Sunday, August 25, 2013

Where Faith Goes: Trail Markers





Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
August 25, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

We've been talking about faith for the last couple of weeks as we looked at what the book of Hebrews has to say to us about it. We started with a definition of faith: the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Then we moved closer to see what faith looks like, and it turns out it looks like a lot of ordinary, flawed people listening for God and moving along the road, keeping their eyes fixed on Jesus.

Now, we’re in the third and final week of our series, and we’re getting some direction
on how to DO faith – where faith goes, and how.

Let’s look for direction now from Hebrews 13, verses 1-8 and 15-16.
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, "I will never leave you or forsake you." So we can say with confidence, "The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?" Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.


Have you ever gotten lost in the woods?
I don’t mean lagging behind on a marked trail, but really, truly lost? with no idea how to get home? Maybe it wasn’t the woods. Maybe it was the desert, or prairie, or a cornfield in August. Wherever it was, obviously, since you are here, you found your way home.

It is kind of surprising to think about the number of people who go out for a hike, usually in the mountains or forest, and get lost and never come home, are never found. In the United States, between one and two THOUSAND hikers go missing every year. Over a thousand of them get lost JUST in our National Parks. Most of them are found. But some are not.

Serious hikers exhort people to pay attention to some basic guidelines: carry a pack with some survival basics; let someone know where you are going and when you expect to be back; and don’t go alone.

Most hikers who get lost are solo, young men, who set out alone. When they get lost, instead of turning back, they forge on, without knowing where they are going.[1] That’s when they get into trouble. This scripture in Hebrews, like those exhortations from hiking experts, is filled with instructions about our own journey, as we run that race along a very long track, through wilderness and desert, in the woods and the prairies of our lives.

Scholars call this “hortatory” scripture, because it exhorts us – instructs and encourages us – no -- urges us, to go in a certain direction, to act in a certain way. I think of this text as being like a set of trail markers. You’ve seen trail markers before – maybe you learned about them in Scouting, or with a hiker, or in a book. They date back to ancient times.

In Scripture, trail markers were generally rock cairns, like the one pictured on the front of your bulletin. They were stones, piled atop one another, and they served two purposes:
Cairns were a mark of God’s covenant faithfulness, and cairns marked the path to get back home. When the people of Israel were freed from slavery in Egypt, they headed out into the wilderness. God guided them for many years in that journey, until they finally crossed the Jordan into the promised land, carrying the ark of the covenant. At that spot, they piled up stones, building a cairn in observance of God’s deliverance, marking their path to freedom, to their new home. And when the people went into exile, driven away from their homes, they built cairns to mark the way back, trusting that one day they would return to their homeland.

The practice of marking a trail hasn’t changed much, even though the medium has changed. In what is now West Texas, the early Spanish explorers marked the plains with wooden stakes, direction markers, so they could find their way back and forth. The high plains were called the “llano estacado,” the staked plains. Some trails in Europe are marked with painted symbols, stenciled onto trees or rocks, giving guidance to hikers.

No matter what form trail markings take, their ultimate goal is to communicate two basic pieces of information:  where a hiker is currently, and where he or she needs to go next. That’s pretty much what these trail markers do. They remind us of God’s covenant faithfulness. They show us where we are and where we need to go next. There are times when Christian faith calls us to strike out and blaze new trails; there are times when it calls us to stay on the well-worn path.[2] These are trail markers for our faith. Given that, let’s take a quick look at these markers in Hebrews 13.




Marker 1. The love of fellow believers in community and love to the stranger.
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. The Beloved Community, the church, is a home for love. Our welcome and hospitality are not limited to ourselves, but are offered to others in Christ’s name.  By our loving welcome, we demonstrate God’s love in Christ.

Marker 2: To show care in times of distress.
Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Our Christian journey is marked by our care for those who suffer – not just each other, not just people we know, but all who suffer.

Marker 3: Honor the marriages of others, and stay faithful to our own marriage covenants.
Defending marriage isn’t the point here, but holding all marriage in honor. Even if we should suffer the pain of the breakdown of our own marriages, we can still honor the covenant of marriage. If you are not married, uphold the covenants that others have made. And if you are married, keep your promises.

Marker 4: Contentment with what we have.
It has been said that true happiness consists not in having what you want, but in wanting what you have. What we have, beyond any material possessions, is the abiding, constant, grace-filled promise of Christ: “I will never leave you or forsake you.” So we can say with confidence, "The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?"  That is true contentment.

Marker 5: Loyalty and constancy
Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. This is not just blind loyalty to a pastor or a public religious figure. Those who spoke the word of God to you – you know who they are. They may be the voices of scripture, the cloud of witnesses. They may be Sunday School teachers, ministers, children,  a neighbor or a friend. Remember them and stay faithful because of their examples. People change – they fail, they fall away, they come and go, but Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Marker 6: Proper worship and proper sacrifice.[3]
Here’s what Hebrews 13 says: Through him, then, -- him referring to Jesus Christ, the one who is constant and faithful, on whom our eyes are fixed, who is the author and perfecter of our faith, through him, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God. That sacrifice is not a burnt offering on an altar. That sacrifice is the fruit of lips that confess his name. That sacrifice is to do good and to share what you have. To do good and to share what you have. Those are sacrifices that are pleasing to God. That’s why here at the front of the church, you don’t see an altar, even though many folks refer to it as such – there is no altar in this church. There is a table, the symbol of our gathering, and a reminder that Christ’s sacrifice was once and for all. So we do not gather in front of an altar, but around a table. Here, gathered around this table, literally and figuratively, as we live in community, as we worship together, we come and bring our gifts to God.

We travel from many places, through weeks that feel like a wilderness, through days that look like deserts, seasons that seem like we are at sea, or lost on a featureless prairie. The trail is well marked, and it brings us here, leads us to this table where we bring our gifts, gifts of praise and lips that confess God’s name, gifts of works that bring glory to God and Christ our risen Savior.

When we set out on the journey of Christian faith, we need to know where we are. We need to know where we are going. We need to know how to get there. We need to know how to get home. This is a trail that is well marked. The trail leads us through every circumstance, through gloomy fog and dark woods, when we may not be able to see the markers and must trust in Christ our guide; through sunlit meadows and vast open plains, when everything looks the same in every direction, and we simply fix our eyes on Jesus; the road may take us up to mountain tops and down into valleys and across rivers, through places both hospitable and treacherous.

But always, always, the path leads us back to Christ,
who calls us and guides us,
who gathers us and cares for us,
who meets us at this table,
who is always with us,
always ready with arms outstretched,
always ready to welcome us and lead us home.

Amen.

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