The name Donald Rumsfeld is seldom heard these days. When it is, it is in the past tense, though it may still be accompanied by a present-tense anger at what he wrought in Iraq as US Defense Secretary over a decade ago. We owe him a debt, however, for mapping out, as he did in a press conference in 2007, the terrain of human knowledge and ignorance. You know the moment. I quote:
There are known knowns: there are things that we know that we know.
There are known unknowns: that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know.
But there are also unknown unknowns: there are things we do not know we don’t know.
It was his finest hour.
Faith concerns our attitude towards certain ‘known unknowns’: what the writer of the letter to Hebrews (Hebrews 11.1-16) calls ‘things hoped for’, though they are not yet seen. That is to say, these are things that we know only as possibilities. And, says the writer, you can approach these things with assurance, thanks to a known known, the trustworthiness of God. One of the heresies about faith is that it is the enemy of thought, that you either plan and budget and prepare in your life, or you ‘live by faith’. Nonsense. When Abraham and Sarah take their great step of faith in this evening’s meeting and strike out into the unknown, they don’t set off in a trance; as the reading shows, they take the trouble to pack their bags first.
The writer to the Hebrews will use Abraham as a classic case of radical trust, a trust which God honours by bringing a great train of descendants from this one person, and one who was, the writer says – with a certain lack of respect for the Marigold Hotel generation – ‘as good as dead’. Abraham and Sarah stand for all those who see the autumn of life as a time of promise and opportunity. They could be the hotel patron saints, one for the Best, and one for the newly-opened Second Best. More seriously, Abraham’s story may underlie the line of TS Eliot, who died 50 years ago this year, in his very theological poem East Coker:
Old men ought to be explorers.
The faith of Abraham and Sarah is not exactly faith as assent to a set of beliefs, but faith in a slightly different sense, faith as basic trust. And basic trust has its limits. It is not long until the election now. There are some who will vote according to basic trust: however their party has performed, whatever the challenges ahead, they trust that party as the best to further their interests or their idea of their country’s good. For others, things are less certain. Who should you trust as best placed to bring what you most deeply want for your nation and the world, in the face of both the known unknowns – we know Mr Putin is a problem but we don’t know all his intentions – and the unknown ones: who at the last election had even heard of the so-called Islamic State?
Most uncertain voters will make their choice on the basis of the known knowns – like a party’s stated policies or its performance up to now – and vote accordingly. Or opt for Russell Brandish fastidiousness and decide that no part is worthy of their vote at all. This is what the Bishops’ very long election letter – a document more criticised than read – is seeking to help us with: probing our political life to see where trust has broken down and asking where those things are that we can have faith in. Do read it.
Tonight, we are invited to make the story or Abraham and Sarah our own, to see in God’s extravagant promise to him an assurance that God has great things in store for the church, and for this church, if we are in right place to receive them. And to get ourselves in that right place we need to plan and budget and prepare for ‘things not yet seen’.
The Abraham story comes to us within the greater story of Lent, Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, pondering his Father’s promise to him. It is a season when – as Junior Church told us this morning – we are invited to Stop, Look and Listen to God – and then respond. Now a classic Lenten response to God is to review our money and our giving. Now is a moment to ask: what is there here, in the Richmond Team Ministry and St Mary’s, that I can have faith in? How valuable is it to me? How generous am I prepared to be as an expression of that? You may have received a letter, either inviting you to join our planned giving scheme or (if you already belong) to review your giving. If you didn’t get one, there are spares. If you did, have you returned your pledge form yet?
I know some hesitate about all this, wondering if it is confidential. Well – as vicar, I might be expected to know a lot of things, but all I can ever know is whether or not a person is in the scheme – a known known. If they are in the scheme, I know that they are giving something, but I will never know how much it is. That will remain a known unknown, that is to say, something we know we don’t know. I hope that’s reassuring.
With God and Abram (as he is at first) there are initially no known knowns. We hear no stories of how God has already been good to him, we just hear how he receives this bold call to go where he does not know. That is basic trust of the most radical kind. As their journey unfolds, however, there are signs that his trust is well placed.
So it is with you and me and God. After a while, an attitude of trust in God becomes irrational, unless you do the work of asking testing questions about God. You cannot grow in Christian faith unless you sometimes ask yourself, for instance, ‘Was Jesus right?’ When you look at the world around you, do you actually take seriously Jesus’ promise of the Kingdom of God, a regime of justice and joy?
The bishops’ letter gives a crisp Yes to that, and it forms the basis of their argument: no political programme will bring in the Kingdom, but the very act of saying the Lord’s Prayer,
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven
propels us who say it into caring about our political life and those who lead us. And if your answer to the kingdom of God is Yes, even a rather timid Yes, then a long road is ahead, but the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob is not ashamed to be called your God, and you journey together ‘in faith’.