“Confident Wandering”Amy Jacks Dean Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 Year C – Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
My entire senior year of High School was spent yearning for the day when I would leave home–with all of its rules and regulations and curfews–and head to Clemson University. My blood did “runneth orange,” and I absolutely couldn’t wait to be “on my own.” (Or at least as “on my own” as one can be when the parents are paying tuition and all other bills!) It only took a month to realize that home wasn’t all that bad and that the university, that was larger than my hometown, was overwhelming.
Though I can’t remember all of the events of that first semester that made my life so miserable, I can remember a verse of Scripture that got me through it. My roommate and I had built our beds up on stilts so that we could have a recliner, refrigerator, and sofa underneath. Luxury dorm/apartment living!
To get into bed, I had to step into a chair onto my desk and hoist myself up to the bed where I had to be careful not to hit the ceiling and fill my bed with little white pebbles from the ceiling’s finish. (Most nights the sheets felt as though I was at the beach–full of sand and grit!)
There on the wall next to the ceiling at the head of my bed, I had written on notebook paper in large letters with a red marker: “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (NIV) It was my mantra. I have no idea where I had run across this verse, but when I read it, I knew it would be my theme to get me through the year.
It has been years and I still remember it as vividly as I remember yesterday: “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” in red letters on notebook paper next to the ceiling. What I wish I could remember is what I thought Hebrews 11:1 meant, but I do not. I wish I could remember by interpretation of that verse–what were the theological ramifications of this definition of faith for an 18-year-old? I cannot remember.
What I do remember (and still know today) is that it has a rhythm to it. It can be chanted. You can say it over and over and over again and somehow you just feel better. It’s the power of positive thinking. It’s convincing. It’s hopeful. It’s inspiring… It’s unbelievable.
The word “faith” should never be in the same sentence with the word “sure” and the word “certain.” Sure, and certain seem to be a contradiction to faith. If we were sure and certain, would it take faith? This popular verse of Scripture is forward thinking. It’s about the unknown–the “out there.” The writer of Hebrews knew that for us to understand the meaning of this one sentence, it would take the rest of the chapter (39 verses) to site examples of how faith works.
Our passage for today focuses only on the faith of Abraham and Sarah (verses 8-16). Within these few verses are many sermons, but what stuck out for me was where their faith story picks up–with Abraham obeying a call to “set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance.” And the text says “he set out, not knowing where he was going.”
Every year, my husband and I celebrate our wedding anniversary by not buying gifts for one another. Instead, we take turns planning an adventure. The rules that we put into place are: 1) with each year, $50 is added to the amount spent (I don’t include tax or gratuity, and I usually round down when estimating costs. I don’t consider this cheating!); 2) alternate years for planning; 3) it must be a surprise; 4) no children along for the journey.
That means that every other year, we set out on a journey, and I have no idea where we are going. I’m told what and how much to pack. No other hints are given. As you can imagine, the first few years were–I can’t wait to see what restaurant and which movie we’re going to see! Over the years (this being his year to plan) the cost is accumulating, and I really can’t wait to see where the adventure will take us this year! I have no idea where we are going, and it is exciting.
Not all adventures into the unknown are as thrilling. I’m sure this one was not for Abraham. He must have had the constant “Are we there yet?” from his family. He was being sent on a journey of faith. There are certain qualities that make any faith journey possible and I want to outline a few: (**)
A Deep Sense of Trust–in order to travel this journey of faith, we must be willing to trust. Even though Abraham had no idea where he was going, he went anyway, trusting God. That is asking a lot! Many times our experiences have been with people who are not trustworthy, who do not tell the truth, who do not follow-through, who disappoint us–people who simply cannot be trusted. And because we base our relationship with God on how our human relationships work, we assume that God too may not be trustworthy. Or perhaps we have been so disappointed with God that we are not willing to risk to trust again.
At least for many folks the question of God’s integrity, God’s honesty, God’s trust-level, looms. I have no tangible proof that God can be trusted. I only have stories. I have my story, and I have Abraham’s story, and I have heard countless other stories. Without some tangible proof, it seems to me the verse should read “Faith is being pretty sure of what we hope for and almost certain of things we cannot see.” But that has not been my experience and it is not what I believe. I trust. Abraham trusted. The God who has been and who is will be. And God asks us to journey alongside and trust.
Willingness to Uproot–in order to travel this journey of faith, we must be willing to uproot. Even though Abraham had no idea where he was going, he picked up his family and his life and his belongings and set out. I am concerned with our need (mine included) to be comfortable–settled. We’ve only been at our church for 7 months, but I have found myself saying over and over “I’m never moving again! I don’t ever want to pack or unpack those boxes again!” But the truth is that there is more to it than not wanting to go through the hassle of moving.
Rather, it is a need that I have to be settled–to put down some roots. I do not want to be relocated or dislocated or uprooted. I want to be settled and planted and safe and comfortable. But that is not always a part of a journey of faith. Abraham relocated to tent living. Every day on the move–pressing toward some unknown destination that would be an inheritance. I think Abraham understood that the journey was more important than the place of origin or the destination.
All Out Dependence–in order to travel this journey of faith, we must be willing to become dependent (which really goes against our grain in our society that teaches that success is independence!). Even though Abraham had no idea where he was going, he depended not only upon God, but also upon his fellow travelers, to reach his destination. This is a high calling to realize that what we have is not ours. We are a selfish, consumer driven society that most of the time acts like a 2-year-old with their loud protests “It’s mine!”
hen we not only accept, but also embrace the truth that there is something bigger and greater–that there is God to whom all of this belongs, we realize that we possess nothing. Alcoholics Anonymous has known this because their second step of the twelve-step program developed when they “came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” The only way to sobriety for an alcoholic is to realize dependence. Much the same way, the only way to take this journey of faith is to realize dependence.
I find that I understand my faith journey best in hindsight. “In retrospect, what Abraham and Sarah exemplified was faith that responded to promise without seeing it come to full fruition. Living in hope, but not in fulfillment, they became strangers and exiles. Theirs was a pilgrim existence that moved where it was led by God…[the vision of faith] is a steadfast clinging to a divine promise that moves us through time and history. Even if we stay in one place, the promise of God calls us to leave and move on to new horizons. ‘Faith thus becomes a confident wandering’ (Kaseman). We move in response to the summons of God, and in so doing move from one alien existence to another.” (Preaching Through the Christian Year–Year C, pp. 367-368)
“Faith thus becomes a confident wandering.”Will Campbell tells this story of a time when he was the cook on Waylon Jennings tour bus. Late one night, I [Campbell] said, “What do you believe?” “Yeah,” he [Jennings] answered. On an overnight stagecoach, a conversation need not be rushed. After a long silence I asked, “Yeah? What’s that supposed to mean?” Quiet again, until Waylon said, “Uh-huh.” That ended my prying into the state of ole Waylon’s soul.
Today we are bombarded with a theology of certitude. I don’t find much biblical support for the stance of “God told me and I’m telling you, and if you don’t believe as I do, you’re doomed. A sort of “My god can whip your god” posture. From Abraham, going out by faith not knowing where he was being sent, to Jesus on the cross, beseeching [God] for a better way, there was always more inquiring faith than conceited certainty. (Soul Among Lions, Will D. Campbell, p. 8.)
Abraham and Sarah never got to step foot into their land of promise, but the writer of Hebrews reminds us that “by faith,” Abraham obeyed when he was summoned for the journey–not having a foggy idea where he was going.
So, may we “by faith” travel our faith journeys, even this day,
May we trust God
May we be willing to be uprooted
And may we know what it means to be dependent.
And may God give us grace for confident wanderings.
May it be so. Amen.
(Note: I am indebted to Thomas G. Long in the Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching–Hebrews for the three qualities of a faith journey.
About the Author:
Amy Jacks Dean is a native of Clinton, SC and is a graduate of Clinton High School, Presbyterian College, and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
After serving as an associate minister at First Baptist, Clemson, SC; Amy became the interim campus Minister at Samford University and then the Associate Pastor at Riverchase Baptist. In 2000 she became the Co-Pastor of the Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte, NC, along with her husband, Russ. Together, they share all of the duties of the pastoral responsibilities.
Amy has served as President of the Board for the Center for Congregational Health, on the national board for the Alliance of Baptists, and was President of the Board of Loaves and Fishes. She is frequently invited to preach and speak around the country.
Russ and Amy have two boys, Jackson and Bennett. Amy loves to cook and to knit, but her favorite past times involve watching her boys on a baseball field or a concert hall.
Scripture and Music:
Isaiah 1:1. 10-20
Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Jesus Shall Reign
Whiter Than Snow
Though Your Sins Be As Scarlet
Trust and Obey
All My Hope On God is Founded
Faith of Our Fathers
How Firm A Foundation
Only Faith (Joseph Martin)
Sing and Be Not Silent (McDonald)
The Heavens Are Declaring (F.J. Haydn)
Honor and Glory (J.S. Bach)
Wake, Awake for Night Is Flying (J.S. Bach)
Keep Your Lamps (Andre Thomas)
Take Time to Be Holy
Keep Your Lamps