Sunday 7th August 2016, morning,
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, Luke 12:32-40
by Revd Kate Tuckett
The sermon started with a game of ‘Call my bluff’: children were invited to the front to hold up the following words and to vote on their meaning.
Someone with a very flat face.
A plate for astronauts to use in space.
Something you say to help people, but which doesn't give them real help.
An old French dance.
A girl's name, similar to the boy's name Gavin.
A kind of sword used by the Romans.
A small boat used on the river Pall.
A hat worn by German men.
A bear that lives in the Arctic.
Someone in Kent with no money.
A left-handed person.
A type of duck.
A painful growth on your toe.
A special kind of glass for drinking milk.
Most of us believe that telling the truth is a good thing – and I’m certainly not going to try and persuade us otherwise. But sometimes it can be very hard to know what is true. Some things we can prove, like maths, but it’s much harder to find a formula to prove the reality of a dream, or a smile, or love.
A well-known Christian monk called Thomas Merton wrote powerfully about the Christian life not being about certainties, but, rather, about a search:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end . .Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me.
And I think this is what the readings are about today. Christian faith, the passage from Hebrews tells us, is ‘the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.’
There are plenty of people who do want to try and prove Christianity wrong on an intellectual basis and Christians as really a bit embarrassing, stuck in the past, thinking the world’s going to end, desperate to get Jesus into any conversation, wearing hair shirts for the sake of it.
We’ve all heard people like Richard Dawkins reducing the tenets of faith to nonsense. Dawkins himself is charismatic, brilliant, utterly convinced of his own rightness and contemptuous of any perspective of faith. And I know from my own experience that discussions around faith with atheist friends can be deeply inconclusive and unsatisfying, as indeed are conversations with those at the other end of the spectrum – those who are totally convinced of their own beliefs. For those of us somewhere in the middle, who move easily or uneasily between a place of being a believer with doubts and a sceptic troubled by a faith that will not go away, faith may be intrinsically linked to doubt. The opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s certainty. Where we have certainty, we have no need of faith.
In the Hebrews passage we meet Abraham. By faith he gave up his only son for sacrifice. By faith, his wife Sarah would bear a child at an age which my knowledge of human biology tells me is impossible. By faith the church has done some abominable things: by faith centuries of religious men have silenced women. By faith the church has oppressed gay people. By faith the church performed inquisitions. By faith witches have been burned at the stake. By faith apartheid was justified.
And yet by faith we are here. By faith perhaps we’ve caught a glimpse of something. By faith Abraham and Sarah died not having received the things that were promised to them, but having caught a glimpse of them in the distance. Abraham and Sarah were strangers and exiles upon the earth. By faith they were longing for a better homeland. Faith isn’t a neat packaging of things up. It’s a stranger and exile upon the earth and doesn’t know anything for certain. Faith is homesickness, a lump in the throat, not a position on anything, rather a moving towards something.
And the gospel reading too is not a call to be certain but a call to be open. The passage starts with reassuring words -- ‘do not be afraid’ -- but then Jesus tells us to sell all our possessions and to give alms. I don’t want to push this under the carpet, because they are challenging words, but they are for another time. For now we might ask if Abraham setting out on a journey is a model of a life that is possession-free, and question what gets in the way of us having this openness to following God’s call.
But for now I’m more interested in the second part of the gospel reading. Jesus goes from telling us not to worry, to selling our possessions, to telling us to be awake, to be ready. And a part of us expects this advice in the context of the Son of Man returning and casting up lists of names, working out who’s in and who’s out.
Except that’s not what happens. The master returns and makes the servants recline and he will come and serve them. In that time men wore long, loose clothing and in order to work they have to gird their robes about their waists to allow freedom of movement. So whatever you social standing you would have understood the image: servants and slaves waiting for the return of their master. You would imagine them with their robes girded around their waist ready to spring into action when their master called, keeping their lamps lit so they could respond immediately.
And yet when he does return, he tells them, his attentive slaves, to recline at the table. And he girds up his robes, and serves them.
It was by faith that Abraham obeyed the call of God and set out for a country that was his inheritance given to him. By faith he saw a promise, a future, a very long journey ahead of him. By faith we are called to set out on a journey’s that involves being open, being ready to receive Christ’s blessing. That action may come when we least expect it or imagine seeing it. If it’s God’s we’re looking for on this journey, perhaps the reason we only catch tiny glimpses and we can’t prove anything is because we look in the wrong places.
By faith we are here. Faith is possibility. Faith is waiting. Faith is a no-man's land. Faith is dwelling in the expectancy of God. Faith is being dressed for action. Faith is not certainty. But wherever faith will lead us, we can trust Jesus’ promise, ‘do not be afraid.’
The sermon uses material from Buechner, F. (2006), Secrets in the Dark, New York: Harper Collins