Living death and beyond

the 23rd Day after Pentecost
Proper 28
17 November 2019

Today’s readings are:
Malachi 4:1-2a
Psalm 98
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

Click here to access these readings.

        Goodness, those were some grim readings, weren’t they? There’s a bit of fire and brimstone in our readings this morning, and though they were tempered a bit with the beautiful psalm, there was some grim stuff there. And it’s not just grim stuff like on Ash Wednesday or Good Friday, but some gut frustration and anger and destruction. When I read these readings at the beginning of the week, I thought, man, how are the kids going to hear all this? Maybe I should ask Tina to keep them in Sunday school the whole time so they don’t have to hear any of it.

        But, but, that wouldn’t have been a good idea. It’s important to hear the whole of the Bible. It’s important that we Christians read and hear, in our own study and here in the gathered congregation of the church, the whole Bible, not just the nice, happy, and joyful moments, but those moments where the sins of the human heart and the world are laid bare. Someone once said that the Bible is like a map of the human response to God – the whole human response, the good, the bad, and the ugly. And we need to take it all as God’s word to us in Scripture. It’s kinda, in a way, like marriage: if we want only the good parts, we’re going to have a pretty rocky marriage. But if we are with our spouses through sickness and in health, in joy and sorrow, through those nasty fights and those times when our hearts are lifted together in joy to the very gates of Heaven, then maybe that marriage will last. The Bible is kinda the same.

        And now, in the darkening time of the year, we read some of the tough parts of Scripture. And the lectionary is designed this way. Starting around All Saints, when we remember those of our beloved who have entered into the joys of Heaven, our readings focus more and more on the end. Or, perhaps it is better to say that Scripture, through our lectionary, asks important questions: what do we do with endings? What do we do with death? What do we do with little ends and little deaths, like the end of the year, or the parting of friends, or the ending of a relationship? And what do we do with those big ends, the death of loved ones, our own deaths, and that day when all things will end, and the world turns to look God face-to-face?

        Now, we humans can get pretty caught up in endings, be they small ones or big ones. And some of us Christians can get really caught up in the end times. We can worry about when, or how, or where, and who. We can take the Scriptures and work out the math to figure out when Jesus will return. And this sort of thing has been done with our Scriptures since the beginning of Christianity, but Jesus’ word to us is this: do not worry. Don’t get all caught up in all this calculating, because I am with you. I will guide you and remain with you, whatever may come to pass. I will love you and hold you, Jesus tells us, even when you try so hard to forget I’m there. Rest in me.

        Now, this sort of talk, I think, can easily lead to a “don’t worry, be happy” sort of theology. If we don’t have to worry about bad things, if Jesus will be with us and, hey, how can things go bad with Jesus as my co-pilot? We can just sit back and let the chips fall where they may, because Jesus has our backs. But we Christians don’t really have a “don’t worry, be happy” theology. Our God, our beloved Jesus, was crucified on a cross, a fact we’re reminded of every year during Holy Week, each Sunday at the Eucharist, and every time we ourselves die to our own sin and are lifted by God’s grace into his presence. We can’t get away from a bit of tough thinking, and that’s one of the reasons the lectionary prepares us for such thinking at this time of year.

        There is a difference, though, between a happy-go-lucky, all’s right with the world kind of attitude and the attitude that God calls us to through Scripture and the Holy Spirit. We are called not to throw up our hands in grief, nor to throw up our hands in shallow joy, but to live. We are called to be present with the joy of the world and its suffering. We are called to be present to hatred and grief, calm moments of peace and deep, deep anger, and all the range of human emotions and actions. We are called to be followers of Jesus – Jesus, who did not turn his eye from the despair of his people, but walked straight into it, eyes wide open, because his love was so great and his life so grounded in God the Father, that he could do nothing else.

        Now, our collect this week reminds us to do something very important with Scripture, and I want to add to it that we should do the very same thing with life. Our collect reminds us that holy Scripture was written so that we may learn from it to understand more fully and more deeply the world around us and the very lives we lead. And we pray through the collect that God might grant us to hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest all that we encounter. And this is all to say that we should not take the joys in our lives, nor the sorrows or griefs or deaths, however little or however large, for granted. For deaths should not just be endured with gritted teeth but should be lived.

        This might sound strange, that deaths should be lived, but it is true. Whatever the ending we are brought to, be it the gentle fall of the year or the end of our own lives, we are to live them, as Jesus lived his own death. And to live them is to see them, to mark them and know what they are. For our Lord God leads us through many deaths in our lives, through many endings. And we can shut our eyes and ignore them, we can grasp and covet those things that should have been laid to rest, we can forget the passing of those who have gone before us – or we can open our eyes to the love of God.

        For me, it works like this: I think of all those people who I never said good-bye to. Helene and I have moved around a lot in the past ten years, and we’ve met a lot of good friends. And those who, when we parted, I was able to say good-bye, many of us have remained friends, and if nothing else, they’ve remained a deep and abiding part of me. I learn from them, if they’re still around, I seek them out for their council, their advice, and their joy, and I am sought out for the same.

        But there are those, for whatever reason, be it that I didn’t think they were important or because of a hardness of heart, who I did not say good-bye, or at least said it poorly. There is a grief in my heart about them. There’s something unfinished. There is a hole in my heart, or a tearing, or a sore. And rarely, at least for me, is that sore healed by not thinking about it.

        This is, at least, where my mind goes when I think about endings, both good and bad. Your mind might go elsewhere, to hopes you’ve had that you have said good-bye to well or poorly, or even how you’ve been able to work through the troubles that come with aging. But whatever the case, our word from Scripture is not to look away in grief and despair but to see those deaths, however small, however large, as they are, and to walk through them with endurance and with hope.

        And we can do this, we can pass through these deaths because Jesus, who came before us, who passed through the great death on the cross, Jesus is with us in every death, every grief, and every sorrow. By dying on the cross Jesus broke death, destroyed it, and remade it to be something that, through him, leads not to despair and darkness but to new life. For death is not, not ever, the last word. Life, is the last word, and it is an eternal word.

        And we know this from our own lives, don’t we? When we have come to an end, and we have come through it, by the grace of God, with our minds and hearts open, and Jesus within us, there is new life on the other side, isn’t there? We are still in this world, where darkness and sorrow run rampant, and there is often still grief on the other side of death. There is a sense of loss for what has died. But above all there is a newness of life, a rekindling of something deep within us, a rebirth and a resurrection of something essential and free. This is something we see in the natural world, where the fall of leaves in the autumn and the bare branches of winter lead to the renewed life of spring. And we see it in our lives in our healing, be it in mind or body or spirit, as we are led through the small deaths of life by the hand of God, until we come to that last and final death, our own death, when Jesus will carry us on his back, like a shepherd carrying a lost lamb, into the eternal glory of Heaven. And then, there, will all deaths finally die, and we will live the life eternal.

Jesus is Alive!

the 22nd day after Pentecost
Proper 27
10 November 2019

Today’s readings are:
Job 19:23-27a
Psalm 17:1-9
2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
Luke 20:27-38

Click here to access these readings.

        I want you to take out your service bulletins again, even though you probably just stowed them nicely away. Take out your bulletin with all the readings on it, the one with the big green bar at the top that says “22 Pentecost.” Now, the first part there isn’t a reading from the Bible (though most of the language is straight from our Scriptures); it’s a collect. Collects are prayers, and they’re always said at the beginning of our worship time on Sundays. There are collects for each Sunday of the year, and for each of the days after Easter, and for each saint’s day, too. They’re called “Collects” because they collect us, they bring is all in from each of our disparate lives and focus us, collectively, as the Body of Christ, the Church, on what we’ll be thinking about and praying about on each particular morning. If you have some time, read through some of these Collects in the Prayer Book; they’re beautiful, short prayers, and many Christians (and not just Episcopalians) use them in their own, private worship.

        And if you looked at all the Collects, you’d notice that they all end pretty much the same way: “where he (that’s Jesus) lives and reigns with you (God the Father) and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.” Hooray for the Trinity. And while all the words in here are important, there is one that’s very, very important: lives. Jesus Christ lives, with God the Father and with the Holy Spirit, as one God. Lives. Jesus is alive. Jesus Christ is alive.

        Now, this might seem a little obvious to us, maybe. I mean, Jesus isn’t dead, right? That’s what we talk about every Easter: Jesus died on the cross but was raised from the dead three days later. But for the early Church, this idea that Jesus was alive was of utmost importance. Everything kinda hinged on this. The Good News that they were to proclaim was that Jesus was alive, that he was resurrected, and that this made all the difference. And with Jesus, the one who Jesus himself called “father”, God, who created the universe, is also alive. And the Holy Spirit, sent on the day of Pentecost to form and sustain the Church, is also alive and present with us, even now, two thousand years later. As Jesus tells the Sadducees in our gospel reading this morning, “God is not of the dead, but of the living.”

        And on this morning, two thousand years after the Resurrection, two thousand years after a small group of women, one morning, found an empty tomb and an angel sitting around just to tell them that Jesus wasn’t here, that he was Risen, on this morning this is all still Good News. Jesus is alive. The whole Trinity is alive. But what does this mean, alive? We can understand, surely, the excitement and confusion and utter joy of the disciples that the tomb was empty and that their beloved friend and God wasn’t dead and that they could still talk to him and hold him and break bread with him and hear his voice again. Surely we can understand their excitement, but what about us? Is this still Good News to us, or just old news? Is it news that fills us, or is it news from a long time ago that’s great, but, really, what about now? What does it mean that Jesus is alive?

        Well, I mean, there’s theology for you. If you want to know the answer then read all the works of Thomas Aquinas, come back and listen to ever sermon I give until I retire, pray unceasingly until your last breath, and feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Then maybe you’ll catch a glimpse of what it means for Jesus to be alive. But we don’t have to know the full reality of God (as if we could) for us to step towards him, and for that Good News, that Jesus is alive, to have meaning for us today.

        Let me tell you a quick story: this past summer, Gwendolyn spent a bit of time in a small, blow-up pool we have. It really was small, not much more than something to get your feet wet, but Gwen liked splashing around it in to cool off. We emptied it each evening because we didn’t want the grass beneath it to die or the pool to start to mold, and then filled it up when Gwen wanted to use it again.

        And to fill it, we usually just stuck the hose in the pool and let it fill. And when the water got to a certain height, the end of the hose dipped beneath the surface. It was still filling up the pool, of course, but you couldn’t see the usual rush of water the comes out the hose. And Gwen kept asking, is it on? Is it filling up? Is it on? Yes, it’s on! Jesus is alive kinda like that hose is on.

        Poor analogy maybe, and it certainly doesn’t tell the whole story of Jesus, but I think it’s important. Often, when we think of “alive”, we think of exuberance. When we think of someone who’s alive, we think, maybe, of someone out running each morning, or someone who laughs easily and heartily, or someone who’s fresh and open and just in love with life.

But, often, life looks a lot different than that. Life can look worn and dirty, like a baseball mitt that’s seen a lifetime of games. Life can look like a cookbook that’s covered in grease and cookie batter and grubby little fingerprints because it was used to make food that fed people. Life can be present in a hospital room, and it can be present at the grave. For we believe, we Christians believe, that Life Itself was hung on a cross and died, but that even such a death wasn’t strong enough to hold him back from rising to Life again.

Over the next week, from this Sunday to next, I want to give you a challenge. We all have things that fill us up. Some of us are gardeners, some of us love reading. Some have children or grandchildren who touch us deep in our hearts. Some of us may be filled by going to meetings, who knows, but we’ve all got things in our lives that we see as refuges, places of peace and comfort, of grace and love.

I want to challenge you, however, to seek out life elsewhere. Open your eyes and open your heart to life elsewhere as well. Reach out into places of your life that make you tired, or frustrated, or that rattle your nerves. And in these places, ask the question, Jesus, who was raised from the dead two thousand years ago, and who lives even now, where are you in all this? Holy Spirit, help me see the face of my Redeemer, because my Redeemer lives.

And if the answer is, Jesus isn’t here, then ask “How can I bring you more fully into this place? How can I make you, who are Life and Love and Hope, how can I make you more fully known in this place? How can I walk more fully as your disciple, as one who has been given Life by you? Help me see you, help me live you.”

Simplicity

the 18th day of Pentecost
Proper 23
13 October 2019

Today’s readings are:
2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
Psalm 111
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Luke 17:11-19

Click here to access these readings.
 
       I joked about this at our pet blessing last Sunday, but there really isn’t anything in my priest books that tells me how to bless animals. Actually, there’s not all that much in all my books that tells me how to bless anything, really. We’re supposed to make the sign of the cross, put our hand up or something, and often it’s best, when blessing a person, to put your hand on their shoulder or even hold their hand, but all this is really just best practices, not “how you do it.” And that’s because blessing someone is actually really just a simple matter: you pray with them. You turn with a person, or a group, or a little animal, towards God. We say to God, “Please, love this person or group, or animal with the fullness of your being.” And we believe God says, “Of course.”

        You can say the same thing about the liturgy, too. It’s very simple. I know, there’s a whole lot of stuff with our liturgy, and, like I said the other week, all this stuff is important. But even with all the bowing and chasubles and chalices, the whole thing is really very simple. We come together, we pray, we eat, then we head out. Everything else helps, and it helps immensely (again, it’s best practices), but the heart of the matter is a prayer to God. And, really, that’s enough as it is.

        Now, there’s a lot of things we can do to dress things up. The more I wave my hands at your when I’m blessing you, or the more motions I make while celebrating the Eucharist, the more it seems like I’m up to something. And something really is going on: when a priest blesses us, or when any Christian blesses someone, God is really present. God is really there in a special way. But it’s not because we wave our hands or make really heart-felt prayers. And in the bread and wine of Communion: God’s really there, really present, and that bit of wafer and sip of wine really do lift us closer to Heaven; but they do this not because I’ve got a chasuble on or because you’re kneeling. God’s there, God’s here, because God wants to be here with us. God loves us and hopes for us.

        At this point, you may say: Now, Father Tim. The other week you preached on how awesome stuff is in the liturgy and in our Christian lives. And now you’re talking about how awesome things are because they’re simple. So which is it?” Well, isn’t it both? There’s this beautiful simplicity in Communion, of coming to the rail as just us, no strings attached, even though we sin each and every day and just keep on sinning, even still we kneel or stand and say, simply, “Jesus, please come” and he does.

And that moment, that most glorious and humbling moment, is set within the liturgy that lifts that moment up, that focuses that moment, that helps us understand that it is Jesus coming to us and not something else. The liturgy helps us understand the coming of Jesus in Communion, something that is beyond words and beyond all human expectation and hope; and that moment when we meet Jesus, in turn, helps us understand all the prayers, the Scripture and the Creeds, our confession and that we truly are forgiven our sins when we confess them. The simple and the complicated, they work together, each and all together, and all so that we can take another step, however small, towards God, our Creator and our Redeemer.

Now, all of our readings this morning were on faith. And all of them remind us that, although it seems like a pretty complicated thing, faith is actually pretty simple. Not easy, mind you, but simple. I think of caring for a baby: you know, there’s not much to it. You feed them, you change their diaper, and you put them down to sleep. Pretty simple. But in that simplicity there is a depth that is often too deep for words. Because there is a love that you give to a baby, each time you feed them, lay them down to sleep, or even change their diapers. And that love means the world to them, and it is life for them.

Or think of caring for our friends or our family. What they need from us, most often, is just someone to be there with them. Yeah, sure, sometimes our families or friends get into some wacky problems that are complication upon complication upon complication, but what they need, most often, is simple, honest love: a friend to sit by them in the turmoil, a presence of love in all the confusion and anxiety, a word or even just a patient silence that does not demand, that does not press, that does not muck up the problem even more than it already is mucked up. They need just love: simple, honest love. Then, sure you can get down to fixing the problem or working out solutions or whatever. But all of that is founded on that simple love that we give by just being next to them and, well, loving them.

Faith can often be a tough thing. In the face of great adversity, in the face of darkness and sorrow and grief, and in the face of real and true loss, it can be hard to hold onto faith. Our faith can feel like sand slipping through our fingers, and doubt can loom large and ugly on the horizon of our grief. And when we hear “God is with you”, it can be easy to turn around and say, “yeah, sure, where?” But when we sit down and quiet our hearts, when we put to rest our worry and anxiety, when we open our eyes we see that there is a life in this world, a life that isn’t just a thing or a force or an energy but a living presence. In times of fear, it is a tenacious courage that walks beside us; in anxiety, it is a calm presence sitting very still and inviting us to peace; in hatred, it is a word in our ear that all is loved, even that, or especially that, which is lost, forgotten, and alone.

There is no simple way to define faith. There is no simple way to grow in faith. Nor should there be. A robust faith is often found at the end of a lot of heartache, a lot of grief, and a lot of darkness. Or, perhaps it would be better to say, we discover the reality of faith, the reality that God is with us, Emmanuel, that Jesus Christ loves us and died for us and rose for us, so that we could know what true life was really like, that this faith is what holds us and gets us through the heartache and grief and darkness. And each step forward brings us closer to Him: the one who Created us, the one who Redeemed us, the one who Sanctifies us, and the one who Loves us with the fullness of Being itself. And even now this Voice is calling you to turn to that Life.

God is Life

South Coast Convocation Beach Eucharist
August 17th, 2019

The readings for this service are:
Job 12:7-12
Psalm 98
Philippians 4:4-7
Matthew 19:13-15

       We heard a lot about God’s hands this morning, didn’t we? In the Old Testament, we heard how all life, every living thing, is in God’s hands. In the Psalms, we heard how God’s right hand has worked salvation. And in a little bit, we’ll pray together the Prayers of the People, where we will give thanks that God fashioned us and this beautiful place with his life-giving hand. This all reminds me of a song we used to sing as kids: “He’s got the whole world, in his hands.” Do you know that one? As a kid, I imagined this big set of hands, cupped around, and a bunch of people, or even the Earth itself, just sitting there in God’s open palms.

       Now, hands signify something really important in the Bible and for us Christians; they signify the life-giving presence of God. Think about the Bible, where people are always reaching out and touching Jesus with their hands; and when they do, they’re healed. Or that Jesus, and the disciples with him, lay their hands – physically touch – the sick and the injured, the lonely and the destitute, folks no one wanted to be near, much less touch. Some of these people are suddenly healed, miraculously, though others are shown, rather simply, that they are not alone in their pain, that someone cares for them and loves them. For some, that’s healing enough.

And our practices at church continue this focus on hands. At the passing of the peace, we shake hands or hug one another, all in the name of Christ, welcoming them into our hearts and our lives. Or in the sacraments: In Baptism the pouring of water and the anointing on the forehead with oils, or Reconciliation, where at that most beautiful moment, when we are reminded that we are loved by the God of all things, the priest puts his or her hand on the head. Or in the Eucharist, the simple and vast depths of the Eucharist, where a small wedge of wafer or bread, the very Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, is placed in an outstretched hand. And all this, all these moments, signify something: a presence, a life, a depth within the world that is far beyond ourselves.

       And God, and our church, and our Christian lives extend out beyond the four walls of our worship space, don’t they? I think also of the hands that I have seen in my own life, as well. I think of the hands of my father, who was a woodworker. His hands are like anyone’s hands who works with wood all day: they’re nicked and scratched, they have deep callouses and are scarred, but they’re also deft, able, skillful, and sure. Or I think of my daughter’s hands and my own when we go out to play in the sand. After just a few minutes of building castles and burying each other in the sand, our hands are grubby and dirty, and they most certainly have to be washed before we can eat lunch – but even so, they are full of the life and joy of digging about in the earth. And I think of the hands of Jesus, which I have seen in paintings and statues and in my own heart (and surely you have, too): the hands of Jesus, our God and our Savior, human hands but holy hands as well, as they were lifted to heal and as they were laid on the cross and nailed to its hard wood.

       And all these images – hands in healing, hands full of dirt and grime, hands giving bread, hands bleeding at the palms – these images all point to one thing: not just of some vague presence but the presence of Life and it’s advent into this world. Now, our own hands, our fallen, human hands, can bring other things, too. Sure, we can bring life into the world, we can be God’s hands, but we can also work death, destruction, and pain as well. But God’s hands are different. God’s hands are life. In God’s hands is life, not sitting on the top but deep down inside them, like a bit of salt baked into a cake to enhance all that flavor; or, if you’ve spent some time in the South, you’ll know sweet tea, where the sugar isn’t just added in later but brewed into the tea itself to make it, oh so delicious. And all these are just more small, partial images, because that goodness and hope and life of God’s hands are deep down at God’s core, who he is; because God is Life. God is Love.

       And all this love, all this life, it’s not away on some mountain top. It’s not locked away in secret somewhere so that only smart and adventurous people can find it. It’s not something that only our great spiritual ancestors can find because they were just more special than we are. It’s right here. As St. Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Lord, always; again I will say, Rejoice!” And why? Because the Lord is near to you, or, as in the book of Deuteronomy, the Lord is very near to you. This Life, this Hope, this Goodness, and this Love, they are here for us, because God is here among us. Whether we’re under the church roof or out here on the side of the beach, whether you’re in a hospital room or on the other side of the door, waiting in anxiety, God is with you.

       But sometimes, truth be told, it’s hard to remember all this. We live in a troubled world. Each day, it seems, we are met with new tragedies, news that awakens our anxiety or anger or even our hatred. And it seems that we have just two choices: to push it all away and hide from it or else enter into it and risk becoming that pain and anger ourselves. But whether we go out or stick home, whatever we do, we Christians don’t begin there. We don’t begin in pain or anger or despair, but in Life. We begin in Hope, even if (or especially if) there doesn’t seem to be any. We begin in community, in listening to one another, in the seeking out of all people, regardless of who they are and how different their cultures or thoughts or politics are from our own. We begin in Love because God began in Love. God created the world, we believe, not because he was bored and needed something to do, or that God was incomplete and so needs a world; no, we believe that God created the universe, this world, and all the creatures in it, for Love. And that Love is the foundation of all things, from the grains of sand out there on the beach to the planets and stars out there in their courses.

       And we, too. We have been created anew by that Love. It is a Love that we have long yearned for, long hoped for, and that Love found us and is bringing us home. And our work now, we pilgrims on a journey to our true Home, is to shower the world with that Love. To open our hearts when it’s easy and when it’s tough, to listen to those we agree with and those we think are fools, to seek God in all people, no matter who they are. For Love was at the beginning, Love is now, and Love forever shall be the beating heart of Creation and the center of all our lives.

 

Faith

the 9th Day of Pentecost
Proper 14
August 11th, 2019

The readings for today are:
Genesis 15:1-6
Psalm 33:12-22
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Luke 12:32-40

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.