Those who have heard me preach before will know that I very much like the poet Jan Richardson and tend to use her poems a lot. I’ll be reading another of hers later on. Following the death of her husband, she reflected on this verse from Ephesians 1: So that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you (Ephesians 1.18). The hope to which he has called you.
This is what she said:
Hope is not always comforting or comfortable. Hope asks us to open ourselves to what we do not know, to pray for illumination in this life, to imagine what is beyond our imagining, to bear what seems unbearable. It calls us to keep breathing when beloved lives have left us, to turn toward one another when we might prefer to turn away. Hope draws our eyes and hearts toward a more whole future but propels us also into the present, where Christ waits for us to work with him toward a more whole world now.
What are you hoping for these days? Who helps you hope when it is hard to hope? How does your hope call you to see what is here and now?
Our passage from Hebrews begins: Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
Let’s hear Jan again, swopping ‘hope’ for ‘faith’:
Faith is not always comforting or comfortable. Faith asks us to open ourselves to what we do not know, to pray for illumination in this life, to imagine what is beyond our imagining, to bear what seems unbearable. It calls us to keep breathing when beloved lives have left us, to turn toward one another when we might prefer to turn away. Faith draws our eyes and hearts toward a more whole future but propels us also into the present, where Christ waits for us to work with him toward a more whole world now.
Fred Buechner said: Faith is a way of looking at what there is to be seen in the world and in ourselves and hoping, trusting, believing against all evidence to the contrary that beneath the surface we see there is vastly more that we cannot see.
The letter to the Hebrews appears to have been written to a community who frankly appear to be weary. Weary of the Christian life. Some were struggling with their faith, others were neglecting to meet together. The chapter before implies that they had suffered abuse and persecution and some confiscation of property. As a result, they’d become less confident and their energy had waned. The letter is meant to encourage and reawaken the community’s faith.
Weary, less confident and waning energy. That can describe us at times, can’t it? Maybe it describes us now?
This chapter talks less about the power of God and God’s promises and more about our human experience of faith in those promises. And that faith sums up our dilemma. On the one hand it’s about assurance and conviction. On the other, it’s as yet unseen. It’s either not here yet – or, if it is, we can’t quite see it. Either beyond our reach – or within our grasp and we don’t know it.
So, the writer goes back to the past to show that what could only be hoped for then, is now made visible. He uses the benefit of hindsight. Here are tales of Abel and Enoch and Noah which have been missed from our Lectionary. And after today’s verses on Abraham and Sarah we have Moses and then a whole litany of heroes, heroines and ordinary folk.
Some of those hopes were seemingly impossible, like Abraham and Sarah having a child in their older age. And some didn’t happen in their lifetime – like Abraham and Sarah not seeing descendants as innumerable as stars in the heaven or grains of sand on the seashore. That wouldn’t happen until they were long gone.
And by the way, how often do we see the church written-off because of elderly congregations? If today you just had Abraham and Sarah and statistics to work with, then you wouldn’t have much hope, would you? Instead, it’s precisely those two people, long into retirement age, that God makes a new covenant with. Just like he picks a boy with a slingshot to be Israel’s greatest king and an unmarried teenage girl to be the mother of Jesus.
So, too things may happen to us and for us that are more than we could have possibly imagined. Or they may be rather different to what we expected. We too are a people who long for a better country, a world whose norms and customs aren’t what we experience now on a daily basis. Depending on where we live in the world that may mean us being marginalised or oppressed in some way. These verses remind us that we are part of something bigger, a larger reality than what we see before us.
And by going through history in the way the author does he ties his immediate audience, and us too, into a lineage of faith going back centuries and millennia. We’re part of a long line of believers. Our family tree is more like a family forest. And in the next chapter the author goes on to say that all these heroes of the past are there willing us on as a cloud of witnesses.
If we think of Sarah and Abraham, there were two parts to their faithfulness. One was holding fast to the promises that they’d been given. The second was to keep on moving forward. Their journey was part of their obedience. That takes a special courage, going out into an unknown future, but being assured that the future is with God.
As we approach an interregnum, we’re about to enter another period of change. How do we, you and me, measure up against those two measures of faith? Some of us might find it easy to hold fast. We know the stories from the Bible and the stories of the congregation here from over the years. Stories of faithfulness at times and sacrifice at others. But perhaps we find it harder to move forward? We carry lots of baggage with us.
Others have little trouble moving on and like to travel light. We are a people on the move, knowing our future is out there somewhere. But perhaps we need help learning to hold fast, learning stories of God being faithful in his promises. Stories of perseverance and endurance when the path gets rough.
We need both of course. Like Sarah and Abraham before us. Their lives and our lives joining both dimensions of faithfulness. In times of change and uncertainty, God was and is constant and faithful. May their faithfulness be an example to us so that we too may prove faithful and hopeful in whatever the future holds for us.
Here’s that promised poem by Jan Richardson: It’s called…
Blessing of Hope
So may we know
that is not just
but for this day—
in this moment
that opens to us:
hope not made
but of substance,
hope made of sinew
hope that has breath
and a beating heart,
hope that will not
and be polite,
hope that knows
how to holler
when it is called for,
hope that knows
how to sing
when there seems
hope that raises us
from the dead—
but this day,
again and again.
- Buechner, F. (2007). Secrets in the dark. HarperOne.