A sermon by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo.
The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
August 12, 2013
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23; Luke 12:32-40
John Claypool preached this text forty-four years ago and I still occasionally hear someone refer to it when they make a reference to the need for friends and colleagues. Claypool spoke in that sermon of “the cellar voices” and “the balcony people” as he spoke about this image of the value of our ancestors in our struggle to live the faith life. The cellar voices are those internal impulses and voices that are a part of our inner world. Sometimes they’re the voices of shame or mistrust. Sometimes they’re the wish for approval that we did not get from those entrusted with the power of blessing. Sometimes they’re voices of inadequacy or shortcomings. Nevertheless, they’re the voices that have power over us no matter how long ago the voices were first heard.
The balcony people are the counter-balance to the cellar voices. They are the ones we’ve given the authority to be our abiding presence. They are the ones from whom we’ve heard the voice of blessing and continue to find affirmation from them. They sit in our balcony and when we need the power to move forward, we look up and seek them out.
Hebrews 11 is sometimes called Faith’s Hall of Fame. One can easily put the heroes up in the balcony as they those from our long distant past who first walked the path. The first readers, Jewish Christians in the diaspora, read their own experiences of suffering into the tales of more ancient persecution and endurance. These persons were the pioneers of faith who with their lives carved the path in the wilderness.
Not surprisingly, we have trouble with the word “faith.” We too quickly equate faith, and its derivative nouns and verbs, “belief” and “believe,” with accepting propositional statements about God and the meaning of life. We say “Yes” to claims about faith as, “This is what we believe. This is my faith.” Sometimes we speak of faith as if it’s agreeing to accept something that doesn’t make sense unless we see it through “the eyes of faith.” Mark Twain said it through Huck Finn: “Faith is believin’ what you know ain’t so.”
When we’ve leaped, we’ve faithed. Yes, you heard it right: “faithed.” Faith is a verb, not a noun. The New Testament word for faith, in all its forms, is active. Even the noun is more verb than noun. We understand that faith involves risk. Kierkegaard’s catch phrase, “the leap of faith,” speaks of a leap in the dark, often across a wide abyss. We think we have to leap alone. But in the balcony, we can know what we’re facing, others have faced too.
Adopting the metaphor of faith as a journey seems appropriate. It’s a path we take that we make on our own and a path that makes us. Think of it as the first interactive game we learn in life as the metaphor is not complete until we realize God is on that path with us, dynamically attached to us as our companion on the path.
Paul Tillich once wrote that doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith. Not only is faith better understood as a verb rather than as a noun, it is also better understood as more of a process than as a possession. Faith is not being sure where you’re going, but going anyway. Faith is a journey without GPS. But we don’t travel along because faith is trust in our traveling companion.
You see, the writer of Hebrews understood the central truth that our faith, like our very lives, is a journey that will consume our entire being for as long as we live the Christian life. For all the days of our struggle, to fulfill our calling as new creatures in Christ, we will be challenged to live the meaning of faith. The journey metaphor is something that all of us can eventually understand at some level of our beings and it is in that spirit that the writer of Hebrews wants us to understand the life of faith that we have in Christ Jesus.
To keep us from getting hung up on words and their meanings, the writer of Hebrews helps us understand that the context for these words needs to be connected to the actions of the people of faith who lived in the past. The words themselves are empty unless they are given power through the committed life of the believer. According to message of Hebrews, the challenge of living in the midst of tremendous difficulties is the context in which we know how to speak the language of faith.
The path of faith is a call to persevere in the face of unbearable hardship. While we don’t quite know for certain who wrote these words or for whom it was written, one thing we know for sure is that it was written during fierce tribulation and trials. The shadow of suffering is cast over these words on faith with an understanding that faith is also meant to give meaning to our lives even when our journeys go through the hard places.
The 11th chapter of Hebrews gives us a collection of Old Testament characters beginning with the first family all the way to the patriarchs. All are considered heroes of faith because they were willing to base their lives on the meaning of the call. They were heroes in part because they refused to live empty lives.
What we glean from these ordinary people of extraordinary faith is the recognition that in matters of faith, we must put our roots down deep into the soil of trusting God so when we are called upon to persevere we will find the strength to stay the course. The common thread that winds its way through this list of Old Testament heroes of faith is the deep sense of trust in a God who wanted to lead them and guide them on their life’s path, even when they didn’t understand it fully.
Can you see your own life as a heroic struggle for faith? If so, perhaps you’ve thought of the inspiration of people of faith who help us in our struggle with the challenge of what faith. I suspect that notion is why the Catholics have saints upon which they seek strength. If that’s it, who am I to discount the practice of our Catholic sisters and brothers when I’ve got my own balcony filled with ancestral heroes I draw upon for strength and wisdom?
By faith … the founders of this church envisioned a new church along the city’s growing south side. By faith, they built the church with their dogged belief in what God was doing here and they struggled to make the church grow. They worked hard because they loved it with a deep sense of passion. A few of them are still here with us today.
By faith … the church continued strong through the growth years of this community and by faith the church is still finding ways to reach out and minister “from the Center out.”
By faith … the church will continue seeking the future. What will it be like in the days ahead? Will we continue to find new meaning for our on-going existence? Will we find new ways to live out Christ’s calling in us?All congregations, whether they are a few years old or whether they are in their sixth decade as we are face the challenge of reaching down into their souls to ask, “What is it that God wants us to be about?”
The challenge of our time is for us to not sit on our hands thinking about the question, but to step out and to live the answer. The path of faith is wide enough so we all have a place to claim, a step to take, with brothers and sisters who are traveling with us.
“By faith …” the line begins … (and) what will be said of us? What act of faith will complete the line? We’re entering the season of the church year where we will be restacking our ministry teams, our committees, our deacons, our class teachers who will share the faith in Bible Fellowship Groups for preschoolers, and children, and youth, and adults? What ministry (act of faith) is yours to work with? We have volunteers who do a thousand things in the name of Christ in this community. What new way will you live the faith journey in your service to God through this church.
The old saying claims, “The grass is greener on the other side of the fence.” People come and go in church in search of greener grass. In truth, “the grass is greener where we water it, mow it, fertilize it and weed it.”
Carlyle Marney was fond of saying, “Faith is a verb.” What he meant was that faith is not a possession; it’s not something we have and hold. Faith is not an activity that we schedule in our day. Faith is a never-ending movement in response to an ever-seeking God. God is calling each of us to take up the journey of faith. Our journey is made up of the smallest of actions and responses that come to us moment by moment. In those responses, we become people of faith. May it be with all of us … in our individual lives … and in our journey together as God’s people.
 John R. Claypool, “Cellar Voices and Balcony People,” Northminster Baptist Church, Jackson MS, 9/23/79
 Adapted from Lawrence de Wolfe, http://presbyterianrecord.ca/2013/07/01/the-hall-of-fame-of-faithfulness/
 Frederick Buechner, originally published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words
 Gary Long, “I Love This Town,” http://tothelees.blogspot.com/2007/01/i-love-this-town.html, 1/29/07
Keith Herron is the Bridge Pastor for First Congregational Church of St. Louis. He is the author of “Living a Narrative Life: Essays on the Power of Story,” and served previously as a member of the EthicsDaily.com / Baptist Center for Ethics board of directors.