Sunday, August 12, 2007

Faith: Moving from Head to Heart

Proper 14 – Year C
(Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost)
Gen 15:1-6; Ps 33:12-15, 18-22; Heb 11:1-3, 8-16; Lk 12:32-40
Sunday, August 12, 2007 – St. Alban’s, Westwood

I grew up listening to folk music. Even today, those old folk songs are among my favorites. Their simple, often whimsical lyrics convey some of the most profound truths about life. A week and a half ago, I set out on vacation, heading to New Mexico. As I drove across the desert, somewhere in eastern California or Arizona, I put on a CD of music by the Kingston Trio, a folk group popular during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Quite appropriate to the surroundings, as well as to the subject for this sermon that was bubbling in my subconscious, I was treated to an old favorite entitled “Desert Pete.” Based on a true story, the song tells of a man traveling on a very long and seldom-used trail across Nevada’s Amargosa Desert. The song goes like this:

I was travelin’ west of Buckskin on my way to a cattle run, ‘cross a little cactus desert under a hard blisterin’ sun. I was thirsty down to my toenails, stopped to rest me on a stump, but I tell you I just couldn't believe it when I saw that water pump. I took it to be a mirage at first. It'll fool a thirsty man. Then I saw a note stuck in a bakin' powder can. “This pump is old,” the note began, “but she works, so give 'er a try. I put a new sucker washer in ‘er. You may find the leather dry.”

“Yeah, you’ll have to prime the pump, work that handle like there’s a fire. Under that rock you’ll find some water I left in a bitters jar. Now there’s just enough to prime it with, so don’t you go drinkin’ first. Ya’ just pour it in and pump like mad and, buddy, you’ll quench your thirst.”

Well, I found that jar, and I tell you, nothin’ was ever prettier to my eye and I was tempted strong to drink it because that pump looked mighty dry. But the note went on, “Have faith, my friend, there’s water down below. You’ve got to give until you get. I’m the one who ought to know.”

So I poured in the jar and I started pumpin’ and I heard a beautiful sound of water bubblin’ ‘n splashin’ up out of that hole in the ground. Then I took off my shoes and drunk my fill of that cool refreshin’ treat. Then I thanked the Lord, and I thanked the pump, and I thanked old Desert Pete.

The chorus, interspersed through the song, goes:

You’ve got to prime the pump. You must have faith and believe. You’ve got to give of yourself ‘fore you’re worthy to receive. Drink all the water you can hold. Wash your face, cool your feet. But leave the bottle full for others. Thank ya’ kindly, Desert Pete.

Like the chorus says, this is a song of faith and of hope – “You must have faith and believe.” In the song, the cowboy is asked to have faith in some unknown person called Desert Pete. And he is asked to have faith in the presence of abundant, live-giving water below the desert – water that this mysterious Desert Pete claims will be delivered through an old, dry pump. Now why should the cowboy believe this note? Why should he put his faith in such unlikely odds?

Our Scripture readings today all deal with the nature of faith. The reading from the Letter to the Hebrews begins “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). While this is one of the most familiar pieces of Scripture, it is also one of the most obscure to the modern reader (Boyce, 24). In some ways, this statement about the nature of faith defies logic. It just doesn’t seem to make sense to our rational minds. According to The New Oxford American Dictionary, faith is “complete trust or confidence in someone or something.” How then, if we are to believe the writer of Hebrews, can faith, by its very definition, be an “assurance of things hoped for,” or a “conviction of things not seen?” This dilemma is particularly difficult when you consider that the word in this Scripture passage translated as “conviction” (elenkos) more accurately means proof or demonstration. Therefore, according to Hebrews, faith is proof of the unseen (Craddock, 131). How can faith be proof?

Biblical scholar James Boyce offers some insight into this apparent incongruity between our understanding of faith and our understandings of assurance, conviction, and proof. He notes that the “common translation [of faith] in terms of personal ‘assurance’ and ‘conviction’ masks an underlying worldview that assumes what is ‘not seen’ and only ‘hoped for’ is for that reason more real than this world of experience” (Boyce, 24). He goes on to explain that in the worldview of the writer, the assurance to be had is that the reality of God and all that God promises us “stands contrasted with the corruptible, shadowy, and merely prototypical character of this present world” (Boyce, 25). As a result of the Enlightenment, we tend to think of what is real as that which we can observe or measure through our senses or through scientific method. God cannot be directly observed through our senses or measured using scientific methodologies. Therefore, from a purely scientific perspective, we cannot be certain whether or not God exists. For those of us who do believe in God, the matter gets relegated to the area of faith. God is someone we believe in, whom we trust exists and operates in the world, even though we cannot prove it using science. Hence, to put it very simply and to purposefully create a dichotomy where one need not necessarily exist, existence in our worldview is divided into the real – that which can be observed scientifically – and the realm of faith – that which is beyond (quote) “reality.”

To the ancients, to the founders of our religious traditions, to those who wrote our Scriptures, the world looked very different. To them, the world that they could observe around them was not the ultimate reality. The world to be observed was a merely a shadowy, incomplete, imperfect reflection of reality. To them, reality was God and the kingdom of heaven. Hence, their writing reflected this worldview and their understanding. They firmly believed in the reality of God and the kingdom of heaven, and their definition of faith reflected that reality. What we are given in the passage from Hebrews was, for them, a working definition of faith – not theoretical or philosophical, but the truth about faith drawn from Israel’s own experience (O’Day, 19).

So how do we deal with the fact that we are dealing with two, diametrically opposed, worldviews? This is a struggle with which I am all too familiar. Coming out of an engineering background, I tend to operate in the realm of the observable, to operate on an analytical level, to operate in my head. This is the prevailing view of most of our contemporary society. But what the Scriptures challenges us to do is to move from our heads to our hearts – to see reality not as our post-Enlightenment society says it is, but to see it as the ancients saw it – to see that reality, our ultimate reality, is not in that which we can observe or measure through scientific method, but that which we know by faith – that the kingdom of God is our true reality. As biblical scholar Gail O’Day notes, “Faith is the conviction that the course of our lives is neither to be limited nor determined by what we are able to see. The way into God’s future is to live the present in the conviction and assurance of faith” (O’Day, 19). “To live ‘by faith’ is to live in readiness for the unpredictable arrival of God’s grace” (O’Day, 22). To live in this way, according to Fred Craddock, “strongly involves the quality of human embrace and trust and tenacity” (Craddock, 131) – to tenaciously embrace God and trust that what God promises is the ultimate reality to which we are called.

How we make the move from head to heart is going to be different for each of us. For me, one of the best ways I have found to make that transition is to get away to some place where I can just be alone with God. That’s part of what my recent vacation in New Mexico was about – just making time to be with God. I find that when I’m in the city, I tend to feel bombarded by the extensive visual and auditory stimuli that seem to constantly surround us in a place like Los Angeles. I find that with so much stimuli that needs processing, I spend an awful lot of time in my head, taking in what I’m seeing and hearing, and then analyzing and critiquing what I observe. I find that getting away from all of this, particularly to quiet places like the desert allows me to move out of my head and into my heart. I’m able to reduce the amount of thinking, analyzing, and critiquing that I do, and be more in touch with what I’m feeling and with my spirit. And that’s where I feel more connected with God – when I’m in my heart, more so than when I’m in my head. I feel a lightness in my spirit that allows it to touch God and be in communion with him. My spirit soars on the winds and sings a song of praise to God.

I felt this most profoundly while visiting Santuario de Chimayó, a church in a small village about half an hour north of Santa Fe. This place, referred to as “Lourdes of the Southwest,” is visited by numerous pilgrims drawn by the alleged healing powers of the “miraculous dirt” found in a side chapel. As I sat in the church, praying for healing, for myself and for various parishioners here at St. Alban’s, I was very much aware of God’s presence in that place. I could not explain it with my head, but I certainly felt it in my heart and in my spirit. I was amazed at how easily I seemed to be able to connect with God while I was there. On the drive back to Santa Fe, I reflected on the experience and realized that when I’m home, I almost have to fight myself to connect with God. There is so much “stuff” running through my mind that when I pray, I have to fight through all that stuff to make room for God, to get through to God, to allow God to get through to me. But when I just allowed myself to be in the presence of God, resting in my heart, I found that God was already there waiting for me. By going into my heart, by seeing in faith, I was able to see beyond the alleged reality of this world and to see the ultimate reality which is to be had in communion with God.

In his commentary, Fred Craddock discusses how the remainder of the reading from Hebrews, which talks about the faith of Abraham as he and his family traveled to the Promised Land, is a “reflection on the life of faith as that of an alien sojourner.” We are traveling in a foreign land, not permanent residents, but sojourners, residing in tents, always on the move, always looking ahead to the permanent home promised by God, to that home where God is the foundation. He notes that “It becomes more apparent in this narrative that faith is forward looking, oriented toward the future, trusting that God will keep promises made to those who believe. In other words, faith and hope are one, and life is pilgrimage” (Craddock, 135).

According to the writer of Hebrews, we are on a pilgrimage, traveling through this shadowy, imperfect world, destined for the real world promised by God. That was a challenging enough venture when Hebrews was written nearly 2,000 years ago. But in this post-Enlightenment age, we have the added challenge of shifting our perspective, of moving from trying to see the journey and its destination in our heads, to seeing with our hearts, to seeing in faith that which the world cannot see but that which is our ultimate reality. Only then will we truly know that faith is indeed “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Boyce, James L. Proclamation 6: Aids for Interpreting the Lessons of the Church Year: Series C Pentecost 2. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1997.

Craddock, Fred B. “The Letter to the Hebrews: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflection.” In Vol. XI of The New Interpreter’s Bible. Edited by Leander E. Keck, et al. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000.

O’Day, Gail. Proclamation 4: Aids for Interpreting the Lessons of the Church Year: Series C Pentecost 2. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989.

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