A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, January 11, 2015
Hebrews 11:1-2, 6, 8-11 CEB
“The Substance of our Faith” was the opening activity and focus for the day at yesterday’s annual Board Retreat. So for our Board members who happen to be here today, a bit of what I have to say this morning will be a repeat. But I thought the idea was worth reviewing, expanding, and expounding upon for today’s services, as all of us think about the year ahead in the life of our church.
A couple of months ago I made a comment in one of our Board meetings to the effect that although we have to run the church like a business in some respects, in other respects we cannot always run a church just like we would run a business. I think this is true for a number of reasons, one of them being that in the church we are primarily dealing with volunteers, and you cannot relate to volunteers in the same way you relate to paid employees.
But another important reason we cannot run the church in exactly the same way we run a business is because in the church we have to give room for the “faith factor.” There are times when we have to give room for people to “be moved by the Spirit.” A case in point is when we adopt the coming year’s budget. Our budget always runs quite a bit higher than the dollar amount of pledges we receive during November. The reasons for that are that some people give generously, but do not pledge. And sometimes people give significant gifts above and beyond what they may have actually pledged in November. And then we also receive out-of-the-blue nice gifts throughout the year that are like icing on the cake. So in adopting our budget for the coming year, we always do so giving place to the “faith factor,” predicated on faith of gifts to come that are not presently seen, and cannot be seen.
The “faith factor” is what the unknown author of the book of Hebrews had in mind when we wrote, “Faith is the reality of what we hope for, the proof of what we don’t see” (Hebrews 11:1 CEB). Or as the English Standard Version renders it, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 ESV). Although we don’t know who wrote the book of Hebrews or the specific group to whom it was written, we do know that Hebrews was written to a group of Christians who had faced and were continuing to face severe persecution because of their Christian faith, such that they were tempted to abandon their Christian faith altogether. The purpose of the writer was to encourage them to stand strong and continue to be faith-ful, giving many examples of the saints of old who had also faced severe trials and tribulations but nevertheless remained faithful. In chapter 11, the so-called “faith chapter of the Bible,” the writer calls by name many of these so-called saints of old—Abraham and Sarah, Noah, Moses, Jacob, Joseph, Rahab, and many more—saints who lived by the faith principle, facing seemingly impossible situations and overcoming tremendous odds in order to realize the hoped-for outcome of their faith. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” So it was with the saints of old, and so it can be with us.
Allow me to share a personal example of faith as the conviction of things not seen. In 1989, the Hammer Family moved to Franklin, Tennessee, in Williamson County, what was at that time one of the fastest-growing counties in the United States, to start a new church. I had been hired and had been given a bit of training by our denomination to be what was called a church planter. There was no congregation, no building, no offering plates, not even a hymnal. The one thing the denomination did have was money from the sale of church property to fund the gathering of a new congregation. But we also had a vision of a new church—the type of personality it would have, the form the worship services would take, and some of us even had a vision of a church building that would not be constructed until almost 10 years later! So in the fall of 1989, we pulled up stakes and bought a small, new house in Franklin and began knocking on doors in search of unchurched families who might be interested in learning about a new church. After two and one-half months we had gathered 8-10 families, about 40 people in all, who would become the core group of the new congregation. Slowly we grew over the years: from an average worship attendance in those early months of about 30 . And then from 30 to 40 to 50. And from 50 to 60. But there were many times when I grew very discouraged. We would gain new members and seem to be making progress, and then we would lose members who were transferred out of state. In one month alone we lost three of our core families. We would plateau and go for months without growing at all.
Finally we reached an average Sunday attendance of 80, outgrowing the temporary worship space where we were meeting. Then it came time to hire an architect. And then we had to satisfy the Franklin Building & Codes office. Then we had to find a contractor who could build the new church building at a price we could afford. Finally the day arrived when we had completed and moved into that new colonial sanctuary. We had a special Sunday afternoon celebration, and the sanctuary was packed. The church that we had envisioned as the object of our faith ten years earlier finally became a visual reality.
Now, I tell you that story not to brag about the quality of our faith, but to share how in that instance, faith for us was the “conviction of things not seen.” But it was not easy. It was the hardest church work I have ever done in my life. But that is the way of faith: it is not always peaches and cream, or a bed of roses. It was not for the saints of old, and it is not for us either. As I said, there were numerous times when I got so discouraged I didn’t know what to do. At such times, a friend or family member would offer the encouragement I needed to continue working toward the object of our faith.
Permit me to also share some examples involving this congregation. I have faith that our congregation is going to be blessed in unthought-of ways during 2015. In some cases, those blessings are already in process and are certain to come, but as of today, they are yet unseen to those of us gathered here. I have faith that new faces and new families are going to walk through our doors and become active participants in this congregation. It may be new residents down the hill at the Guest House Assisted Living facility; it may be families who are planning to relocate to Oak Ridge during the summer months; it may be friends of our members who see our church website or keep seeing all the positive things that are going on here on our church Facebook page. New people are coming here this year; I have faith of it, but today we just don’t know exactly who they are. Will we give the impression that we have been expecting them, like distinguished guests?
When it comes to finances, I have faith that our congregation will receive some nice financial gifts this year. Some of them are already in the making. I have faith of it, but today we just can’t see exactly how much they will be or where they will come from.
This year ahead will bring us wonderful times of celebration, fellowship, and learning. Birthday and anniversary celebrations, game night, Vacation Bible School, Trunk or Treat, the Family Christmas Workshop, and other occasions yet unplanned. I know the Fellowship Committee are going to have some wonderful Wednesday on the Hill events this year. I can visualize them, and I know they are coming, but I just can’t show them to you today. Will we be eager to participate and invite our friends and neighbors to join us?
Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” The spiritual or religious life of necessity requires a certain amount of faith—faith in the Sacred or Divine, faith in a Higher Power, faith in the power of love and the bonds of community that bind us together, faith in the journey itself, or faith even in the Great Mysteries of the universe that defy explanation. Each of us has faith, to some extent, in that which is unseen.
As we begin this new year as a congregation, may we begin it in an attitude of faith. We take first steps of faith, even when we don’t see much of the road ahead. We believe that wonderful things lie in wait for us, even though we cannot see them with our eyes today. That is the meaning I have in mind of a future actualized, but not yet realized. Faith that good things lie in store for