Hebrews 11:1-3; 8-16: You With the Stars in Your Eyes

Eighth Sunday After Pentecost: August 11, 2019

Some Sundays all of the lectionary texts fit together so perfectly that it is hard to choose what to preach on. And as you all know by now, every Bible passage is my favorite!

“Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them[,” God said to Abram.] “So shall your descendants be.” And [Abram] believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.

Truly the eye of the LORD is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love . . . Our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name. Let your steadfast love, O LORD, be upon us, even as we hope in you.

“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit . . . for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

As I was reading and meditating on this week’s scripture lessons and old Rosemary Clooney song kept playing in my head. It’s the story of a starry-eyed young woman whose unrequited love eclipses her better judgment and has her hoping for something that her wiser self knows will never be.

Lately when I’m in my room all by myself
In the solitary gloom I call to myself
Hey there, you with the stars in your eyes
Love never made a fool of you, you used to be too wise
Hey there, you on that high-flyin’ cloud
Though he won’t throw a crumb to you,
You think some day he’ll come to you
Better forget him, him with his nose in the air
He has you dancin’ on a string, break it and he won’t care

Her hope is unfounded, and she knows it. How many of us  have ever been a fool for love or set our hopes on someone or something that we know can never be? Starry-eyed hope is an unfounded, unsubstantial, evanescent kind of hope, a hope that flies in the face of all evidence to the contrary. Starry-eyed hope obscures our vision and swirls around us like mist, like high-flyin’ clouds that we can never touch.

Abram has stars in his eyes. So what is the difference between a young starry-eyed girl on a high flyin’ cloud and a man who trusts a promise that seems to be contradicted by all the evidence of age, infirmity, and the gloomy, solitary passage of year after barren year? What, in other words, is the difference between foolish hope and wise hope? What do we base our hope on when we place our hope in God, in Christ?

Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

For the writer of Hebrews, the foundation, the substance, and the evidence for hope is our faith in God in Christ. I like the way Eugene Peterson puts it in his translation of Hebrews 11:

The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see.

Faith is the foundation of Christian hope. Faith is what distinguishes a foolish, starry-eyed hope from a wise, clear-eyed hope.

Some people define faith as belief in things that we cannot see. Some people define faith as trust in things for which we have no evidence. But I don’t agree with this definition, and I don’t think that this definition is Biblical. I think that faith comes to us out of our experience of a substantial, all-present God, who is not invisible, but makes Godself visible to us in the material, created world; in the witness of scripture, which is the story of those who experienced God before us; and, most clearly, in the life of Christ, God with us, Word become flesh.

One of my teachers, James Baraz, distinguishes between blind faith and bright faith. Blind faith is trust in the absence of—or perhaps even in spite of—experience. Bright faith is trust that is born of experience. During a dharma talk at a meditation retreat, he asked us to recall moments of “bright faith” when we were first drawn to the dharma and when we first experienced its truth. One of my moments of bright faith in the truth and reliability of the practice of meditation came soon after a counseling session. Chris and I had been in couples counseling briefly. It is hard work, and sometimes the things that are done and said in it are hard to bear. Recalling one such difficult session, my therapist asked me, “How did you manage to be so non-reactive?” I couldn’t find an answer in his office, but later it occurred to me: I meditate. The day I was able to answer Jack’s question was a day of “bright faith” in the dharma. It was like a little awakening, a moment of clear vision: “Hey! This stuff really works!”

Bright faith in the Gospel comes to us in much the same way, as little awakenings when we have moments of clear vision. I’m sure I’ve told this story before, but I want to tell it again because it is one of those moments of bright faith in the Gospel in my own life, one of those little awakenings to the truth of the Gospel.

When I was a student in my first preaching class, my professor William C. Turner once asked a classmate after she preached her first sermon, “Are you saved?” She beamed a great smile and said with confidence, “Yes!”

That question terrified me! I was raised by Calvinists who taught me that the true church was the church invisible: that only God knew who was elected and who was not. So the prospect of being asked “Are you saved?” was a terrifying prospect because the way I was raised, only God could answer that question. Only God could see the answer, and we are blind to it. Our job was to have faith in the answer despite our blindness to its truth. Some days I felt confident in my salvation, and some days I didn’t.

But then one day—a day of bright faith for me—I was walking back to my car on Duke’s campus when it dawned on me that “Are you saved?” is not actually a question about me. In fact, it has nothing to do with me. It is a question about Christ. It is a question that compresses a whole slew of other questions about Christ into three little words. “Are you saved?” is a question that can be decompressed into other questions, like:

  • Did Jesus give his life for you? Yes
  • Did Jesus willingly take on pain and suffering and death for the sake of a world he loved? Yes
  • Did he die on the cross? Yes
  • Was his tomb empty on that third day? Yes
  • Did he appear to Mary? Yes
  • Did he appear to other disciples? Yes
  • Did he send his spirit to inspire and energize and animate a body of followers that continues to live to this day? Yes
  • Are you saved? Yes

When that truth dawned on me, I stopped in my tracks. I happened to be walking beside an abelia hedge on campus, and its tiny, pinkish white flowers were just starting to bloom, just starting to come back to life! And I must have beamed a great smile as I thought to myself “Yes! I am saved!” I believed it not because someone told me to believe it, but because I experienced it in God’s ability to bring life out of death in that little pink flower. I believed it because of the ability of my mind to reason through the experience and witness of generations of believers. I believed it because God was able to kindle a living spark out of the dead coals of my own heart. I believed it because in that moment Christ was the life and light of my own soul, just as Christ is the life and light of all people.

I think that Abram also had a moment of bright faith in his vision of his conversation with God. Hebrews goes on to describe Abram this way:

By faith [Abraham] received power of procreation, even though he was too old–and Sarah herself was barren–because [Abraham] considered [God] faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.”

I think Abraham came to faith in God’s promise when God invited him to step outside and look up at the stars. I believe that Abraham’s faith came to him because the evidence of the stars showed him evidence of a God who was able to create light and matter and life out of things that are not visible. I believe that Abraham’s faith was born out of his experience of God who sustains and upholds what God created. I believe that the stars were for Abraham what that little pink flower was for me: the assurance of God’s ability to kindle the spark of life out of the dead coals of his body and Sarah’s. This is bright faith, born of our experience of a substantial, all-present God, who is not invisible, but visible to us in the material world; in the witness of those who experienced God before us; and in the life of Christ, God with us, Word become flesh.

[Exercise: Moments of Bright Faith]

If bright faith is born out of our experience of God, what do we do with Bible verses like 2 Corinthians 5:7: We walk by faith and not by sight? Surely this verse suggests the opposite, right? That we ought to live in faith even when we cannot see any evidence for faith? When we turn “we walk by faith” into “we ought to walk by faith” we do something that the text does not do: we make a law or a moral obligation out of a description of present reality. We walk by faith and not by sight, the verse says; not We ought to walk by faith and not by sight.

This verse that describes a present reality comes in the context of an exploration of hope, here again from The Message:

So we’re not giving up. How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace. . . .  There’s far more here than meets the eye. . . . That’s why we live with such good cheer. You won’t see us drooping our heads or dragging our feet! Cramped conditions here don’t get us down. They only remind us of the spacious living conditions ahead. 7 It’s what we trust in but don’t yet see that keeps us going.

In other words, even when things look like a mess on the outside, we do not lose hope because we know that our experience of God—in creation, in the witness of scripture, in the person of Christ—is an experience of new life and unfolding grace. We hope because we trust our inward experience more than outward appearance. And as Jesus says in our Gospel lesson for today, when we live in hope, we live “dressed for action and have [our] lamps lit.” We live active, expectant lives because we live out of trust in our experience of new life. We feed the poor because we have been fed at Christ’s table. We work for justice because we have experienced Christ’s mercy. We love our neighbors because we have experienced Christ’s love. We forgive each other because God in Christ has forgiven us. This is wise hope: hope that is founded in our experience of the life-giving, graceful God of Christ.

Let us pray:

Fill us with wise hope, Lord, give us the grace to trust in our experience of you through your beautiful creation, through the word and witness of those who have come before us, and through Christ, who restores us to right relationship with you, who renews and refreshes our broken spirits, and who gives is access to the grace in which we stand. Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.