August 7, 2022 – Proper 14C

Hebrews 11: 1-13

Michael Swartz

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence for things not seen”

Hebrews 11:1

When I last preached on this text at Church of Peace I began with the story of an elderly pastor who was often tardy for things, and who was known for being able to find a Bible verse to guide him in any circumstance.  When arriving late for a chicken dinner, when all of the chicken had been eaten and was gone; and all that remained was chicken gravy.  Looking at the gravy he observed that it was a lot like faith; faith being the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

Faith means “to believe.”  But faith goes deeper than this – it is to hold on to something firmly, with conviction and confidence. And faith also means acting on conviction and doing so over time.

And today I have another sermon.

Today is Bix Music Sunday for us.  Bix features “roots music.”  Last weekend was the Bix Race in Davenport.  Bix has become a community tradition.

When we first came to the Quad Cities Nancy and I went to the same hair dresser.  And the running narrative of a hair-cutting place provides local insight.  Well, Nancy came home and told the story of one senior citizen who was having her hair done who was saying that she had known Bix Beiderbecke and was unhappy that they were talking so much about him.  In her opinion he was a despicable person with many negative characteristics and habits and was unworthy of such commemoration.  And this was her truth.

It is possible, and common, actually, to construct a narrative about the same stuff and come to very different conclusions.  It is how we “connect the dots.”

The book of Hebrews is connecting the dots of salvation history as it involved the people of the God Yahweh.  Looking back over the great arch of history the writer lifts up the importance of faith, a Christian emphasis, as the basis of right relationship with God from the founder, Abraham, and onwards.  Most rabbis would have talked about adherence to the Torah, the law of God, as the overarching theme.  The law looks back; faith looks forward.

We are familiar with constructing narratives with the same or similar events or facts and coming up with different unifying principles.  And it has something to do with our general mood, feeling or circumstance.

Sometimes it can be pretty negative.  For me this has to do with waking up at two thirty in the morning and seeing my life as a series of problems, failures and humiliations.  What a vast difference from being at a family celebration – a wedding, a graduation or even a funeral – when I am filled with gratitude and a sense of providential goodness.

Bing Crosby sings; “when I’m worried and I can’t sleep I count my blessings instead of sheep.  And I fall asleep counting my blessings.”  Heck, I would settle for sheep!  But at two thirty this seems a little shallow – like “give a little whistle and always let your conscience be your guide,” or “just say no.”

Often the best I can do is to know that I will see things differently in the morning.

We are at a transitional moment at the Church of Peace and we can construct a narrative of going from strength to strength or a narrative of decline and decline.

When I preached about this text in 2010 I mentioned that the trees planted along 12th Avenue – then skinny and recently planted, with stakes for support – were each statements of faith.  Well they are substantial trees today and provide shade.  And one closest to the alley did not make it.  How do we tell the story?  Is it about the trees that lived or the one that died?

(In our national narrative we are having a struggle about how we should tell our story – with or without our failures and racism.)

Of course we tell the whole story as we know it, and realize that to a degree on any given the occasion it will depend on our mood.  And know that it may roll off of our tongue differently on another day.

(We are more traumatized by the Covid-19 pandemic than we actually realize.)

One of the valuable legacies of Pastor Mariah is her careful analysis in many areas, and specifically the observation that as a church our super-power is “empathy.”  This is right on.  And it is a gift for individuals experiencing life difficulty and trauma.  And it is a gift for groups experiencing prejudice and trauma.  We have a deep collective memory of what it felt like to be known as the German Church during two world wars when Germany was the enemy.  We can feel with the other.  We may not want to talk about Bruno, but we know him and we love him and Bruno is family.

Another of our super-powers is that we do stuff.  Some churches so over-think that they get very little done.  We do.  And while empathy RETAINS folks who experience pain in life, doing stuff INVITES PEOPLE IN who are not part of the group already.  And for a church to move forward in time it needs both to have an on ramp for entry into the fellowship along with a loving empathetic spirit that nurtures and retains folks.

(On one occasion Pastor Ken Kuenning was questioned by a fellowship group of senior ladies over lunch “what we were going to do to get more members?”  Deadpan, Ken said, “You just need to have more babies.”  They stared at him.)

We know that Bix Sunday brings in musicians who are needed to play our Roots Music – they/you are needed and greatly appreciated.  And we all have fun and praise God together!

This week I was on a Zoom call with Senator Durbin’s office to advocate for a “Burma Bill” currently waiting in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee right now.  Also on the call was young Burmese woman named “Mercy.”  As an aside I asked if she was one who helped with the food pantry at the Church of Peace?  With a smile she said that she was, and demurred “that was some time ago.”  Folks from Burma, from Saint Ambrose and the Hindu temple all join with us in mission because WE ARE DOING SOMETHING – and provide a context where we can all put our faith into action.


“faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?

In all probability the lady in the beauty shop who was talking down Bix Beiderbecke was telling a truth – her truth at least.  And at the same time the whole Bix celebration in the Quad Cities – a run, lots of music – is a source of blessing, strength and common life for the wider community.  Both sets of facts are indeed true.

We are all flawed human beings, saved by the Grace of God expressed in Jesus Christ.  And when we know this deep in our bones we have an empathy that is a super-power for finding community for ourselves and others.  And as a community of such faith we are empowered to praise God, have fun, and find joy together.

It is a positive paradox that while we can connect the dots with the two-thirty-in-the-morning narrative, we can also connect the dots with the narrative of a family celebration.  The major difference is that at two-thirty we are alone; at the family celebration we are together with those we love.

See you in church.

Amen and amen.

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