Faith and status quo

Hebrews 11:1-3

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the substance of things unseen. On our recent trip to England, part of our touring included visits to both Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral. These two houses of worship are among the pinnacle churches in the Anglican/Episcopalian Christian tradition. And they could not be more different. Even though they are both historic, both very old, both built with great fanfare and located within a mile of each other in London.

Both are amazing places to visit, but our visits to each place were entirely different. Westminster Abbey is as much a shrine or museum as church. That is not a criticism; indeed, the same statement could be made about other Christian church structures. It did make visiting there feel like a tourist exercise – waiting in line, staying in that line through entry for about ten minutes, with memorials or honor stones everywhere, to nearly every notable British citizen over the past millennia. It is remarkable for what it represents – the British empire as expressed through Anglican Christianity. But other than a brief few moments when an Anglican priest invited moments of silence and prayer, it didn’t feel much like a living church.

We found St. Paul’s Cathedral to be different. In that Anglican church, there were important artifacts for Christianity and the British Empire. The Duke of Wellington and his infamous boots are enshrined there, as is William Holman Hunt’s  famous painting, “The Light of the World,” depicting Jesus knocking symbolically at the door and waiting for us to allow him to enter. And of course, Christopher Wren’s iconic dome and its whispering stairway up to it are also at St. Paul’s.

There was something else we found at St. Paul’s, however. A living church. There was powerful contemporary art. There was a wedding, taking place in one of the small side chapels. And there was an initiative, sponsored by the church, that invited peoples of all faiths and no faiths to participate in creating art and sacred space. The people who facilitated the effort on the day of our visit were not a part of the St. Paul’s congregation – one was agnostic and another was not Christian. There were skeptical of the outreach initially, but quickly came to see its value as a place for Britons to express themselves productively during the Brexit uncertainty and for visitors to express themselves in an uncertain world. There were times of silence and prayer here as well, that seemed more frequent and meaningful. It was amazing and inspirational to visit.

I’ve thought about the difference between these two churches for some time since we visited them. Both are pillar churches of Anglicanism. Both are connected with British history and its royal line. Both are revered among the English today, similarly as what we saw of the French to Notre Dame in Paris, or the Italian’s and Roman Catholicism in general to St. Peter’s in Vatican City. Both churches represent the past and the status quo that comes from it. But what I saw and sensed and felt while at St. Paul’s was a living faith, a faith willing to reach out beyond itself to seek connection with others and with God.

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the substance of things unseen. That word I used a moment ago – status quo – is one that holds a lot. Former president Ronald Reagan once called the status quo a Latin word that means ‘the mess we’re currently in.’ That’s not the actual meaning, of course, but it does speak to the tension of the status quo when it comes to faith. The stability of the status quo has its appeal. Traditions give familiarity, which gives comfort. That comfort can bring trust and predictability – those are positive parts of many instances of the status quo – but it can also lead to nostalgia and a loss of meaning and purpose – some of the many negative parts of the status quo.

Individual churches wrestle with how best to engage between faith and the status quo. Individual Christians wrestle with how best to engage the same way. Part of the constant tension we experience is the desire to guarantee our faith. We hear it in our culture, from Christian leaders. We see it on billboards and signs, around our city, state, and country. We hear it in some of the older hymns we sing in worship. We hear the same dynamic in the gospels themselves, in various interactions between Jesus and his disciples. We and they seem to crave knowing – knowing that is different than believing. Believing is vulnerable. Knowing puts us in control. Believing can change. Knowing is establishing a status quo. No wonder we’d prefer to know than to believe.

But that’s not what the writer of Hebrews says. In these words that could have been spoken by Jesus himself, we hear again and again until we more than know, we believe it - Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the substance of things unseen. Here, faith is not merely a system of beliefs. Faith is related more fully to the matter of in whom and what we place our deepest trust. Faith emerges from the awareness of how God loves us. Faith moves us forward with hope and conviction. To illustrate this, the author embarks on a review of faithful ancestors who placed their trust in God, focusing on Abraham and Sarah in verses 8-16. Abraham and Sarah demonstrate their faith when they trust God enough to obey God’s call to leave the familiar behind and seek new land, sight unseen.

Faith emerges in response to the reliability of God who is continually steadfast in faithfulness to humankind. Faith moves us forward from what already is to what is yet to be. The trustworthiness of God that is known from past and present experience is the ground of faith which assures us we can move forward into the future with hope and conviction. This corresponds to Abraham and Sarah having the confidence to traverse from the old to the new, the familiar to the unfamiliar, the settled to the nomadic, the earthly to the heavenly.

Hence, the term ‘a leap of faith.’ It’s not a leap of knowing. It’s not a leap of a guarantee. It’s not even a leap of belief. It’s a leap of faith. It’s trusting in God’s love, God’s compassion, even God’s existence, in the face of a world that measures the quantitative, a world where we struggle to explain the seemingly increasing number of crazy, evil acts that happen within it. In spite of those things that happen, those inexplicable acts that we hope will be the last, but know will not, still, we have faith. Somehow, thanks be to God, we have faith. We can’t explain it. We just have it.

Faith both assures us of hope in a future that is yet to arrive and convinces us of things not yet seen. This involves a kind of spiritual flexibility that primes us to be open to God’s presence in our lives, wherever that leads us. Whether the original recipients of Hebrews are wavering because their faith is waning or they are coping with religious persecution or as a result of a theological conversation in their equivalent of Sunday school, the text suggests that holding fast to faith should not be confused with hunkering down. The dynamics of faith generate a certain mobility when it comes to keeping up with God.

There's a scene in one of my favorite old movies, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when the intrepid archaeologist is fleeing an enemy and comes to the edge of a huge and yawning chasm. He stops his forward progress in the nick of time, and teeters there, about to fall in. Then he rights himself and surveys his situation. He can't go back; danger lurks there. Yet it seems just as impossible to go forward. That would mean certain death. He knows what is before him is a literal leap of faith. He decides to step out ahead of him, over the cliff. His foot doesn't travel far. Instead, it lands on an invisible footbridge he never knew was there. The irony is that Indiana Jones is a man of science, more than faith. But at this pinnacle moment, faith is what saved the day.

There are times in life when our faith is tested. Times when it may appear there is no way forward. But, by God's grace, there is such a way. It just hasn't been revealed yet. The poet T. S. Eliot once wrote, ‘Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.’ Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the substance of things unseen. A living church, a living faith, is one that moves beyond the status quo into the unknown, and accepts, indeed embraces that there are things we don’t know, that we can’t control, that we can’t guarantee or prove in life, about the world or about God.

Instead, a living church and faith opens itself broadly to God, trusting that faith is more than in our minds, but is in the realm of the spirit and heart. It is filled with curiosity and possibility about what new thing God might be revealing. It is a people filled with faith that the seasons will change, the storm will soon pass, and the sun will rise again. Amen.