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What's a hero? (11:1-3, 8-16)

Ben Carter

This may come as a surprise to some of you, but I am not a minister. So, I don’t know how the liturgy gets set. What transnational, ecumenical, multi-denominational partnership puts this calendar together. So, I have no idea whether the whole thing is structured around having this passage from Hebrews recur every four years during the Summer Olympics or not.

“Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” It’s perfect, isn’t it? Let us scowl with Michael Phelps as Chad le Clos shadowboxes in front of us. Let us throttle Russian dopers with swagger and grace. At minimum, let us jump off our couches with 1% of the bounce of our gold-medal-winning gymnasts.

Kudos to you, liturgists. Sermons across the world sort of wrote themselves this week: I’ll give them some Olympic banter, some jokes about exercising, some deep thoughts about faith and I’m out. I mean, literally, the women’s marathon started at 8:30 this morning. Maybe next week’s scripture will be about baptism just in time for the diving competition.

Turns out, this one isn’t that easy for me. This passage hits me right where I’m most uncomfortable: faith So, while I’m tempted to run out the clock with more Olympic chest-thumping, let’s do what the heroes in our passage would do: not take the easy way but instead flog ourselves with some talk about faith.

In my Bible, this passage is titled, “The Faith of Other Israelite Heroes”. Anybody else feeling a little inadequate after reading this? The writer doesn’t even have time to go into all of the things the Israelites accomplished with faith, instead he just has to say generically: “conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength from weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.”

It’s quite a list. And he’s not even going to go into Gideon, Barak, Samson and the others. Not even going to touch that. We’d be here all day.

Conquering kingdoms. Quenching fire. Flogging. Chains. Imprisonment. Destitution. Persecution. Torment.

It’s a lot to live up to, right? I mean, I feel like it’s a good day if I can get my kid to daycare, answer a few phone calls, cross a few things off of my to-do list at the office, and get home in time for Bachelor in Paradise. A good week is if I see a friend or two, get to the pool, mow the yard, and make it to church. A good month is paying the mortgage. Yet, here we are with these faithful heroes, these overachievers. In law school, we called these people “gunners” and they were the absolute worst. In our passage, these gunners are wandering in deserts and sleeping in caves, getting sawn in half and winning wars and generally making the rest of us look pretty bad by comparison.

It’s especially daunting when it’s hard to have faith. I know we are not that into “confession” here in the Disciples of Christ denomination. But, I have a confession to make. And, since we don’t have a priest here with a direct line to the Big One in the Sky, you all are going to have to do. Here it is: I am not a faithful person. Never once in 38 years have I felt full of faith. Full of barbecue, sure. Full of faith? Not so much.

The things you’re supposed to believe to be faithful are not things I can often muster much faith in: life after death, a God that takes an active role in our affairs. I find praying to be nearly impossible. As soon as I begin, I’m flooded with those questions of who I’m praying to, what, exactly do I expect to happen as a result of this prayer? It doesn’t tend to get better from there.

And yet, in the quieter moments of my youth, I have felt the presence of God in the world.

A few weeks ago, I had a chance to return to the summer camp I went to as a boy. The church there are just some rough-hewn logs in the trees near the banks of a small lake on the Cumberland Plateau. No offense to the architects of DBCC, but it is my favorite church on Earth. I have seen the ripples on the water as a breeze courses over the surface of that lake and felt the presence of God. I have gazed at star-drenched skies and watched embers from a campfire fly heavenward. During some of those moments, I glimpsed—almost as if it was out of the corner of my eye, glimpsed something normally invisible, shrouded.

And yet—still—faith is hard.

We are scientists now. We are smart, modern people. Forget the willfully ignorant: those who believe the Earth is thousands of years old. For most of us, even if we’re lawyers, social workers, teachers, salespeople, we’re also scientists: we believe that the universe is knowable, that reality can be tested, probed, and explored using experiments based on the scientific method.

So, faith is hard for us. It’s hard for me, at least.

Having faith seems soft, indefensible, and, maybe worst of all, intellectually lazy. Saying “I can’t prove it, I just believe it to be true” is not what we learned in school. It’s certainly not something I can say in Court. And, relying on faith—we fear—puts us a little too close to the crowd that believes cave people who most certainly didn’t evolve from monkeys saddled up their dinosaurs and raced them down at the Salt Lick Drag Strip on the weekends.

We used to drag race on the backs of dinosaurs. America sure was great back then.

And, while part of me is skeptical of faith because it’s not rigorous or verifiable, another part of me deeply desires to have faith. That kind of abiding faith that guided the lives and deaths of our Israelite heroes in this passage. Part of me recognizes that a life without faith could be crushingly sad. Lonesome. And, in some ways, unbearable. Without faith, without the belief that there’s some meaning, some structure undergirding all this cruelty, greed, and pain, how can we go on?

People do it, of course. And, these days, people do it more and more. I’m just not sure it’s something I can do. I want—maybe the right word is need—the kind of faith that at least allows us to endure, to run with perseverance.

What is a thinking person to do? A thinking person confronted with the question of faith pretty quickly arrives at Pascal’s Wager. Now, I’m not Derek, so I won’t be quoting Terry Eagleton from the pulpit, but I did take a few religion classes in college and I know just enough to be dangerous to myself and others. So, let’s talk about Pascal’s Wager.

Blaise Pascal’s Wager is basically just a four-hundred year-old thought experiment to help humans decide whether or not to believe in God. The idea is basically this: we are confronted with two possible realities. Either God exists or It doesn’t. And, we have a choice to make: live our lives as though God exists or live as though It doesn’t exist. With two realities and two options to choose from, there are four possible outcomes that flow from our decision whether or not to believe in God.

This is what thinkers do.

Pascal’s wager says: “Look, the safe bet here is to live as though God exists.

Outcome 1: If God exists and you live that way, GREAT! You are the big winner here.

Outcome 2: But, if God exists and you don’t live a life as though God exists, “Well, you’re entering a world of pain.”

Outcome 3: If God doesn’t exist, but you’ve lived a faithful life: “Eh. So, you missed out on a few fun weekends in Vegas, didn’t drink as much as maybe you would have if you had known the truth. Not a big deal.”

Outcome 4: If God doesn’t exist and you live like God doesn’t exist, well, congratulations. You were right, but you’re also dead and it didn't really matter much anyway, did it?

So, the safe thing to do is live as if God exists because the reward of doing anything else isn’t so great as to justify the risk of being wrong on this question. Pascal would have all of us smart people who are really thinking about things make the safe bet and live faithful lives just in case God exists.

It’s so rational and so…unsatisfying. Isn’t it? Trying to first discern and then be faithful to the edicts of a higher power that just might exist seems so middling, so empty, so impotent, so…safe. It seems like advice a financial planner might give you. This is what the kids call “weak sauce”.

I don’t want that kind of faith. I want the kind of faith that turns away swords, conquers enemies. I want to part seas! Heck, in my line of work, I would settle for some of the more modest accomplishments of our Israelite heroes: obtaining promises and administering justice. Injustice is everywhere. Cruelty and pain abound and I want a resilient, courageous faith. But, I don’t often feel faithful at all, much less full of the faith of our Israelite heroes.

So, what are we supposed to do? I sort of regard Pascal’s Wager as the best that thinking can get you. A dry, empty faith. How can a skeptical scientist, a modern, rational person who desires faith begin to have faith? How can we rise above the safe faith of the financial planner and start living from an authentic faith?

Some of you might not know this, but our minister is an Aristotelian scholar. He could probably explain it better—probably—but the working model for building virtue according to Aristotle is action. You want to be fair? Act fairly. You want to be faithful? Begin acting faithfully. Action changes thinking.

Aristotle said, “These virtues are formed in a person by he or she doing the actions.” Okay, Aristotle didn’t use gender-inclusive language, but that’s pretty close. Will Durant then paraphrased Aristotle into the famous quote you find on the back of the tee-shirts of cross-country runners and National Junior Classical League nerds across the country. In explaining Aristotle’s thoughts, he wrote: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” It’s just perfect for an Olympics-themed sermon, isn’t it?

If we wait around to be inspired, to think ourselves full of faith, it’s not going to happen for us. Here’s the bad news for all of us thinkers: we cannot think our way into faith. We have to act our way into it. Behave our way into it.

I’m smart. But, when doing is the thing that matters, thinking is actually pretty dumb. If it were up to me, I’d think myself dry. I’d think myself all the way into the grave.

And that’s why I’m here. Because I need you all and this structure to do something to become faithful, to grow in faith.

When Sarah and I first started dating, I went up to New York City quite a bit. One weekend, we went ice skating in Central Park. These are the things you do when you’re trying to win someone’s affections. As we were buying our tickets, the cashier—sort of the typical gruff middle-aged New York guy, straight out of central casting from Crocodile Dundee—he looks at me and looks at Sarah and looks back at me and says to me, “Hey, do something.” At the time, and to this day, I don’t know what he meant. I had already paid him. He was in the process of getting us our tickets. There really wasn’t anything left for me to do. I suspect he looked at Sarah, knew that she was way out of my league, and that was his way of saying, “Good luck, pal. Go be a hero.” I don’t know, but the words have stuck with me and Sarah and I will occasionally exhort each other to, “Hey, do something.”

This faith community gives me, us, the foundation and opportunity to start doing something—anything—toward living a faithful life. And, more importantly for me, gives me role models to emulate, people every day modeling what faith—an active faith, a heroic faith, not some middling, weak sauce faith; what a courageous faith—looks like in the world.

When I come to church, when I go to events, when I read the emails, here’s what I see: people working to expand access to healthy, local foods, people welcoming the outsider in. Since I have been here, this church has been an example in Louisville and around the nation of a community that says, “There is no them and us, in and out, cools, dorks, your side, my side. There is only we, us, together.”

The writer of Hebrews says “let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us”. He doesn’t say, “run with perseverance the race that is set before you. Good luck. You’re on your own.” No, for the writer and for us, it’s one race and it’s our race. We do this together. There’s no other way but to run this race together.

Most recently, you all have worked to make a home and a welcome for Syrian refugees and for a lesbian couple outed against their will who can’t safely return to their home country anymore. Think about that. You have made a home for two families who had no home and a welcome in a foreign land to people who have lost everything.

I see our choir providing encouragement, comfort, solace, and beauty with a song. People performing thousands of selfless acts each year to make this campus nicer, more efficient; people working to make our community fairer, greener; to make sure everyone has access to the same opportunities, the same justice. I see people visiting the sick, the lonely, the inconvenient.

Sometimes, there’s a church. I won’t say a heroic church, because what’s a hero? But, sometimes there’s a church that opens its doors wide and says, “Come inside. Those weights look heavy. We’ll take those for you. Welcome.”

And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Dawn and Travis and Ilse, of Gary and Basil and Beth, of Ann and Susie and Margie and Jai and Amy and Mary who through faith fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, administered justice, made peace, encouraged the tired, made courage from fear, comforted those in pain, and made a home for the homeless.

We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses. Working in your own ways and from your own faith. Who, just by your example, encourage the rest of us: “Hey, do something. Before faith can be a noun, it has to be a verb.”

Amen.

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