Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
An Episcopal cleric reflects on the recent gun attacks in the USA
Our minds and hearts continue to reel at yet another particularly heinous outburst of hatred and gun violence in this country last week—as it now stands, there have been 251 mass attacks by gun this year in the US, while today is only the 219th day of the year. It can seem impossible to have any faith that anything will change, given our elected leaders’ inability to even consider any new legislation to attempt to keep guns out of the hands of the violent, hate-filled extremists who continue to commit the majority of these acts. I give thanks to God, therefore, that this coming Sunday’s epistle focuses on faith, trust, and hope—three qualities all so sadly lacking in too many of us these days.
The book of Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians to demonstrate the necessity of faith in Christ as being the sole and complete revelation of and from God. Although some assume Paul was the author, it is more likely not Paul, although some scholars have thought it might have been one of Paul’s helpers, such as Barnabas, or it might have actually had more than one author—the text uses “we” almost exclusively, unlike Acts or other Biblical epistles that flip back and forth between “I” and “we.” The first generation of Christians are passing away at the time the letter to the Hebrews is written, and the second generation seems to be faltering, given that the Messiah has NOT returned as they believed. Early Christians expected Jesus to return within their lifetimes, and yet that expectation was being confounded. Persecution was causing their faith to falter. The Church was in danger of foundering and shrinking back into a local mystery cult instead of continuing to spread. This explains the context of this reading from Hebrews 11.
The first verse stands alone as a wonderful summary of the significance of faith as the lynchpin of our search for God. Faith is the junction of the finite, material world which can be derived through the senses with the eternal world. Faith links us to the eternal and enables us to trust in God’s promises. It is what enables us to know God in response to God’s knowledge of us. Faith depends upon trust—a subject of our verses about Abram in the OT reading that is one of the two choices this Sunday. Further, faith is what animates and motivates us to respond to God. Abram demonstrated faith enough to leave the only home he had known in Ur without even knowing what the land he was being given looked like—merely trusting that it was good land, which of course was at a premium.
Verses 4-7 of this 11th chapter that are omitted name what some scholars refer to as “the Heroes of Faith” from the OT—Abel, Enoch, and Noah. Then our reading returns to the subject of Abram/Abraham. Left unsaid is the fact that Abraham is even willing to sacrifice that long-awaited son as a sign of his faith in God. So then the Promised Land of Canaan is tied to the heavenly promised land, the city of God, which is the true inheritance of those of us who come after Abraham but are willing to act based solely upon our faith and trust in God.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus repeatedly remarks that faith is what made miracles possible—the faith comes BEFORE the miracle, not after, which is something that is very difficult for our modern, skeptical selves to understand. In Matthew 8:13, Jesus assures the centurion that his faith had led to the healing of the centurion’s servant: ‘Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.’ In Matthew 9:22, Jesus tells the hemorrhaging woman that her faith has made her well after she tells herself that just touching the fringe of his cloak, as well as praising the faith of the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:28 who actually argues with Jesus when he first rebuffs her as she asks for healing for her daughter. Other instances include Mark 5:34, Mark 10:52, Luke 7:50, Luke 8:48, Luke 17:19, Luke 18:42. Lack of faith could have the reverse effect, as well. In Luke 8:25, Jesus rebukes his disciples for having too little faith when a storm besets their boat.
Yet faith is not a magic wish-fulfillment device, regardless of how these anecdotes from the Bible sound. Faith is required because we are uncertain to begin with, because we cannot see. It is a paradox that faith is required BECAUSE we are not certain; people of faith still encounter prayers that are not answered, illnesses that cannot be cured, and so on. But look again at our heroes of faith. Abel certainly did not escape tragedy, by a long shot, yet his faith was still reckoned as righteousness. Noah witnessed the destruction of most of the people he knew. Abraham waited a very long time indeed for some of those promises to be fulfilled, and yet the twentieth century along visited untold horrors upon many of his descendants.
Faith is TRUST, which is required because we lack certainty. Yet, if we had certainty, how would we know when we are being blessed, and why would we need to admit our dependence upon God? We would just check the “faith” box and move on. However, the world is not perfect. Tragedies happen for unexplainable reasons. Faith enables us to move forward and live our lives without certainty. Trust is an act of will and of hope, a decision we make to account someone or something trustworthy even in the face of uncertainty.
I still have faith in government for being a force for good, but more importantly, I have faith in the Way of Love of Jesus empowering us to demand change. I have trust that we will find our voices again and make them heard both in our everyday refusal to be silent before racism, nationalism, and hatred. I have hope that we will rediscover our power soon, and use it for the common good. Anything less is unthinkable.
The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire is a retired teacher, mom, and musician, and serves as priest-in-charge of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville, MO, in the Diocese of Missouri. She blogs at Abiding in Hope and at Poems, Psalms, and Prayers.