“Faith: Our Greatest Wish…God’s Greatest Desire”
Hebrews 13: 1-8, 15,16 ~ Northwood United Church – Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook – September 1, 2019
What is your deepest hope? The great theologian of the last century, C.S. Lewis asked this question… what is your deepest hope (see “The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses”)? He argued that what people think the answer to this deep question is that our deepest hope is to possess life’s beauty. However, Lewis argues that this is not our deepest hope. And throughout this morning’s reflection, I would like to ponder with you how he arrives at the answer.
A hint at Lewis’ answer will be found through the deepening of this thing we have been exploring…faith. We come this morning to the end of our brief exploration into faith. And it will be important to put the pieces all together as we come to an end. We began with the oft-quoted definition of faith from Hebrews Chapter 11: “now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”. We proceeded to unpack the three facets of faith that we find in this definition. Confidence: with faith, there is a deep confidence in the unfolding of God’s grace and provision in God’s gracious time. We do not know God’s timeline, yet we do know that God’s timeline brings peace, justice and love. Secondly, faith is about our participation in God’s Kin-dom outcome. We are not passive recipients, rather we are charged – with faith – to be active participants who share in a sacred partnership in the unfolding of God’s Kin-dom come. Finally, faith is about vision. Faith allows us to see with the eyes of Christ, with the care of Christ, with the love and compassion of Christ. Faith allows us to realize that our identity is truly found in the expression of God’s love, grace, and peace.
In the second week, we built upon the definition of faith as we consider the transmission of faith. Faith, we were reminded, is not a static entity that we are born with. Faith is something that is passed on from one to another. The section of scripture we explored lifted up some of the great Biblical figures: Moses, Samson, David, and Gideon. As we recalled that faith was passed on from these great individuals to the generations after them, we also recalled that each and every one of them had their flaws, had their weaknesses, had their problems. We realized that we too, with our weaknesses, flaws, and problems are also qualified – and called – to pass on our faith to others. In fact, the text challenges us to fully engage in the living out of our faith, putting it this way: “let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us”. Life… ‘the race’ … is all about the struggle, the challenge, persevering together.
Finally, last week we looked at an image of God being akin to “a refiner’s fire”. The text simultaneously lifted up the struggles of the past as found in their ancestor’s experience at Mt. Sinai and paired those images with the promise to come at Mt. Zion. In our discussion, we discovered the importance of worshipping the whole God who offers us hope, forgiveness, and restoration…while at the same time is frustrated and angry when we abandon our faith and live in ways of greed, selfishness and sin. Our life’s work in faith, in theologian Richard Rohr’s opinion is to uncover the ‘Immortal Diamond’ that is buried inside each of us…putting aside our false selves: our reliance on the ways and trappings of this world, and allowing our true selves: God’s Spirt presence, alive in you and me, to truly emerge.
As we move to this morning’s text, we begin to see the truly transformative promise that faith brings. And…you may be starting to uncover the answer to CS Lewis’ question of our most ardent hope and desire. The text argues that it is by faith that we find change, that we find transformation, that we find hope in our living. Everything that this section refers to requires a deep faith to engage upon. And the result of living by faith are truly incredible!
The writer groups faith-led living into three sections: worship, fellowship, and ministry. Worship should be a sacrifice of praise to God, not to us. As such it becomes transformative. In this way, worship changes us. We become what we truly admire, don’t we? If we admire money, we become withered and crinkly; if we admire computers, we become user un-friendly; if we admire youth, we become juvenile; if we admire Christ, we begin to resemble who he is. When we worship truly out of love for the God, more than out of respectability, we are well on our way towards the Kin-dom unfolding through our ways and into our midst.
Secondly, fellowship is lived out in a faith-led community. After a truly transformative worship experience – be that on a Sunday morning, or during a private prayer time, our soul becomes soft and ‘shapeable’. The question is: ‘do we go back to our normal routines and be shaped by the world?’ or ‘do we allow God to continue to shape us further?’ A deep call to hospitality, not just to family and friends, but hospitality to the stranger is called for in faith. A reference is given to Abraham and Sarah (see Gen 18:1-15) who received the three visitors at the oak trees in Mamre. What they later discovered was that by entertaining these three angels, they were hosting angels without even knowing it. Back in Israel’s beginning when they were aliens in foreign land, those who hosted them allowed them to survive. I may be treading on unsafe ground here, but I am fascinated by the hitchhiking that occurs at my daughter’s campus on Simon Fraser University. Many of the kids help one another by offering a ride to fellow students up the mountain. Friendships are made, ideas are shared, hospitality is experienced. We have all met new people at church and offered them hospitality, do we extend that same hospitality when we see others asking for spare change? In this world with automatic garage door openers who zoom in and out of their homes, do we take an opportunity to truly get to know our neighbours? Do we extend hospitality in our community when a new person moves in?
Finally, ministry is an extension of this fait-led hospitality. In the past, ministry was about visiting and feeding. It was about visiting and feeding those who were in prison; it was about visiting and feeding those who were being tortured; it was about extending a true depth of hospitality that allowed us to share in their suffering and their pain. Ministry was about the faith-led living out of compassion. It calls us to truly suffer with those who suffer. This, of course, is the very definition of compassion ~ ‘com’ = with and ‘passion’ = suffering. We are called to ‘suffer with’ the stranger, suffer with those who are in prison, suffer with those who are being tortured.
You have likely guessed, by now, CS Lewis’ answer to what our most ardent hope and desire is. Our most ardent hope and desire is not to possess life’s beauty, but rather to participate in it…our most ardent hope and desire is to participate in the beauty and goodness of life. And when we have the faith to fully share in the living of this deep life with others, we find God is truly alive: transforming us and transforming others.
There is an interesting analysis that has been done around faith development. It began with Dr. James Fowler, who was the Professor of Theology and Human Development at Emory University, and has expanded through a number of others, such as M. Scott Peck, over the past few decades. I still find Fowler’s work to be the most accessible, so as we come to an end of our reflection, I will lay out Fowler’s six stages, as we might examine how our life’s journey of faith development has been unfolding. He begins with the first stage: Intuitive-Projective where fantasy and reality often are intermingled. This stage presents in preschoolers and is important as some of their most basic ideas about God are formed. The Mythic-Literal stage usually occurs in school-age children as logic begins to be part of their thinking. Faith stories tend to be understood in very literal ways. Some people, Fowler notes, remain in this stage throughout adulthood. The Synthetic-Conventional stage often occurs in teen years when their social circles begin to widen and they need to pull it all together in a comprehensive all-encompassing belief system. Fowler notes that authority is primarily placed in individuals who represent their beliefs. Like the previous stage, this can be a final destination for some. The fourth stage, Individuative-Reflective, can commence as early as young adulthood as people see outside the box and realize that there are other ‘boxes’ of beliefs. Ironically, the stage 3 people often view those in this stage as “backsliders” who have given up on their beliefs when in reality they have actually broadened them. The final two stages are Conjunctive and Universalizing faiths. Conjunctive faith may be found in those in mid-life as people realize the limits of logic and begin to embrace the paradoxes in life. An embracing of mystery, the sacred stories and symbols without being held inside a particular theological box is pursued. The final stage, Universalizing Faith, is very rare. It is noted as being part of individuals living lives to the full in service of others without any real worries or doubts.
As they say “faith is a journey”, so let us continue to truly LIVE the journey and engage in a deep and meaningful faith. There will be some peak moments of faith growth along the way. Some name moments that “they were saved”, others will recall moments when they made faith-led decisions. But may our faith never grow stale, may it never waver, may we continue to grow in the Way of Christ.