The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Please pray with me.
Gracious God, help us always to seek the truth, come whence it may, cost what it will. Amen.
If you were asked to share your personal faith statement in one or two sentences, what would your statement be? What is it about your faith that grounds you, that guides you and carries you forward day by day? I’d love to hear your faith statements, so I hope that you will share them with me. Frederick Buechner said that “Faith is not being sure where you’re going, but going anyway. A journey without maps.” Novelist Doris Betts said that faith is “not synonymous with certain certainty…[but it] is a decision to keep your eyes open.” Six months ago, journalist Michael Gerson, from this pulpit, delivered an extraordinary sermon where he spoke about his own struggle with depression and he said this about faith: “Faith, thankfully, does not preclude doubt. It consists of staking your life on the rumor of grace.”
The author of the Letter of Hebrews famously wrote that “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” This morning I draw us to the words of the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews because I think it’s really important and resonates with where we find ourselves today, particularly after the last couple of difficult weeks. Now we don’t know who wrote Hebrews, when it was written or where it was written, but there are some things we do know about it. Preacher Tom Long writes that Hebrews is Rabbinic in structure, Christian in content and heroic in length.
It’s actually not a letter. It’s a sermon—a long sermon. In that 11th chapter, the beginning of which you just heard, the preacher lays out an articulation of the faith of our ancestors and throughout that chapter it is punctuated with by faith. Abraham did this by faith. Noah did this by faith. Moses did this by faith. David did this by faith. The Israelites did this… You see, it reminded a hurting community of faith of the steadfastness and faithfulness of God: that even if people didn’t know where they were going—read Abraham—they trusted that God was with them and that they would by faith fulfill God’s purposes through them. The sermon that the preacher was preaching was to a community that had lost heart, was discouraged, tired, in need of a word of hope and a promise for a better tomorrow. The preacher offered them not just a recitation of the faith that leads to Jesus, but an invitation, if you will, to go and do likewise. It’s an important reminder for you and for me that our God is faithful.
In his landmark book, Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann makes the important point about prophets: that prophets are multi-lingual. They speak not just to grief and lament and a critique of what is, but they point to hope and promise and a future for what may not be yet, but was always intended to be. It’s not an either or, it is a both and. Brueggemann, writing in the late 1970s, was writing at a time in our country that was politically charged and he made the observations that it seemed as if both liberals and conservatives were speaking monolingually, not multilingually. The liberals were critiquing about our nation in our world as it existed and the conservatives were speaking about a hope and a vision and a promise for a better future and that was gaining traction and strength. Brueggemann reminds all of us that we are called to speak multilingually—yes, acknowledging what is, but lifting up what was always intended, but is not yet.
When we think in more contemporary times of prophets who did that so brilliantly, I am of course reminded of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr who spoke brilliantly and multilingually. 56 years ago this month he gave the “I Have a Dream” speech. Now it’s important to remember the history of that speech. Dr. King had been speaking about the dream in different places where he was speaking and he also spoke with clarity about a critique of our country as it existed at that time. In preparing for the biggest speech of his life at the March on Washington where the entire world was going to watch, his advisors counseled him: don’t talk about the dream, that’s old. You’ve been talking about that. You need to do something new. So he went to bed that night, got up the next day. There were 250,000 people gathered on the Mall. They’d come from all over the country to hear the great Dr. King Speak. It was hot. It was humid. It was August in Washington!
People were tired. They weren’t just tired with their life’s journey, but the journey to get to Washington for the speech, for the march. Dr. King was the 16th Speaker on the official program that day. So you can only imagine, having listened to 15 other people, that people’s enthusiasm was starting to wane. Historians talked about how there was a little bit of discontent in the crowd. People were a little restless because they were thinking about the journey home, and Dr. King got up to speak and he had his manuscript—that very carefully crafted speech—and he began to speak. John Lewis, who was there that day, said it was a good speech and he was delivering it well, but it wasn’t exceptional. People were still a little restless. Dr. King could tell that it wasn’t quite having the impact that he intended and he was getting toward the end of the speech when his friend Mahalia Jackson, sitting behind him, said, “Tell them about your dream, Martin.” He kept talking. Mahalia Jackson, one more time, “Tell them about the dream, Martin.” Dr. King put the manuscript aside and he started to preach. “I have a dream…I have a dream… I have a dream… I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream.”
Dr. King had a dream. We still have that dream, 56 years later. We have a dream that’s not yet been fulfilled. It is not a reality in our time. But as Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminds us in The Book of Joy— he says the following: “I believe with a steadfast faith that there can never be a situation that is utterly, totally hopeless…To choose hope is to step firmly forward into the howling wind, baring one’s chest to the elements, knowing that, in time, the storm will pass.”
We are people of hope, and vision and promise for a world that may not be yet, but always was intended to be. My faith statement taken from my paternal grandfather who wrote this in his Bible decades ago, is that “Faith is the ability to be so sure of God, that no matter how dark the day, there’s no doubt as to the outcome.” My friends, this dream isn’t hopeless. We know that all things come together for good for those who love the Lord and are called according to God’s purpose. May we with steadfast faith and hope, step firmly into the howling wind with our open chests bared to the elements to make the difference that we are called to do, to make the dream a reality—in our day, in our time. My brothers and sisters, we can do this. We must do this, and with God’s help we will! Amen.