A sermon on Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16 (with some help from Firefly)
I had an, flamboyant, friend in college who was known to say, “this is me, get in orbit”. [hand motion] Actually, sometimes it was just the hand motion. And I discovered in telling this story recently, that I might be alone in finding it absolutely hilarious. This might be because I remember his face, his voice, his stance…maybe you just had to be there. Or it might be that along with his face pops to mind all these images of strange drawings and outrageous models of geocentric universes.
For millennia people believed Earth stood at the center of the universe, and they conceptualized this in many different ways, reaching their climax in medieval Europe. they tended to look like this.
I mean look at that, is complicated and delicate, and absurd and beautiful. And at the center of it all: us. [hand motion]
Then along came Copernicus and Galileo. They thought the universe looked more like this.
But no one was eager to listen. They believed in the old system.
They misplaced the center. To be fair no one was talking about mass or gravity yet. They didn’t realize the Earth could not sustain that field of influence. That with Earth at the center, everything would spin off. Or maybe they just weren’t reading enough Hebrews. This book is all about finding the center.
We all have to have a center. We need one, it’s in our nature. The writer of Hebrews knows this, and has just spent 10 chapters establishing Christ as the only center. He’s been building to this point. Here he shifts and begins to make the cast for faith in God.
If you’ve ever written a term paper, you might recognize v.1-3. They’re a thesis statement. The rest of the chapter, really the rest of the book are riffs on this melody. It reads a little like Merriam-Webster, but it isn’t so much a definition as it is a sketch, or a lavishly painted portrait of faith.
When I first read this text, I was reminded of a more modern portrait. One I’ve watched many times on DVD. Firefly was a short lived television show on Fox. In this clip we meet two people. River is a genius on the order of DiVinci. She is incredibly intelligent, but slightly damaged. Book is a preacher and nomadic monk. They are traveling together in a larger group and Book is looking after River for the day.
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval.” It’s about believing in something bigger than yourself and letting that belief be real enough to change your life… This is more than an affirmation, this is a radical centering that anchors our lives in a larger story, and drives us to action.
Faith anchors us in a story; it grounds our experience in a larger context. Despite what celebrity publicist would have you believe, the notion of a autobiography is fairly absurd. You can never truly tell the story of your own life; partly because by the time the story is finished you’re dead, but mostly because a life has no meaning in isolation. The interconnections, our interactions render our lives intelligible. It is the forces that shape us and the ways we in turn shape others that reveal the truth of who we are. Our small story must have context.
The story Hebrews’ author tells is a grand one. Beginning with Abel, he walks, patriarch by patriarch, forward through the history of God’s people. In essence the author is saying, these stories, this story, is our story. We are not alone. This Christianity is not a new idea, but an ancient faith stretching back to the foundations of the world. It sets us as a people, and as individuals, in an enormous context.
The section we heard lingers over Abraham, making he and Sarah archetypes of faith. We see here the beginning of our story. God makes a promise to Abram and Sarai that becomes the foundation for God’s special relationship with Israel. That promise will not be fulfilled for generations, but still it becomes a grounding for their hope.
On the strength of that hope alone, the reading says, “he set out, not knowing where he was going”. See that’s the interesting thing. Faith will ground you, but it never leaves you where you are. Faith in God, always, inevitably and continually drives you to your neighbor. It has too, because that is our story. It can be summed up so simply, “Love God, Love your neighbor as yourself”, yet it has played out across ages and it will keep playing out till the kingdom fully come, because it is profoundly powerful.
And it just keeps pushing.
Faith drives you onward, maybe even to places you didn’t expect. Hopefully it brought you here today. Where is it pushing you next? Is it to learn more about God? Is it into ministry at Chapelwood: teaching children, or welcoming newcomers, or shepherding stewardship? Is it pressing you out to fight hunger, or carry Christ into the prisons? Faith is dynamic. When we center our lives as Abram did, we will be grounded. We will also be led.
As humans, our lives must have a center. We need to be anchored in a story, we need a force to drive us. We must have faith in something. But something, can be anything.
What is the object of your faith? What is your center? Since we’re sitting in church, the right answer must be God, but is that the correct answer? What does your life revolve around? Why do you go to work? What do you do in your free time? What is your last thought at night? What gets you out of bed in the morning? That is where your faith lies.
In modern language faith is an easy word. We use it for many things. But faith as Hebrews uses it can have only one object, one focus, one anchor, one driving force. And faith in God, real faith, the kind of faith that fixes you forces us to admit, we are not the center of our lives. You are not the center of your life. You are not its author or director. You aren’t its main object; it’s not about you. And that is a very good thing.
We cannot successfully be the center of our lives. Nor can money, or power, or family, or work, or even service for its own sake. We may place those things at the center. But none of them generate the kind of gravity real faith requires. Like the Earth, they simply cannot sustain that field of influence without things spinning off.
There is only one true center, one Son. When that is the focus of our faith, how wondrous will be our orbit. It may not always be easy, there will certainly be darkness, but our path is a fixed one. God led Abram to the promise land, he brought the Israelites back over and over. He overcame death and carried God’s people through countless persecutions worldwide. God will not give out on you–not now, not ever. Through faith God will sustain us to the fulfillment of God’s promises.
That is the full gravity of faith. Anchored in the story of God’s expansive love, we are sent forth to our neighbors, to our world. That is the promise and the call of Hebrews. That is a belief big enough to change your life. That is the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things not yet seen. That is truly what it means to be a faithful people of God.