Deacon Sue Nebel
It has probably happened to you. A tune, an image, a phrase or statement lodges itself in your mind and you can’t get rid of it. There it sits, persistently repeating itself. No effort on your part to brush it aside or ignore it works. It just will not let go. I had that experience this week with this morning’s readings. As I started to read and reflect on the Scripture passages for today, one sentence caught my attention. The opening line of the passage from the Letter to the Hebrews: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen.” My first response, when I read it, was: ‘Oh, that sounds familiar.’ I remembered a book I read many years ago. Its title is a variation on the sentence from Hebrews: A Hope in the Unseen. It is the story of a black teenager living in one of the poorest areas of Washington, D.C. with dreams of a better future. With perseverance and hard work, he graduates from high school, gets a scholarship, and goes to college. The book tells the story of his struggles as a young Black man in a dominant White culture to achieve his goal.
Once I made that connection and figured out why the line from Hebrews stood out for me, I expected that the sentence would fade away and I would be done with it. But that didn’t happen. Instead, those words “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen” took up residence in my mind and kept nagging, “Pay attention to this.” “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen.” It is a statement rich in meaning. Faith and hope are an essential part of our Christian faith. They are part of our tradition, going all the way back to Scripture. The first two readings this morning give us part of the story of Abraham. In the Genesis reading, Abraham worries that he will have no offspring. God promises that he will have an heir and that his descendants will be more than he can count, like the stars in the sky. In the Hebrews passage, we hear about another promise, a promise of land. Abraham sets out for this unknown place, not knowing where he is going but trusting in God, journeying in faith. God promises Abraham that he would have descendants, but he does not get to see them. He can only hope that it will happen. And it does, generations and generations of descendants.
Hope. It has been a challenge to have hope in this past week. Last Sunday we were reeling from the news of gun violence in El Paso and Dayton. 31 people killed. Many more wounded. Cities and families torn apart by acts of violence. How many times can our hearts break? The shootings in El Paso were striking in several ways. The shooter published a manifesto, using phrases that have, sadly, been heard frequently in our recent national conversation. The city of El Paso is situated on the Mexican border. A border that is open, fluid. Mexicans and Americans move freely across the border to shop, to dine in restaurants. Mexican children cross the border every day to attend school in El Paso. Friendships between El Paso and its sister city Juarez, both the cities themselves and their residents, flourish. A stark contrast to the images of the border—barriers, military patrols, drug trade—that we hear so much about. El Paso, a flourishing, welcoming city. Now, in the wake of the shootings, fear and uncertainty.
As we moved through the week, we heard stories about those who died. We had some glimmers of hope that political leaders might be ready to move forward with gun control legislation. Then another stunning event: the ICE raids in Mississippi. 680 people arrested. The images of crying children who had finished their first day of school, only to learn that one or both parents had been taken into custody. Our hearts break once again. By evening, many of those arrested had been released because they had no criminal records. Most children were reunited with at least one parent, but the damage had been done. Such trauma is not easily forgotten. Who knows if they will ever feel safe again? In all of these events of the past week, we are once again confronted with the harsh reality of the deep divisions in our country over issues of race, immigration, and gun control.
So here we are. What do we do in the face of such events? How can we find hope in the midst of so much tragedy, such negativity in our national life? What can we hold onto? What promise are we given? The answer is right there in the Gospel lesson. Jesus tells his followers:
“. . .it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” The Kingdom of God that Jesus talks about so much. The vision of a world that God wants for us and for all God’s children. A world where everyone is valued and treated fairly. A world where everyone can thrive. Jesus believed that the Kingdom was coming soon. No wonder then that he tells his followers to sell all they have, to be alert and ready. But things did not go the way Jesus predicted. The Kingdom did not come quickly. 2000-plus years later, it still isn’t here. The early followers of Jesus realized that the Kingdom was not something to wait for. Instead, it was something to hope for, to work toward. Like Abraham, they might not see the fulfillment of God’s promise in their lifetime. But, trusting in God and grounded in faith, they set to work. To help the promise of the Kingdom be fulfilled.
What are we to do? We do what Abraham did. We do what those early followers of Jesus—and generations of followers up to our own time—did. We move forward in faith, believing in the Kingdom, even though we may not get to see it. We work together to make it a reality. When we make our baptismal promises, we sign on to be Kingdom builders. Each time we recite the words of the Baptismal Covenant together, we renew those commitments. To love our neighbor. To respect the dignity of every human being. To strive for justice and peace. That is what working to achieve the Kingdom looks like.
What are we to do? In the larger picture, the national scene, we can take action. We can participate in demonstrations. We can sign statements of positions on issues being debated in the public arena. We can make phone calls or write letters to legislators. And we can vote. In the smaller picture, in our own sphere of influence and activity, we keep the promises we have made. We can love our neighbor, maybe moving out of our comfort zone. We can broaden our understanding of neighbor to be as far reaching and inclusive as possible. We can treat everyone with whom we interact with dignity and respect. We can offer gestures of kindness, every chance we get. Each positive thing we do helps to build the Kingdom. Each time we treat someone badly or deny their worth as a child of God, we diminish the effort to fulfill the promise. Everything we do matters. Every single thing.
What are we to do? We move forward, collectively and individually, in our journey of faith. We do not know where the journey will take us, what challenges we will face. But we always remember that it is a journey of faith. Faith the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen.
Proper 14: Year c
Genesis 15:1-6; Psalm 33:12-22; Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16; Luke 12:32-40