Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

The Reverend Tasha Blackburn

August 7, 2016


When Phillip and I lived in Scotland, we took a weekend trip down to the town of York in England. In York there is an amazing museum that takes you back to the Victorian age. You can see everything from stoves of the era to children’s clothing. You can walk through a typical bedroom of the time and you can see how they got married. But of all these exhibits, there is one I will not soon forget.

It was an entire wall of Victorian funeral notices. They were all shapes and sizes. Some had names and dates as well as locations and times of services.  As I looked at them, I saw that all of the notices had one thing in common: each had a black border around its edges. A plaque on the wall explained that the black border, for the Victorians, symbolized the grief over the one who had died. It was a declaration in black and white that this one who had died was sorely missed.

As I looked again at the wall of notices, I saw it—a small card that I could not look away from. There was the man’s name in simple script. Below it was the date of his death. And all around the edges was wrapped a thick dark line. This was not like the others! The black strokes were so broad that there was barely room for the name and date. The dark border crowded out the white space, making that family’s pain from so long ago palpable again.

The sight of this card took the breath out of my chest. There it was, the image of how grief feels; how its darkness surrounds you and there is no room for any light. Perhaps you have felt this feeling. Perhaps you have come here this morning feeling it—boxed in by sadness, a thick scrawl of grief at every border of your life.  For those of us who have known the cage of grief we know we are wounded pilgrims and we ask together, Is there a word from the Lord for the likes of us? For the likes of me?

Our Hebrews text is that word. It offers us a promise—a promise that in faith we can be convinced of things we cannot see. As portions of the chapter were read, I hope you caught its refrain: for by faith Abel received God’s approval. By faith Abraham traveled to a place he had never seen. By faith he offered Isaac not knowing the reason why. By faith Isaac offered a blessing he would not see. By faith Moses’ parent’s hid him, not knowing his future. By faith Moses himself led the people through a parted sea. By faith—all of these things our ancestors did by faith–convinced of things they could not see. We are given this same promise.

For though we cannot see them, we are promised that this great cloud of witnesses surrounds us; not only Abraham and Moses, Isaac or Abel or Rahab, but our husband and sister and child and neighbor, our wife and our brother, our grandparents, our mother and father and our friend. By faith we are convinced of this promise that we cannot see; that the saints who go before us surround us as witnesses. But how can this be? Our loved ones have died and to even see them we have to turn to faded albums or dusty picture frames. How can this be that they surround us?

Well it is not because it feels good to think so. This is not some sappy, Hallmark notion to just make us find passing and shallow comfort. This is our faith. One of the best ways to explain it comes to us from our eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters. They believe, and we do too, that worship does not begin when the bell tolls the hour or when we offer our first prayer. Worship does not begin there because it began in this place long before.

All the saints who have gone before us have been worshipping here. They have been gathered around this table, and next to this cross they have lifted their songs of praise. Their worship is continual and they have been bowing in awe of their Maker long before we enter this place. When we come here and worship, we are simply adding our voices to their choir and when we leave and turn out the lights, their worship continues without us until we join them again.

If we have lost someone we love, then we do know that grief can fence us in and it is true they are not with us anymore, but in worship—in worship!—we can join them again! When we come together to praise God, we join them in their heavenly choir. We lift our prayers and praise with theirs. For this brief time we are together, for our loved ones now live with God. When we come here to worship God we get to be close to them as well.

Sadness and grief may frame many of our lives and some of it will always be there. But, by faith, this dark border is not the only thing that encloses us. By faith we believe we are surrounded, not just by grief, but by all who have gone before us. They are witnesses for us of faith throughout the eons and their faith circles us.

We too are people of faith, joining the litany of names. This faith means two very practical things, defines our lives in two very immediate ways. The first is that we are to be a hopeful people. No matter what happens around us, no matter what doomsday scenarios get played out in our lives or on our televisions, we live in hope. And we don’t just cling to hope but we are, as the Hebrews passage says, we are assured by it. We have an assurance that gives us hope no matter what.

And second, we have conviction. As people of faith we have conviction in what we cannot see. While others might only see a black border around the day, around the situation, around their life, we have conviction in more than that black border. We are convinced of promises that we cannot see.

Hope and conviction: these are what we are called to. These are the ingredients that make up our life of faith. But these ingredients can run low which is why we come to worship. We join into this ongoing worship to take stock and to restock our hope and our conviction. We come together and lift our voices to join those we cannot hear, to join those we cannot see, to join this great cloud of witnesses who are already praising God and who invite us to join in on the chorus.

Having joined them, even only briefly, we go out again, renewed for the life we’ve been given. For we are people of faith and that means we have assurance in our hope and conviction of more than this but of things that cannot be seen. Amen.