Pentecost 13 August 22, 2010

Hebrews 12:18-29                                                             

Luke 13:10-17                                                                     

This week Anne and I were visiting old friends at their summer home on Martha’s Vineyard. I’ve known David since we were both 12 at camp – my oldest really good friend. We shared a tent there, roomed together at college, were in each other’s weddings, and have spent time together nearly every summer of our adult lives. This year was different. David was diagnosed last winter with an inoperable brain tumor and has just undergone weeks of arduous radiation and chemotherapy. He’s on a walker, with balance and vision problems. He tires easily. He gained some strength while we were there, but the future prognosis remains uncertain.

In our time together, sitting on his porch looking out at the sea, we reminisced about the past, caught up on our children and grandchildren, shared some thoughts about the state of the world, joked with each other as we always have. But one thing we didn’t talk about was faith, because David doesn’t believe in God; religion has never been part of his life; he has no time or use for it. He’s respectful of it in my life. Indeed, out of the blue he sent a check for $30,000 to help with the building fund for Holy Cross. But God, Christ, Scripture, prayer, church – for him they’re all a delusion, a waste of time, something to be indulged in an old friend perhaps, but not for him.

So for me it was as though a whole dimension were missing in my time with this dear friend. We could not talk about prayer – was Jesus there at all for him in his weakness, his thoughts of death? Was there comfort in the psalms? Things in his past that troubled him, for which he needed healing and forgiveness? What was his hope for the future, for a future beyond death? How did he see his life in terms of God’s kingdom, of Christ’s great dream for humankind? Did his suffering deepen his understanding of the Cross? These are the questions I think I would be exploring if it were I in his place, but to raise them with David would only have been a mockery, and I would never do that to someone I respect and love.

Perhaps, of course, David is right and I am wrong. Perhaps all this dimension of belief is just illusion, and people get old and sick and die and it all means nothing, life means nothing beyond the moments of its living – the things we build up and accumulate, our friends, our children and grandchildren, all of whom will be taken away in the end, will end in nothing. But for me, even if the whole dimension of belief were to prove illusion in terms of there being a heaven and life with God hereafter – nevertheless it is belief that gives shape and color and meaning to this life here and now. It is belief that redeems my suffering, gives me another chance when I sin or fail, underlies my moral values, my whole approach to life. I do not live alone or only for myself or this life. I live with Christ, in the communion of saints, for and with others, including all the others I do not know. And in fact I believe that this life is not all there is, not even the best there is. Because I know God here and now, I believe in heaven hereafter.

I love the Letter to the Hebrews from which the first reading this morning comes. I love it because it makes the great case for a living faith, for the dimension of belief that I’ve been trying to describe in what I’ve said here. Its author (and we have no idea who he was, except that he wrote the most eloquent prose in the New Testament) contrasts a dead, mechanical faith, expressed in terms of “things you can touch,” with the “city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, . . . the new covenant.”

In the context in which the Letter to the Hebrews was written, the old dead faith in “things” referred to the empty temple rituals performed again and again by a priestly caste on behalf of a passive, inert people. But I think we can with very little effort transpose what the author is saying to our modern secular materialism, life without the dimension of belief in God and Christ; in prayer, sacraments, church and Scripture; without the hope of heaven and the fear of hell. All our “getting and spending,” as the poet Wordsworth put it, all our search for meaning in the material and the momentary – it all fails in the end, like the rituals of the temple, to redeem our lives, give them ultimate purpose and meaning.

What the author of Hebrews urges upon us instead is faith in a “living God” manifest in Jesus Christ and in his worship. By faith he means not just empty Christian rituals, to replace the old empty Jewish ones. Rather, he means living our lives in terms of this greater dimension, this “heavenly” dimension, of a “kingdom that cannot be shaken,” of a God who is a “consuming fire.” Hebrews speaks again and again of the saints who journey in faith and hope, who live in this greater dimension of belief. The author points to Jesus, the “pioneer and perfecter” of this faith, through whom we “offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe.”

Though I think we should all be ready and able to speak of our faith to someone without faith, I don’t think the purpose of faith is to arm us to go out and “convert” others to prove somehow that we’re right. Faith is best spread, I think, by example. Which means that the real question for us is not why does someone else not believe, but rather is my own belief a “living” one in the sense of what Hebrews speaks? Am I offering to God the “acceptable worship” of a life determined by Jesus Christ? Are we living in the heavenly kingdom “that cannot be shaken”? Are our lives shaped first, last and always, by our belief in the living God?

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