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Uniform Lesson for August 8, 2021
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Hebrews 11:1-8, 13-16
I cannot read this passage without remembering and giving thanks for the life and witness of George Hall, an elder in a congregation I served in Belmont, North Carolina. George carried a folded-up scrap of paper with the words of Hebrews 11:1 in his wallet, along with a menagerie of other practical things (nuts, bolts and washers of various sizes) in a change purse in his front pocket. George would reach into either his back or front pocket to pull out the “tool” that was most appropriate for the situations he encountered in his wanderings. Many a time, when a group needed to be reminded about the necessity of faith, especially when we could not see our way forward on our own, George would reach into his back pocket, retrieve this scrap of paper, unfold it and read: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for.” This quote was, for him, nothing if not very practical advice. This Sunday, I’m wondering, if we can live up to his standards.
The conviction of things not seen
The book of Hebrews is full of wonders and worlds that we cannot see. There are the ranks of angels (whom we cannot see), to whom Jesus is superior (the “exact imprint of God’s very being,” whom we have seen, Hebrews 1:3). There are the mysterious borderline figures from obscure places in Scripture (like Enoch and Melchizedek), who seem to move between the worlds of the seen and unseen according to rules we cannot discern. There is the mysterious homeland (or country or city of our passage, which the writer classifies as “a heavenly one” — all as a way of contrasting it with the homelands of this world, which we can see, and to which we might choose to return.) There is thus a sort of other-worldly orientation to this particular biblical book, which might make us hear it as a blueprint for escape or transition to a world that is better than this one where we now wander.
Except for this fact. What most intrigues the writer of Hebrews is not the bliss of the world to come. Rather it is the way that faith in things we cannot see gives us courage and persistence regarding the things we can. Abel offers a sacrifice more acceptable than Cain’s, because his earthly actions are better aligned with God’s desires than his brother’s. Noah begins to build an ark of wood and pitch because of a coming earthly storm about which he has been warned. Enoch is spared death in this world not because he was constantly singing about heaven, but because he had pleased God while he was on this earth. Abraham wanders around like a sojourner on this earth because he has faith in another world yet to come. All these heroes, like Jesus, embodied the character and the kingdom of God “as it is in heaven” while they were yet “on earth.” Likewise, George Hall seldom reached into his pocket as a way to deliver us from the cares and concerns of the world we can see. He reached into his pocket for the necessary tools with which to make this world we can see a little bit better.
The hall of faith
Thus, the primary payoff of this lesson on faith for us might be the compilation of a similar roll call of the faithful we have known and seen. Most of these people are beloved to us not because they talked about heaven all the time. No, with God’s help, they performed courageous and reckless feats in order to bring a little bit of God’s heaven to earth. They had a vision of a world where everyone had a place at the table. They could see communities where justice was practiced, and love was a verb in action. They listened for angels or messengers who helped them imagine ways to pave streets, erect buildings and structure neighborhoods that reflected God’s will to come, even while they were yet alive in the world we can see and touch. It takes some courage to believe in a kingdom we cannot yet see. It takes even more courage to live out the life of that kingdom before it has fully arrived.
Things that are not visible
The eyes of faith can see things that our own physical eyes cannot. These heavenly principles and powers are most clearly seen in the life and death of Jesus. Jesus’ way is the most reliable “tool” God gives us in order to stand firm as witnesses in the world in which we live.
For discussion: How does faith in things we cannot see give us courage to face the things we can?
RICHARD BOYCE is the dean of the Charlotte campus of Union Presbyterian Seminary, and associate professor of preaching and pastoral leadership. He is a minister member of the Presbytery of Western North Carolina.
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