a history of salvation that goes back to the beginning of time.

In a rhythmic litany the author recounts the stories of the prophets, saints and heroes who ‘By faith’ have come before them. Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Jacob are named in this particular reading, but Abel, Enoch, Noah, Moses, Rehab and others are also lifted up in Hebrews as those who followed God, obediently walking in faith, even when all the promises they labored for were not received in their lifetimes. ‘By faith’ they lived according to God’s will, knowing that even if they could only see the promises from a distance in this life, that God’s promise of salvation is sure. Through the history of God’s faithful people, made perfect in Jesus Christ, God’s promises are for all those who live in faith. The promises of God are assured for them and they are assured for us. But this isn’t a ‘intellectual exercise’ or a ‘pie-in-the-sky dream’ it’s a real life - lived faith. It’s faith lived one day at a time.

Fred Craddock a world renown preacher and scholar uses this analogy: "We think giving our all to the Lord is like taking a $1,000 bill and laying it on the table. Here’s my life Lord, I’m giving it all. But the reality for most of us is that God sends us to the bank and has us cash the $1,000 bill for quarters. We go though life putting out 25 cents here 50 cents there. Usually giving our life to Christ isn’t glorious its done in little acts of love 25 cents at a time. It would be easy to go out in a flash of glory - it’s harder to live the Christian life little by little over the long haul."

It would be nice if we could profess our faith and just let God do the rest, plunk our money down, or maybe set up an electronic bank account that God could access directly and be done with it. But faith isn’t a once and done deed, it’s an ongoing process. We have to continually follow God’s will with a pocket full of change, reaching into our pockets and reaching out to others one day, one quarter at a time. Living in faith, like walking around with a pocketful of change isn’t easy. Pocket change is heavy. If you walk around with a pocketful of change - it jingles and jangles and weighs you down – you are aware of it with every step you take. How many of us are that aware of our faith?

Now the Christians in Hebrews are losing faith they have put their money down and they are getting tired of waiting for the pay-off. The author of this text acknowledges their hardship and tells them that God has not forgotten them. To show them what faith looks like he points to the stories of people that are familiar to these Christians, people who serve as examples of how to live in faith. And to live in faith is the key to this definition. In this definition of faith, faith is not a noun, a thing to be named and contemplated, debated and intellectualized. Faith is a verb. It is acted out in the lives of those committed to Christ. We come to be Christians, we learn to live in faith by following the example of real people in our lives, people who like those named in this text, join all those who have come before. And we become part of the great cloud of witness that stretches across the millennium.

In a book of daily meditations, Madeleine L’Engle explores the question of faith and tells of the response of the great preacher, Phillips Brooks, when asked by an earnest questioner why he was a Christian. She says, Brooks thought seriously for a moment and then replied, "I think I am a Christian because of my aunt, who lives in Teaneck New Jersey." This may seem to be a rather flip answer to a serious question, but I think it is probably the truest possible response.

Like Phillip Brooks’ most of us come to be Christians and to know what faith looks like through the example and influence of people in our lives. We have faith because we have met faith - we have seen it in action. I don’t have an aunt in Teaneck, but I have been blessed to have people in my life who live life with the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen. And I’m sure that you can all think of those people who have made a difference in your own lives. For me, it is impossible to think about what faith looks like, or my own faith journey without thinking about those real people in my life and particularly the people of this church. I have met faith and seen faith in action - right here - in the lives and the deeds of the people who make up this church. There are many people here who I look to as models of what a life of faith looks like. People who by their example have shown me how perseverance and trust in God can change the way we look at the world, how it can shift our focus to what is truly worthwhile in this life. I have been blessed to have the love of this congregation, to have people recognize and encourage my abilities and look the other way when there are mistakes - and there are plenty! Most of those people, however, would probably be surprised if I mentioned them by name, because just like Fred Craddock’s analogy, the people who have touched my life most profoundly have done it 25 cents at a time through small acts of kindness, support and caring, over and over again - because that’s just the way they live life.

This may sound like it’s not a really big deal, how hard can it be to give 25 cents at a time. But make no mistake, the journey of faith, isn’t easy for any of us. The people in Hebrews lost their property and endured persecution and imprisonment in the name of Christ. The author of Hebrews is trying to show these weary Christians is that it might not be easy to live faithfully, but it’s worth whatever effort they put into it - an it takes a lot of effort.

We don’t live with the kind of persecution that the people in Hebrews knew. In comparison, it would seem that we are free and clear to live as Christians - after all there’s nothing to stop us - nothing standing in our way. But I think we sometimes lose sight of exactly how difficult it is for us to keep Christ the focus of our lives. We miss the stumbling blocks in our own paths because they aren’t obvious - we don’t live with political persecution or extreme poverty. Quite the opposite, the obstacles in our path are more often the products of abundance and ease. We live in freedom so surrounded by material goods and plentiful pleasures that we sometimes just forget to look to God for meaning and purpose in our lives. But no matter what our circumstance, who we are, or when or where we live God calls each one of us to walk in faith - everyday of our lives. Not an easy assignment for anyone.

The journey may not be smooth, we may take one step back for every two steps forward, but if we continue to trust in the promises of God, we will find like the faithful people who have gone thousands of years before us - and the people in our own lives who have shown us by their example - that it is only step by step - day by day - 25 cents at a time - over the long haul that brings us to a real understanding of what it means to live with the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

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