Lectionary Texts: Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16 (Luke 12:32-40)
First United Methodist Church, Wharton
Sunday, August 7, 2016
- A Big Mess With Sticky Notes
When my grandmother was nearing the end of her life, I had the gift of spending some time with her when she would want to drive around Katy and sort of “take stock” of what was then ninety-plus years living in that town. One time she had me get down on the muddy ground in the Katy cemetery and do a pencil rubbing of the gravestone so that we could see the death date of her father’s brother that had died as a child. I thought that she was doing all of this for herself, maybe sort of taking one last look, so to speak. But when she died at 100 ½ years old, we found something different.
Going through her house after she died, among 100 years of furniture and records and memories, we found a sort of jumbled pile of papers along with a massive number of sticky notes. My grandmother had not been doing it for herself. She was trying desperately to get everything that she remembered written down so that it would not be lost. Now I will tell you, my grandmother had the most incredible memory. So an incredible memory times 100 years produced a lot of papers and notes.
My dad handed it to me with the assignment that I was supposed to figure it out. His reasoning was that he thought I thought like her and I was also the writer in the family. So I wrapped it up and I took it home and began to go through it. And over the next six months or so, I processed all of these papers—some typed and others in my grandmother’s beautiful handwriting. It was her story. And now it was mine.
It told the story of a family that began in Germany, settled in Ohio, and then moved to the middle of the South Texas prairie to sell land for the railroad commission and attempt to build a community. It tells the story of my great-grandfather and his three brothers perfecting the art of growing rice in this new place, which would become a staple of the town. It also told the story of my very proper great-grandmother, the matriarch of our family, the woman who I was always a little afraid of growing up. And the story was told of how she dated ALL four of the Stockdick boys until she decided which one she would marry. It told the story of a private plane crash in the 1940’s that killed my Aunt Jessie’s husband, both her sons, and the husband of another cousin and essentially changed the trajectory of the whole family. And buried in the pile was the pencil rubbing that I had done of little Roy Stockdick’s grave.
What had looked like a mess with a bunch of sticky notes became our legacy, our story. I was able to compile it into 48 pages and give it back to our large extended family—the last gift that their Aunt Ruthie would give them.
- A Legacy of Faith
The writer of Hebrews, from which we read our epistle today, has left something similar for us. We don’t really know who this writer is. In the third century, the Christian theologian Origen said that “only God knows” who wrote Hebrews. The name of this treatise or sermon that we call Hebrews probably came from the notion that it presents the Christian faith couched in Judaic terms. We have a sense that there is some history presented here, but this is more than an historical synopsis. It, rather, lays out our story, our legacy of faith.
You can imagine it being handed down as sort of a mess with some sticky notes to guide the way. That’s sort of what God does. Sometimes it feels like our life, our community, our nation, our world is sort of a mess. William James once said that faith means belief in something that most doubt is theoretically possible. But God hands it to us and gives us those sticky notes, those reminders of who and whose we are.
The community being addressed is Hebrews is struggling with something, perhaps persecution, marginalization, and fear. So the author is providing a word of clarity and strength that will once again instill hope by recounting the past. We are reminded of our faith ancestors, of the stories that we find in the Book of Genesis of Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac, and Jacob. We are reminded of their difficulties and their journeys through life, of their doubts and their times of barrenness. We are reminded that in many ways, they are just like us. And yet, they were aware that they had inherited something that they were called to embrace. What they had inherited was a promise of a new life in the future. What they had inherited was a legacy.
But we also are told that they did not receive that promise in their lifetime. They only saw the promise on the horizon, calling them forward on their journey. They responded to God’s call with a courageous walk into the unknown, knowing that whatever the future held, it was God’s future and they had been invited into it. The reason that they were able to do that is that they resisted the urge to remain bound to what they knew. Instead, they took that tradition of God’s promises that they had inherited and made it part of their own life, adding to it and reflecting on it, so that they could hand it on to their ancestors.
For the writer of Hebrews, this faith is not a “saving faith” like we find in some of Paul’s letters. It is more the results of having been saved by faith. It is more than what we have been given; it is also about how we live into it, how we live the legacy and make it our own. Remember that God had promised Abraham a new home and descendants that could not even be counted. What it meant was that God had handed Abraham a faith legacy that would weave through thousands and thousands of years of humanity to us. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that “every [person] is a quotation from [his or her] ancestors.” That is us. This is our story, our collective narrative. This is our legacy. This is the way we become pilgrims in a long line of journeyers—by joining the conversation and making it our own.
III. The Legacy We’ve Been Handed
But the truth is that the world around us tells us that we should only look forward, always looking for something new and exciting, something cutting-edge and, of course, possessing greater and greater processing speeds. We live in a 24-hour news cycle world that tells us we need to be cutting edge and forward-thinking. And while all of that is a wonderful thing, it doesn’t mean that we completely leave the past behind. Our past, this legacy of faith of which the writer of Hebrews so articulately reminds us, is not just something that we’re handed for our own gratification. The Scriptures are not just here to bring us comfort or, even worse, answers to everything. Instead, we actually enter a conversation that began long before we got here and that will continue long after we are gone. It means realizing that this legacy that we’ve been handed is a great treasure, of greater value than we can possibly have known. The conversation and the understanding is just not finished. And it is up to us to do our part to continue the conversation.
- Stanley Jones claims that “you are not primarily called to do, or to be; you are called to belong.” That’s an interesting way to put it. It means that our faith is not our private possession or our private walk but rather belongs to a community of which we are a part—a community that knows no bounds of time or space or processing speed. That’s a whole lot different than a lot of people in this world might look at it. Our faith journey is not about what we do or how we act. Remember, that the writer of Hebrews characterized faith as “the conviction of things not seen.” We have no control because by ourselves, we cannot see where we are going. We just have to be open to the notion that the collective light will show us the way.
That’s what today’s Gospel passage keeps talking about in every way that the writer could imagine—sell your possessions, dress for work, and light your lamps; in other words, get ready, get set, Go!. So, it’s not that we people of faith sit back and do nothing. That is not the way that you realize this incredible sense of belonging that we’ve inherited. God has something for us to do, something that matters, something that gives us that sense of belonging and purpose that every one of us needs so badly. That is our legacy. We’re part of a community. Jesus is not telling each of us individually to sell our possessions or light just our own lamps. Rather, he is talking to this community, to all of us. Once again, Jesus is telling us to shift our attention to one another, to focus on justice and rescuing, defending and pleading—all on our neighbor’s behalf. Faith is always activity. Living one’s life in faith is not meant to be quiet and calming. Living a life of faithfulness is a little chaotic, a little wild, a little unpredictable, and often places us in a position of holy tension as we find ourselves at odds with some of what this world thinks is normalcy. Faith is not an escape; it is rather an involvement in moving the world towards re-creation. But it also means that in that big mess of things, we’ll find some sticky notes that point us where we need to go.
But knowing and embracing this legacy that we’ve been handed requires a little memory work. It’s called anamnesis. It’s a Greek word that basically means the recollection or remembrance of the past. But, like many words, our English translation seems to negate some of its essence. The truth is, it’s about more than just remembering with your mind; rather, it has to do with entering a long stream of memories that were there before you got there and making them your own. It’s what we do when we say that Eucharistic prayer every time we celebrate Holy Communion. We remember the way that God created the world, the way that God was revealed through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and, finally, we remember that promise of life to come that our faith tells us is real even as we live today. These are not our mindful memories. We were not there. And yet, this is the way we share in that legacy—by allowing the past, the present, and the future to all be a part of us, together.
In his book, Longing for Enough in a Culture of More, Paul Escamilla says that “the moment we recognize that others’ long and winding roads to finding themselves lead to our door, we become responsible. No longer can I see my life as my own. Everything I am and do is witnessed, and woven into the warp and woof of others’ character and calling….We’re in this together, not by choice, but by birthright.”
- Living the Legacy
We are reminded of this birthright by the author of Hebrews. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (We see that all the time on plaques and wall hangings. Do we read it?) We have inherited our hope from our ancestors and once we have added our own experiences and encounters with the Divine, we, too, will hand it off to the future. It never ends. That is what a legacy is all about.
If we ignore those incredible things that have been handed to it, thinking that we know better or that we are somehow better educated or that we are in some way self-made, we miss the conversation. We miss being a part of something greater than ourselves, our own minds, and our own experiences. But if we’re not ready to do this faith-work ourselves, we will more than likely end up staid and probably a little weary of defending a version of the Truth that no longer has anything to do with our lives. Our faith ancestors have given us an incredible gift of remembering their experiences and their understandings of God. Many of them, I will say, do not necessarily fit with my understanding.
I have several old Methodist Disciplines—like REALLY old. The oldest dates back to the early 1800’s. Some of it is similar to ours. But they also were very concerned with how much jewelry people wore to church. We’ve sort of left the great jewelry wars behind. Also, did you know that there was a hymn in the 1922 version of “New Songs of Praise and Power” with these words:
Oh have you heard the story of what the states have done?
They’ve voted out the booze shops, the cause of right has won;
They’ve been a long time with us, “Too long” has been our cry,
But now they’ve gone forever so let the tidings fly.
“Goodbye forever saloon, Goodbye forever saloon,
We’ve had you many years, With ruin and with tears.
Now its goodbye forever saloon.
These are funny. See, some of the past doesn’t work today. We haven’t been handed the past; we’ve been handed a legacy. But given the context in which they lived, I can’t really go so far as to say those funny things were wrong. They just weren’t finished. But you know what? We don’t have all the answers either. There is still a good part of the road ahead that we cannot see. This legacy stretches farther into the past and farther ahead than we will ever know. That is what living faith is all about.
The revelation of God is ongoing. Edna St. Vincent Millay said that “[Humanity] did not invent God, but developed faith to meet a God who is already there.” This all started long before any of us ever got here and I’m clear that it will continue long after any of us are gone. We are part of a legacy. Our reading from Hebrews was only part of the eleventh chapter. If you read the whole chapter, you will find a virtual roll call of faith—Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Rahab, Samson, David. It goes on beyond that—Joseph and Mary, John the Baptist, the disciples, the women at the tomb, Paul and his students, Augustine and his nemesis Pelagius (who’s theology, though declared heretical is so much a part of ours today), Hildegard of Bingen, St. Francis and St. Clare, Catherine of Sienna, Martin Luther, John Wesley, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Thomas Merton, Mother Teresa, my grandmother, and you and me. With us, too, are those who have yet to be born, those who have yet to be handed this great legacy of faith. We stand here, thousands upon thousands upon thousands of faithful followers working with God to build something that only God really envisions (the conviction of things not seen) but that we know is there (the assurance of things hoped for).
It is up to us to take that legacy that the past has handed us, and with the reason of today and the experiences we share, shape them into what reveals God to us and then hand them off to the future, realizing that the second we do that, something about it will change that will reveal a Greater Truth than what you or I could possibly know today. That is the hope in which we place our faith.
After putting my grandmother’s reflections together, I called it “Legacy”, not because it was of the past, but because it is always and forever woven into our lives. Our faith is no different. It is not a set of beliefs or a way of worshipping or a way of living one’s life. It is about entering a conversation with those thousands, upon thousands of brothers and sisters in Christ from all times and places and understandings and giving it your own voice. There is work to be done. Are you ready? The future is waiting for you to hand it the legacy.
In the Name of the One who created us, redeemed us, and calls us to tell the story. Amen.