Readings Genesis 15.1–6, Hebrews 11.1-3,8-16, Luke 12.32–40
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
A story of valour beneath our feet (almost). The Guardian on August 7th:
Sewage worker [Gordon Hailwood] has become an unlikely hero after taking three weeks to defeat a toxic 15-tonne ball of congealed fat, the size of a bus, that came close to turning parts of the London Borough of Kingston upon Thames into a cesspit. Fatbergs [as they are called in the trade]…build up on sewer roofs like mushy stalactites. ‘I have witnessed one,’ [said Thames Water spokesman Simon Evans] ‘it’s a heaving, sick-smelling, rotting mass of filth and faeces. It hits the back of your throat, it’s gross.
I read this out over breakfast.
In urban societies like ours we go through every day just assuming that, even in times of uncertainty, unseen things will be looked after: that water will come out of the tap for us to have coffee this morning, that electricity will heat it, that drainage will carry away what we don’t use. We simply trust; and we don’t know how close we sometimes come to disaster. We live each moment by what the letter to the Hebrews today calls ‘the conviction of things not seen’; except we’re so used to it that it’s not so much a conviction but, as I said, an assumption.
As you walk away from church, notice the number of metal plates in the pavement – gas, telephone, cable, electricity, water – and marvel at the unseen systems that keep us going. And those systems made with human hands are crude shadows of the systems that whir away in each living body and even each piece of matter. The letter to the Hebrews foreshadows what we have discovered about the microscopic and subatomic life of our universe when it says ‘the worlds were prepared…so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.’
Losing faith in the systems is a serious matter. I, for instance, am scared of heights. I’m not sure what happens, but it feels like I lose confidence in those systems of balance and co-ordination with which my body functions pretty well at ground level. Whole societies can break down when faith in the systems drains away, and we now know how close we were to meltdown when confidence collapsed in our financial systems in 2008. Notice how much of the bewildering world of money revolves around two words from the vocabulary of faith – ‘credit’ and ‘trust’.
Our writer, though, is not speculating in some abstract way about how the world works. He is concerned with God, and he talks about Abraham setting out towards an unseen, unknown destination because of his faith in God. But what is faith?
There was an unusual debate on Newsnight last Tuesday (two days before the fatberg story broke) arising from the government’s happiness index. Professor Robert Winston said that a source of unhappiness was that we are living in an increasingly uncertain world, and he cited ‘religion’ as a remedy. Evidence shows, he said, that one way of dealing with uncertainty is to ‘be religious’. ‘That,’ he said, ‘tends to reduce the amount of unhappiness that people express.’
I don’t dispute the evidence, but I wonder what he thinks he is describing. Winston’s words suggest that ‘being religious’ is a style you adopt, that ‘religion’ is a commodity, a thing you choose to possess. We often use the word ‘faith’ in the same way. Think of the phrase, ‘You have your faith to comfort you’, or ‘I lost my faith when I left school.’ And that, for those who think they don’t have faith, can be exasperating. Why is that others have ‘found’ this thing – which sounds so palpable and definite, like a coin in your pocket – and they haven’t?
The case of Abraham and Sarah suggests a more messy, and more useful, answer to our question, ‘What is faith?’ Here are a man and a woman of faith, yet they seem to have the same relation to faith that I have to my house keys, as they seem to ‘lose’ it and ‘find’ it again from one chapter of Genesis to the next (check out their story when you get home). Their grandson Jacob, he’s a man of faith too, but he is a crook, a cheat and a chancer, for most of the story anyway. What, then, is faith, if such characters as these can be among the faithful?
It seems that faith here is less a possession than a direction. You can hold a direction despite many meanders and wrong turnings, and even the odd deliberate detour. And the overall direction you have been trying to hold may not be discernible to a witness of your life until your earthly wanderings are quite complete. What may keep you from getting completely lost meanwhile are milestones and signposts along the way – sometimes very far apart – episodes when you receive assurance, or know joy, or those uncomfortable times when some event or some person makes you say, ‘Oh, no, I have gone way off course.’
Let us each be careful, then, of how we speak of faith – to ourselves or each other, to anyone – especially to those who feel they do not ‘have’ it or who fear they have ‘lost’ it, because faith is not something you have as a finished article, polished and smooth. And if you ask yourself, ‘Am I really one of the faithful?’, do not look for the answer by sifting though the various items in your mind. At this moment, my mind may be full of Jesus’ ‘sell your possessions’ generosity; by this time tomorrow, it’ll be full of thoughts about treasure of the failing kind, the sort that thieves can nick and moths destroy.
No – ask instead: Where will I finally be at home? Which city do I really look forward to living in? What, beneath all the half-heartedness and the infidelities, am I truly looking for? Or at least, what do I want to look for? Is it the kingdom of God, God ‘s good pleasure, God’s justice, God’s love? Or somewhere else?
If the answer is ‘Somewhere else’, then it’s good to be honest to God about it. It may take something significant to change that, perhaps the shock of joy – the kind you can’t pay for – or that other sort of shock when something you’ve assumed you could rely on gives way. And if the answer to the kingdom of God is ‘Yes’, even a rather timid ‘Yes’, then a long road lies ahead, but the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob is not ashamed to be called your God, and you journey together ‘in faith’.
A prayer of the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you, and I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing.
And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road although I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always; though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death, I will not fear, for you are ever with me and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. Amen.
Abraham and Sarah Genesis 12-25; Jacob Genesis 27-35