Sermon – August 7, 2016 – The Rev. Keith Owen

Proper 14, Year C


From today’s passage from the Letter to the Hebrews

Now faith is the assurance of things you hope for, the conviction of things you can’t see.
And a few lines later in Hebrews, speaking of old Father Abraham, speaking of the very scene we heard in the first lesson:
Therefore, from one man, and him as good as dead, descendants were born “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.”

It’s a simple sermon today folks. It’s the simple truth that brings us here week after week. Lord knows, I’ve probably preached some form of this sermon a few dozen times over these last dozen years. Three sermon points. The basic shape of Christian faith is this: unexceptional people doing outrageous things based on promises without guarantees.

Let me say that again. It’s about as eloquent a thing as I can ever share with you:
The story of faith is this: unexceptional people, doing outrageous things based on promises they may never see kept. That’s the story of faith, that’s the glory of faith, and that’s the possibility always laid before us.

Point one: Unexceptional people. In the Old Testament and Epistle lessons today we are reminded of the Father of it all, Abraham. He and his wife, old, childless, nomads in the desert of modern day Iraq. The scriptures let us know that there is nothing particularly noble about this man. He is not more righteous, or brave, or wealthy, than any other ordinary man of his day. Indeed, the description of him in the book of Genesis is of a decidedly ambiguous man.

Point two: Outrageous things. Suddenly, one day, this old man hears the voice of a strange desert God promising him the impossible. Children. Land. A future. All Abram need do is pluck up everything. His entire retinue of livestock and servants, his wife. Leave his home and strike out for an undisclosed destination. This strange God known to no one else simply says “take my word.” And Abram does it. Does this outrageous and reckless thing. So outrageous that his old wife Sarah reacts in the only sensible way: she laughs at husband AND God.

Point three: No Guarantees. Abraham, the unexceptional man, embarks on an outrageous and mapless journey with an unknown, slightly dangerous God. And at the end of his life, at the end of his journey, he is still a nomad. The only land he owns is a burial plot for his wife. He has one son from his wife Sarah, and one estranged son from his wife’s slave. That’s not exactly stars of the heavens or the sand of the seashore. He bet all his chips on this strange God’s promise, but at his death has very little to show for it.

Abraham: the unexceptional man who does something outrageous because of a promise from God that he’ll never see kept. The assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

A casual read of the Bible reveals that same story again and again. The stories of the saints reveal that story again and again. Men and women setting out on journeys, embracing tasks, living lives, doing simple things, but sometimes things that fall far outside their usual comfort zone. Sometimes, such people become household words, even mythic figures: Abraham, Jesus, Paul, Theresa of Calcutta, Martin Luther King. But the overwhelming, the vast majority, are typically lost in the mists of time and history.

I have been mesmerized, perhaps as you have, by the meteoric appearance in the popular imagination in the last ten days of Khizr Khan and his wife Ghazala, and the story of their deceased son Humayun. Regardless of what the final political fallout might be from his astonishing speech at the Democratic convention or what any of us think of that as a piece of brilliant political theater, the sheer unabashed faith of this man, his wife, and their fallen son is a moving thing to ponder. Yesterday, as I drove to pick up Rachel from camp, I listened to a long radio interview with Mr. Khan. At one point, I was in tears, almost tears of shame, because I was listening to about as true a patriot as I have ever heard. That little pocket constitution that he waved? On the taxi ride to the convention to give his speech he discovered it in his pocket. It was in his pocket because the man has the things all over his house, he gives them to people as gifts, he reads the constitution of the United States as devotional literature.

When the interviewer, I thought somewhat cynically, as if to put him in a bind, asked him “what is your favorite part,” he did not hesitate. He recited, I believe from memory, the 14th amendment.

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

That’s when I lost it. I was listening to an unexceptional man – an old man born poor in Pakistan, an electronic documents search worker for a law firm, a Muslim living a quiet life in Charlottesville, Virginia. He did an outrageous thing — moved to this country in the hopes of building a better life for his family. And he did this with no guarantees: indeed, it could be argued that his faith in the promise of America came at a staggering cost. As I listened to this articulate, faithful man on the radio, I realized here was a real patriot and a true God-fearing man, a true believer in this country and its ideals, who makes my patriotism and faith — a White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant American whose ancestors made Mr. Khan’s journey 4 centuries ago–look mild in comparison.

People like the Khans don’t make much sense in this world. They do what they do because they truly believe the promises made to them. They trust that God’s call to follow, to pick up and go, to take the outrageous risk, will turn out right in the end. They bet their lives on the thing hoped for, they live their lives in the conviction of things they cannot see.

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” says Jesus in the opening line of today’s gospel.

Do we believe him? Do you? Do I? Do you believe it enough to bet your life on it? I struggle with that, and I know I’m not the only one in the room. Abraham bet his life and fortune on that promise, and here we are today the sand particles, the stars he was promised. Jesus and his disciples bet their lives on that promise, and here we are today witnessing to it still.

Here we are, just as unlikely, just as unworthy, just as unexceptional as they were. Some of us, like Abraham, as good as dead. Here we are, like Abraham, invited to depart on a journey without a certain destination. Here we are, promised by Jesus that we will be given a kingdom we will likely never see.

What an outrageous story it is we listen to each week. What an outrageous life we are invited to live. What an unlikely promise we receive.

But it keeps being true. It keeps being realized. In the Abrahams, in the Khizr and Ghazala Khans, God’s promise keeps getting made and kept. In people no different than you and me, the drama keeps unfolding.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen. In faith, then, let us unexceptional people do some outrageous things because of this incredible, ancient, and wonderful promise for which there are no guarantees.

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