Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
The Rev. Melanie McCarley
When many people think of “Faith”, they conceive of it as a noun—something an individual possesses. And, if this is the case, how can we blame them, for this is precisely how the dictionary defines it. We assume that people such as Abraham had a lot of faith—and others, perhaps even ourselves, have some or none. Faith, it seems is poured out on some folks like buckets—while, others might consider themselves as having little more than a scant teaspoon or merely a pinch. Some, in fact, might proclaim they have none at all. But---think of this. What if the dictionary has it wrong? What if faith isn’t a noun, but is instead a verb? What if faith isn’t something you have, but is instead something you do?
In his epistle, James tells us, “Faith, without action (absent from works) is dead.” So, think of faith as similar to kinetic energy. Faith is something that propels us onward. In other words, Faith takes us places. Like Abraham, who sets out on a journey to find a land promised to him as his inheritance. Faith impels us onward. Listen again to what the author of the epistle to the Hebrews says: “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…” Abraham was a man on the move.
Earlier in our epistle lesson from Hebrews we are told about the nature of faith: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, it is the conviction of things not seen.” Faith is a journey into the unknown.
Listen to the story of Henry Box Brown’s harrowing escape from slavery—a thrilling story of the nature of faith. Henry Box Brown’s 1848 trip from Richmond, Virginia to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, remains one of the most celebrated journeys to freedom on the Underground Railroad. Henry’s courage and his ingenuity—as well as his abundance of faith, led him from a life of slavery into another—that of freedom. He writes:
“At length, after praying earnestly to (God)…for assistance in my difficulty, suddenly, as if from above, there darted into my mind these words: “Go and get a box, and put yourself in it.” I pondered the words over in my mind, wrote Henry. “Get a box? Thought I? “What can this mean?” But I was not ‘disobedient unto the heavenly vision,” and I determined to put into practice this direction … from my heavenly Father….”
After procuring a box, and contacting a friend in Philadelphia, Henry had yet another friend nail him into his coffin-like container. He continues: “I took with me a bladder filled with water to bathe my neck with, in case of too great a heat; and with no access to the fresh air, excepting three small gimlet holes, I started on my perilous cruise. I was first carried to the express office, the box being placed on its end, so that I started with my head downwards, even though the box clearly had written upon it “this side up with care.” From the express office, I was carried to the depot, and from thence tumbled roughly into the baggage car where I happened to fall “right side up,” but no thanks to my transporters. But after a while the cars stopped, and I was put aboard a steamboat, and placed on my head. In this dreadful position, I remained the space of an hour and a half, it seemed to me, when I began to feel of my eyes and head, and found to my dismay, that my eyes were almost swollen out of their sockets, and the veins on my temple seemed ready to burst. I made no noise, however, determining to obtain “victory or death,” but endured the terrible pain, as well as I could, sustained under the whole by thoughts of sweet liberty. Henry prayed, and relief came from two mail carriers searching for a place to rest who tipped his box over to use as a seat.
But Henry’s travails were not yet over. He continues: “Soon after this fortunate event, we arrived at Washington, where I was thrown from the wagon and again, as my luck would have it, fell on my head. I was then rolled down a declivity, until I reached the platform from which the cars were to start. During this short but rapid journey, my neck came very near to being dislocated as I felt it crack, as if it had snapped asunder. Pretty soon, I heard someone say, “There is no room for this box, it will have to remain behind.” I then again applied to the Lord, my help in all my difficulties, and in a few minutes I heard a gentleman direct the hands to place it aboard as (in his words) “it came with the mail and must go on with it.” I was then tumbled into the car, my head downwards again, as I seemed to be destined to escape (to freedom) on my head.
Faith isn’t simply a matter of praying to God in order that the Almighty might solve the problems which beset us at present. Nor is it a matter of losing faith should the journey become rougher than we anticipated. Faith (as the story of Henry Box Brown teaches us) is a matter of asking God to give us a future, and then moving forward with trust and hope into what that future has in store. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
In the Gospel lesson for today Jesus says to his disciples: Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms…. Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit.” Jesus asks us to have our hearts ready to set forth on a journey of faith at a moment’s notice. Make no mistake, the Gospel is about action and deployment. It’s not designed for armchair tourists. Those who are called, pick up their cross and follow. And what we discover is this: that the journey upon which we go can be both difficult and hazardous, but also surprisingly sweet. For we, like our Father Abraham, will at the last, be led to a land of overflowing streams, a place of milk and honey, where all who dwell therein live in the presence and peace of God. Make plans, get ready and move ahead with confidence and trust in the promises of God, for e are people on a journey. We are a people of faith. In Jesus’ name. Amen.