God catches us
A sermon preached by Pastor Ken Carrothers on August 11, 2019
Chapter 11 of the letter to the Hebrews begins with that well known definition of “faith.” “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”[i]
When we use this definition of faith we are reminded that having faith does not mean that we have arrived. And yet, especially in western Churches like ours, it seems we have fallen into the trap of thinking exactly that — that faith is the destination.
Consider how comfortable our lives really are. We come each week to this piece of property that we own. We sit in our seat week after week to worship God. We have the benefits of having marvelous freedom in our culture. And we have settled down and made this our home. And to be perfectly honest, I worry the attachment that we have to our property — the concern we have for bank balances and reserves — the effort we exert on maintaining what we have — is a sign of the problem — we’ve settled.
For when the writer of Hebrews invites us to reflect upon Abraham, they are reminding us of a story in which there was no settling. Keep in mind Abraham was nearly a 100 years old, and his wife 90 when he was told they would have a baby. Abraham laughed so hard he fell to the ground. In a later story when Sarah hears the same she doubles over as well. At a time in life when one is considering the end, God invites Abraham and Sarah to consider the beginning again. And in an act of divine comedy God instructs them to name their son Isaac — which in Hebrew means laughter.
But the reality is what could Abraham and Sarah do but laugh? They laugh because only a fool would believe “a woman with one foot in the grave was soon going to have her other foot in the maternity ward.”[ii] They laughed because whether they believed it or not God promised an absurd promise. They laugh because God seemed to believe God’s promise. They laugh because they half-believed the promise themselves. They laughed because laughing is better than tears. They laughed, because if by some chance it did actually happen, it would be laughable and in the meantime the laughter helped them keep going.
And going they went. Abraham and Sarah’s life was a life of movement. From the moment God said, “go”[iii] Abraham’s life was a life of motion. Abraham spent his life living in tents only able to look forward to a city with foundations. Beginning with Abraham, the early faith fathers “confessed they were strangers and foreigners on the earth”[iv] who were “seeking a homeland”[v] and desired “a better country.”[vi] There was no settling for them.
“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,”[vii] says the Letter to the Hebrews. Faith is laughter at the promise of a child called Laughter. Faith is one foot in front of the other when you have no idea where you are headed. Faith is moving forward on the hope of a promise delivered by a trustworthy God.
Which really means that faith is better understood as a verb than a noun — an action rather than a destination — a process rather than a possession. It is on-again-off-again rather than once-and-for-all. Faith is not being sure where you’re going, but going anyway. The early faith fathers were a people on a journey and the truth is so are we are. And our journey, like theirs has no maps.
I have recently been reading a book entitled Canoeing the Mountains. It is a book on Christian leadership that uses the Lewis and Clark expedition as a backdrop. Lewis and Clark were amazing river guides and were given the charge to find the waterway passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It was the belief at the time that the mouth of the Missouri River would lead to the Columbia River. What they found instead was the Rocky Mountains and a bunch of uncharted territory. And in a moment when they could have turned around — the expedition went forward. The book shares why they believe this happened.
The book suggests the expedition went forward because their leaders had proven trustworthy in the charted territory. The expedition went forward because they reimagined their charge as a journey of discovery. The expedition went forward, because it wasn’t about them, but rather about the what they could share with all the other people of the world.
The same could be held for our faith journey as well and then some. Faith is not something we have to have enough of in order to do things, or change things, or be this or that. Faith is not some sort of magic potion, or some mental fake-out. Faith is, instead, a quiet, firm conviction that in spite of whatever evidence our current reality tries to throw at us — God is trustworthy. God goes with us on a journey of discovery. God calls us into a life of love and service to our neighbor. And here is the then some… God is already out there in the uncharted territory ahead of us.
This challenge of being settled can seem to lead us to believe that there is a right and perfect way to follow Jesus… that to be a follower is to be in control… that to be a follower is to have all the answers… that to be a follower is to live a life better than others… and none of that is true.
Rather to follow Jesus is to be like Abraham, to simply believe that God can be trusted. To believe God can be trusted to give peace in the midst of the storm. To believe God can be trusted to take what is evil and transform it into something good. To believe God can be trusted to empower you in the midst of trouble. To believe God can be trusted to receive you when you die. To believe God is out there before us ready to catch us.
One of my favorite authors, Henri Nouwen, received the greatest revelation about faith, of all places, at the circus. As the story goes Nouwen went to see a famous German trapeze group perform. Nouwen was mesmerized by their breath-taking performance as they flew gracefully through the air. At the end of the show, Nouwen had opportunity to speak with the leader of the troupe whom the group was named after.
Nouwen asked him how he was able to perform with such grace and ease so high in the air. The leader said, “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.”[viii]
That is the challenge we face when it comes to faith. The trouble comes, when we try to grab on to God. When we try to control things. When we overthink this life of faith and seek to do enough mental gymnastics or enough fanciful praying, so we can somehow catch God. It’s not our job to catch God. God catches us.
“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”[ix]
It seems to me to live into this definition of faith we will need to move away from a place we have called home and seek a better country… we will need to stand up out of our comfortable canoes, set down our oars and put one foot in front of the other as we begin to move through the unfamiliar terrain in which we have no idea where our hike will end… we will need to move from our settled life to the small platform in the middle of the big top and simply jump trusting that God will do the hard work of catching us.
For when we do we will learn God is leading us… God is already out in the uncharted territory… and God will catch us. For just God showed God’s trustworthiness to Abraham and prepared a future he couldn’t imagine — so has God done so for us. We simply need to begin our life of motion. We simply need to listen to God and go. Amen.
[i] Hebrews 11:1 (nrsv)
[ii] Frederick Buechner, found at http://www.frederickbuechner.com/quote-of-the-day/2018/4/10/faith?rq=faith on August 3, 2019.
[iii] Genesis 12:1 (nrsv)
[iv] Hebrews 11:13 (nrsv)
[v] Hebrews 11:14 (nrsv)
[vi] Hebrews 11:16 (nrsv)
[vii] Hebrews 11:1 (nrsv)
[viii] Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Only Necessary Thing: Living a Prayerful Life (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1999), pp.195-196.
[ix] Hebrews 11:1 (nrsv)