August 8th, 2010 – 11th Sunday after Pentecost

Some people have commented that they like my children’s story because is kind of eases them into the adult sermon. Often, they have the same theme, and some people say that the children’s story sometimes provides an insight into the message I have for the rest of us. Well, that’s not going to happen today. You see, with the children, I spoke about what things are most important to us, and what things should be most important to us, and this is a theme that we have already heard in the adult sermon. Besides, I seldom get a chance to preach on the Epistle, because there is usually just so much in the Gospel that I don’t need to. So today, I decided to focus on Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, in which he shows us what can be accomplished through faith.
In the section which we read, we were given a list of people who had accomplished something or other through faith, and we will be talking about that a bit later. For now, though, let’s look at the definition Paul gave us. He wrote: Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. I found it interesting that Paul used hope to define faith, showing how it is that faith keeps hope alive in each one of us. When things aren’t working out as we expect them to, it is faith that keeps us from giving up because it is faith that allows to hope. And where would we be without hope?
Of course, different people have different levels of faith, and if we look at the faith displayed in Paul’s letter, many of us could easily feel just a little intimidated. Let’s take a look at some of the people from the Old Testament who displayed – or not – faith. Paul starts by mentioning Abel, whose faith led him to offer a better sacrifice than did his brother Cain. His faith was so strong that God accepted his offerings, and Abel has been called a righteous man ever since. I don’t think that his parents had nearly so strong a faith, however. They seemed not to accept God’s word, and this led to what is called original sin, and to their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
Then we move to Enoch, whose faith was such that he didn’t even die. He is one of only two people about whom this can be said, the other being Elijah. Noah, of course, we know from the story about the flood. But can you imagine being Noah’s neighbour and laughing at him for building an ark with which he hoped to save mankind? Or at least enough of mankind to repopulate the earth AFTER the fact. Surely, he was ridiculed by everyone. And let’s remember that it took him quite a long time to build the ark, with no sign of rain during the construction period. But his faith in God was so strong that he persisted. And it was his hope that – after the flood – the waters would subside so that he would be able to fulfill the rest of God’s plan.
Abraham had faith that, even though he and Sarah were old, they would have a child, and his faith led him to a nomadic life. This is where our reading for today stops, but we are going to move on, just to see some more examples of what great faith can accomplish. We know, of course, that Abraham and Sarah did have a son – Isaac – but can you imagine how he must have felt when God demanded that he sacrifice the boy? He did not know, as we do now, that God would intervene, and an alternate sacrifice would be provided. Paul suggests that Abraham believed that God would raise Isaac from the dead, but even so, that is quite a test of faith.
Moving ahead to Moses, we see that his mother believed him to be destined for something other than the death Pharaoh had in mind, so she hid him in the bulrushes. Sure enough, the baby was saved, and grew up to become one of Israel’s greatest leaders. Of course, it wasn’t only Moses who had faith in the story of the Exodus. The Israelites followed him, and even though they lapsed fairly regularly, did eventually build their nation in what was called the Promised Land. Moses’ lieutenant, Joshua, also shared in this faith, and it was through this that he was able to cause the walls of Jericho to come tumbling down simply by blowing his version of a trumpet.
Well, fine, you say. All of these people had faith, but they were all good people. They were all people who followed God’s laws, and did as they were told. It stands to reason that they would have faith. But what about the rest of us? Well, let’s just read a little further in Paul’s letter. In verse 31, we read: By faith, the prostitute, Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient. Wait a minute! A prostitute? Most people don’t know the story of Rahab, but I am going to give you the Reader’s Digest condensed version right now. It seems that, when Joshua was getting ready to attack Jericho, he really didn’t know what he was up against, so he sent some spies into the city to gather information. They went to the home of Rahab, reasoning that, as a prostitute, she would probably have a lot of inside information to give them, Now, because she was a prostitute, Rahab was not allowed to live right IN the city, but had her home built into the wall, as Jericho was a walled city, not unlike the way Quebec used to be. But in the case of Jericho, the wall actually contained homes belonging to people who were not really accepted by the society in the city. When the king of Jericho heard about this, he sent a message to Rahab, demanding that she turn the men over to him. Rahab lied, and said that the men had left, and that she had no idea where they were. Of course, she got away with it, and in exchange for her help, she was spared in the massacre which followed. And why did she do this? Because she had faith in God. As an aside, if we take a look at the Gospel of Matthew, we will see that Rahab was one of the ancestors of David, and hence one of the ancestors of Jesus.
To me, this speaks volumes. This shows me that God doesn’t just speak to the members of religious groups, that God’s message is not just for those who live strictly according to the law. God speaks to people on the fringe, and even to people totally outside what we see as normal boundaries. As we know from the New Testament, Jesus also did this. He consorted with tax collectors and prostitutes. He was crucified between two thieves, one of whom was saved because of his faith. Remember Jesus’ promise to the repentant thief? This day you will be with me in Paradise.
Now, you have heard me mention different people in my sermons. I have spoken about theologians, such as Bonhoeffer and Nouwen. I have talked about Mother Theresa and St. Francis of Assisi. If you look at the stained glass windows here in this church and in other churches, you will see depictions of Jesus himself, of the disciples, of Mary and Joseph, and the list goes on. But I don’t know of any church which has a stained glass showing Rahab saving the spies. Our church is called “St. Andrew’s”, and there are other churches of our denomination known by other names. The church my father attended was St. Matthew’s, and a friend of mine preaches at St. Columba by the Lake in Pointe Claire. The point of all this is to tell you that we do acknowledge saints; we are not quite as caught up in the idea of saints as our Roman Catholic friends are, but we are comfortable with the notion that there are people who are probably a bit closer to God than we are. These are people we can look up to, for various reasons. But we tend not to consider ourselves to be saints, and certainly the person in the pew next to us isn’t a saint. In fact, if someone came along and told us that he thought himself to be a saint, we would probably wonder if everything was working as it is supposed to inside his head.
And yet we have Rahab. Not only did she help Joshua, she is mentioned at least twice in the New Testament. She is included in this list of people of faith. We can acknowledge that, yes, the other names are deserving of mention in such a list, but Rahab? A prostitute? Not only have I never seen her displayed in a stained glass window, I have never heard of a church named after her. But her faith is acknowledged by no less a person that Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles.
And if Rahab was an unlikely saint, an unlikely person of faith, she is not alone. We all know about people like Jean Vanier, who founded the L’arche communities, and we pretty well all acknowledge that we could not do something like that. We all know about people who live exceptional lives, giving themselves for the sake of others, and we pretty well all acknowledge that we could not do something like that. Hearing some of these stories can actually be a downer for those of us who know that we cannot do the things that these people do. But maybe we don’t need to do those things. Maybe we have the wrong idea of what it is that makes people saints.
If we take a look at what DOES make a person a saint, I think that we will find that it all comes back to faith. It is faith in God that makes one a saint; it is faith in God that makes one a member of the communion of saints. Next week, we will welcome Jordan into our faith community, and he will be a part of the communion of saints. Of course, he doesn’t know it, and he certainly won’t have any idea of what is being done to him when I pour water on his head. But if his parents bring him up in the church, he will have the faith that we all have. He will believe. Faith is the thing he will need, and it is the thing that we all need. For without faith, we have nothing. Nothing to believe in. Nothing to hold on to.
And it is faith that makes us Christians. But Christians are not perfect. We are fallible. We make mistakes. We are not in control, and we are certainly no better than other people. Few of us can give the perfect theological answer to every question. But we have learned that God can be trusted. God can be trusted to give peace in the midst of the storm. God can be trusted to take what is evil and transform it into something good. God can be trusted to empower you in the midst of trouble. God can be trusted to receive you when you die. Because we know this, we have faith.
Now, just to put this in context, I want you to think about the Cirque de Soleil for just a minute. I have seen them a couple of times now, and each time I am blown away by what they do. Forget the costumes, forget the make-up. What they do is incredible. And what does this have to do with faith? Well, the late great spiritual writer Henri Nouwen received the greatest revelation about faith at, of all places, the circus! Nouwen went to see the German trapeze group “The Flying Rodleighs” perform. He was mesmerized by their breath-taking performance as they flew gracefully through the air. At the end of the show, he spoke with the leader of the troupe, Rodleigh himself. Nouwen asked him how he was able to perform with such grace and ease so high in the air. Rodleigh responded, “The public might think that I am the great star of the trapeze, but the real star is Joe, my catcher…The secret is that the flyer does nothing and the catcher does everything. When I fly to Joe, I have simply to stretch out my arms and hands and wait for him to catch me. The worst thing the flyer can do is try to catch the catcher. I’m not supposed to catch Joe. It’s Joe’s task to catch me”.
And it’s God’s task to catch us, it’s God’s job to take care of us. All we have to do is to have faith that he will do that. Thanks be to God.

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