The Meaning of Faith
11Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2Indeed, by faith* our ancestors received approval. 3By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.*
The Examples of Abel, Enoch, and Noah
4 By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable* sacrifice than Cain’s. Through this he received approval as righteous, God himself giving approval to his gifts; he died, but through his faith* he still speaks. 5By faith Enoch was taken so that he did not experience death; and ‘he was not found, because God had taken him.’ For it was attested before he was taken away that ‘he had pleased God.’ 6And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. 7By faith Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir to the righteousness that is in accordance with faith.
The Faith of Abraham
8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. 9By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised.* 12Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, ‘as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.’
13 All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, 14for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. 16But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.
Five years ago I went to a worship service on July 4th. It made me very uncomfortable. The patriotic hymns, the presentation of colors. At some point it became “ok” to have a Sunday where we stop worshipping God and instead worship America.
"since we profess God as sovereign, claiming our highest allegiance, and since God's realm extends beyond the bounds of any one nation, embracing all nations, it is preferable that no national flag be displayed in a Christian place of worship." - PC(USA) Office of Theology and Worship
The conflict I feel this morning is not a new thing. There is some history to the flags in churches. One does not typically find national flags in churches overseas. In the United States the practice seems to have developed during the Taft administration when the world was heading toward WWI. Franklin Roosevelt issued a statement requesting churches to have the flag placed in churches as we entered WWII. This was done reluctantly and at the advice of and pressure of Secretary of War Stimson. The cross on the Christian flag is one inch taller than the eagle on the American flag.
I don’t like preaching on the 4th, so it’s at least worth explaining why. At some point we have conflated patriotic sentiment with our religious sensibilities. So at some point, we’re forced to ask where our primary allegiance is. We’ve blurred the supposedly clear lines between church and state to the point where certain political affiliations ar assumed if you are a church member and religious litmus tests are given to those who are in political office.
It’s not a false choice. There are times when we have to say that what might be in the best interest of the United States and Americans may not be in the best interest of the rest of the world, and more importantly may not line up with the values of the Kingdom of God.
Last year, legislation was blocked that would have raised the minimum wage of workers in Haitian sweatshops. It was not blocked by Haiti’s government; It was blocked by ours because American business owners get rich off of the cheap labor of poorest nation in the western hemisphere.
I voted for Obama, probably will again, but it makes you ashamed to see how the administration has done things that perpetuate keeping Americans rich at the expense of the poorest in the world. It’s things like this that remind me that I am a citizen of a better nation.
I think of the U.S. the way I think about some of my friends. I love them and see how talented they are, but sometimes get really angry at how they use their time and money. I want them to live up to their potential.
The challenge of Hebrews 11 is to look to the examples of the forefathers/mothers of our faith more than the forefathers of our country. It is to follow their examples in search of that heavenly country, the kingdom of God, even if it means turning our back on our homelands.
The book of Hebrews was written to a community of Jewish Christians who understood that their true home was not a geographical location. Their home was in a kingdom, a nation not of this world.
Our citizenship, our true citizenship is not of any earthly nation. We are citizens of a heavenly kingdom and the church is meant to be an embassy of that kingdom. When you walk into the embassy of your country, you are technically on that country’s soil. People come to church to hear the values of the kingdom of God preached, not the accomplishments of any one nation celebrated.
In fact, the kingdom of God is an amazing multinational corporate body. In every corner of the world, even in those nations that U.S. counts as enemies, there are people walking in the faith that the author of Hebrews discusses and they do so through trials and obstacles to their faith that most of us will never have to experience.
I love my country. My grandfather fought for this country when it was very hard for someone of his shade to do so. But I want this to be the country my grandfather thought was worth fighting for. So what do I want to see from our country? First off, I want to see us repent of our corporate sins. We tend to think of sin as something that individuals do and yet what is most commonly spoken of in scripture is the sins that nations commit. Usually those are sins of greed, idolatry, and injustice towards those on the bottom of the social ladder. We need to repent of those things.
I often see the signs that “America bless God” instead of “God Bless America”. I think that’s stupid. God doesn’t need a blessing and certainly not from us. America does need to be blessed, but not with material things, not with security. We’ve already been blessed in those ways.
I pray that God does bless America. God bless America with humility. God bless America with generosity. God bless America with courage to take risks and to reach out to those places that we have grown to fear. God bless America with the knowledge of the difference between justice and revenge. God bless America with the will to lift up the poor of this nation without exploiting the poor of other nations. God Bless America with the conscience to recognize that the needs of struggling communities are more vital than the desires of the rich and powerful. God bless America with the naïveté to believe its highest values can be achieved for all of it’s citizens. To me, this country will only be as great as the extent to which it’s poorest citizens feel cared for.
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. It takes faith to believe that this nation could live up to it’s potential. I’m sure that mny of you here have memories of time when America was a nation that lived up to its spoken values. To some extent that is true, but what we often lose sight of is what made those days so good. Immediately after WWII was the time in our history when the disparity between the rich and poor in this country was the smallest. Therein was the strength of our nation but even in those imagined good old days, racism was rampant, sexism was the norm, and the rich had greater leverage to exploit the poor than they do now. No, the heavenly kingdom we long for is not a return to some past glory as some would claim, but instead it is stepping faithfully into an unknown future guided by the principles of a new and better constitution.
Faith is always future-oriented. There is no need for a faith in the things that are or the things that were. But as this chapter shows, faith is always an active thing where we work for things that we may never see. We plant trees so that future generations will enjoy it’s shade. Faith asks the question “what am I doing to love my future neighbor?”
We need to strive for that better kingdom, that heavenly nation that we claim as ours. Paul told the churches in Philippi that his citizenship was in heaven and that is where his marching orders came from, by following in the example of Jesus Christ. He warned them against those whose minds were set on earthly things. Those who were unwilling to be uncomfortable because they saw their primary citizenship as Roman. To be Roman meant to live for security, excess, food, and material things. We forget that the NT was written on the fringe of the superpower of its day and in direct opposition to its influence. And while Roman culture accomplished many great things, the superpower of Paul’s day preached that we retaliate to enemies with force. As does the superpower of our day. The Kingdom of God is constituted by the One who teaches love for enemies and prayer for persecutors and proclaims blessings for those who practice peace.
There’s a time and a place to celebrate our country. This is the time and place to celebrate God. To sing the anthems of our better country. And yet this is certainly the place to be in prayer for our country. I’m often reminded of Martin Luther King Jr’s words that the church’s role is neither to be the master or the servant of the state, but to be it’s conscience. We come here to pledge our allegiance to the Kingdom of God. To declare that Jesus Christ gives us our marching orders, to call our nation to repent in the ways that it falls short of the kingdom and to give people a taste of what heaven is like. In realigning our sights on God and on the values of God’s kingdom, we plant the seeds for what we hope our nation to be.
Within our most patriotic of tunes are prayers. Prayers of deep longing for what we might become as a people. I want to close by reading some of those prayers.
Our fathers' God, to thee,
author of liberty, to thee we sing;
long may our land be bright
with freedom's holy light;
protect us by thy might, great God, our King.
O beautiful for patriot dream
that sees beyond the years
thine alabaster cities gleam,
undimmed by human tears!
America! America! God mend thine every flaw,
confirm thy soul in self-control,
thy liberty in law.
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
thou who hast by thy might led us into the light,
keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee;
lest our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee,
shadowed beneath thy hand,
may we forever stand,
true to our God,
true to our native land.