Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-12, 23-28, 32-12:2
Almighty God, in the midst of your people Israel you raised up many saints who through faith in your eternal covenant conquered kingdoms,did justice, and won strength out of weakness. Grant us to hold in glad remembrance their holy lives and fearless witness, that by your grace we may press on towards the goal for the prize of our heavenly calling;through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Studying history is both illuminating and humbling: illuminating because of the great benefit of perspective. Life in-the-present can leave us quite myopic. What’s going on in-the-now is very close to us – it’s “in our face” – so much so that we often can’t see around it. Our perspective is inevitably blocked in some ways. We could take, for example, the political campaign rhetoric during this past year. Without the benefit of an historical perspective, the long view, we could simply react to various campaign statements just for their “face value,” but miss the wisdom gleaned from history. Studying history can also be quite humbling. It can put us in our place as individuals and as a nation in a very long line as life unfolds down through the centuries. Today’s celebration of the Saints, the holy ones, of the Old Testament takes the long view, and that’s important for several reasons[i]:
- For one, today’s remembrance is an elixir from a narcissistic delusion, seeing our own self as the center of the universe: what I think, what I need, what I have, the understanding I hold, the preferences I desire, the significance of my life having singular and ultimate value. Not so. Mostly not so. Our lesson from the Letter to the Hebrews gives us a wise, historical perspective on the forerunners of our faith: men and women of faith, who lived before Jesus, the Messiah, with “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”[ii] And they didn’t see it. Not in their own lifetimes. Not often. If we look to the Old Testament to glean what is promised to those who put their faith in God – deliverance, protection, provision, justice – it did not all come round right in their own lifetimes. Psalm 23 begins, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.” If we were to take that promise back to its original proclamation, we would see so many people of faith who have lived, down through the centuries, waiting and wanting, as true in ages past as it is today. Rather, we hear an illuminating phrase used in the New Testament to describe the timing of God’s revelation: “in the fullness of time” – God’s time – things will come into being.[iii] “In the fullness of time.” We live somewhere inside the twisted arc of history.[iv] It’s not going to all come round right in our own lifetimes.
Saint Paul writes in his First Letter to the Corinthians about a perceived rivalry he had with another leader named Apollos because the two of them seemed to have quite a different take on the practice of life. Not so. No rivalry, says Saint Paul. He writes, “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”[v] All of us have a role in reclaiming Eden in this world. Whether we’re clearing the land, tilling the soil, sowing seeds, watering, weeding, feeding, beaming light, harvesting, sharing the bounty, we all have a distinct role in the little garden patch of our own life. It’s God’s garden, and we’re given a role for a blink in time to help steward the garden’s fecundity for all.
- So, secondly, we live with the revelation that God has given to us, which was true before the coming of Jesus, the Messiah, and since.There’s this very touching scene at the end of the Gospel according to John.[vi] Jesus is speaking to Peter, giving him direction for his life’s vocation. Peter then turns and points to another disciple and asks Jesus, “So what about him?” Jesus gives Peter a sharp retort: “What is that to you? Follow me.” And so for us. And so for the millennia of people who have populated this earth. We can only take what has been revealed to us and follow it. We can only live by that. It’s not the full picture, and it’s not identical to everyone else’s picture, but it’s the picture that God has given us. This forms the foundation of our own faith, what we believe, and what we give our life to. This also invites in us a kind of faithful humility in our relationship to others, everyone else also being a child of God. They are also living out what has been revealed to them, however distant or discordant that may be from our own beliefs.
I’m using interchangeably the words “faith” and “belief,” and I’m drawing here on the scholarship of the Jesuit, William Barry.[vii] He writes how the words “faith” and “belief” in the New Testament are interchangeable. The same Greek word which is sometimes translated “belief” is another time translated “faith.” Barry says, “We have come to dissociate belief from faith. We think of “believe” as a way of thinking, when the original intent was not to describe a way of thinking but a way of acting. Our English word “be-lief” comes from the old Anglo-Saxon “be,” which means “by,” and “lief,” which means “life.” What one lives by is actually their belief, their by-life. This is the New Testament meaning of belief and faith. It’s what you live by. So our faith, our belief, is a combination of both conviction and action. It’s not either-or. Live your faith.
- And then, thirdly, today’s celebration of the Saints, the holy ones of the Old Testament, is a reminder of how life on this earth will end. In death. Our own life will not be the completion of the works of God, nor the ultimate intent of God, nor the culminating plan of God. Our own life will be a means to the end, and the end is in God. We’re invited to participate in what God is up to. The rabbis teach that each of us should have two pockets. In one should be the message, “I am dust and ashes,” and in the other we should have written, “For me the universe was made.”[viii] We need to be on good speaking terms with both the limitations of our mortality and with God’s invitation for all eternity.
A recurring metaphor in both the Old and New Testaments is the potter and the clay.[ix] God is the potter; we are the clay. It can be a lovely metaphor, especially if you consider the finished product of a master potter. Before the end result, there is a rather torturous history for the clay. If you’ll indulge me in being rather anthropomorphic, there’s first the poor clay that has not been discovered. It’s underground, buried, in darkness, seemingly lost. The clay could easily be without hope…until it is discovered, if it is. Discovery involves a great dealing of someone’s digging, the piercing of the shovel, the squeezing out of any impurities, then them pugging with other clays, and the jarring transport until it eventually finds its way into the potter’s workshop. (Remember, we are the clay.) And then begins the pounding, the wedging, the flattening and rolling. Then there’s the dizzying experience of the potter’s wheel with more holding, pressing, shaping, and trimming. (Remember, we are the clay.) Then the piece is abandoned until it dries to a leather hardness. Then there’s the sponging, followed by the bisque-firing with searing heat. Then there’s the sanding and cleaning before the final application of glaze, which can be rather unsightly. And then the piece goes back into the fire, the oven crowded with a community of other pots, many different. The fire and the glaze mysteriously meld into the most glorious colors and patterns. The potter is very confident what he or she is doing all along the way; the clay is clueless. The clay has to have faith, must believe that this be the way. In the end it is. But the means-to-that-end can be very severe. God is the potter; we are the clay. The invitation is to surrender into the potter’s hands.
Our celebration of the Saints of the Old Testament is a reminder that God has been at work before us. By grace, God’s work continues in and through us, and in the life-to-come following our own death. We are given the gift of faith – it’s a response to God’s faith in us – to believe we have an important part in God’s big plan, what Jesus called building the kingdom on earth as it will be in heaven. Our faith may be a strong as to move a mountain or as immediate as a sparrow in search of food. [x] We receive the faith we’ve been given. Faith is a gift. Remembering that can give us confidence and clarity in life’s joyful, meaningful times, and strength and hope in life’s painful and depressing times. In the fullness of time (and probably not in our own lifetime) all will be well.
[i]The word “saint” from the Latin sanctus, meaning a holy one.
[ii] Hebrews 11:1.
[iii] Galatians 4.4; Ephesians 1.9-10: [God] has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”
[iv] Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) said “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
[v] 1 Corinthians 3.5-7.
[vi] John 21.15-22.
[vii]William A. Barry, S.J., in Paying Attention to God; p. 29.
[viii]Quoted from The Rule of St. Benedict; Insights for the Ages, by Joan Chittister, O.S.B.; p. 81.
[ix]See Isaiah 29.16. 41.25, 45.9, 64.8; 41.25; 29.16, 64.8; Jeremiah 18.3-4, 6; Job 10.9, 33.6; Romans 9.19-21; 2 Corinthians 4.7.
[x] A riff on Matthew 17.20 and Matthew 10.29-31.
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