Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Faith Outside Church
Summer B, Separate summer sermons, mostly from Lectionary, preached August 7, 2022, at the 930am worship
Let’s pray, then listen for the word of the Lord from…
Scripture Hebrews 11:1-16
11 Now faith is …the assurance[a]… of things hoped for, (and) the conviction[b]… of things not seen.
2 Truly, by faith[c] our ancestors received approval. 3 By 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 seen.[d]
4 By faith, Abel offered to God a more acceptable[e] sacrifice than Cain’s. Through this, he received approval as righteous, God himself giving approval for his gifts; he died, but through his faith[f], he still speaks.
5 By 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.” 6 And without faith, it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach God must believe that God exists and that God rewards those who seek God.
7 By faith Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his people; by this, he denounced the world and became an heir to the righteousness that is in accordance with faith.
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. 9 By 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. 10 Because he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 By faith, with Sarah’s involvement, he received power of procreation, even though he was too old because he considered[g] God faithful who had promised. 12 Therefore from one person and this one as (old as dirt), descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as innumerable as the 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 welcomed them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, 14 for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking about the land that they had left behind, they would have had the opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better homeland, that is, a (more) heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, God has prepared a city for them.
More and more people are giving up on faith. The two fastest rising categories of faith identity are (a) the nones, N-o-n-e-s, the ones who claim NO affiliation with any faith community, and (b) the dones, D-o-n-e-s, the ones who used to be attached to some faith community but have given up and walked away.
With the toughest phases of the pandemic behind us, research is showing those trends accelerated over the last few years. Faith affiliation, regular participation in a faith community, and giving to faith institutions are all down regardless of religion or denomination. This trend is even more true if younger. A study from the Barna group a few years ago found six reasons young Christians leave faith and church. The youth say churches are:
overprotective – youth want faith that connects to the world, but Christianity tends to criticize anything outside itself.
shallow – youth want a moving experience of God’s love and justice, but Christianity is boring, irrelevant, and afraid to take risks.
antagonistic – church is often confrontational of truths that come from other sources, like science.
judgmental – especially with regards to gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity.
exclusive – like a club that shuns people of differing backgrounds or economic status, and
unwilling to wonder – youth want to ask questions and have conversations, but churches give shortcut, traditional answers.
Some Christians and Christian pastors see this and have praised the people of their churches for holding on inside the church despite the world’s abandonment of true faith. But I wonder… What if the nones and dones and youth are the ones realizing true faith is dying INSIDE churches, and that’s why they have to go elsewhere to find true faith? What if they still desperately seek community of faith, but just can't find it in church anymore?
Well, church, let’s check on that. What is faith? Faith is the assurance… of things hoped for… (and) the conviction… of things not yet seen. For church to be a place of faith, a community of faith, and for us to be people of faith, we must be and have those four things:
We must see what we cannot yet see.
We must hope for that vision more than anything else,
We must be so assured of it we are not afraid, and
We must be so convicted, we speak and act and move toward it.
First, we see what we cannot see. What is the number one topic of Jesus in the gospels, Jesus’ favorite subject? The Kingdom of God. Some call it the beloved community, the great feast, the kingdom of heaven. Today’s scripture says, “The (faithful) desire a better homeland, a (more) heavenly one (and they kept) look(ing) forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder, is God, the city God has already started preparing.”
Jesus told more parables about this homeland, this city, the Kingdom of God than any other subject. When he taught us how to pray, the first line, after addressing God, is “Thy Kingdom, COME!” Every good leader, ruler, priest, and prophet in scripture saw the Kingdom of God in their hearts and minds, and held themselves, the world, and people around them accountable to that vision. Faith means we see the Kingdom of God in our minds, hearts, and spirits, even though we cannot yet see it in our world.
Second, we HOPE for the kingdom of God more than we hope for anything else. Some hope for what is behind them. That isn’t faith. “15 If they had been thinking about the land that they had left behind, they would have had an opportunity to return (to it).” Faith doesn’t look back where we’ve already been.
And some hope for things to stay as they are. They may not want to go back, but they resist going forward. That isn’t faith. “(People of faith) confessed that they were strangers and foreigners (here, at this time, in this place), 14 and people who speak this way make it clear they are seeking a homeland.” Faith is not satisfied with things like they are, here or now. Faith hopes for the coming kingdom of God.
Third, we are so assured of the Kingdom, we are not afraid. It's hard to see the difference between what was, what is, and what could be, what WILL be. Some people don’t like seeing that difference. It feels heavy and hard. Is it our fault our ancestors were so sinful? It can be overwhelming. What can we really do to fix this big broken world? How can we repair centuries of hate and violence, or unravel complex systems of greed and prejudice? Without assurance, we might become cynical or lazy, and justify ignoring problems, and rationalize how change is too hard. But faith is assured of the kingdom of God.
That’s why Abram, in faith, “stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, but as (if) it was a foreign land to him.” People of faith live in communities or countries, but in faith, we are assured of citizenship in the Kingdom of God. Therefore, wherever we live, we live as foreigners, and we boldly compare our community or country to our true homeland, the Kingdom of God.
And fourth, we are so convicted, that we speak, act, and move toward it. Abel didn’t just believe or think something. He acted. He made offerings. Enoch believed, walked, and talked of God. Noah didn’t just believe IN God, but BELIEVED God and built an Ark. “8 By faith, Abraham obeyed when he was called…, he set out, not (even) knowing where he was going.” Conviction is more than a belief, thought or feeling. Conviction is words that call out the distance from the Kingdom and describe the beauty of the Kingdom. Conviction is action that resists the injustices and that reveals the grace of God. Conviction is movement in the direction of Kingdom. Without conviction to speak, act, and move, faith is dead.
So church, what is faith? The assurance… of things hoped for… and the conviction… of things not yet seen.
What is not yet seen? The kingdom of God.
Let’s see it! Let’s hope for it! Let speak, act, and move toward it. In so doing, those seeking true faith will walk and work beside us.
To God be all glory and honor, now and forever more, amen.
Now, blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night this moment and forever more. Amen.