Hebrews 11 and 12, selected verses (scroll down to read)*
The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson
Fort Collins, CO
On August 29, 2010, I stood in this pulpit for the last time as your interim associate minister. And I preached from the same passage you just heard Harmony/Scott read. I was finishing my summer with you and Sharon Benton was returning. I did not think I would stand here again in ministry. I said to you, “It may be that our paths will not cross again in the future….or they may cross again sooner than we think…but if they do it will be a new path…this path of me working alongside you as your interim associate minister is coming to the end…to the T or the fork in the road and we will move into a different path of relationship... “
Who knew that I would be back?! I will confess that on that Sunday, I was beginning to suspect that I would be back as a church member, dating Hal. But not that I would again come to you in an interim situation .... that I would be one of your Acting Associate Ministers and then one of your settled Associate Ministers as I am now. What a blessing! What a path of faith it has been for me in these last nine years, professionally and personally. And don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere else any time soon! Still on this path! I am so blessed that you saw fit to call me to work alongside Hal and Jake – and now Hal and someone else the Spirit is preparing for Plymouth. We do not know where faith will lead us, do we?
Let’s talk a little about the faith we just heard about in our passage from the book of Hebrews. Hebrews is a strange little book...its not really a letter to Hebrew people as the name might imply. Scholars actually call it a sermon....and it was most likely not written by Paul the apostle, but by an anonymous apostle, probably for a congregation of Jewish Christians between the years 60 and 95 CE. Late in the first century. These are second generation Christians who have most likely been under persecution. They are tired and thus the continued exhortation throughout the sermon to keep the faith....the faith in Jesus the Christ who has shown the world the powerful workings of God in his life, death and resurrection.
I love the lyricism of the phrase our passage began with. Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. It reminds me that faith is not believing in 10 impossible things before breakfast each morning. It is not a set of intellectual tenants, progressive though they may be…not a code of ethics….not a creed or a statement to which we give intellectual assent as helpful as those may be. Faith is more of a verb than a noun. It is an action. It is a way of living. It is a “living into” as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke suggests in his in oft-quoted letter to a younger poet,
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”[i]
The Greek word for faith, pistis means trust. Pistis is a heart word, not a head word and holds the implication that actions will be taken based on that trust. We really only know trust in acting on it…do we not? In living it. How can we understand trust…until we act on what we trust? We can look at the chair all we want knowing in our heads that it will hold us up when we sit down…but until we do sit down…we do not really trust the chair…do we? And in sitting down we move from intellectual assent that the chair will hold us to experiential assent of our body and our heart in trusting that the chair does indeed hold us up.
To faith is to trust. To faith is to fully accept the gift of God’s unconditional love. Faith is trusting from the deepest recesses of our hearts that in God we will live into the answers to our questions. Faith is the intimate desire for union with the deepest parts of ourselves and others where the Spirit of God dwells. As a Christian, faith is trusting the vision that the way of Jesus, following Jesus as the pioneer and perfecter of “faithing”, is the way to become who we are made to be in God’s image. Following the way of Jesus is the way through the suffering we all encounter in life and the shame that can accompany that suffering. Jesus for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame. He set the example of faith in trusting the God’s unconditional love even in death.
The writer of Hebrews takes great pains to let us know that this way of faith, the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen, this trust in God’s unconditional love has always been God’s way of working in the world…even before the life of Jesus. The writer’s grand litany of ancestors and their faith is even longer than what you actually heard in our text today. Check out the whole of Hebrews chapter 11. It is indeed a great cloud of witnesses! We are the beneficiaries of their faith, their extraordinary trust in God. It is important to the writer of Hebrews that we know that our ancient ancestors, those before Christ, are beneficiaries of our trust in the ways of Jesus. There is a symbiotic relationship as we are all gathered into God! For we are all made in God’s image.
I love the image of being surrounded by this cloud of witnesses...it give me comfort, particularly as I add to it my own family ancestors in faith, grandparents, great grandparents, parents, beloved believers I have known in the churches I have loved and served, loved ones who have gone before me into the unknown life of what is next for us. People I may have only read about or whose writings I have read, but who have inspired me with their faith. Think for a moment of who those witnesses might be for you.
When we trust the great cloud of faith witnesses that have come before us, when we trust our own “faithing” we discover that we are compelled to action. Setting our sites on the way of Jesus we become more of who we are made to be in God’s image and we live more fully into God’s ways of love and justice in the world. When we realize we are held in God’s love, we are compelled to love our neighbor because we know we are all God’s beloveds. We are connected here and now as well as across time. Nothing separates us. We are compelled – each one of us, not just those of us up here in the funny robes– to step into new paths of ministry and service and the new relationships these bring. We hear God’s call to the ministry of our lives. We are strengthened in faith, in trust, to take actions, large or small which can change the very fabric of the cosmos as we work with God.
My friends, I share all this with you today because I have found faith, trust, at work in my life over and over. Looking back over the last nine years since I last preached on this text standing in this pulpit I am keenly aware of how faith has seen me through particularly when I thought I was standing alone in the dark. I know we often wonder these days if we are standing in the dark as a country. And I know that personally we each face the darkness in some way.
Writer and photographer, Teju Cole, teaches us about “qarrtsiluni” — an Inuit word that means ‘sitting together in the dark.’” He says, “Maybe that moment of contemplation, that moment of quiet sorrow, is the anteroom to what the solution, someday, could be.”[ii] The late civil rights activist and Iliff School of Theology professor, Vincent Harding, also understood standing in the dark. He is remembered as saying that too often as folks who want to help others we think our job is to bring people from the dark into the light. What if our job is to stand with them in the dark as we all eventually live into the light? He practiced this in the programs he developed for youth in tough situations. The Spirit may have revelations for those in the dark that they might not ever experience if we try to drag them into the light on our own power, trying to fix everything.[iii] It’s our loving task to first stand with them and listen with them in the dark, in that moment of contemplation and even sorrow. The God who accompanied Jesus even in the dark of the cross and led him through death to resurrection will also accompany us.
Faith is calling us all to go deeper. Go deeper as we step out in faith in a new program year of study and learning together. Are you called to participate or even teach in our Christian formation classes? Go deeper as we step out in faith as an Immigrant Welcoming congregation. Are you called to volunteer and stand with people who are working toward legal documentation? Who are concerned that family members could be deported? Go deeper as we join the “End Gun Violence” ministry team. Go deeper as we surprise ourselves by saying “yes” instead of “no” when asked to help with church hospitality. Go deeper as we pray for our search committee and it’s process. Go deeper as we pray for the discernment of a candidate who may be called to come among us as a new ministerial leader. Go deeper.....you finish the sentence. How are you being compelled to the action of going deeper in faith?
May we all remember… since we are surrounded by [and not separated from] so great a cloud of witnesses, [we can] lay aside every weight and [all that separates us from the love of God]; [we can] run with perseverance the race that is set before us looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith... Let us stand with one another and with our neighbors in faith, in the dark and in the light, knowing we will be sustained by the grace and love of God. May it be so. Amen.
© 2019 The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, all rights reserved.
[ii] “The Pause”, a weekly email from The On-Being Project”
[iii] From an On Being podcast. A Conversation with Darnell Moore.
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for,
the conviction of things not seen.
Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval.
By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God,
so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out
for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance;
and he set out, not knowing where he was going.
[By faith Sarah conceived Isaac the son of promise…
By faith Moses’ sister hid him in the bulrushes…]
By faith Moses, when he was grown up,
refused to be called a son of Pharaoh's daughter,
choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God….
By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land…
By faith the walls of Jericho fell
after they had been encircled for seven days.
By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish
with those who were disobedient,
because she had received the spies in peace.
And what more should [we] say?
For time would fail to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson,
of Deborah and Jephthah’s daughter,
of David and Jonathan, of Hannah and Samuel and the prophets--
who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice,
obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions,
quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword,
[birthed children of promise], won strength out of weakness,
became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.
Others suffered mocking and flogging,
and even chains and imprisonment.
They wandered in deserts and mountains,
and in caves and holes in the ground.
Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith,
did not receive all the promises of God,
since God was providing something even more full
so that they would not, separate from us, be made perfect.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by [and not separated from]
so great a cloud of witnesses,
let us also lay aside every weight and the sin
that clings so closely [and that separates us from God],
and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,
looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,
who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross,
disregarding its shame,
and has taken his seat
at the right hand of the throne of God.
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
June 17, 2018
I’ve been wondering…what is it that has kept people coming to church for the past 2,000 years? What is it that we’ve got that other groups and organizations don’t have? Let’s face it, the ACLU does social justice better than we do. The federal government supplies more housing that we can ever hope to. Laudamus and the Larimer Chorale are more polished than our choir…even though we share some of the same singers. CSU does a better job at young adult education than we do. And even though we love potlucks and Ice Cream Sunday, Austin’s and Walrus Ice Cream have superior offerings. And Snapchat is a lot better at reaching millions of teens with smartphones than we ever will be in youth group. The coffee is better at Starbucks than it is at our coffee hour. And you might hear more articulate people if you were to stay at home and watch CBS Sunday Morning than you’ll encounter here at Plymouth, even in this pulpit.So, maybe we should cash it in while we can.
If we sold our property for $9 million, that would mean that each member of the church would get about $12,500. If you read all of the studies about mainline decline and read the self-flagellating books and articles about how narrow-minded, bigoted, and anti-intellectual we Christians are you might want to cash in your chips and just become spiritual but not religious. Certainly, plenty of people have done just that.
And for our staff, we could be making a lot more money as lawyers, professors, or in the corporate world. And we’d get to have three-day weekends, wouldn’t be on call 24-7, and wouldn’t have to work on Christmas Eve or Easter.
So, what has kept people coming to church for 2,000 years? Is it just our social justice and music programs or coffee hour?
Here at Plymouth we DO act for social justice. And we are one of the most active venues for participative music each week. And we do have outstanding adult theological education. And we do have food free-for-alls that welcome you, whether you contribute or not. And we do instill a profound sense of morals and values in our children and youth. And you might actually gain some insights in hearing promptings from the pulpit or in a coffee hour dialogue. And to my colleagues, you get to do amazingly meaningful and fulfilling work.
But this still doesn’t answer my question: What has kept people coming to church for 2,000 years?
Back when the UCC entered a full-communion agreement with the ELCA Lutherans, a wise and bold Lutheran pastor speaking at the UCC General Synod offered these words of challenge to us: You need to remember that UCC doesn’t stand for United Church of Causes, it stands for United Church of Christ. She knew one of the pitfalls of our denomination: that we sometimes substitute working for social causes for being the body of Christ. To be sure, acting for social justice is an important component of the way many of us live out our tradition, but it is not an end in itself. What does it mean for us, the church, to be the body of Christ in the world? Paul writes, “Now, you (plural) are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” [1 Corinthians 12.27]
About a year and a half ago, I was sitting in a doctor’s office, and I heard the words that many of us dread: “You’ve got cancer.” What do you do with that news? Other than scaring the Dickens out of myself by reading way too much conflicting information on the internet, I’ll tell you what I did: I prayed. You see, there is nothing that the ACLU or the Larimer Chorale or CBS Sunday Morning or Snapchat could do to help me navigate the scary waters of cancer treatment. But, my faith – and by faith I mean a trusting relationship with God – my faith gave me the tools to walk through a very scary time. And unlike most other folks with cancer, I had to make my news very public with all of you, which was not comfortable or easy, but it was the right thing to do. That line in the unison prayer this morning struck me: “We pray not for smooth seas, but for a stout ship, a good compass, and a strong heart.” A solid, trusting relationship with God is a stout ship with a good compass, and it provides us a strong heart.
Every morning, during my prayer time, I started offering this as one of my prayers: “Circle me, God, keep wholeness within and cancer without.” And it is a prayer that I continue to offer for the members of our church who are living with cancer. You may not know I’m praying for you each day, but I am. “Circle us, God, keep wholeness within and cancer without.”
I was out having a beer with one of our members on February 1st this year, when my iPhone rang. I couldn’t understand Jane Anne’s voice through her tears; so my son, Chris, got on the phone and told me the news that strikes fear into the heart of every parent: that one of our sons, Colin, had died. And I raced home across town and held Jane Anne tight. I hope that none of you ever has to go through what we went through this year, but if you do, I hope that your faith in God sustains you. I didn’t know what else to do after we received this news, so I lit a candle and prayed. In the middle of the night, our doorbell rang, and a Fort Collins police officer appeared to make the official notification of Colin’s death. And then there was a discussion with the medical examiner and the funeral director and picking up Colin’s belongings from the coroner’s office. And we decided to be very frank and open with the congregation in telling you that the cause of death was suicide. That level of transparency was not obligatory…and God knows it wasn’t easy or comfortable. But it was the right thing to do. We were trying to embody healthy communication: that even when it’s hard, uncomfortable, jarring, difficult news, it is important to tell it straight, be honest, and be direct. That kind of open communication helps keep the body of Christ, the church, healthy. I can also tell you that the only way Jane Anne and I are standing here this morning is because of our faith in God and because of your faith and prayers pulling us along. In the week after his death, I had a very strong feeling come over me, a feeling that let me know that Colin was at peace. Our prayers together with your prayers and expressions of God’s love created a wave of faithful expression that kept us afloat…and they still keep us afloat!
What has kept people coming back to the church for 2,000 years?
Part of the answer is that when life gets very, very real…when you think the world is crumbling…faith in God will keep you going. And life WILL get real for each of us. We will get a pink slip at work. We will learn that our parents or spouses or (God forbid) children have died. We will hear the doctor utter the words of an unfavorable diagnosis. And eventually each one of us will die.
It may be in those moments when we most clearly rely on the strength of our faith in God, because no matter how intellectually astute or wealthy or young or accomplished or seemingly bulletproof we are…life gets real. And then there is nothing that the ACLU or the Larimer Chorale or CBS Sunday Morning can do to make you see that death is not the final word, that the sun will indeed rise tomorrow, that you are part of something bigger. Unlike the ACLU, Larimer Chorale, or CBS Sunday Morning, we comprise the body of Christ in the world.
That tiny, little mustard seed…that’s what the kingdom of God is like. Maybe the church is like that mustard seed, too. It may look tiny compared to other seeds, but when it takes root and gets going, it can be explosive. And it’s exciting to be a part of that…to dream of what God is calling us to become! And you know that Jesus also said that if your faith is the size of just a little mustard seed that your faith has the power to move mountains.
If you are like me, sometimes you may feel that your faith – your trust in God and Christ – is really tiny…that it may not be adequate or up to the job when life gets real. Faith is like a muscle in that it needs fuel and exercise in order to grow; it needs to be nurtured and used so that it will grow.
For those of us who are (or are trying to be) physically fit, how much time do you spend training each week? 3 hours? 5 hours? 7 hours? And for those of us who are trying to be spiritually fit, how much time do you spend exercising your faith? I’m doing a lot of swimming right now, and it occurred to me that spending 15 minutes praying each morning doesn’t compare favorably with the time I spend swimming. And if you need help with a spiritual practice or workout, please come and see me…I have ideas!
But you don’t need to be a spiritual Ironman. No, you just need faith like a mustard seed and to water it, give it air and light and soil. Maybe that’s part of why people keep coming back to church after 2,000 years: to nurture that wild, explosive seed.
So, let me ask you a personal question: Why are you here today, and what keeps you coming back?
In these uncertain times in our nation, it is easy to put our heads in our hands and admit defeat. Or to play small…or to opt out of controversy…or not to claim our inheritance as followers of Jesus and proclaimers of the kingdom. Our faith is not bound by time or space or even the span of a human life. It is eternal. And so our relationship with God supersedes our politics, our nationality, our race, our gender, our body. All these aspects of our personhood will cease when we die, but our faith will not.
The empire in Jesus’ day and in our own can take away our wealth, our livelihood, our rights, our land, our freedom, even our life. But one thing they can never take away is our faith – our relationship with God.
A wise Congregational/Unitarian minister, Ralph Waldo Emerson, once offered these words, and I want you to hold onto them, because life will get real for you. And you will need the force of your faith to see you through: “The task ahead of us is never as great as the power behind us.”
May it be so.
©2018 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.