“Seeing Something No One Has Seen”

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
July 9, 2023

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.” All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

“Burt” was the name of the dog my husband and I first had shortly after we were married.  He was a basset hound with long droopy ears and very short, slow-moving legs.  I should clarify that Burt was really MY dog, because his entrance into our lives was somewhat of a unilateral decision — one for which my husband never quite forgave me.  Nevertheless, Burt was for the most part a beloved, sometimes annoying, often immovable, and perpetually pungent presence in our household when we were living in a parsonage in Essex, Massachusetts.  

The first summer of Burt’s life, during the prime of his impressionable puppyhood, the North Shore was struck by an unusually intense attack of greenhead flies, who are common to the area during any summer.  And the memory of those constantly biting flies was indelibly imprinted on Burt’s psyche — so much so that, throughout his life, the sound of any buzzing insect, especially a housefly, was enough to send Burt into a terrified frenzy.  Even after we moved to Groton, one fly in our house and the usually unflappable Burt would dash from room to room, yelping and ducking beneath furniture, all out of his fear and absolute certainty that that housefly was going to bite him.  His behavior provided great amusement to our family and friends, and Burt was well-known in the neighborhood as “the dog who’s terrified of houseflies.”  

His behavior was also a good example of how an ingrained experience and a strongly-held belief — even a false belief — can dominate one’s life.

          Burt’s perception and view of the world was admittedly limited, not only because he was built very low to the ground, but because he never understood that things can, and do, and will, change in life.  Burt’s horizon was extraordinarily limited — in his world, all flies were evil, and he would never perceive of them otherwise.

At the risk of denigrating humanity in addition to canines, I have to say that I find people can be amazingly similar to Burt, especially in a spiritual sense.  

We are so often afraid to look beyond what we already know.  We prefer our lives to stay the way they are, even if that way may be harmful to us.  We’re familiar and comfortable with what we believe, and seldom wish to push ourselves further, to consider new possibilities, to see things as different than we’ve always perceived them to be.  

We’re part of a vast universe, an extensive, overwhelming and infinite cosmos.  But we tend to occupy only a small part of that universe and can’t envision anything beyond our limited horizons.

Some examples:  A young woman may believe that saying “I do” will solve all of her problems — the wedding ceremony is her horizon.  A young man may really think that all he needs to do is to add “M.D.” or “Ph.D.” after his last name and he’ll be set for life — the end of graduate school is his horizon.  A person buys a lottery ticket and thinks that if they can win just once, all their problems will be over — the dollars are their horizon.  A young person scrimps and saves for years to buy their dream home — the down payment is their horizon. 

Everyone has a horizon.  Our limited vision is part of what makes us human.  What’s YOUR horizon?  What’s the horizon of our nation, our community, our church?  Where are the limits of our vision?  Part of the problem of our limited horizons is that often we don’t even think twice about them.

The brain researcher Robert Ornstein, in his book The Mind Field, writes: 

Our horizons are so limited.  Our limited view provides the basis for the parochial way we look at things.  The North American baseball championship for men is the “World” Series.  We may be informed by our television weather announcer that the “all time” record for rain or heat was set on a certain date; here, “all time” usually means the past hundred years.  Our horizon is short behind us, too.  Medical, educational, and scientific journals rarely refer to any fact or finding published before 1940 (with the exception of an occasional reference to Classical Greece) and anything discovered or understood before the First World War is considered ancient history.  Our horizon is measured on the scanty yardstick of our own habits of mind.

In today’s scripture lesson, the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews encourages us to look BEYOND our limited vision and habits of mind.  The writer begins by describing faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Put another way, faith is the conviction that the course of our lives is neither to be limited nor determined by what we’re able to see.  

To live by faith is to be open and expectant to God’s new, fresh, and often unseen graces.  For an individual, a community, and for a church, living by faith means looking forward to new possibilities, never before in our realm of experience, yet filled with assurance that God’s purpose will be made known.

The writer of Hebrews then exemplifies this faith by lifting up the figures of Abraham and Sarah, who ventured beyond their limited horizons and boundaries in response to God’s call.  Abraham and Sarah trusted in God’s call to leave the comfort and familiarity of their home and travel to the unknown land of Palestine.  Sarah was barren, and well past the age of conception, yet because “she considered him faithful who had promised,” the gift of new life was received.  Together, Sarah and Abraham became the parents of the Hebrews.

Like Abraham and Sarah, we too are called by God to move beyond the comfort and familiarity of what we know — what is safe and secure and unthreatening — to live in gracious openness to God.  Like Sarah, we’re called to dare to hope for the impossible, to hope where there is no hope.  Faith isn’t to return to what’s known, but to journey onward to what’s hoped for — the unfailing promises of God.

When I first began studying for ministry, I was warned that the most common refrains heard in churches were “But we’ve never done it like that before,” and its companion phrase, “but it’s always been that way.”  As I anticipate my retirement, and reflect on the churches I’ve served over the years, I rejoice that here at CCoL, those are phrases that I’ve NOT heard very often.  Occasionally, yes.  But I’ve always been grateful that this congregation has an exceptional ability to adapt, and grow, and change as the Spirit has called us to. Some of that growth was forced upon us by the pandemic, which coincided with a change in pastoral leadership.  But that attitude of openness and willingness to change and grow has been a hallmark of our congregation.  And we have flourished!

Yet I also realize how these words – “we’ve never done it like that before” – still apply to so many institutions, and to many of us as individuals.  

To try something we’ve never tried before; to see something as we’ve never seen it before — THESE are the challenges of faith.  

When confronted with new ideas, different opinions, or unfamiliar practices, to invoke the phrase “but we’ve never done it like that before” carries about as much weight with me as the phrase “but we don’t want change for change’s sake.” Neither line of reasoning makes sense to me.  New ideas and practices are simply part of the creative process of life, the changes that we all know are inevitable.  

The question is:  Does the change hold meaning for us?  Are the old ideas or practices meaningful, or have we moved beyond them to a point where former purposes aren’t as clear, and maybe our assumptions and practices need to be changed?  Something meaningful to one person may hold absolutely no meaning to another.  But we have to be willing to widen our horizons to encompass the visions of others.  

The book of Proverbs says that “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”  Our willingness to accept change, to step into unfamiliar territory, is a reflection of our faith in “the assurance of things hoped for, [and] the conviction of things not seen.”

With every step we take, we find both risk and assurance.  God challenges us, like Abraham and Sarah, to live a pilgrim’s existence, moving where we’re led by God.  This may mean moving beyond our own little worlds — the world of our safe, secure homes; the world of our predictable daily routines; the world of our comfortable and familiar home towns; the world of our tradition-bound institutions.  

But God calls us to leave and move on to new horizons in other ways.  When we’re undergirded by the assurance that God’s purpose will be made known, that God’s presence and power are unfailing, and that God works in all things for good, then we won’t fear the unknown.  When we’re confident in the strength and meaning God has provided in the past, and when we understand God’s will for us in the present, then our steps into the unseen future are much more clear.

God calls us to live by faith, a pilgrim’s existence, what one theologian has called “a confident wandering.”  

I want to close with words from Stephen Vincent Benet.  “God pity us indeed, for we are human, and do not always see the vision when it comes, the shining change, or if we see it, do not follow it.  Because it is too hard, too strange, too new, too unbelievable, too difficult, warring too much with common easy ways.

“Life is not lost by dying!  Life is lost minute by minute, day by dragging day, in all the thousand small, undaring ways.  Always, and always, life can be lost without vision, but not lost by death.  Lost by not daring, willing, going on beyond the ragged edge of fortitude to something more — something no one has seen.” 

So let us go on — to see something no one has seen.  Let us hope when there is no hope.  Let us dare the impossible.  Because God has promised.  Amen.