the 9th Day of Pentecost
August 11th, 2019
The readings for today are:
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Click here to access these readings.
This past Tuesday was the Feast of the Transfiguration. It’s one of the really important days of the Church Year, and so it would be a pity to skip over it without much comment. But, apart from the good Christian work of following the Church Year, the story of the Transfiguration is one that says some important things about the theme of our readings this morning. And that theme is: Faith.
The story of the Transfiguration is quick to tell: in it, Jesus takes three of the disciples up to a mountaintop with him. There he is suddenly changed: his whole presence, from his face to his clothes, becomes radiant. Standing on either side are Moses and Elijah, and a great voice comes from the sky that says, “This is my Son, in whom I am well-pleased. Listen to him.” You can imagine the disciples’ surprise and alarm as they witness their teacher suddenly changed so drastically. There’s great light, loud, booming voices, prophets of old, and sight to the true nature of all things. And then, just as suddenly as this vision appears, it fades, and there is Jesus, just Jesus, alone.
What do you do with a vision like that? How do the disciples go back to their normal lives? Isn’t everything changed? Well, in a way, not really. After the Transfiguration, after they see Jesus in all his glory as the Son of God, the Foundation of the world, the disciples follow him back to their normal lives. Jesus continues on the way, doing miracles, surely, and preaching the Kingdom of peace and love and the Glory of God – and the memory of that vision, of the Transfiguration, becomes, perhaps, just that: a memory. How do the disciples know that they weren’t dreaming when they saw Jesus suddenly revealed? How do they know that it wasn’t just some sort of trick of light, that they only thought they heard a voice, or that the sun didn’t just come out at just the right time? How did they know that what they saw was really Jesus revealed and not just some part of their imaginations?
I’m not sure if the disciples asked these questions, but Christians have been wrestling with these sorts of questions for our whole history. We read the Bible, and we come to Church. We learn about our traditions and teach them to our children. We talk about God’s love and God’s hope and build up our faith. But then tragedy happens. Pain and suffering come our way, and we may wonder: is all of that true? Is God really a loving God?
Or, perhaps, we may be gifted with a religious experience, moments or periods of time when God comes right up close to us. These experiences can look different, and have looked different, all throughout our history: they could be sudden flashes of insight, or times of great peace and comfort. I once had one while walking on the campus at the University of Oregon. I felt the palpable presence of God the other day while: everyone in the house was napping one afternoon, I sat at the kitchen table writing a letter and listening to the wind in the trees. Others have had much more dramatic experiences of God. St. Paul got knocked off his horse and was blinded. Julian of Norwich, a medieval mystic, had visions of Christ on the Cross while she laid dying. Religious experiences can take many forms, but at the end of the day, they always fade away and we return to normal life. How do we know that these experiences were true? How do we know that they weren’t just dreams or, as Scrooge says in A Christmas Story, weren’t just undigested pieces of beef or a fragment of underdone potato?
These questions, and others like it, are some of the things we find in the letter to the Hebrews. The author, whoever he or she was, was concerned with teaching about Faith, what it is and how we are grounded in it. And what is this thing called “faith”? It’s something we name our girls, sometimes, along with felicity and hope, and it’s something we struggle, at times, to have. Sometimes we use it as a synonym for “hope” or as another way to say “belief.” And sometimes we misuse the word and pretend that it’s a blind acceptance of something that we have no control over or any assurance of.
But faith – true faith – is sight. It’s sight to the bottom of things, that underneath all the changes and suffering and worry and pain that there is something else, something good, something firm and hopeful and trustworthy. Faith isn’t the assurance we might find in direct proof, but it’s not counter to that kind of proof, either. Faith is continued assurance, through thick and thin, through joy and pain. Faith is a lot like what we talk about in our marriage ceremony when we promise to love the other person “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health.” We don’t love our spouses because every day is a rollercoaster of joy and fun. We love them because we love something deeper than times of fun and joy, deeper than times of the snotty noses of sickness and the disagreements, even deeper than that thing that, for a time, parts us all: death. We love, or at least we hope to love, our spouses because of the core of who they are, something that is often, but not always, played out in the world. That “not always” doesn’t speak for who they truly are. We have faith that they are more.
This faith that we hope for in marriage is an image (sometimes a pale image, sometimes a broken image) but an image of the faith we are called to in God through Jesus Christ. And marriage is an image of faith and a sacrament not because it’s something we can learn like our multiplication tables, or something we can exercise by going to the gym, but because it is a relationship. And that’s one of the points that the author of Hebrews tries to bring forward. All through this letter, the author isn’t trying to define “faith” as a technical term or in an equation but as a relationship. Here in our reading he points to Abraham, and elsewhere in the letter he writes about the faith of other great figures like Abel, Enoch, Noah, and Moses. He writes, look at the prophets, (or for us) look at the saints, look at the Church and all those who have come before. We learn about faith through stories about them, through who they are as people, their struggles and their hopes. We learn about faith, in part, but learning about the saints and the Church, in who these people, who once lived and often died, for their faith.
And, from them, we learn that when we ourselves have faith, we don’t have it in abstract principles but in a person, and that person is alive and living and full of life: Jesus Christ, our Savior and our Redeemer, who walked around with folks in Israel, who tied his shoes on every morning and ate dinner every night, who hiked up mountains and whose very clothes caught the transcendent light of his Being.
We live in some turbulent times. After weeks like this, and with a rather contested election coming up, we can wonder how to muster up our faith in a God that loves us and sticks by us through thick and thin. Well, the good news of our readings this morning is that we don’t have to muster it up. There’s no button inside our hearts, or muscle that we can flex, to get more faith. To increase in faith, we are called to live with one another, to live with the Church and the world that we serve, with the light and life and hope that is given to us in the Holy Spirit. And we are to live, quite simply, with Jesus Christ, our friend and our savior, in war and in peace, in sorrow and in hope. For in that relationship, in that companionship and friendship and Daughter- and Sonship, there is where we will find our salvation.