Year C, Proper 14
Images and Themes
“By faith…” is the repetitive phrase which serves the writer of Hebrews as a silken thread to string metaphors and illustrations, word pictures, of the mysterious nature of trust in God, like a jeweler might string pearls. The thread is incredibly strong for its width. It is durable and can stretch and flex. The phrase, “By faith…” is incredibly strong for its brevity. It has endured through centuries of Christian history, flexing and tensing with the times. It is a pithy phrase, perhaps, overused to the point of seeming banal in devotional contexts. Yet it is a phrase steeped in the mystery who God is and how we as God’s creatures are in relationship with God. Each of our texts this week can be strung along the silken thread, “By faith…”. Added to the pearls of the writer of Hebrews, they each contain their own luminous shine in which we see a picture of “faith”.
Isaiah vision begins with dark words about Israel’s lack of faith in their God. According to the prophet, their faith has dwindled to a mindless practice of ritual that has little meaning and substance. In fact, God’s judgment is that the lack of true commitment is not just disappointing, it is destructive of the fabric of life. The people of Israel have “blood on their hands.” Could that image resonate with God’s people in our times? How do we have blood on our hands from complicit and implicit cooperation in economic, societal, environmental and political powers that keep people oppressed in poverty, hunger and war? Yet through the prophet, God says, “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (Isaiah 1:16-18). God continues to have faith in God’s people even if they need a three hundred and sixty degree correction in their faith. “Come now, let us argue it out…” I find those words very powerful and redemptive, an invitation of love. How can we do that in our faith communities?
Our psalmists sing of faith in Psalms 50 and 33. In Psalm 50 God is very present among the people and is not very silent! God speaks! Once again the people are chastised for bringing meaningless sacrifices before God. God is like the mother who corrects her children for unrepentant apologies. You cannot just say, “Sorry” in an off-handed way to get yourself out of trouble. A mother has faith in her children which is why she admonishes them! “You must say, “Sorry” and mean it! You must be willing to make amends. Burnt offerings are too easy. “Those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me; to those who go the right way I will show the salvation of God” (Psalm 50:23). What does it mean, look like, sound like, to bring thanksgiving as a sacrifice, as an atonement, as means of making the relationship between God and God’s people sacred once again? Once our relationship with God is sacred, is our relationship with one another made sacred again? What actions will it take to make that happen?
Psalm 33 is paired with the Genesis reading in which God reaffirms his commitment to Abram that he will have a son by his wife, Sarai, even though they are getting old. God is extravagant with God’s affirmation. “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then [God] said to him, “So shall your descendants be” (Genesis 15:5). Abram trusts and God then reckons him as righteous, as trustworthy, as in right relationship. The psalmist sings of a nation that has been blessed by their faith in God who “fashions the heart of them … who hope in [God’s] steadfast love…”(Psalm 33:18). Abram’s faith seems to have manifested a nation of faithful people after all. Is Isaiah prophesying to the same nation? Of course we could do historical critical study on when the psalm was written to discover the how the time of the psalmist might coincide with the time of the prophet. Or if it even does. Still isn’t it always the case that within one nation, one group of people, there are the faithful and the not so faithful. Even within ourselves we are not consistent. Sometimes we are faithful and sometimes we are not.
The writer of Hebrews proclaims extravagant claims for faith. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Abram or Abraham’s story is a prime example of someone who had faith with what he could not see. The creation of the world is another example. How did God create? From things that cannot be seen. The writer goes on to give more and more examples of other ancestors in faith later in chapter 11, to paint more and more word pictures of what faith is like, how faith acts. For this late first century Christian it was important to know that God was with those who came before Christ, revealing God’s steadfast love and salvation through faith, even though the writer believes that Christ is God’s fullest revelation of hope, love and faith.
Jesus comes full circle in our scripture word paintings of “By faith…” as he preaches in Luke about possessions and faith. Where our treasure is, there are our hearts. Not vice versa. The action of placing our treasure, storing our treasure, defining what IS our treasure comes first. What is most important to us and why? Then our hearts follow naturally. We tend to reverse what he says….thinking if we just got our contrary hearts right first we would have it all right. First we act in accordance with God’s ways of righteousness and it takes faith which is perhaps more gut level than the heart to act. We sell our possessions, i.e. we are not tied to them. They are not us. We give to those in need and we pray. Jesus says, “Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys” (Luke 12:33). There is an image for us, an image instructing us where to put our treasure, purses “that do not wear out” for treasure that cannot be destroyed. Was God, through the prophet, Isaiah, urging us to an understanding of this kind of treasure?
Using “By faith…” as the silken thread our texts this week are like a rich necklace of word pictures instructing us in faith. Rituals of worship fueled with faith, hope and love, that lead to caring for others as much as we care for ourselves, becoming rich and full of meaning. Arguments, reasoning out the ways of righteous with God so that sins like scarlet become like snow. Shame of wrongdoing is washed clean away. Sacrifices made of thanksgivings instead of burnt offerings. Abraham counting stars as he trusts in God’s seemingly impossible and improbable revelations. Souls waiting on God as servants wait for the master of the house to return from a wedding feast, only to be feasted themselves at the master’s table in exchange for their faithfulness. Purses that do not wear out. Hearts finding homes because they have put the effort of their lives, their treasure in places “where no thief comes near and no moth destroys” (Luke 12:33). Faith, “the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1).
What stories do you know about your own ancestors that might also be about faith? Do you have stories of immigrant ancestors? I supposedly have a many times great grandfather Ferguson who came to America from County Down, Ireland in the 16th century before the Revolutionary War. Most likely his Ferguson family had been one of the hundred of Protestant families deported from Scotland for religious reasons to populate northern Ireland for political reasons during “the Great Plantation” in the 15th century. Reportedly he was a “crippled” schoolmaster. His wife, of French Huguenot descent, and his two year old son joined him after a few years. Later his son was a teamster in the revolutionary army under General George Washington when the British general, Cornwallis, surrendered to the rebels ending the war. The family eventually migrated down the Cumberland Valley to settle in Appalachia in what is now eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina. They became part of the Old Seceder Church…folks who broke away in disagreement from the Scots Presbyterians in the region. Eventually my great-grandfather homesteaded in the Oklahoma land run. On the other side of my family, ancestors came in the one of the first boats to the Plymouth colony in the New World. Eventually they moved to western Massachusetts to become Baptists instead of Puritans. They migrated to Illinois, then Oklahoma. I have some strong pioneering, dissenter and independent thinking blood that informs my faith ancestry. What do you know about your ancestors that could become a story informing the word pictures of faith in our texts this week?
If you need some prompting to think about ancestors and faith, I suggest two children’s picture books. The first is Seven Brave Women by Betsy Hearne (https://www.amazon.com/Seven-Brave-Women-Betsy-Hearne/dp/0060799218). It is the story of seven generations of women in her family whose lives form a pattern of physical, intellectual and spiritual strength. Another book is When Jessie Came Across the Sea by Amy Hest. It is the story of a Jewish girl and her immigration to America. She is a seamstress and sews her way across the Atlantic helping her fellow travelers. You can read more about it at http://storypath.upsem.edu/lectionary-links-sunday-august-7-2016/ . It is also available on Amazon.
There are many folktales from different tradition with the motif of treasure buried in a field. In each story lazy sons who refuse to help in the family farm are told by their dying father that there is treasure buried in the farm’s field. When they dig up the field they discover no treasure. But since the field is dug they decide to plant a crop and discover the real treasure is in harvesting food to feeding their families and to sell at market for money to support themselves. You can find a Vietnamese version of this tale at https://cogitoandcogitas.wikispaces.com/Treasure+in+the+Field .
Another variant on this treasure motif is found in the Burmese folktale, “Only Buried Treasure is Useful.” Listen to master storyteller, Robert Wilhelm, tell this story at http://www.sacredstorytelling.org/listen/liturgical-cycle-c/nineteenth-sunday-in-ordina.html. And also consider Byrd Baylor’s book, The Table Where Rich People Sit (http://storypath.upsem.edu/lectionary-links-sunday-august-7-2016/). Set in the desert Southwest a young girl discovers the true riches of her family when she scoffs at their rough homemade dinner table. This story echoes Jesus words, “Where your treasure is, there is your heart also.”
Finally if you are preaching on Isaiah and the people’s disregard of sharing the abundance, the treasure of God and God’s ways, consider the book, The Promise by Nicola Davies (http://storypath.upsem.edu/lectionary-links-sunday-august-7-2016/). Again it is about a young girl who is growing up in mean and hurtful, ugly city. She tries to steal an old woman’s purse because she has learned only the ways of looking out for herself. The old woman agrees to give her the purse if she will promise to plant what is inside. Acorns! At the sight of the acorns the girl’s heart is changed. And she keeps her promise. She plant them all over the city and tends the trees as they grow. Thus, the city is transformed as well as the girl.
Sermon Starter Questions
- What stories come to mind as you reflect on what it might be like to “argue it out” with God? To reason together with God as it says in the King James version.
- Could the story in the book The Promise also serve as a word picture for Jesus’ instruction to make a purse that will not wear out? Does this story remind you of a real life story you might know from your community about someone who’s passion and work have transformed your community in some way? I am thinking of Sister Mary Alice Murphy whose life’s work with Catholic Charities has become the Murphy Center of Fort Collin, CO, our major center for helping and housing the homeless.
- What about God’s invitation through the psalmist to bring “thanksgivings for sacrifice”? This image intrigues me. Do you know stories about giving thanks and how this makes a relationship sacred, holy? Think of simple children’s tales that might hold such images.
Blessings this week on your story journeys,
©Jane Anne Ferguson, 2016 and beyond. Photos and commentary may be reprinted with permission only. Please use the stories!