All Saints’ Day Sermon: The Conviction of Things Not Seen

Hebrews 11-12:1 (excerpts)

Every Thursday, I go for a walk with my neighbor. On one of our recent walks, she was telling me how her father, in his retirement, had written family histories for both her parents’ lineages — so, his father’s and mother’s families — and also his wife’s parents’ families. In essence, he had produced four books of family history. Now my neighbor told me she had actually never read the books. She’d paged through them and thought she’d get to them someday, but had never actually gotten there yet. 

But a couple of weeks ago, deep into a months-long pandemic and a highly anxious season — do you have any idea what I’m talking about? —  she pulled these family histories down from the shelves and began reading them to her son and husband. She was taken with the story of her mother’s family who, in the 1830s, were forced off the land they farmed in Scotland because the Duke, who owned the land, decided he wanted his land back. He wanted to consolidate all the small tenant farms into one large sheep farm. The one thing the Duke did after kicking them off the land was to negotiate for 100 acres of “free” land in Quebec from the Canadian government. And, of course, this land was “free” because it was taken from its Indigenous inhabitants. With little choice, her family immigrated to Canada with others kicked off the land, enduring an ocean crossing by ship that lasted two months.

Once they arrived, they camped for two weeks as they tried to figure out where they were actually going to settle. Needless to say, these settlers didn’t have camping equipment. And there were no REIs back then. They built a tent out of blankets and poles they hewed from logs. And then, when the deed to the land they wanted to settle was ready, they walked 40 miles to get to it. It was now September, and they no shelter and no time to sow any crops. They survived because some other settlers sold them milk and potatoes and because the Native Abenaki people taught them how to hunt, fish, trap and build shelters. Still, some in their party died of starvation that winter. 

Hearing this family’s story reminded me of the stories that live in each of us. Somewhere in your lineage, and probably not very long ago, I can guarantee you that you had ancestors who lived through things unimaginably difficult to us now, who somehow made it through so you could be here today. Somehow, they found the resilience to endure dispossession from their land, forced immigration, oppression, starvation, war, poverty and, for some of you, genocide. Somehow, they didn’t give up, collapse. Instead, they dreamed of another life, a future. They dreamed of you, their children, their children’s children and their children’s children’s children, and they vowed to keep on keeping on in the hope that your life would be better. Many of them, most of them, despite the harshness of their present reality, believed in an Unseen Reality — in God, in the Creator, in Jesus, the ancestors, the spiritual realm. That faith in what they could not see kept them from giving up in the face of what they could.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.”

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, God has prepared a city for them. (Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, excerpted)

For our ancestors, their faith — the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen — that faith provided the sure ground that held them up as they walked, that supported their footfall. Far from being unrealistic, their faith grounded them in a Deeper Reality. (From Bruce Epperly’s commentary.) They “lived with the vision of another country, God’s country, that lay beyond the limitations they were currently experiencing.” They didn’t deny the harshness of their world, its injustices, its challenges. How could they? It was ever in their face. But their faith saw this world as a “womb of possibility” that enabled them to imagine the future of which God dreamed, even when that future seemed unlikely at the moment.

For our ancestors, their faith not only gave them ground to walk on in the present. It also called them into that future, giving them the courage to keep walking into the unknown — to a ship on a wide sea, to a foreign land, into an autumn with no harvest followed by a cold winter.

By faith Moses was hidden by his parents for three months after his birth, because they saw that the child was beautiful; and they were not afraid of the king’s edict. By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called a son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin… By faith he left Egypt, unafraid of the king’s anger; for he persevered as though he saw him who is invisible.…

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. 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.

And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness… Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. (Hebrews 11:23-36, excerpted)

My grandmother Anna grew up in a small house next to the railroad tracks near Kalona, Iowa. The house wasn’t painted because they couldn’t afford paint. When her mother became ill, she had to leave school in the 8th grade to take care of the younger children. When she was 15, her parents hired her out to work full-time. In addition to cooking and cleaning, she had to carry all the water for washing, bathing and housekeeping for a family of six from a spring located across the road and down a steep bank. She said it was (in the oral history I did with her in the 1980s) that is was very hard work, and coming from my grandma — who had worked like an ox her whole life — that was saying something. In 1951, her family’s barn burned down and they lost all their hay and straw, some livestock and a house full of laying hens. Three years later, her husband died of a brain tumor. She still had three children living at home. She outlived her second husband also. At 94, she had her leg amputated because of diabetes. My Mom always thought that surgery would kill her, but she sailed through it. The first words out of her mouth, after waking up from surgery, were: “Can I have a vanilla milkshake?” She never seemed to mind the loss of her leg. She lived another year, until she was 95.

Here we are, deep into a months-long pandemic and a highly anxious season. What are the stories that live in you? Even if you don’t know your ancestor’s stories, even if you don’t have books of family history — the DNA, the blood, the faith of your ancestors is in you. Just listen. What are they saying to you at this time, during this highly anxious season, two days before an election fraught with existential angst the likes of which few of us have ever experienced? 

When I listen to my grandma Anna, when I listen to my spiritual ancestors — the early Anabaptists tortured for their faith, the ones who, as our Scripture said, “suffered mocking and flogging and even chains and imprisonment,” the ones who were known to sometimes sing as they were dying in the flames — when I listen to my ancestors, they don’t say, “There, there, Sheri. I know it’s hard right now.” They don’t speak words of comfort. They tell me to buck up. They say: Did you expect life to be easy? Did you expect comfort, convenience, endless ease? Did you think you that everything, always, would just come to you with the click of a computer key and a package arriving at your door a day later? Why should you not experience civil unrest, authoritarian governments, climate disasters, plagues? We did. And we endured, and we depended on our faith to keep us keeping on, and that faith made us strong and gave us courage and allowed us to keep us walking into an unknown future, and because of that faith, you are here, now.  

You are not as fragile as you think. You can go through much, much worse than this and not only can you survive, you may discover spiritual capacities in yourself you didn’t know were there. You may discover you can delight in vanilla milkshakes after having your leg sawn off. You may be able to sing as the flames devour you. You stand on our shoulders. Feel our solidity beneath you. And trust, as we did, that this world is a womb of possibility, that God imagines and calls you to a future that you can not yet imagine. Do you think we could have imagined your future? Do you think we could have imagined you?  Walk into this unknown future with faith and great courage. We are here in that future, with God. And we are waiting for you. 

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us. (Hebrews 12:1)