Rev. George Miller
“Greeting the Distant Promises ”
Aug 8, 2010
A long time ago, people told stories. By the fire, the flames crackling and illuminating the uncertainty of night. They told fables about talking animals and mysterious fish, natural wonders and bigger-then- life-heros.
They told about their ancestors who had done amazing things, their great-grandparents who had overcome amazing hardships, their great-great-cousins who braved amazing journeys.
Some of these stories bored the listeners and were dismissed, lost to the sands of time forever, while other stories elicited excited responses and were enhanced to create even bigger oohs and ahhs.
Some stories were combined with others to create a nourishing tale that enriched the hearer, teaching an elemental truth. Other stories were meant to empower and prepare people for the times in which they must act, respond and do.
These were the stories of faith and courage, of facing the very thing one fears and going ahead even when others have fled.
These are the stories that populate today’s reading. These are the stories the writer of Hebrews wants us to hear and remember.
For these are stories about our spiritual ancestors, those who came before us, who lived according to God’s promises, acting on faith even though they were facing things uncertain and unknown.
It is from the pages of the Bible that we are in conversation with those ancestors and our Christian faith is grown and sustained.
Hebrews was a letter written to a congregation between 60 and 90 CE. Its author has long been forgotten, but its pastoral message has not.
This is a letter of passion, as the word “faith” appears no less then 24 times in this chapter alone.
It needed to be because this particular church was in crisis. They faced hostility and ridicule. Popular culture was trying to make them feel ashamed for what they believed. The promised 2nd coming of Christ had been a wash. People were losing their faith, ready to walk away and return to their old beliefs.
The writer of this letter sends a message: Hold on, don’t quit or walk away. “Have faith” the author says.
But this is not faith as a passive emotion, causing one to sit idly by, but faith as an action requiring bravery and heart.
To solidify the argument, the author goes back to the peoples’ common language: the stories told by the campfire, knowing that faith has a long memory and profits from the experiences of our ancestors.
He points to Abel and Enoch, Noah and Moses. He highlights Abraham and Sarah who acted in astounding faith, leaving their native land because of God’s promise that they would have as many decedents as stars in the sky.
And even though none of these ancestors lived to see the promises fulfilled, still they acted in trust, living faith as a verb.
These ancestors are the spiritual stock from whence we come...
...Faith. That there is more there then meets the eye. Faith that lies in the future unseen...
...Our ancestors told their stories by campfire. But unless if you are one who enjoys the great outdoors, campfires are no longer a nightly thing.
And as a nation derived from diverse backgrounds we don’t all share the same ancestors.
Instead of camp fires we have the flicker of movie screens, and in many ways films have become the means in which we tell and learn our stories.
Movies have become a way, wether we realize it or not, in which we have been taught about faith, the characters on the screen have become the shared ancestors and friends that we learn from.
So it is about movies I’d like to talk about for the rest of today’s message.
Movie quotes have served to inspire, teach and give hope during the dark times. Think of Pinochio: “When you wish upon a star.”
Gone with the Wind: “As God is my witness I will never go hungry again.”
Field of Dreams: “If you build it, he will come.”
Empire Strikes Back: “Do or do not, there is no try.”
Jaws: “I think we’re going to need a bigger boat.”
And my personal favorite, from a film not many have seen, The Best Man: “I may not be perfect but I’m strong.”
Each of these lines speak about faith.
First: Pinochio. Who’s not a Disney fan? The movies seem so uplifting, until you realizes that most of the classic Disney films pushed a passive view of faith.
Wish on a star, sing to a well, rely on a dream. Faith is something you sit back and wait to happen. You wait for a blue fairy, a handsome prince or the shoe to fit, and things will work out.
That’s not really faith. That’s passivity meant to keep someone in place.
Gone with the Wind, Scarlet O’Hara. Now here was a woman who made things happen. While all of Georgia crumbled round her she found a way to live, swearing to God she’d never go hungry again, turning drapes into a dress.
Scarlet had the type of faith that was a verb: she acted. Nothing passive at all, until you realize she stabbed people in the back and put herself first even at the expense of those she loved. Scarlet’s faith was an active, but selfish one.
Look at the four remaining examples. Field of Dreams. Here was story about a man who heard that still speaking voice, a hush, who listened to it, even when he faced ridicule and ostracization.
His faith meant doing and believing in something bigger, ultimately bringing healing and resolution to himself, his family and those around him.
I think Noah could have related to this film.
Empire Strikes Back. Yoda is training Luke Skywalker to be Jedi Master. When given a task Luke says “I will try,” to which his teacher says “Do or do not. There is no try.”
This is an important message for us to hear, especially for those on committees. Faith does not depend on half-hearted attempts or giving 50%.
Faith is about doing the best we can, offering our all, knowing that the best is what God gives us, so our best is what the Kingdom deserves.
And if we fail, we fail. But either we do or we do not. I believe Abel would agree with this thought.
“I think we’re going to need a bigger boat.” Talk about a classic line from a classic movie, designed to elect scares and laughs at the same time.
Chief Brody is helping to hunt down the great white shark when he sees the mammoth beast face to face.
What I love about this line is that Brody has looked right into the jaws of death and instead of saying “I give up” or running away, he states, with humor, that if they are going to get the job done, they are going to need a different tactic.
Faith can be like that: we face a task and discover we need different tools or a different means to accomplish the goal. But instead of giving up, we figure out what it is we need.
I think Jesus would agree with this. After all, for most of his ministry he faced the jaws of death. Instead of running away, he found the resources he needed, such as choosing the disciples and calling upon God.
“I may not be prefect, but I’m strong.” It’s said by one of the female characters in The Best Man.
That’s a line that could be said by anyone in today’s reading, be it Moses, Sarah, Abraham.
Although faith insists we give our best, it does not demand that we are perfect, because no one is.
We are human: wonderful, imperfect, flawed. We make mistakes, we stumble, we get up, we fall down. But in our faith we are strong, tenacious and enduring; in our faith we are victorious.
In conclusion, the author of Hebrews uses the people of camp fire stories to teach about faith. That faith perceives with an inner eye and is an outward response to the trustworthiness of God.[i]
Today I have put my spin on faith by using the people of the movie screen to talk about faith. But the lessons are the same: that faith is not about sitting by and hoping things will come true. Nor is faith about stabbing someone in the back to get your way.
But faith is about trusting that inner voice to do the right thing, even if it seems to make no immediate sense and you have to wait it out.
Faith is not about doing something half-cocked but doing it all the way, giving it your best shot.
Faith is looking at your biggest fear right in its mouth and finding what you need to deal with and confront it, even though it terrifies you.
Finally, faith is not about being perfect or superhuman, but about being strong: strong in the Lord and strong in your convictions.
Our stories help us envision and shape the future, acting with faith that what we do, if indeed directed by God, will come to fruition, even if we do not live to see it.
Because the Kingdom of God is not just for those who came before, or for us who live now, but the Kingdom is also for those who will come after us.
Past, present, future. A cloud of witnesses each participating in the journey of life, each playing a part in greeting the distant promises.
Actively fearless in the face of adversity, as numerous as the stars in the sky, players in the game of life.
Imperfect, strong, faithful.
All praise and honor be to God who created by speaking the Word, to Jesus who loved to tell us stories and to the Spirit that breathes life into everything we do.
Amen and amen.
[i].Thomas Long, commentary on Hebrews.