Sermon for Proper 14, Year C
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
Lectionary Readings (Track 2)
One of the great joys of summer nights is finding a clear, starry night to look up toward the skies. I still love a good evening of stargazing. In the summers of my youth, I spent what seemed like hours looking up at the stars and searching for constellations in the vast night sky. Sometimes it was cloudy, or the lights of contemporary life would get in the way of clear vision. But I loved it when the sky was cloudless, and filled with stars. The longer I looked, the more my eyes would adjust and the further it seemed that I could see. There were times when I felt entirely alone in the world, as we sometimes do. But in that vast expanse of space, there was also an assurance that like the stars in those constellations, I was connected with others in a way that perhaps I couldn’t see. Standing beneath those stars, I had a conviction that there was more to this life, to this universe, and to the vastness of God’s creation than I could see or feel at that moment.
One summer during my star-gazing wonder years, I went on an evening field trip to a planetarium. I remember looking up at the domed roof when the presentation began and seeing the entire night sky emerging with a clarity unlike anything I had been able to see with my own eyes. At first, I thought it was a movie being projected for us; then the guide explained this was not a movie: this was the night sky right above us, coming into greater clarity with the aid of a high-powered telescope. I remember feeling mind-blown; I suddenly knew with certainty that the conviction I had was true: there was more to this universe than I could ever see on my own.
I imagine Abraham standing in the pit of his own human sense of inadequacy, feeling much the same as you are I might when that which we hope for doesn’t seem to be emerging. And as he stood there in that vulnerable place, the heavens began to open up for him with the assistance of God’s telescopic vision. Abraham, grounded in hope and yet standing in a place of his personal scarcity was given a divine revelation beyond human comprehension. Like a young child suddenly made aware of the vastness of the heavens, Abraham’s hope became conviction. “And Abraham believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Faith is born of God’s unconditional love and our human yearning to respond to that love. It is the tension between hope and certainty. In the Epistle to the Hebrews, we hear familiar examples of the faith of Abraham, echoing the first lesson we read today. But attunement to the context of this letter means putting ourselves in the constellation of Hebrew Christians living in a Greco-Roman world. Faith, in Greek is πίστις. In Greek mythology; Pistis was the one pure and good spirit held in Pandora’s jar (box) who, once released, fled the earth and escaped back to the heavens. So, faith was not on this earth; faith had escaped to reside in the heavens.
Imagine, in that cultural context surrounding the early church what it meant to profess faith, and to hold the Christian conviction that God has become embodied in Jesus Christ, incarnate God-made-human to dwell on this earth. Heaven had come to dwell with us, returning faith to our midst. And thus, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews sees and names the profoundly counter-cultural conviction that this incarnate love of God is the basis of our faith: in Christ, the embodiment of God, resides faith. This faith is not only known in heaven but also here on earth.
Like a high-powered telescope, this heightened understanding of faith expands our vision and helps us see further into the Gospel lesson: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” If heavenly faith has come to dwell with us here, why would we even need to worry about stockpiling these finite resources? God has come to dwell with us, and faith resides in that relationship.
Howard Thurman, theologian, mystic and civil rights activist reflects poignantly on the nature of this kind of transforming, convicting faith in the way we live our daily lives in this relationship with God. In his book, Deep is the Hunger, Thurman writes:
“The human spirit has two fundamental demands that must be met relative to God. First, [God] must be vast, limitless, transcendent, all-comprehensive, so that there is no thing that is outside the wide reaches of [God’s] apprehension. The stars in the universe, the great galaxies of spatial groupings moving in endless rhythmic patterns in the trackless skies, as well as the tiny blade of grass by the roadside, are all within [God’s] grasp. The second demand is that God be personal and intimate…all of us want the assurance of not being deserted by life nor deserted in life. Faith teaches us that God is—that [God] is the fact of life from which all other things take their meaning and reality.” (p. 159)
So, for those of you for whom all this week’s talk of far-off stars and heavenly treasure still seems a bit too obscure, let me offer a tangible, everyday example of God’s vastness and our connectedness which resides right here at home. Last Friday, I began my day with Morning Prayer, then went to work at VCU and at lunch-time walked over to help out with the Red Door Ministry at Grace and Holy Trinity where I also supervise two social work interns who work with people experiencing homelessness and food insecurity. A young woman came in for Red Door lunch. She was quiet, and scared, and had just been evicted and didn’t know what to do. We sat with her and made sure she was connected with the homeless point of entry and the YWCA. I sent her off with a fervent prayer that the system…which I know has many holes…would work for her and that she would find a safe place to stay. I went back to my office at VCU after the lunch program and finished some work. I decided to pack up some books to bring here to St. Mark’s on my way home, where I am slowly moving in to my soon-to-be-office. When I arrived here and pulled into the back parking lot, I saw a few parish volunteers along with women waiting to come in for CARITAS intake. And among that group of people, I recognized the same young woman I’d spoken with earlier that day. When she arrived at the point of entry, she was referred that same day to CARITAS intake, landing her right here in your midst at St. Mark’s. As I walked into the parish hall, I was greeted by Diana, the CARITAS site manager. She and I are connected through CirclesRVA, but now I was seeing her in action in her work with CARITAS. In less than five minutes, I’d given multiple hugs to people who had originally crossed my path in my life at VCU, with Red Door, with CirclesRVA, and at Grace and Holy Trinity. And now here we all were in the midst of the warmth and hospitality you were offering to women in CARITAS, including this young woman who hours earlier had been terrified and unsure of where to go and who to trust. Here, she was held and loved and known, in the midst of a constellation of grace and connection. I watched as conviction and faith renewed in the expression on her face. When I left that evening, she told me she was confident that she would get back on her feet, and knew that she had support. That Friday expanded my vision and renewed my conviction, too: God is present in all these great and small actions of our lives; God yearns for the invitation to help us see God in each other, just as much as we yearn to know God.
“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
The good news for us today is that we, too, are a part of both the vastness and the personal presence of God in this world. There are times when we may feel alone, or overwhelmed, or discouraged and disgusted by what we can see of the world around us. But God is with us, and God’s vision surpasses our own. When we catch a glimpse of that vision and are emboldened to act out of the conviction of our faith, our efforts are never in vain. Our connections with each other are vast, like the expanse of the stars in the heavens. But God knows them, and works with them and with us to restore this broken world to a wholeness of God’s vision. Sometimes we catch a glimpse of this one person…one shining star…at a time. Sometimes we see God in the connections we form with each other, emerging like constellations in the night sky. In all these moments we lean with conviction into the faith that we are a part of something larger than we are, even if we can’t see everything clearly just yet. And this, too, is reckoned to us as righteousness. We come to know this in the faith which dwells in our hearts, when we open our eyes and engage with our actions to do the work that God calls for us to do.