This week our church building was filled with an unfamiliar noise and energy. We hosted our much anticipated Movie Camp, put on by Dean and Kirsten Seal for some teenagers from St. Joseph's Home for Children. This space was filled with energy of youth, stirred up, excited, playful and fearful. There were watchful adults, you could feel the yearning in them to care for these children, putting up safeguards, telling them no, while also affirming and praising the young people.
As part of their movie-making process, they looked at four parables, stories of Jesus that give a glimpse of the kingdom of God, and the one they chose to use for their movie was the Prodigal Son. What is this story about? Dean asked them. And they identified tension between the siblings, the recklessness of going off and spending your life in bad ways, they recognized the waste and the jealousy, the desperation and the hopelessness. They understood these things, they made complete sense to them.
“What do you think it is about?” one asked Dean. And he answered, “I think this is about the love of God. God loving us so much that he will never, ever stop loving you, no matter what you do.”
His answer floored them. One of them asked in disbelief, “Are you saying God loves me even after all the terrible things I have done?” A child asked this, a broken child.
Later in the day, another child looked at Dean in utter incredulity and astonishment at his simple words, “Great job, you did really well with that.” so foreign was a compliment, so unfathomable that someone would call him good, or appreciate something he had said or done.
I have to believe there is more. That each one of these children, moving into an uncertain adulthood, matters to God, that what the world has told them and they have told themselves about who they are, is not true, that there is something greater and deeper they are meant to be.
And so we step out in faith, we act and move and speak from a truth that isn’t what we can necessarily see before our eyes, but is truer and more real, something that comes outside of space and time, from the eternal and unchanging truth of God.
And so Dean, and Kirsten and the St. Joe's Chaplains, Umo and Marty, and the other leaders did just that this week. They acted from a different truth. In this truth, these children were creative, responsible, intelligent; they were capable of writing music, of leading scenes, of interpreting scripture. This week these children were not problem kids stuck in a holding pattern while forces outside their control determined their fate. This week they were actors, directors, collaborators.
And when the week was finished, these smart, funny, creative kids had told a story about a parent who loved his child so much that it didn’t matter what she did, she was always welcomed home with love, forgiveness and open arms.
They’re back at St. Joe’s now, of course. The week doesn’t go on forever. And their lives aren’t made any better, necessarily, by having had this week. Except this week gave them a glimpse of the promise, and us as well, that we are part of a different reality, citizens of a different homeland. And we are not there yet, but we journey towards it with the promise of its coming.
“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.” Faith makes concrete and tangible the promise that is real but often invisible, it puts flesh and blood and tears and laughter on this thing that sustains us. So we live in faith by living like its true, even when everything around us would have us believe otherwise.
"By faith," writes Frederich Buechner, "we understand, if we are to understand it at all, that the madness and lostness we see all around us and within us are not the last truth about the world but only the next to the last truth….Faith is the eye of the heart, and by faith we see deep down beneath the face of things – by faith we struggle against all odds to be able to see – that the world is God's creation even so. It is he who made us and not we ourselves, made us out of his peace to live in peace, out of his light to dwell in light, out of his love to be above all things loved and loving. That is the last truth about the world."
Abraham didn’t ever get to see the promised land. He “greeted the promise from a distance.” And yet the promise sustained him, and he stands in our scripture today as an example of faith.
We might tend to romanticize Father Abraham, the New Testament does indeed, but don’t forget his tumultuous story of faith. The Old Testament scripture reading tonight is from Genesis 15, the promise given to Abraham and Sarah:
15:1 After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, "Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great."15:2 But Abram said, "O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?" 15:3 And Abram said, "You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir." 15:4 But the word of the LORD came to him, "This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own offspring shall be your heir." 15:5 He brought him outside and said, "Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your descendants be." 15:6 And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.
God had promised this several chapters earlier, several life events before, Abraham had been told that he would have a child, that God had big plans. And Abraham obeyed. He left everything to set out on this journey and wait for God’s fulfillment. Three years, five years, ten, twelve, fifteen years and he is getting nothing but older. And so is the barren Sarah.
And in the meantime he has some seedy episodes. Remember when famine drives them into Egypt he hands over his wife to Pharoah, pretending she is his sister, to protect himself? And he and Lot, his nephew and business partner, have a falling out and go their separate ways. And through all this his relationship with God is developing, but still he waits.
And now God reiterates the promise, and Abraham believes him. But even that trust, that faith, has a rocky path of belief and doubt, hope and mistrust. Even that "righteousness" is filled with attempts to interpret the promise and take matters into his own hands. And he does try on his own, with the means and methods he has in his power, to make it happen.
But God works out of impossibility, out of barrenness, out of the mean and unviable situations, to bring life where there is no possibility of life. And so despite Abraham’s shaky trust, despite his disobedience, despite his doubt and his frustration and his unbelief at times, God is faithful. God sustains him in this bond of faith.
Abraham tasted the promise, he held Isaac, he glimpsed the promised land to which his people were being led, and he understood that he was living inside the grace of God – the realm of God’s kingdom. And so despite it all and even within it all, he is held up as an example of faith.
Again, from Frederick Buechner: "Faith is different from theology because theology is reasoned, systematic, and orderly, whereas faith is disorderly, intermittent, and full of surprises….Faith is homesickness. Faith is a lump in the throat. Faith is less a position on than a movement toward, less a sure thing than a hunch. Faith is waiting." (Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons).
We are people not at home, people who crave and wait and hope for the promise. And we live in faith, in waiting, in homesickness, we live out here and now the promise we know is coming. And in that way we experience the it, we share it, we see it and recognize it and participate in the promise.
We are honest and brave.
We doubt loudly and fall hard, and still the promise holds us.
We live in, and live out, the love of God, that never ever lets us go,
no matter what.
This is the life of faith.
Hear this Prayer by Thomas Merton:
"My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone." (Thoughts in Solitude).
Two weeks ago, as we talked about prayer, and God's desire that we come to God in honesty and shamelessness, we gathered into this box some things we were feeling or thinking that we did not think we could tell God. We wrote down our secret questions, anger, fears and worries- the things we least think God would want to hear from us, and considered that one of the last things on the lips of Jesus was MY GOD, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME? This is an act of faith, of trust and honesty to bring these things to God, and so as part of our prayer, we wrote them and put them into this box. I want to give you a moment to think about what you wrote, to hold it in your head and heart, and as we begin this prayer time tonight, we are going to place this box into the fire, releasing those words to God, letting them go.