August 14, 2016
Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
In King James English, that first verse of the eleventh chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews gives our word “faith” a touchstone definition. Then, beginning with Abel, the epistle’s unknown author walks us through the Bible: Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Sarah . . . illustrating faith in action. This morning, we join the list at Moses.
By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned.
Metaphorically, this brings Gettysburg to mind: 1863, one hundred and fifty-three years ago this summer. My great grandfather, Corporal Robert Calvert Murphy, “C” Company, 2nd Louisiana Infantry, was wounded in the battle and taken prisoner as the South retreated. Raised on his story, I have never lost my fondness for the gray; nor have I ever doubted that the right side won.
(I remembering being six years old, on the floor playing with my soldiers. Looking on, my elder-friend Mr. Ernest Wilson asked me: “Which side are you for?” I had to stop and think, before I answered: “I’m for the Rebels, but the Yankees have a better cause.” In human nature, sentiment and judgment sometimes just have to disagree.)
So Lincoln was our Moses. Our nation now, fifty states united, is the substance that he hoped for. Metaphorically, and literally, the war was our Red Sea. How different the world would be today without the faith and perseverance of our sixteenth president.
When teaching about faith, you have heard me use a definition crafted a hundred years ago by William Henry Griffith Thomas, an English theologian:
Faith affects the whole of [our] nature. It commences with the conviction of the mind based on adequate evidence; it continues in the confidence of the heart or emotions based on conviction, and it is crowned in the consent of the will, by means of which the conviction and confidence are expressed in conduct.”[i]
Faith is like a cake then. It needs three ingredients—eggs, flour and milk/ heart, will and mind.[ii] If faith lived only in our mind, it would be fruitless; if only in our heart, it would be fickle; and if only in our will, it would be unreasonable. In faith, heart, mind and will keep each other strong.
In Christian faith, we believe in Jesus Christ. Our belief is reasonable, because the evidence supporting it is good. Our hearts are drawn to Jesus Christ, through the beauty of the gospel. Karl Barth said it: God doesn’t convince us to believe in him by arguments; rather he persuades us by giving us joy, and gives us joy by being beautiful. And so faith draws commitment from us, and devotion.
Something similar was at work in Lincoln. He believed in America and what it stood for: freedom, rights, and self-determination through elections. Those beliefs were handed down from Adams, Jefferson, and the other founders, who were skilled and practiced reasoners. The evidence supporting American belief was good. But reasoning on evidence would not alone sustain a President through war. Lincoln believed in the founders’ vision, but he loved it too, because he saw that, in this vision, America is beautiful. And so he committed to it; and the war came.
I think a merely reasonable president would have made some kind of accommodation with the slave states. Lincoln’s opponents had a plausible, prima facie case. Southern states had joined the union voluntarily. It would follow, would it not, that they could voluntarily withdraw. Lincoln would not concede the point. He believed, and feared, that in the dissolution of the union a pearl of great price—government of the people, by the people, for the people—would perish from the earth.
So he hoped for something that he couldn’t see, something reasonably believable, but more than that, something worth believing in, that draws you toward belief, that makes you want to, that makes you feel you should. Sentiment and judgment coincide.
Such is faith.
After Moses, came Joshua. In Hebrew’s dioramic Biblical depiction, the parting of the Red Sea leads right to Jericho, where the trumpet blows and the walls come tumbling down. In this episode, faith’s exemplars are Joshua, the general, and Rahab, whose inclusion would suggest the Hebrews author was not a prude. He writes:
By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.
If Lincoln is Moses, the American Joshua is Martin Luther King. The wall now was racial segregation. On March 25, 1965, King climbed the state capitol steps in Montgomery, Alabama, and turned to face a crowd. They had followed him, eight thousand strong, from Selma—a fifty mile march along the Jefferson Davis Highway.
The substance of the marchers’ hope, in 1965, was the right to vote, access to public services and schools, fulfillment of their rights under the U.S. Constitution.
Coming to the microphone, King compares their fifty miles from Selma to Joshua’s seven times around the walls.
Let us march on ballot boxes until all over Alabama God’s children will be able to walk the earth in decency and honor.(“Yes,”the audience responds.)There is nothing wrong with marching in this sense.(“No,”returns the crowd.)The Bible tells us that the mighty men of Joshua merely walked about the walled city of Jericho and the barriers to freedom came tumbling down.
Dr. Martin Luther King was a learned man, scholarly and reasonable. As with Lincoln, we see in him the reasonableness in faith, but also that there is more at work in faith than reason. For example, a merely reasonable advocate for civil rights would not have sought an ally in the conscience of white southerners. King didn’t want to overthrow his adversaries. He believed that he could change us, and he did.
Witness Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, the book that six years ago swept the country and was made into an Oscar winning movie. The author was born in 1969 in Jackson. (As a child growing up in Jackson, my sisters and I rode horses at the Stockett family’s stables.) Kathryn represents a new south ashamed of the old one. In her young, white heroine, Miss Skeeter Phelan, I give you Rahab—a woman who lived within the wall, and who in her own, small way assisted in its downfall.
Odd, that our Hebrews author chooses Rahab, whom he cold easily have skipped. Who knows why? Perhaps there was a woman in his church who, the author knew, could identify with Rahab. For that matter, what if “he,” the author, were actually a “she” named Mary Magdalene? Imagine that—another book for Dan Brown.
As I said: who knows?
The author also leaves interesting questions regarding Rahab’s motives to our imagination. Other than in the act itself, we don’t see the color or texture in her faith, just the brute fact of her surprising loyalty to Hebrew spies.
With young Miss Skeeter Phelan, Kathryn Stockett colors in the picture. Skeeter’s motives are clear: a touch of writerly ambition, yes, but that comes wrapped in ample gratitude, decency, and kindness—the stuff that Lincoln called the better angels of our nature.
By these analogies—Moses/Lincoln, Rahab/Skeeter, Joshua/Martin Luther King—I hope you see that faith isn’t strange to our experience; rather, it is intrinsic. I would go so far as to say that without faith the world would go to pot, metaphorically and literally. We would be reduced to shadows of the people that we can be, numb to our potential.
Now let’s turn the analogies around. Hebrews tells us that, as the substance of things hoped for, faith is evidence of things unseen. That is true in our examples, in whom I give you evidence of grace, and of divine forgiveness, and of God’s concern, care, and guidance of the world.
In Skeeter, Kathryn Stockett has given us an analogy of grace. Skeeter does what’s right because of who she is, and gives because she wants to. In her, we see what Richard Hooker said of God: his being is the law of his doing. In the gospel story, in the ministry of Jesus we see God doing what comes naturally to him. Don’t worry, Jesus assures the anxious, “it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you his kingdom.” The grace of God is human decency and kindness at their source.
By his life, and in his death, Martin Luther King has given an analogy of divine redemption. Led by him, southern black folk met and conquered evil not on evil’s terms, but on theirs, overturning unjust laws by changing hearts and minds. Quite knowingly, in this approach they were imitating God in Christ.
With Lincoln, there is an analogy to providence: God’s government of history through its tumults, twists and turns. Since the Bible hadn’t heard of presidents, it likens God to kings. As David governs Israel, God is enthroned as ruler of creation.
Lincoln governed by a value and toward a goal. Freedom was the value; restoration of the democratic union was the goal. God governs by a value and toward a goal. Grace is the value; the world’s redemption and fulfillment is the goal.
This is our faith, the substance of our hope, and evidence within us of mysteries unseen. Our faith is reasonable, and beautiful, and good. It lifts our hearts and minds and wills to God, in whom we find our freedom and our true potential.
Through the spectacle of human history, at every turn witnesses to faith are found. They are generals, housemaids, and sympathetic white girls (fictional and not).[iii] They are prophets, prostitutes and presidents. As we make our way through life from grace, through redemption, toward fulfillment, they surround us like a cloud.
[i] W.H. Griffith-Thomas, The Principles of Theology (London: Longmans, Green, 1930), xviii, quoted in Alister McGrath, Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2005), 86.
[ii] I owe credit for this notion to Miss Maggie Davis, a student at Little Rock Central High, who I recently heard liken the “recipe” for salvation to, I believe it was, a quiche.
[iii] The Skeeters of the world didn’t only live in fiction. Branch Rickey, who brought Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers, was such a man.