August 7th, 2016
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
“Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them,” God says to Abram, whom we know today by his other name, Abraham. Abram isn’t as old as he is going to be, but he is old enough to know that he won’t be having any children with his wife. And yet God has promised him that he will be the father of a great nation. That promise doesn’t seem to be coming true—where are all these descendants? All he has for an heir is his butler. And now, he thinks, it is too late for any promise.
So step outside, God says. It is night—I imagine Abram hearing God in a tent, with Sarai and their servants snoring alongside, or perhaps alone in his own tent. He is a nomad, camping wherever there is feed for his flocks, and generally far from any of the clusters of huts they called towns. When he steps outside, he does not hear the hum of air conditioners from the neighbors’ yard or windows, nor the sound a car driving down a distant highway. There may be a whicker or a bray from an animal, or there might be a wind moving over the grasses, or the creak of a tree. But as he looks toward the heavens, all he can see are stars: there is no electricity to light lamps, no light pollution, no passing airplanes or satellites, nothing to see except darkness, and in the darkness, stars. In my mind, God’s voice sounds clear to Abram, near to him. Count the stars, if you can count them—So shall your descendants be. So many, so scattered, so bright and lovely in the dark. And uncountable.
Nothing about showing the stars to Abram seems to be any kind of proof. They are the same stars he sees every night, the same constellations, if he and his people determined any. But Genesis says that he believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. How did he come to believe just by looking at the same old stars he had looked at for years?
This past Thursday we finished our BBQ Book Club session on Annie Dillard, one of America’s great essayists and stylists of the past few decades. We read an essay of hers about going to church called “An Expedition to the Pole”, which compares the ill-starred expeditions to the Arctic and the Antarctic to going to church. Dillard thinks we are altogether too blithe and unconscious of what we encounter in church, much like the first explorers were too blithe, too ignorant of the dangers of the Arctic when they first attempted to find the North Pole. Most of the first explorers died—some hauling around silverware. She wonders how and why we survive what we say we encounter when we encounter God, known to be more unfathomable and more deadly than even the Arctic. And it’s a good question, because God is the one that can lead you to the stars and see them for the first time.
At one point she talks about what the life of faith seems to require--she says a life with God demands that we give up our dignity, that we throw our lot in with random people, that we lose ourselves and turn from all that is not God. It's like seeing the stars. "You do not have to sit outside in the dark," she says. But— "If you want to see the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary."
Now remember Abram looking at the stars--for us to see the stars, we have to travel a long way, a long way indeed if we don't want to see them without light pollution. For Abram, the were the same old stars he had seen every night of his life. But suddenly they became a sign of something, because God told him to look at them in order to see his promise. It is not because Abram saw the stars that he believed--the stars helped give a shape to God's promise, and he believed the promise of God. He believed God's word and saw the sign God provided for him--he took God at his word, and he believed God.
In order to see the stars, you need enter the darkness. And that darkness is faith, and faith reaches to the stars, which are the promise of God that we trust will be made real.
Now, Hebrews tells us that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen. In Abram's case, the stars were not children. He had to wait even longer before God sent him but a single son with his wife, Sarai. But he trusted God, even when things seemed impossible. "By faith," we read in Hebrews, "we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible." Abram had a sign--the stars, which helped him imagine the fruition of God's promise. I also think it is not an accident that God decided to show the stars--God was reminding Abram that the vast expanse he saw had its being because God brought it into being—and just as God brings the stars into being, so would he bring into being the promised descendants.
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Faith is our path to God, for whom we hope, and who we cannot see. Like the promise to Abram, though, we look for God in signs and promises. We look for traces of God in our lives. Sometimes a coincidence will happen and we'll say, "That was definitely a God thing," even though we should expect, statistically speaking, coincidences to happen all the time. Sometimes we'll find something deeply emotionally stirring and say, "God must have been in that music," even though people who have no though or feeling for God find the work equally stirring. Faith is something else more than that--faith is trust, fidelity, and obedience to God whether we feel his presence or not, whether we see him in traces in this world or not. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. By our experience of things we take for granted and see before our own eyes, we can approach the mystery of God. But that mystery itself is always beyond us as much as it is within us and around us, and our yearning for God, in this life, may never quite be sated.
In this sense, we are travelers. Our catechumenate group, Wayfarers, is starting again in the fall, and I am happy at the name we chose for it, because I think it names the kind of life God calls Christians to live. We do not know exactly where we are going, but we hope that we will find. We feel our way forward, sailing with charts and symbols, all pointing to a cross. Many have died on the way. We will probably also die on the way. But that doesn't mean that we will not arrive to the city God has promised us. It means, rather, that we follow the way Christ has prepared for us, so that we can reach that city at all. In the meantime, for the way, we have Baptism, which gives us this promise, and the Eucharist, which strengthens our faith in it.
Many of you here are musicians. You know what it means to practice and practice, and how that if you want to be any good, the unseen times count more than anything else. Last week I got to watch a friend of mine play for with his percussion quartet at the Rose building in Lincoln Center. I don't really know much about percussion music. As a critic, I'm pretty worthless. I can rail your ear off about why U2's latest album is maybe their worst, how it's so bad it makes me question everything I love about music, but I would struggle to explain the ouerve of John Cage and Steve Reich to you, other than it looks harder than it sounds, but it can sound really good.
But when you watch them play, you watch the unseen--15 years of work together. They communicate across complicated stretches of music using glances, eyebrows, and trust. I guess they hope that the music they play will be good and honest and true, and that their performance will be worthy of it. And they never know what will go wrong.
Many of you are artists, and you know how that goes--you learn not to depend too much on audience reaction. There is something about art, even when it is right before you, that is unseen. Good art opens up something you can't explain, or put words to, but through art you encounter it. Even bad art does that. It's the unseen that makes art so great, even though we encounter the hiddenness through the things we hear and make and see. Indeed, we can't encounter it without those things.
In our wayfaring life, the kingdom is here and always coming. The unseen things of God are traced about our life, but we need faith to see them. The will of God is revealed to us in the things we encounter, the stories that make up our lives, but we need the cross in order to make sense of it. When Abram looked up at the stars, he had a promise from God. Jesus tells us that we should always be ready for his coming. But he also tells us not to be afraid, for it is the Father's good pleasure to give us the kingdom. And then he tells us to do some scary things: to give up our possessions, to give up whatever holds us back, and to join random strangers, and enter into the darkness. But in the darkness, we see the stars. Amen.
The Reverend John Zachary Flack