If It Keeps You Frozen, It Ain’t Faith - thrive UMC Official Blog

If It Keeps You Frozen, It Ain’t Faith

As the theologian Paul Tillich once pointed out, there are few words in the English language that have more carelessly applied, and poorly understood, than the word faith.  So before we get started today, I just want you to take a moment to think about your own understanding of what’s attached to the word ‘faith.’  What does it mean?  And what does it do?  It may also be helpful to recall your last lived encounter with faith –what was that like?

In just a moment, we’re going to read what is probably the most popular and powerful definition of faith that’s to be found in the entire Bible: it’s found in Hebrews 11:1.  But right after that definition, the author then goes on to cite about 17 examples of how faith has worked out in the Bible, starting with Abel and then going on to cite a whole variety of characters who run all the way up through the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch) and spilling into Joshua.  We’re skipping that part today, but just know that the likes of Abraham and Sarah, and Moses, and Joshua and Rahab make the list.  Next, after all of that, the author talks about the faith that’s been extended to the audience he’s addressing, and what to do with it.

Please follow along: we’re reading from Hebrews 11, verses 1 and 2, then skipping to verse 32 and reading into the first couple of verses of the next chapter.  It says this:

11 Faith is the reality of what we hope for, the proof of what we don’t see. The elders in the past were approved because they showed faith.

32 What more can I say? I would run out of time if I told you about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets.33 Through faith they conquered kingdoms, brought about justice, realized promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34 put out raging fires, escaped from the edge of the sword, found strength in weakness, were mighty in war, and routed foreign armies. 35 Women received back their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured and refused to be released so they could gain a better resurrection.

36 But others experienced public shame by being taunted and whipped; they were even put in chains and in prison. 37 They were stoned to death, they were cut in two, and they died by being murdered with swords. They went around wearing the skins of sheep and goats, needy, oppressed, and mistreated. 38 The world didn’t deserve them. They wandered around in deserts, mountains, caves, and holes in the ground.

39 All these people didn’t receive what was promised, though they were given approval for their faith. 40 God provided something better for us so they wouldn’t be made perfect without us.

12 So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter. He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne.

“Faith is the reality of what we hope for, the proof of what we don’t see,” it says.  Now, what many of us may not be aware of is that the Greek word for faith here originally had a fairly specific, concrete application.  It was not, first and foremost a ‘religious’ term as we’d call it today, but faith was instead initially a business term.  When two or more parties needed to work together on a project, they would make an agreement and then proceed “in good faith.” This meant that each party might go its own separate way, but would operate under the assumption that the other party, or parties, would also fulfill their end of the bargain.

Take the building of a house, for example.  If you want a brand-new house, just for you, you’d first contact a respectable contractor, right?  And then, if all goes well, the two of you would strike a deal: you promise to pay a certain amount of money, and they will build a house according to the deal’s specifications. It’s very simple.  And people do this all the time.

What’s strange, if you stop to think about it, is that when we hear from a friend who just struck a deal to have a new house built, no one stops and goes: “why on God’s green earth would you throw your money away on a handshake and a dream? What kind of a fool gives money for nothing, when you could have gone to a realtor and bought an actual, standing house?”

Because that’s really what’s happening, isn’t it: you sign some paper and pay actual money for a hope.  You exchange real money (if money were real) for a house that doesn’t exist.  Just hoping that the contractor is who she says she is, and will do what she says she’ll do.  But then, even if she is faithful –she, the contractor, will not, in most cases, have any hand at all in the actual construction of the house.   Instead, she’ll turn around and in “good faith” hire a whole bunch of different people and specialists to get the job done: framers, roofers, dry-wallers, plumbers, electricians and on and on.  But what if some of them just don’t show up?  Or what if they do a super-shoddy job?  What if the primary structural materials of the house are of a wildly inferior quality, but end up being hidden under elegant finishings, so that you’ll never know what they did until one night your dream-house comes collapsing down upon you unannounced in your sleep?

[Gasp!] You’d have to be insane to make such a deal!

Yet, in spite of the fact that a million different things could go wrong, people are still “buying unbuilt houses” on good faith.  And I’ll bet the vast majority never stop to wonder: gee, I gave the money over; I wonder if I’ll actually get the house?

Because faith is the medium by which our hopes are made real.

And we human beings have found the agreements we make with one another reliable enough to build our civilization. Just look around you.  What would happen if we didn’t have the confidence to enter into hopeful agreements with other people?  Nothing! We’d be stuck in the stone-age.  Virtually every aspect of the social world we inhabit was built with the hopes made real by faith.  Our buildings, utility networks, government infrastructure, global corporations, and more –all of these run off of the faith that people on the other side of the agreement or contract, which was formed out of a mutual hope, are going to do their part.

Now of course, they don’t always hold up their end of the bargain, do they?  And that’s why we have an ever-growing legal code, which tries to hold people accountable, and cinch the unjust loopholes in order to maintain the power of public faith. Because all wise people and leaders know how absolutely critical faith is to making anything happen.  But that’s just the kind of faith we have in people –people who are almost always strangers.  When I was a kid, my parents and the TV always used to tell me: don’t get in a car with strangers.  But you know what’s weird?  Every day we get in cars made by strangers, hoping that all of the other hundreds of cars on the road, driven by strangers of questionable competency, are not going to kill us.  And, for the most part, we think nothing of it –because if we did, we would have to go live in a small corner of our rooms, curled in a fetal position, forever.

But what the book of Hebrews is talking about is the faith relationship between God and humanity.  When God extends a promise to humanity, there is also always a call to participation. Faith is always at least a two-way street, which means not only shall God have faith in us, but we must also have faith in God.  And here the preacher challenges the audience to examine the track record: look at Abel, and Noah, and Abraham, and Sarah, and Jacob, and Moses, and on and on and on throughout the biblical record.  And notice what happened when humanity acted out of its faith back: kingdoms were conquered; justice became manifest, promises were fulfilled, the mouths of lions were shut, raging fires were squelched, lives were saved!  Strength was found in weakness! Dead people were even raised from the dead –resurrected!

Don’t you see? –When God and humanity conspire together in faith, no hope becomes too grand.  No promise is too big to be fulfilled.  Indeed, absolutely nothing is impossible when God and people are focused together in their faith!  Kings and empires falter before it.  Violent, stony hearts melt. Swords shatter; chains crumble; and even death itself shrinks before the power of faith –which is God and humanity working together to realize a shared hope.

It has been witnessed throughout the ages, and tested anew with each rising generation, and can’t you see, brothers and sisters, that this power is also open to you?  Oh, it’d be such an inspiring sermon… if only the preacher had stopped there!

But he goes on, and I quote: “36 But others experienced public shame by being taunted and whipped; they were even put in chains and in prison. 37 They were stoned to death, they were cut in two, and they died by being murdered with swords. They went around wearing the skins of sheep and goats, needy, oppressed, and mistreated. 38 The world didn’t deserve them. They wandered around in deserts, mountains, caves, and holes in the ground.

39 All these people didn’t receive what was promised…” (Hebrews 11:36-39a CEB).

I want to point out that I’ve stopped mid-sentence here; but I believe it’s a worthy place to pause.  Because this nasty suffering and premature-death business is precisely what turns our bowels to water when it comes to living out our end of the bargain. Yes, we’ve seen faith triumph; but haven’t we also witnessed faith falter?  Haven’t there also been moments where the swords didn’t break, and the chains held-fast?  Weren’t some of the ones who suffered the most and died in the most horrific ways precisely those who were among the most faithful of our species?  Haven’t so many already perished before the promise came true?

To that, the preacher of Hebrews has only this to say: “they were given approval for their faith.  God provided something better for us so they wouldn’t be made perfect without us.”

In other words, the reason that’s being given here for why the prophet Isaiah was sawn in two, and why Jesus was crucified, and why ever other saint and martyr suffered and died violently, and also the reason why God has not yet brought perfect justice to earth yet is –get this: us.  You and me.  We’re the reason they all suffered.  We’re the justification for why faith has not yet totally conquered selfishness and evil. We’re the reason Jesus hasn’t yet come back on a cosmic cloud of glory.  Because if God had done it that way, there would have been no time, and place, for us to do our thing.  There would have been no more work to do –no more hope yet to accomplish. No more place for us to participate in faith.  So all those people suffered so that there’d be something left –a place and a calling- for us.  Which also means, by the way, that we may also have to suffer and endure disappointment to make room for those who come behind us.

Holy goats, I could spend the whole rest of the day just rolling those last two lines of chapter 11 around; but we have to move on.

At last it says: “12 So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter. He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne.”

This is our call back to action: all we need to do is run our race.  Drop the excuses, stop worrying about how it’s all going to turn out, and just get moving.  Because faith is not –and cannot be- and idle endeavor.  Today in Christianity, we seem to have this lie going around that if we just have enough warm fuzzies about God from our couch, then everything will turn out sunshine and rainbows.  This is not the depiction we have from Hebrews, or any other book of the Bible.  God is building something through human history: a heavenly Kingdom here on earth.  And we have been called to be laborers on that project of hope –that is what faith is.  We build the kingdom when we love God and our neighbor –with everything we have.  We build the kingdom when announce good news, and when we serve the poor, and the lost and the left out.  We build the kingdom when we instruct the young  and the uninformed in the wisdom of our tradition.  We build the kingdom when set our own small and selfish ambitions aside to live and grow into a bigger, cosmic hope.

The analogy of a race is used here because the mechanics are so simple.  Point yourself in the right direction, and go!  To be a successful contestant, you just need three things: direction, momentum, and an awareness of a prize, for motivation.  And here the direction part should be fairly straight-forward.  We’re really good at making it complicated, but here the preacher just says: “fix our eyes of Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter.” In other words, Jesus is the Usain Bolt of faith.  He’s taken the whole enterprise and raised the bar.  So study his clips and God.

And the last part, the prize, is God’s approval.  The hope of our faith is that one day we’ll stand before God as our life is evaluated and God will witness our life and respond: ‘well done, good and faithful servant.’

But as everyone who has ever tried running before, the absolute toughest part is in the middle portion: the momentum.  Most of us, when it comes to living out our faith, we end up like me on the tread-mill.  For the first 30 seconds, everything seems okay; but after about two and a half minutes a voice in my head starts shouting: “Jeremy, your legs! Your legs are going to fall off! Systems analysis reports the lungs seem to be on fire. And your heart –I think this is what it feels like right before your heart explodes.  Jeremy! Jeremy, you’re probably dying!  Right here, on this stupid machine in front of everyone, you’re going to pass out, fall down, and shoot off the back of the treadmill like flabby rocket.  And somehow it’ll all end up on Youtube.  Is this how you want your children to remember you, as a meme on Instagram, because that’s what’s happening!”

Momentum is the hardest part because no one is born a marathon runner, or an Olympic-class sprinter.  Instead, momentum is something you have to grow into.  To build momentum, you have to start small, and you need a program.  And that program will almost certainly involve partners: people to encourage you, and teach you, and help you train.

This is why it’s so important for us, if we’re going to be a people of faith, to be a part of  a small group or a Bible study, or a ministry team.  These are our partners in building momentum.  Momentum not just for ourselves, but also for our whole community.

This is the task that lies before us.  God has called us, as a people of faith, to give the gift of our momentum to history.  So let’s start talking with one another, and sketching out plans, and asking the hard questions, for how we can build a powerful momentum.  For it’s up to us to show our whole community how to move.

Let’s pray.

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