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The Long View – Hebrews 11:1-3; 8-16

I got to see the mountains!  Many of you know how big a deal that is for me, how my soul is fed by spending time in the mountains.  And on our vacation last month, I got my mountain fix for a little while.  Kimberly and I went down to the Smokies and did a day hike on the Appalachian Trail out to a place called Charlie’s Bunion.

It is named after Charlie Conner*, famous mountain man long before the Appalachian Train was even thought of.  According to the story, Charlie had a bunion on his foot that was bothering him, and right at the time he figured he needed to stop and take his shoe off and rest it, the trail opened up to this stunning rock outcropping, with incredible views of the whole range opening up before him.  Many a hiker have since “ohh”ed and “ahh”ed at the view that Charlie saw, and our family has been there a dozen times, amazed at the beauty and majesty of the mountain view in front of us.

Yet, this time was different.  For as is often the case in the Smokies, the whole mountain was covered in a dense, thick cloud.  Between the elevation and the humid conditions of the Smokies, this is often the case.  But, we didn’t have many other days to hike, so we figured we would try it anyway.  We set out from the trail head in the cloud.  We hiked our four miles out in the cloud.  Every peek through the trees revealed the same thing.  White nothingness.  As we got to Charlie’s Bunion, and sat out on the rock outcropping, we were a little bummed.  We knew there was this great view out there, but all we saw was cloud.  Until, as we sat there on the rock together, the wind began to shift, and the clouds began to move, and for a few moments, we caught a glimpse of the amazing views that Charlie had seen all those years ago.  The mountain view opened up, and we saw the majesty of Mt. LeConte, the surrounding forests, and the valley floor way below.  In that moment, it was worth every step.

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

What a wonderful picture of faith, wasn’t it?  We knew what was out there, even though we couldn’t see it.  Step after step, mile after mile, because we knew that there were mountains to be seen, even if we couldn’t see them.  Perhaps the author of Hebrews could have used our story to show others how important it is to keep going, even if we can’t see what’s out there.  Stay strong.  Keep the faith.  God will show you the mountain eventually.

But, here’s the deal.  We got lucky.  I have hiked in and out of majestic views in the Smokies a whole bunch of times, where all I could see was the cloud 10 feet from my face.  What if we didn’t catch that glimpse?  What if we didn’t see LeConte and the valley below?  What happens when we step out on faith, and we still don’t see any results?  What happens when we don’t get lucky?  What happens if God never shows you the mountain?

That is where the author of Hebrews lives.  Hebrews 11 is a litany of the heroes and heroines of faith.  Abel.  Abraham.  Moses.  Most of them have the same final page of their story.  They don’t get to see the mountain.  They don’t get to truly experience the fullness of God’s blessings.  Abraham and Sarah are the examples from the reading today. God promised them that their offspring would be like the stars in the sky, the grains of sand on the beach, and that they would occupy a land of promise and hope.  So, they set out on this life-long journey in faith, probably imagining that they would die, surrounded by their children in the land flowing with milk and honey, on the front porch of their majestic home.

But how does his story end?  After laboring and walking and living in tents for his whole life, their possession of the promised land consists of one field in which to bury family members.  And while he is a blessing, they have only one son, quite a bit short of the number of stars in the sky.  The clouds never part.  They never get to see the mountain.  But, according to the author of Hebrews, this is what real faith looks like.  Real faith happens when we don’t know that we will see the end result.  Real faith happens when we take the long view.

Taking the long view is the recognition that we may never see the end result of our actions.  And it flies in the face of everything that our culture teaches us.  We are taught, and we often teach others, that life is about reward:

Sometimes it is immediate gratification.  That’s the best kind.  I want what I want when I want it.  I see something, so I go for it.  I achieve.  I conquer.  I get.  Candy bar at the gas station check out line.  I want that.  I buy it.  I eat it.  Woo hoo!

But most of life is not immediate gratification.  Life after 18 or 20 years is usually about delayed gratification.  Wait until the end of the meal to eat dessert.  Wait until you have worked a full career before you retire and enjoy the fruits of your labor.  If you see the candy bar in the check out line, wait until after you have eaten a healthy meal, gone to the gym, and then you can have it, depending on what the scale says.  This is the way life really works, even though no one really likes it that way.  We know that immediate gratification makes us fat, and lazy, and greedy in the long run.  No one likes delayed gratification, but it is the way of life.

 

But, the author of Hebrews takes it one step further.  He or she asks “what if we didn’t receive immediate gratification, or delayed gratification?  What if we received no gratification?  At least in our lifetime?  Now, we are starting to talk about faith.”

Abraham and Sarah never got to possess the Promised Land.  Neither did Rebecca and Issac.  Or Rachel and Jacob.  Or Joseph.  Or Moses.  In one way or another, each of them had to take the long view, and realize that not even delayed gratification was going to work.  Sometimes, faith is walking anyway, even when we know we aren’t going to get there.

The quotation from Martin Luther King in the bulletin names that reality of faith doesn’t it?  “Faith is taking a step, even if we don’t see the whole staircase.”  The greatest extended metaphor on the topic is probably the one from King, in the final sermon he ever preached.  He told his hearers “I may not get to the mountaintop with you, but we as a people will get there.”  He took the long view.  And today, we are much closer to his dream of racial equality, but we are not there yet.  We have to continue to take the long view.

We have to take the long view on race, recognizing that it will take a long time to realize King’s vision of freedom and equality.  The actions we take now must look at what God is doing for the long run.

We take a step, even if we don’t see the whole staircase.

We have to take the long view on poverty.   We have to recognize that poverty is not something that can be solved by simply throwing more money at the problem.  We have to realize that there are social-political structures and systems and multi-generational patterns that lead to the problem of poverty.  If we think that it can be solved in a generation, we are sadly mistaken.  But if we wait to take the next steps, then the problem never gets solved.  God calls us to do what we can in this generation, in this year, in this moment…

So we take a step, even if we don’t see the whole staircase.

We have to take the long view on health care.  If we continue demanding that my needs and my pocketbook are the only motivating factor, then we will still see the same problems again in a generation.  Our deeply entrenched health care problems will not be solved.   The poor will continue to use the ER as a health clinic.  The powers that be will continue to make the bottom line the moral authority.  Everyone will continue to complain that the system is broken, but then complain even louder when anyone tries to change the system.  We can care for the needs of the sick today and tomorrow, but what about next week?  What about the next decade?  Faith is acting in the long view, hopeful for what God is doing to heal and care for the sick for longer than the short haul.

We take a step, even if we don’t see the whole staircase.

We have to take the long view on education.  Instead of the immediate gratification of test scores and incentivized funding, we have to look at longer-term results.  Most folks who have spent much time in the field of education have named the reality that we have to wait a long time before we can really see what the results of education are.  And short-cutting our gratification runs the risk of damaging the quality of education for the long run.  You can ask most any teacher if they have always seen the end results of their work, and the answer is probably “no.”

And so, when we talk about ministry with young people, with children and youth, with college students, we have to take the long view.  It is not simply about keeping children busy so that young families will come and tithe here.  It is not just about ministering to young people, because we think that they will stay and contribute here.  We train and nurture and support and form, knowing that we might be preparing them for someone else’s church!  We volunteer for youth ministry and children’s ministry, because we take the long view about what is happening with their formation.

And we take a step, even if we don’t see the whole staircase.

Finally, we have to take the long view on buildings.  It’s the topic of the month, I know, but it is important to note that we have made the decision together that we need to make sure that our building is a safe place to worship and learn in for the next generation and beyond.  It is humbling, but also important to remember that the work we do now is as much for them as it is for us.

That is faith.  To put into God’s hands our building, and our money, and our resources today, in order for God to bless a generation not even yet born.  It’s what Abraham and Sarah did.  Rebecca and Issac.  Moses and his whole generation.  And all those in between, who took the next step, even though they couldn’t see the whole staircase.  Who hiked up the mountain, even though they just saw clouds.

We take a step, even if we don’t see the whole staircase.

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

It is naming the ever-present reality that God is at work.

And celebrating the work that we take part in, called by God, modeled by Christ, and empowered by the Spirit.

* For those of you who heard the sermon “live,” I have to correct the last name of Charlie, for whom “Charlie’s Bunion” is named.  I incorrectly named him Charlie Kephart, but it was actually Charlie Conner, a member of the mountaineering party of Horace Kephart, who had to take off his shoes due to that painful bunion!  Kephart, who was leading the party, felt badly for Charlie, and told him that he would get his name on the government map of the territory on that spot.  He did, remarking of the spot jutting out over the valley, “Well, that sticks out like Charlie’s Bunion.”

We can see the same thing in the church.  What are we doing today, in order to prepare our young people for a life of faith?  Of helping them recognize what God is doing in their lives and the world?  Recently, the congregation made some name changes.  A few years ago, the ministry that cares for the needs of our young people changed its name from “Christian Education” to “Spiritual Formation”.  Likewise, we chose to create a staff position with the same name.  The move is more than semantic.  It recognizes a long view.  There is a danger in focusing upon simply transferring information from one generation to another.  But, “Spiritual Formation” recognizes that we are all on a journey of faith, and we continue to learn from God through one another, and through the world around us, for a lifetime.

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