The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 15.1-6 – Psalm 33.12-22 – Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16 – Luke 12.32-40
‘All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.’ (Heb 11.10)
In the past two weeks, we have followed the news coming out of the Lambeth Conference, the decennial gathering of Anglican bishops from all over the world. From its inception in 1867, under the auspices of the then Archbishop of Canterbury following the request of Canadian Bishops, this meeting was meant to be a place of exchange and listening, sharing good practice and encouragement between prelates involved in widely differing mission fields, from the glamorous corridors of powers of Westminster to the furthest outposts of the Commonwealth. At every iteration of the conference since, reflection on the pressing issues of the day have taken place, leading along the way to some positive global developments in the context of a changing world. The conference has also been also a place for international discussion on issues of sexuality and marriage, divorce, and also for the past 40 years, the place of LGBTQ+ people in the church, questions that have challenged the gathering..
Whilst it probably felt initially more like a gentlemen’s club, the Lambeth Conference evolved into a powerful think tank for global communion affairs and a source of important networking and story sharing for Bishops. Given the structures of the Communion and the status of each of the 38 independent provinces which compose it, neither the Archbishop of Canterbury nor the Lambeth Conference has power over them, as they make their own self-governing decisions. But like a large family gathering, the intersection of stories and local realities in the context of our shared faith in Jesus Christ has meant that sometimes agreement on matters long accepted in one part of the room has taken longer than some had hoped for.
The process for the organisation of this current conference had been drawn out, and it had in fact been postponed by two years, in order to avoid direct clashes on issues of sexuality, seen by some as first order issues – issues at the core of our faith – which could break the communion. And the agenda did indeed include a series of very good discussions on the topics that are of paramount importance and urgency for our times – including poverty, war, the environment and climate change, indigenous rights and human dignity, including exploitation and modern slavery. Much good work was done in these areas and it will take a while to unpack how this will percolate into the work already done by provinces around the world, including our own Anglican Church of Canada.
Those of you who follow church politics, or who spend any time on social media, will know that the initial process designed to emphasize unity – which included some calls for action drafted by committees – was somehow derailed by the addition to the agreed initial text of a sentence referring to the common mind on the communion on a resolution from the 1998 Lambeth Conference, resolution 1.10 on human sexuality. This inflamed the early days of the session and showed again the fragility of holding a global ideal across different theologies, cultures and experiences. As ever, words like schism and separation were mentioned.
This reaffirmed for many LGBTQ+ people the carelessness with which their lives are being viewed and discussed even as in many cultures there has been rapid change in the past 50 years. Many campaigners in Canterbury and around the world were downbeat about any prospect of positive change. Nevertheless, final communiqués were a little more positive about the fact that the Anglican Communion does hold in tensions different views on issues of sexuality, and recognised that provinces in the global north who have moved positively on the issue have done so after much careful theological work and with missiological concern.
There is still plenty of work to be done, especially in a world where the lives of LGBTQ+ are significantly at risk in many places, and still criminalized in 76 countries, 44% of which are majority Christian. But at least a significant change from previous calls for sanctions and expulsion for churches that see LGBTQ+ rights as both Gospel and mission issues, and a call for people with different views to continue to walk together and learn about the diverse ways in which we each live out our faith, sometimes putting us surprisingly at odds with one another.
What is faith?
That is a question that has been around since the beginning of times, and one which some early Christians were asking as they were the subject of persecution, bullying and violence by their non-Christian neighbours.
Let us hear what the writer of the letter to the Hebrews writes about the experience of the Christian community just one paragraph before today’s extract which we heard earlier:
‘you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and persecution, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion for those who were in prison, and you cheerfully accepted the plundering of your possessions, knowing that you yourselves possessed something better and more lasting. Do not, therefore, abandon that confidence of yours; it brings a great reward. For you need faith, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised’ (Hebrews 10:33-36)
“you need faith so you may receive what was promised,”
This must have set them thinking. “What is faith?”, they had to have asked themselves. I wonder if you ever ask yourself that? What is faith? Tough times had made them ask that question, and perhaps that question is nearer to our thinking when we too go through tough times.
I wonder what your answer might be; how we might expand upon that answer about what faith is. Try and answer in your mind now, or as you go on your way today – what is your definition of faith. Finish for yourself the sentence: Faith is. ..
For the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, ” faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
And it may require of us a great deal of openness and discernment.
This single verse-Hebrews 11:1-may be one of the most profound statements in all Scripture, one which may be the reason we are gathered here today. Maybe some other ways this short verse was translated might help unpack further its meaning. One translator says it this way, “Now faith means putting our full confidence in the things we hope for; it means being certain of things we cannot see.”‘ (Phillips) Another translator says this, “And what is faith? Faith substantiates our hopes, and makes us certain of realities we do not see.”‘
Abraham, for instance, is an example of faith-in-action. What is it about Abraham that makes him a person of faith? He had a good, settled life, but one night he heard an extraordinary call from God, “Leave your country, your relatives, and your father’s house and go to the land that I will show you.”
That could have been pretty unsettling, even frightening, and yet Abraham decides to follow this call and to do as he is asked, to build up a new country, even though he could simply have sat back, rested on his laurels, and enjoyed the status quo.
It does not seem to make great sense, and yet he changes the course of his life. And he does it because he has a passionate conviction that God is preparing something remarkable for him and for God’s people -a posterity, a permanent land, cities, crops, and identity. So based on that deep conviction that God is working in his future, he takes a risk, he obeys God’s words and leaves with his whole household. He’s not really clear on directions; he just has an immediate conviction that God has told him to move now. He has this sense that God will be with him in his going, in his future.
And what caused Sarah and Abram to believe that they would see the day when they would finally have their own family? The writer says that they had such a passionate conviction that God was working in their future, that they received power to have a child well past the child-bearing age.
Faith is the passionate conviction to dream dreams and see visions that are outside the box. The ability to imagine a better future and to prepare for it in the present. To resist the temptation to stay with what is, with the certainty that there can be a better way.
The knowledge that when human organisations, even religious organisation, cause hate and suffering, then they are not following the ways of God.
One of the greatest problems with the Bible, said one of my Biblical teachers, is its back cover. Because the story of the people of God did not stop some 2000 years ago, but it has continued to evolve, to be lived out in ways that the early writers could not predict, living as they did in cultures of patriarchy where lives other than men’s lives did not seem worthy of much mention in sacred texts.
And so over time, we have seen the continuing call of God in the lives of generations after generations of Christians, seeking to improve the vision of the Kingdom, seeking to respond to new understandings, moved by their contemplation of the created order and the knowledge that the summary of the law that Jesus has given us – to love God, and to love our neighbour as ourselves – has to propel us further on to do just that.
It could be easy to feel downbeat when an event of significance – such as the Lambeth gathering – does not appear to go in what we believe is God’s way, yet – as Martin Luther King Jr put it – ‘the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice’. God’s time is not our time, and faith is also a school for patience.
Patience in hope that humanity will in the end respond to the call of God for a kingdom of peace, justice and love, and be able to live together as those who have faith that they are equally and unconditionally loved.
Patience that even as we see, and as we work to build our vision of God’s kingdom, we may not see it today, tomorrow, or even in our lifetime.
And yet, we have to keep going on going on, for the sake of that faith which we learnt and which we caught.
Because what is faith? “Faith is the confident assurance that what we hope for is going to happen. It is the evidence of things we cannot yet see.”