Forward Through The Ages

Scripture: Psalm 90: 1-6, Hebrews 11:29-12:2

“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Faith is at the root of hope, which tells us that there are other forces at work than those that are immediately visible. Although all the visible evidence suggests one outcome as the only way forward, faith and hope suggest another.

Faith and hope are at the heart of leadership, although they don’t always come from the expected sources. This is especially true in times of transition, like this church is in, like this church might have been that first read or heard this sermon that we call the Book of Hebrews.

As I mentioned before the readings, the Epistle of Paul to the Hebrews is a total misnomer.  A more correct name for the book might be “A really good sermon of Apollos to Jewish Christians who were generally faithful but spiritually stagnant”

They were Christians of the second generation; although their church may have been founded by an apostle, that apostle may have already died.  They probably didn’t have many firsthand accounts of Jesus’ life, and those who had seen him were probably dying out quickly.  This is the era of the writing of the gospels.

So in that context of a people in transition, what are we to make of this list of heroes of the faith, a unbroken line of courageous heroes who saw beyond what as apparent.

But if we take a look at this list, a real look at this list, some things start to pop up.

Moses was a murderer, had a stutter, and was often a very reluctant leader, and died without ever reaching the promised land. Gideon demanded three miracles from God before he would be faithful. Barak, despite great military victories, in his time was thought of as weak, because he recognized the authority of Deborah as judge and would not go into battle without her.

It takes Samson betrayal by his lover Delilah, and his subsequent capture and blinding to realize that his strength came not from his hair, but from God alone. Jephthah was a rash man, who, made a rash vow which, depending on your interpretation of the story, either offered his own daughter up to the temple for her life as something like a nun, or as a human sacrifice.

As for David, well, his moral failing can be summed up in three words: Bathsheba and Uriah. These are not perfect people. Heck, sometimes, these aren’t even good people.

If I were picking out folks for my spiritual leaders all pro team, some of those folks would not be first round picks. More than that, most of these folks end off worse after serving God than before they started! Faithfulness in serving God was not, for most of them, a gateway to prosperity and health, but rather a response to God’s overwhelming power and grace.

This faith and faithfulness we find in the famous heroes of the faith, and we’ll be talking about them over the next three weeks, but for the rest of this sermon, I’d like to focus on the unsung heroes of the faith.

This is the faith and faithfulness that resides in the steadfast generations of the faithful. These are the teachers, nurses, helpers, public servants, mothers, aunts and grandpas who do more leading than most folks like to admit.

These are the necks that turn the heads of the household, the hands and feet that show up everyday to lead the youth group and count the money and serve and serve and serve.

Sometimes this faith strikes us in ways and places that we don’t expect.

I’m going to leave us with two stories of unexpected faithfulness, one ancient and one modern, that illustrate this point. The first is about the parting of the Red Sea.  It comes to us from the Jewish oral tradition, in a genre of story called a Midrash.

Basically what the Rabbis did was compiled all of the old stories and interpretations that people told about the Bible throughout the years. Over time, these stories and traditions held a sacredness that parallels the written texts that we share together as Christians and Jews.

This midrash is from the parting of the Red Sea by Moses, and highlights the leadership of the mighty Moses or the faith of the priest Aaron, but the bravery and faithfulness of Naschshon.  Here it is, as told by Stacey Zisook Robinson:

The story of Nachshon is my favorite midrash. Nachshon was a slave with all the other Israelites who found redemption at the hand of God. He was Let Go, with a capital L and a capital G, brought out with a Mighty Hand. He packed and didn’t let the dough rise and ran, breathless and scared and grateful, away from the land of Pharaohs and pyramids and slavery. Nachshon ran into freedom.

And then he got to the sea. He and some 600,000 other un-slaved people, stopped cold by the Red Sea. It was huge and liquid and deep. They couldn’t see the other side. It was so big they couldn’t see any sides. Just wetness from here to forever.

And behind him, when he and the 600,000 others dared to peek, were Pharaoh and his army of men and horses and chariots, carrying spears and swords and assorted sharp, pointy things. Even at a distance, the sharp, pointy things loomed quite large in the eyes of Nachshon and his recently freed landsmen. They were caught between the original rock and a hard place – or, I guess, between water and sharp, pointy things. At that point, I don’t think anyone involved cared much about getting the metaphor exactly right; what they cared about was getting out from that perilous middle – and fast.

Moses went to have a chat with God, and just like that, he got an answer— a Divine Instant Message. All the Children of Israel needed to do was walk forward into the sea, that big, wet, deep forever sea. God would provide a way. “Trust Me,” God seemed to say, “I got you this far, didn’t I? I wouldn’t let you fall now!”

Nachshon and the 600,000 stood at the shivery edge of that sea, staring at that infinite horizon in front and the pointy, roiling chaos of death and slavery behind them. They stood, planted – and let’s face it: not just planted, but rooted in their fear and mistrust and doubt. They may have felt reassured by the image of God as a pillar of smoke or fire – impressive pyrotechnics, to be sure – but the soldiers and the sea were so there, present and much more real.

Then, in the midst of that fear and doubt, something changed. Nachshon – recently freed, trapped between death by water and death by bleeding – did the miraculous. He put one foot in front of the other and walked into the sea. The 600,000 held their collective breath, watching the scene unfold before them as Nachshon did what they could not: He decided to have faith. And though the water covered first his ankles, then his knees, then his chest, then kept rising, until he was almost swallowed whole, Nachshon kept walking, kept believing. And just when it seemed that he was a fool for his faith, that he would surely drown in that infinite sea, another miracle: The waters parted.

The other story, the modern one, comes to me from one of my professors in seminary, who’s a pastor.

This professor/pastor, by the way, taught my church music class, and is a fantastic pianist.  His church, 4th Presbyterian in the South End of Boston has a fantastic and vibrant music program: they have a 30 person plus choir featuring professional soloists that does everything from gospel to traditional hymns and jazz, and they do a broadway style musical as outreach every year. Fantastic music program.

He told us one day about a man who was dying in his church and was in the hospital.

My professor, the pastor of this church goes in to see this man who is dying, a pretty long time attendee- about 15 years or so, a blue collar working class guy who always sat in the back- not all the way in the back, but about three rows up from the back.

And the man tells the pastor that the thing he misses most is the music of the church. So, the pastor asks if they’d like to sing some hymns together, and they do, and they have a wonderful time.

And then the pastor asks if he wants to bring in one of the solo singers to sing along with them next time he visits- They could some of the wonderful choral pieces that the church is known for.

And the man says no.  The pastor is a bit confused about this and asks why? The man says that those singers up there aren’t what church and the faith are all about to him. Those aren’t what he missed.

Instead, the man asks to bring in not the professional singers, but the two guys who sat behind him week in and week out at church. That was faith to him.  That was church to him.

Not the trained beautiful voices that he could see up there at the front of the church, doing fantastic things in the name of God that were widely recognized.

But these two guys, completely untrained singers with no professional training or credentials who were the faithful ones behind him, there week in and week out. They were the ones who knew his life, and who’s singing reminded him of the angels.

They were church to him. They were the heroes of the faith to him. For faith is not about what you see, but who you trust.