Sermon: “Your Faith is not in Vain” (August 7, 2016)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Your Faith is not in Vain” (Hebrews 11:1)
August 7, 2016
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

One of my all-time favorite movie series is the Indiana Jones trilogy of the 1980’s.  I’ll never forget going to see the 1981 film Raiders of the Lost Ark with my dad when I was twelve years old.  In the third film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Indiana Jones, played by Harrison Ford, and his father Henry, played by Sean Connery, are on a quest for the Holy Grail.  Near the end of the film Henry is mortally wounded and his son Indiana manages to press on and navigate a series of deadly traps only to arrive at the edge of a cliff overlooking a chasm so deep he could not see the bottom of it.  The chasm is too far to leap across—“It’s impossible,” he says to himself, “nobody can jump this.”  If he steps off the cliff, he will most certainly fall to his death.  It looks like it is all over.

According to the ancient guidebook he is using on his quest he is to step off the cliff onto an invisible bridge.  Indiana Jones is terrified and shakes his head, “It’s a leap of faith.”  Meanwhile, his dying father Henry is praying for him, gasping as his life is slipping away, “You must believe, boy, you must believe.”  Indiana Jones is faced with the most important choice of his life—to either give up and turn back, which would mean not only the death of his father but also the end of his quest for the Holy Grail—or to trust what was written in the ancient guidebook, and step out in faith.

After a long pause, Indiana Jones takes a deep breath, puts a hand over his heart, lifts his left leg high and steps off the edge of the cliff…and finds himself on a bridge that he could now see.  The camera angle pans to the side and the audience can see that pattern on the bridge blended perfectly into the pattern of the cliff on the far side of the chasm, which created the optical illusion of there not being any bridge at all.  Indiana Jones crosses the bridge, and after acquiring the Holy Grail and filling it with holy water, returns to his father, who drinks from the Holy Grail and is instantly healed.

Indiana Jones’ step of faith paid off.

In today’s passage from the greatest ancient guidebook of all, the Bible, the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews discusses faith—stepping off the cliff onto a bridge we cannot see, utterly trusting in the promises of God—and defines faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews often points to various characters in the Old Testament as examples of those who lived their entire lives based on faith, their entire lives based on “the assurance of things hoped for” and “the conviction of things not seen,” their entire lives based on the truth that God keeps his promises.  The late biblical scholar F. F. Bruce describes this:

There were many men and women who had nothing but the promises of God to rest upon, without any visible evidence that these promises would ever be fulfilled; yet so much did these promises mean to them that they regulated the whole course of their lives in their light…In other words, they were men and women of faith (The Epistle to the Hebrews, 276).

I have served in full time parish ministry in the Episcopal Church in one capacity or another for almost twenty-five years, and one of the things I have seen is that people often undulate—or go up and down—when it comes to their faith.  There are seasons in which someone might be “on fire for the Lord,” replete with faith and an awareness of the presence and power of God in their lives, full of joy, full of hope, at an apex of their faith.  And there are seasons in which someone, especially in the midst of a tragedy of some kind—be it the terminal illness or death of a loved one, or a divorce, or a job loss or some other life-jarring experience—may reach a nadir, a low-point of their faith, and wonder if God even exists or if religion is indeed as Karl Marx labeled it, “the opium of the masses.”

Some people may become disillusioned with the institutional aspects of the church—after all church is a great institution, if you want to be in an institution.  I have seen a number of ministry colleagues who were once passionate ministers of the gospel succumb to this and walk away from the church.  Many years ago I became so disillusioned at one point that I was actually considering leaving the ministry and becoming a UPS driver, because I knew I could drive fast and deliver packages.

Because all of us are prone to undulations regarding our faith, we need to have our faith fed regularly, as C. S. Lewis writes in his classic book Mere Christianity:

The first step is to recognize that your moods change…We have to be continually reminded of what we believe.  Neither this belief nor any other will automatically remain alive in the mind.  It must be fed…if you examined a hundred people who had lost their faith in Christianity, I wonder how many of them would turn out to have been reasoned out of it by honest argument?  Do not most people simply drift away? (109).

Once on a perfect spring afternoon when I was in high school I went to a county park and rented a rowboat.  After reaching the middle of the lake I lay back and while watching the clouds drift across the sky, I feel asleep and then was jarred awake when the rowboat drifted away to the shore and suddenly lodged against some tree roots.  What had I done to cause this drifting away?  Nothing.  The current of the lake simply caused me to drift away.

In his song “I Believe in You” on his 1979 album Slow Train Coming Bob Dylan asks God to help him not drift away from his faith:

Don’t let me drift too far
Keep me where you are
Where I will always be renewed
And that which you’ve given me today
Is worth more than I could pay
And no matter what they say
I believe in you

Scripture and church tradition show us that there are two primary ways, Word and Sacrament, to have our faith fed so that we do not, as C. S. Lewis put it, “simply drift away” or as Dylan put it, “drift too far”: hearing the Word of God, the scriptures read and the gospel preached, and receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion.  Scripture tells us “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).  And Article XXV of the Thirty-nine Articles, the late sixteenth century distillation of the doctrine of the Church of England, emphasizes that the sacraments are intended to feed our faith:

Sacraments ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession, but rather they be certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God’s good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him (The Book of Common Prayer 872).

That is why in The Book of Common Prayer the two parts of the service for Holy Eucharist, which we offer four times every week here at Christ Church, are entitled “The Word of God” and “The Holy Communion”—your faith is fed by Word and Sacrament.  The Holy Spirit works through Word and Sacrament to fortify your “assurance of things hoped for,” to fortify your “conviction of things not seen.”

And the reason that Word and Sacrament feed our faith, especially in seasons in which we find ourselves drifting away, is because ultimately both point us to the love of God, the love of which we need to be reminded again and again.  Hearing the scriptures read and the gospel preached, and receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion are not ends in and of themselves, but means of connecting the love of God with our actual lives, so as Bob Dylan put it, you can “always be renewed.”

Regularly hearing the Word of God that in the midst of your ever-changing lives the love of God never changes, and regularly receiving in Holy Communion a tangible reminder of that love that led Jesus Christ to die on the cross for you will feed your faith.  More than anything else, it is love that feeds your faith.

There is a moving example of this in the 2001 film I Am Sam, in which Sean Penn in an Oscar nominated role plays Sam Dawson, a developmentally disabled man who is doing his best to raise his young daughter, Lucy, played by Dakota Fanning.  One afternoon Sam, accompanied by four of his developmentally disabled friends, takes Lucy to the shoe store.  She looks at all sorts of shoes and chooses a pair of black tennis shoes–“I like these, Daddy.”

“How much are these?” Sam asks the salesman.  The salesman ponders for a moment and replies, “$16.19 with tax.”  In the next scene Sam places all his money on the counter and adds it up, “I have six dollars and twenty-five cents.”  His face begins to reveal his stress.  “That’s all you have?” the salesman gently asks.  “Yeah because I didn’t get my whole check because I had to go to the parent and teacher meeting this week.”  “Sorry,” the salesman replies softly, “$16.19.”

At that moment his four friends begin pulling money out of their pockets to contribute toward the shoes.  “It’s okay, Sam,” one of them says, “Because I have three dollars to contribute.”  Another friend says, “Two plus two is four,” and begins counting four dollar bills into Sam’s hands.  The other two pitch in some dollars and change as well.  This continues until there is pile of one dollar bills and change on the counter.  “So okay,” Sam says to the salesman, “Is that enough?” The salesman is overwhelmed by the love he has just seen and as he gathers up the money he says under his breath, “There is a God.”

The only guarantee in life is the love of God in Jesus Christ.  While everything else in your life is vulnerable to change—your health, your relationships, your job, your moods, and yes, even your faith—God’s love for you will not change.

In his 2012 book Cast of Characters Max Lucado recounts the following anecdote:

A father in the Bahamas cried out to his young son who was trapped in a burning house.  The two-storey structure was engulfed in flames, and the family—the father, mother and several children—was on its way out when the smallest boy became terrified and ran back upstairs.  His father, outside, shouted to him, “Jump, son, jump!  I’ll catch you.”  The son cried, “But Daddy, I can’t see you.”  “I know,” his father called, “but I can see you” (6).

On the cross Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—in other words, “Daddy, I can’t see you.”  Perhaps as Jesus suffered God the Father was thinking, “You must believe, boy, you must believe.”  As Jesus stepped off the cliff over the chasm of death, a chasm you will face one day, he put his faith in his Heavenly Father, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).

And by the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus was raised from the dead—God the Father kept his promise.  And no matter what happens in your life, God will keep his promises to you as well, even as you stand at the edge of the chasm of death.  Although you may not see your Heavenly Father through the smoke and flames of the stresses in your life, your Heavenly Father still sees you.  The words of the ancient guidebook remain true: faith is indeed “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Your faith is not in vain.

Amen.