Sunday, August 11, 2013

My Faith Looks Up to Thee

My Faith Looks Up to Thee
A Sermon Given to St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church, August 14, 2013

By Stephanie Little Coyne
Hebrews 11-12:2, Genesis 15:1-6

3.  While life’s dark maze I tread, and griefs around me spread, be thou my guide;
bid darkness turn to day, wipe sorrow’s tears away, nor let me ever stray from thee aside.

I remember, as a child, sitting on a light pink pew cushion in the church my Mom grew up in.  I pulled a hymnal from the slat in the back of the pew in front of me and opened up the cover.  The book plate on the inside read, “given in memory of Gerald Swann.”  I’m not sure if my grandmother donated the hymnal in memory of her husband or if it were another congregant, but I distinctly remember the feelings I had in reading my grandfather’s name.
Gone before I was born, I still felt a connection to his name, to seeing my mother’s maiden name in print in a book held in the keep of the church.  I felt some sadness in only knowing his name, but I also felt pride; I felt warmth.  I had no claim to the hymnal, to the church, or to the light pink cushion on which I sat, but in seeing that name in that place, I felt a claim to the heritage of faith—my God, known only at the time as a child knows God, was the God of my mother, my grandmother, and my grandfather.

No longer a child, but even as an adult, my faith still looks out to them and I find comfort in the hope of my ancestors.

These feelings are similar to the ones I have when I read chapter 11 of Hebrews, parts of which we read earlier.  “By faith Abel, by faith Enoch, by faith Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, the Israelites, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, the prophets, mourning women…,” all these people interacted with God and proved to be people of faith.
In a book that sits on a wooden pew, held in the keep of the church, these names are listed that I know and recognize.  I know the stories connected to these names and the sins and glories within these stories (though I need to brush up on a few of them).  I believe verse 2 of the 11th chapter to be true:  “Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval” or as the Contemporary English Version reads, “It was their faith that made our ancestors pleasing to God.”  I believe that verse 2 is true in spite of the whole of the people’s stories.  There are some dark days in their collective history—some wooden splinters, tiredness, powerlessness, limping, prison, exile, wilderness, prostitution, war.  There are some hard questions that are asked by this “cloud of witnesses” of the Lord, their God—“What will you give me, for I continue childless.” (Genesis 15:2)  “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11)  “O Lord, why have you mistreated this people?  Why did you ever send me?”  (Exodus 5:22)  “If the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us?  Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?” (Judges 6:13) 

As a questioning, sinning, and praising adult, my faith looks out to them and I find comfort in the intermittent, yet eventually steadfast hope of my ancestors.   
We have many stories from which to choose in chapter 11, but let’s look at Abram’s story (he is not yet Abraham) from Genesis 15, which we read earlier in the service:

3…Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir…”  5(The Lord) brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.”  The he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”  6And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. 

The Lord says to Abram, “Step outside, let me show you something.” 
Inevitably, on more nights than not, I have to take at least one of the children outside to help ease the “witching” of the witching hour.  I don’t know why, but the fresh air, as fresh as the muggy air of New Orleans can be, always helps calm them—and maybe calms Mama a little too.  In the changing sky of dusk to darkness, we look for the moon, the stars, any clouds we might be able to see, and the birds returning home for the day.  We listen to the birds’ accompanying song.  Even in the city, where the light from the stars competes with the light from the streetlamps, the sky still looms large and its expanse is breathtaking at times.

In your minds, step outside with me.  Think of walking on the shore at the beach at night.  As the evening stills and the day relinquishes some of its hold, the sounds of the night take over.  The water ebbs and flows with varying volumes.  Think of standing on a mountaintop, in a clearing amongst the trees.  Hear the sounds of the wildlife.
Standing on that beach or mountaintop, look out to the water, look out beyond the mountaintop.  Look up to the stars.  Can you see anything that isn’t right in front of you?  Can you see anything that isn’t illuminated?  Ponder the vastness of the sky. 

And now, think of Abram.  He’s stepped outside and has looked up to the same night sky that we look up to now.  “Abram,” God says, “relinquish some of your need for control.  Only I can count the stars.”  In the midst of the vastness is Abram, and the God of the vastness is talking to him.  More than that, the God of the vastness is promising Abram that he will be blessed, beyond the number of stars in the sky.
When we look up to the sky and we breathe in the fresh air, there is peace.  Maybe we close our eyes and feel the comfort of knowing that God is with us.  But on those nights when we are not sure of God’s presence in our lives, our thoughts may not be so peace-filled.  There’s a little fear in that, isn’t there?  So what of our faith?  Is it based in peace and in fear? 

As we look back to the 11th chapter of Hebrews, the first verse reads, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” though I particularly like the KJV, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
Do we hope in peace and fear what we do not see?

What is the substance of our faith?  The word “faith” has so often been discussed and used that its meaning is lost and watered down.  Does our faith contain hope?  Is it rooted in love?  What about trust?  Would we have faith if we did not have hope?  If we did not have love?  If we did not have trust? 
Do we trust the goodness of God enough to have faith that God will bless us and bless us as many times as there are stars in the sky?
My faith looks up to thee, for God, I cannot see your beauty now.
But God, for you I wait, please do not hesitate, oh let me navigate the darkness now.
What do we see when we look out and look up?  Is there evidence of God in what we see?  If we believe that the beauty we see during the day and the night is of God, then we must have faith that God put those beautiful things around us as evidence of the Spirit’s presence.  We must trust that the goodness of God and that God’s very presence is with us—on the water, in sickness, in exile, and in the wilderness.    

Further, when we follow God’s call, God shows us miraculous sights.  If Abram had not listened to God and not stepped outside when God directed him to—at night—Abram would have missed the light show.  Even in darkness, and sometimes only due to darkness, can we see the blessings God has set before us.
“Abram, here am I.  In all this, here am I.  Abram, I bless you with goodness.”

“My people, here am I.  In all this, here am I.  My people, I bless you with goodness.”
As we look back on chapter 11 and consider the “cloud of witnesses,” let us consider ourselves to be a part of the ancestry of faith.  Let us, as chapter 12, verses 1 and 2 say, “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”

Though we may have times of both peace and fear, and though we are a questioning, sinning, and praising people, we must continue to look to the One who has already set us free and blessed us.  We must continue to look to the same One who helped Noah build the ark, who gave children to Abram, who chose Rahab to shelter spies, who walked with Enoch, who walked with my grandfather, who walks with my mother, with my children, with me, with you.
In this vastness, we must hope.  In this, we must trust.  In this, we must bind ourselves to faith.  Because in this vastness, amid this vastness, in spite of this vastness, we are all loved. 

In faith, look up to Jesus.
 Sun, moon, and stars align!  Our faith to thee, assign.  All praise God’s name!
Find us where’er we lie; let bread fall down from the sky.  To us, God, give your reply!
Loving Lord, remain.    
Let us pray.
Who are we Lord, that you are mindful of us?  We struggle to comprehend your love and we struggle to hold to our faith amid the chaos of this world.  But we will hold because you have held us.  We will hold because you will hold us.  We will hold because you have given us, in the past, a great line of faithful women and men to look back to and, in this present, you have given us each other.  Let us share substance with each other.  Let us share evidence with each other.  Bind us together and bind us to you, oh dear Lord.  Lord, hear our prayer.  Amen.