In 2006, a drought struck. It covered more than 3 countries, and lasted for 5 years. 85% of the livestock died. Fields withered away. Nearly a million people lost their livelihood. They fled their farms for the cities in hopes of finding work, but there was none. The water problem grew more intense as the pressures on the cities grew. The government did little to help. They gave water rights to political allies and arrested those who drilled illegal wells, along with those who spoke out against these policies. When teenagers graffitied the walls in one town, calling for regime change, they were arrested and tortured. Their families and neighbors began to protest. The government attempted to crack down, but the protests spread, following the path of the drought. Where people were most desperate, they had little left to lose, and were willing to fight against a long-standing authoritarian regime. As the rebellion spread, the government lost its hold in some areas. But the rebels were still fighting, and not able to provide basic services or relief. A power vacuum developed, and extremists were ready. They swept in and began to take over. They brought with them terror and chaos, but also water, electricity, gasoline, and traffic control. But for any who opposed them, they brought death. In a nation of 20 million people, over half, 12 million, were forced to flee their homes. 8 million found refuge in other parts of their country, while 4 million people made their way across the border into neighboring nations. Now these people, who have already lost everything, their farms, their homes, their neighborhoods, their possessions, and many of them their families, are trying to find their way to a place where they can rest. They have set out with nothing to lead them except things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen. The belief that there must be, somewhere, a home for them. A refuge. They are willing to risk everything, including their lives, including the lives of their children, to find it.
By faith, Abraham set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith, the refugees from Syria have set out, not knowing where they are going. Only trusting, as Abraham did, that there is a home for them.
Every time I look at the news these days, every time I scan the headlines on Facebook, or listen to the radio, or read pretty much anything current, I get discouraged. This week a small group of us started reading a book together. The first chapter gave a crash course in the history of race relations in America. It traced the cycle of freedoms and oppressions that have systematically discouraged African Americans from prospering, and the often deliberate work of wealthy landowners and robber barons to drive a wedge between the poorest White people and their Black neighbors. It was, frankly, depressing. It was enough to make me wonder why I even bother. Why do I try to fight against racism and oppression when there are such virulent strains of repetition and such a pattern of backsliding that seems to constantly undo each tiny inch forward that we make? But when I voiced this to the group on Wednesday, they pushed back. We are here, they said. We are gathered here to talk about it. We see it, we’re learning, we’re willing. By faith, we will make the effort. By faith, we will seek God’s beloved community. By faith, we will work for the Kingdom. By faith, we will persevere.
By faith, Moses left Egypt, and he persevered. By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land. By faith, we will continue to fight for what is right. Trust, as Moses did, that God is leading us. That God has a plan and a place for all God’s children, and that each step we take in the wilderness is leading us one step closer to that promised land.
Elinor’s teacher at the Montessori Day School, Mrs. Apte, likes to say that she will take any student, no matter what issues they bring. When she interviews a new family, she is far more interested in whether the parents will work with her than in whether she can work with the child. Like so many teachers I know, she is diligent and patient and kind. At the same time, she is firm and demanding and insistent that this child with ADD or Autism or anger issues or dyslexia or whatever other trait he might carry, this child is much more than that. This child is a bundle of potential who can amaze us all if we will just equip him and encourage him and love him and then get out of his way. I have met so many amazing teachers who wake up every day to work in that conviction of things unseen, that assurance of things hoped for. Teachers dedicate their lives to it. To gently, and sometimes not so gently, coaxing the best out of each child, in spite of their circumstances. In the face of poverty, abuse, neglect, disability, helicopter parents, hunger, these extraordinary people work every day to bring out the best in our children, so that our children can grow up to bring out the best in the world.
By faith, Isaac invoked blessings for the future. By faith, Jacob blessed each of his sons. By faith, these men, and their wives, placed the future in the hands of the children, and trusted that God would grow them into the adults they needed to be. They trusted in God’s promise to their father Abraham. They were blessed so that they might be a blessing to others. To the children. To the world.
Almost 35 years ago, a small group of 35 people gathered together to build a church in Washington, MO. They worshipped together, and they prayed together, and they studied together, and they chartered this congregation in fall of 1980. Three years later, there was building here, and a growing membership. The faith in things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen, has become a part of the DNA of this congregation. 15 years ago, the then pastor, Paul Baehmann, along with several others in the congregation and the community, were founding members of Neighbors United Undoing Racism, responding to the need to break down walls between the races in Franklin County. 8 years ago, this congregation said yes to the Partnership for Missional Church. They took on the task of studying the community and examining their own practices, so that they might turn outward and become church for the world, not just for those who gather inside these walls. They took the process seriously. They Dwelled together in God’s Word, they sat together in discernment, and they made changes to their habits, so that they became known in the community as a small but mighty congregation. 5 years ago, they called a 1st time pastor who was 7 months pregnant. Knowing that there was only enough money in the bank to guarantee a salary for 18 months, they still offered her 6 weeks of paid maternity leave, and brought meals for her family, and supported her as she adjusted to life in Missouri, life as a pastor, life with three kids. 3 years ago, they stepped out again to support the Cornerstone Campaign. Together, they pledged over $92,000 to reduce the mortgage, so that money could be freed up to do mission. In those three years, the mortgage has been reduced by over $80,000, plus we have replaced the A/C units, and reduced our monthly mortgage payments by over $300. Not for the sake of shoring up our institution. Not for the sake of securing our own future. But for the mission and ministry, so that we could continue to respond to God’s call on our hearts, to be a contrast community, to be bound together by Christ, and to break boundaries for Christ’s sake.
By faith, Abel offered to God an acceptable sacrifice. By faith, Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household. By faith, Enoch; by faith, Joseph; by faith, Rahab; by faith, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David and Samuel and the prophets. By faith, refugees; by faith, teachers; by faith, this congregation. By faith, this great cloud of witnesses has shown us what it looks like to walk with God. As we work through the Narrative Lectionary over the next few months, we will hear some of their stories and learn more about how they walked by faith.
But it can be discouraging to hear this phrase over and over again. By faith. Because we are inclined to think that this faith is something that we have to muster, something that we are required to produce within ourselves. And I don’t know about you, but I often don’t feel up to the task. As I said earlier, I get discouraged. I get depressed. I see pictures of babies drowning because their parents wanted a better life. I see stories of people who are shot and beaten and brutalized and the only difference between myself and them is the color of our skin or the accident of our birth. I see teachers being overworked and under appreciated and vilified for doing a job that most of us would never be able to handle for an hour much less a lifetime. I worry over each person, each story, in this congregation, and I pray that we would continue to work together even when we disagree, and I hold each one of you and all of you in prayer every day, and still I worry and get discouraged and wonder where this faith is supposed to come from. How can I possibly step out in faith?
But it turns out, it’s not up to me to muster this faith. It’s not up to you to grow it in yourself. It’s not up to us to manufacture or perfect faith. It is done for us, by Jesus, who is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. Jesus, who has been in the deepest darkness of human life, who has been betrayed and abandoned and turned over to the enemy and hung on a cross. Jesus, who has borne the brutality, who has carried the weight of the worst that humans can do to one another. Jesus, who has endured the plight of the refugee, and the lashings of the slave, and the beatings of the oppressed, and the jeers of the despised. Jesus, who has cried out in despair and heartbreak at the bitterness of this broken world. Jesus, who endured all of that for the sake of the joy that was as yet unseen, for the sake of the assurance of things hoped for. He has blazed the trail for us, perfected this faith for us, and then given it to us as a free and unconditional gift. You do not have to prove your faith. You simply have to use your faith. That is the race that is set before us. It is a race run one step at a time, one day at a time, each day rising new and washed from the waters of baptism. It is a race run by faith, using your feet.