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Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, August 11, 2013

The Rev. Anne Michele Turner

Tonight is supposed to be the peak of the Perseid meteor shower. Each year at this time, the earth crosses the orbital path of a comet. The comet has left a wake of debris, and when that debris enters our atmosphere, it goes hurtling across the sky as a meteorite—or, in less scientific terms, as a shooting star. On this night, scientists tell us, there might be as many as fifty an hour. If you are in a position to see them, that is.

I would like to see them. I never have. I am not much of a night watcher in general, but, encouraged by a friend, I have planned a campout with my daughters in the field behind our house. Apparently, a bunch of our neighbors do this, as well. If we wake up in the middle of the night, as planned, there will be a little congregation in the field, perhaps the size of this one, scanning the night sky.

Of course, we may not see much. There’s no way to time the shower perfectly. And we are in Arlington, after all; even our one dark field is surrounded by ambient light. There might be clouds, too. It’s a bit of a gamble, honestly. Perhaps I will get a terrible night’s sleep; perhaps I will have two cranky girls on my hands Monday morning. And yet is it the choice I make, to lie awake in the middle of the night, hoping.

“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  So the writer of the letter to the Hebrews tells us. We Christians count faith as one of the cardinal virtues, one of the hallmarks of our faith. It is, indeed, the distinctive characteristic of that first stargazer, our forefather, Abraham. And yet, if we are honest, I think a lot of us wonder about what having faith means.  Do we have enough?  How can we tell?  As I have been getting my tent ready for my own little voyage out into my own small wilderness, I am glad to have this letter to the Hebrews, because it gives me a chance to unpack a little bit of what faith is and what it isn’t. I want to think a little with you about how we get it and how we keep it, and about what it does to us, and about how it changes us.

First off, I want to name the reality that faith is more often a choice than a gift. We all know some of those wonderful people who seem filled up with confidence and peace, a trust in God that comes from beyond the blue  But--chances are, we don’t know a whole lot of them, because I’m not sure there are a whole lot of them out there. For every one radiant elder, at peace with the hidden God, I have met twenty who struggle, and question, and doubt. We don’t know which camp our Abraham was in—blessed assurance or not-so-blessed struggling. The bible rarely tells us his interior monologue. We hear that he chose faith, but not how he got it. Odds are, it’s the latter. Yes, there is grace that gives faith in God. But that grace is rare.

In making this claim, I realize that I am putting myself out of step with some of the more reformed theological traditions that insist on real faith coming as a gift from God for God’s chosen. Perhaps I just think this way because I have not been chosen, who knows. But I find our Anglican tradition very helpful here, because it emphasizes not just disposition, but will—or, in plainer terms, not how we feel, but what we choose to do with those feelings. We cannot always feel faithful, any more than we can always feel happy or sad or whatever. But we can always choose to be faithful, whatever mood happens to inhabit our hearts.

Think back, a few years ago, to the reports that came out after Mother Theresa’s death—reports that her diaries were filled with experiences of desolation, of wondering whether God existed. She never admitted her doubts; indeed, she carried on with her work unchanged. Some critics seized on the revelation as a sign of some breakdown of faith. But—to my mind—it demonstrates the opposite. Here was a woman who could not feel a belief in God. And yet here was a woman who chose to believe in God.

If we understand faith in this way—as a virtue that we cultivate, not necessarily one that springs up unbidden—then it’s a small step to understanding faith not just as an intellectual activity, but as an embodied one.  So often, we leave faith in the realm of the verbal and the intellectual. We have faith when we recite the creed; we have faith when we can sign on to certain academic propositions about the nature of God. But if we listen to our tradition, there’s another understanding of faith: it is the choices we make, the actions we commit to, the tasks that we undertake. We don’t have faith as much as we do faith. We enact faith. Listen, right today, to Hebrews—the best way that whoever wrote that letter had to explain faith was to give a list of all the things that Abraham and his family did. Faith, for Abraham, was not agreeing with God in some abstract conversation. Faith was starting to walk without a map.

Or perhaps, a better way to put it: faith is the compass in a world without maps. Because as much as we talk about faith as a single, bright moment—the proverbial, instantaneous leap of faith—incarnated, enacted faith is a much slower and more complex process. It is a long form of obedience, rarely one great choice but a thousand little ones over time. Even just this little section of Hebrews that deals with Abraham—well, it kind of goes on and on, doesn’t it?  Not because there are so many big things to say about him, but rather because there is such a vast accumulation of small ones—not just the one big star show, but night after night after completely identical night in the tent.

Instead of looking to the obvious, Abraham was staying true to the most extraordinary vision he’d had. And instead of doing what might be sensible in the calculus of the world, he was setting his course by the mathematics that God had suggested to him.   Almost like an invisible compass, the choice of faith oriented him in a way that perhaps made no sense to the people around him. I mean, why live in a tent when you could settle down, get a farm, retire easy?  But faith disorients us, literally, to the values of this world. It orients us towards God. We become, in the words of the epistle, strangers to this ordinary world.  And so the choices we are faced with over time—big ones, small ones, consequential or middling or trivial—they all are held to a different standard, drawn towards a different and large purpose than this self-centered world might give us.

It is, of course, a struggle to shape a life according to an invisible compass. For one thing, people who don’t see the compass don’t get it. It’s sometimes very, very hard to explain a choice that is counter to culture but consonant with faith in God. And what’s even harder?  Sometimes, trying to explain those choices to ourselves.  Because following the invisible compass gets old after a while, doesn’t it?  When you are trying to see by starlight, things are pretty dim.  Ultimately, the challenge is not only to trust God; it is also to trust ourselves to know God. Most of us, at some point or another, will question our own judgment, our own reliability. We discover that we have to believe not only in God, but in our own selves as a reliable witness for what God has to show.

Which gets to the last question about faith, maybe the hardest one—just how is it that we can have it, or experience it, or do it?  Because we don’t always seem to have the knack. But if you peek a little ahead in Hebrews—or if you just come back in a few weeks, because we’re going to hear it—the bible does tell us. It’s that great cloud of witnesses, of which Abraham is the first. We can’t do this faith thing alone, at least not over time. It’s just intolerable, isn’t it?  But we count ourselves a part of this community of friends—this communion of saints—struggle along with us, who remind us why we are here, who might just happen to feel brave on the day we feel cowardly or bold on the day we feel timid or certain on the day we feel most shaken.

I think of them as the neighbors in the dark. You remember that I started all this talking about the Perseids, right?  I am going out on my own journey of faith tonight, honestly, not because I trust the astronomers or the weathermen. I am certainly not going out there out of any sense of confidence in my own ability to see a shooting star. But I am going to lay out in a field and look to heaven because of those friends who are out in the night with me. They believe there is something worth seeing up there. And they make it possible for me to do the same.

Will I see what I am looking for?  Will any of us?  There is no way to know. If anything, the bible suggests the opposite to us: “All of these died . . . without having received the promises.”  This faith business is not for those who need immediate gratification, or those who are afraid of the whiff of failure. Scripture tells us, straight up, that we may never see what we are looking for, not in this life, anyway.

But I know that I choose to look. And perhaps that question of success—will I get what I want?—is not the right one to ask. Instead, maybe, how will the experience change me?  What will the risk of faith tell me about myself, and my world?  I think about a night spent in community, a night searching the firmament, as it used to be called, for the signs of something glorious. It is not God itself, the life of faith. But it is an echo, a ripple, a reflection. It is enough. It is, perhaps, all of the heavens I need to see.