A word of encouragement for the ninth Sunday after Pentecost in Year C.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews was not, to our knowledge, a theoretical physicist; although they might have been.
To declare that “faith is the conviction of things not seen,” and that, “by faith we understand … that what is seen was made from things that are not visible” is to describe the very basis on which we live with our feet fixed to the ground by gravity, and our orbit informed by the intricate, if not infinite, dimensions of space.
What we understand, what we grasp and believe that we know about our place in the universe is based on our (or at least, our scientists’) observation of the world around us, how it works, and how unseen forces seem to affect our everyday lives. We know that things happen before we know why they happen. In other words, we live by faith. Gravity caused the apple to fall from the tree before Isaac Newton decided to do the mathematics in order to try to understand why. The concept of the Higgs boson came from observing its theoretical effects on creation long before the Large Hadron Collider was built to test the hypothesis.
We live by faith, and our faith is living, and evolving, and developing in understanding, and testing its theories and refining its findings. Faith does not walk blindfolded or blinkered. It is highly observant.
As you may or may not have heard, the letter to the Hebrews was probably not written by Paul, author of so many other letters, but by someone else early in the Christian tradition, in the second half of the first century of the Christian era. This was a time when a new generation was coming of age who had not known Jesus, in the flesh or by repute, while he was walking the earth. They inherited a faith from their fathers and mothers and godparents which had at first assumed that the Second Coming was imminent; that God’s kingdom would come in power and great glory within their lifetime; that God’s will would be done on earth as in heaven, within their sight.
As time and generations wore on, and we still had the work to do of repentance, of preparation, of waiting upon Christ’s coming, the theory had to be modified. Under the observation that empires still oppress, that cruelty still has currency, that the will of God continues to be subverted by a fallen humanity – those who prefer power to love, satisfaction to service, law and order to grace and mercy – the timeline for the Christian experiment had to be extended. As parents were buried, and children fell ill with no miracle to save them, our understanding of eternal life had to be deepened. It no longer meant that the first generation of Christians would never die, but that each of us would follow Jesus to the Cross, and through the tomb, to the day of Resurrection.
This adjustment, this evolution of faith was not new, the Hebrews’ guide assured them. Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and his children died before they realized in their lives all that God had promised them. Moses, looking over the Promised Land from Mount Nebo, whence you can see the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan valley laid out all the way to the Dead Sea and beyond, whence you can see Mount Zion, knew that he would not return that way with his people. But he trusted God to bring them home.
There is nothing wrong with acknowledging at this point, by the way, that each of these people were migrants, at times even refugees, wandering the earth at the direction and under the protection of God, who has always prescribed mercy for the exile, since the time of Eve, Adam, and even Cain.
Moses named his son Gershom, because, he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.
By faith, they wandered the earth. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith is the basis for our understanding that day will follow night, and that what goes up must come down, and that life will follow death, even as death stalks this life. Faith observes the empty tomb of Jesus, and posits resurrection, because “what is seen was made from things that are not visible.”
No one has seen the Higgs boson, but its effects have been observed, and our theory of how the world works invests confidence and faith in its existence. Gravity is not visible, but we trust not only that it exists, but that we have a reasonable understanding of how it works.
No one has seen the love and ever-giving life of God, but its effects have been observed, and our lives are built on the confidence and faith that God is with us. We have not had the pleasure nor the awe of encountering God face to face, but we believe that God is with us, and we have a reasonable understanding of how God reveals Godself to us.
We find the effects of God in creation itself – in the mystery and the puzzle and the intellectual exercise of unravelling space and time and the beauty, the sheer breathtaking-ness of a butterfly, and a cloudscape, and the hypnotic rhythm of the rise and fall of a child’s sleeping body at peace.
We find the effects of God in the love of strangers, who draw together in completely altruistic, self-sacrificing kindness, to rescue someone from danger, to wipe the tears of a mourner, to comfort the child of a stranger, to demand a better world to live in, something closer to the one God wills here as in heaven.
We find the effects of God at the bedside of one crossing the permeable but invisible veil between this life and another. We see how a man at the end of a long life is reassured by visitors from his past, how he recognizes them. We learn from observation that life is not ended by death, but transformed, and even then, into something we will recognize, and trust.
We remain, with the readers of the letter to the Hebrews, impatient for God’s will to be done, on earth as in heaven: for violence to be beaten into the earth, swords into ploughshares; for cruelty to be converted into kindness; for the valley of the shadow of death to be flooded with the light of everlasting life.
In the meantime, we walk by faith, not unthinking but informed by what we see around us: that God is with us. We find grace in the journey of Jesus, the incarnation of God’s Word made flesh, for us and for our salvation; love nailed to the Cross; the quiet victory of the empty tomb; the broken bread and wine poured out for all.
We live by faith, with thanksgiving. Amen.