Harrowing Of Hell
August 14, 2013

Faith – “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”.

Genesis 15:1-6

The word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But the word of the LORD came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.

In today’s readings, there is a lot about Faith and descendants.  In Genesis, we hear of Abram, fresh from freeing his nephew, Lot, from captivity.  Abram is visited by God in a vision.  Now, I’m not sure about you, but for me, this would be an overwhelming moment in my life.  While I’ve had many spiritual moments, I have never experienced God visiting me in a vision.  For me personally, I may question the whole experience, and even go get checked out by a professional.  But God tells Abram not to worry, for God is his shield and his reward shall be great.  Abram laments to God that he has no heirs, and that a slave born into his house shall be his descendant.  What happens next looks a little silly in my mind, but what I have pictured is God frowning a bit, and then very nonchalantly pointing to the stars.  “Count’em,” God says.  “If you can, that’s how many descendants you will have.”

Now that’s a lot.  Especially to a man who is as old as Abram, and whose wife is barren.  But Abram has faith in the Lord and does as he is told and believes what is told to him.

I wonder how many of us would’ve been able to swallow all of that?  But Abram’s faith in the Lord was true (and just as importantly, so was Sarah’s), and we now sings songs of Father Abraham and his many children.  I’ll withhold the hand motions we taught with the song last week in Sunday School Class, but the gist is this…  “Father Abraham had many kids, many kids had Father Abraham.  I am one of them, and so are you.  So, let’s all praise the Lord.”

Faith is an interesting word.  According to the reading in Hebrews today, it is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”.  I immediately thought of Indiana Jones taking a deep breath and stepping out into nothingness in his search for the Holy Grail.  And for a lot of folks, faith can be just that scary.  When I was a child I had faith that my parents would provide me food, shelter, clothing, and love.  Later in life, I had faith in my friends to be loyal and honest with me, and for the most part, I was not let down.  And in my spiritual life and in the calling that I have taken as a minister to youth and children, I have been asked to take leaps of faith in that the decisions I was making were the best for me and for the people I served.


I remember one such occasion when I was asked to leave a wonderful little mission church in Conway, Arkansas for another position.  I was happy at St. Peter’s, I had a great group of kids, the Sunday school program was doing well, and I had just pulled off my first Christmas Pageant with great success. I was happy, I was content, and had no known desires do go anywhere else.

Now, as the son of an Episcopal priest, and even more importantly, a southern boy, I have been blessed with many “Moms” and “Mother Hens”.  And one day, my long-time mentor, friend, and “Mom” called me and asked me if I would like to meet her for coffee.  I always enjoyed my visits with Peggy, so I readily agreed.  I met her the next day at a coffee shop in Little Rock, and she laid it out to me.  She was looking for a new youth minister.  The congregation she was serving was growing, but the youth program was plateauing and possibly even heading down.  She wanted me to come and serve in her parish.  Now, I had dreamed of working for Peggy for a while, and thought of the opportunity as golden.  But there were two problems.  One, I was happy at St. Peter’s and was fearful of leaving my kids.  The second, and more secular problem was that she could only pay me a part-time salary.  I expressed my concerns and she listened thoughtfully to all of them.

And then, she smiled the smile that always knocked me down, gave me her patented half-chuckle, and said, “Bud, there are moments in our lives when we can’t see the full opportunity for the fear we have.  That’s where faith comes in.  If you have faith in me, and faith in God, then take that step and we’ll take the leap together.”  I did, and we did, and it indeed “worked out”.  The diocese was looking for a new director for summer camp, and when that folded into my work at St. Margaret’s, I was able to afford the job that was offered.

But for the first few weeks, I didn’t have that part of the position, so living was, shall we say, “Interesting.”  There wasn’t a day during that time that I didn’t question my decision.  But every time I had a bit of a gnawing at my mind, there was a moment, an experience, a conversation with either parents, a child, or one of my youth that validated the decision.  And Peggy was there every day, continuing our work together, along with so many wonderful people.  The experience was a turning point for me.  I was, to some degree, a pretty practical person, and the call to St. Margaret’s, while foreign to my mind, was familiar in my heart, and turned out to be one of the best decisions I have ever made.  Taking that leap, making that choice allowed me to be in a community that not only flourished, but I flourished as well.  In so many ways, I am still a part of that community today.

That brings me back to Abram, now known as Abraham.  We’re over in Hebrews now and Abraham has obeyed the Lord and has set out to receive his inheritance.  He stayed in the land he was promised, but it was a foreign land.  He and his heirs lived in tents, waiting for a city built by God.  In the end, he died without having received his promises, but his faith never wavered.  He never lamented nor looked back at the things he had left behind, only forward to the promise; the promise of God’s kingdom.

Peggy was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2007.  I was living in Kentucky at the time, another leap of faith on my part.  I returned from a weekend retreat to a message from her daughter, Larnie.  It simply said, “Mom’s got cancer.  Come home.”  I didn’t even blink.  I repacked a bag, loaded my dog in the car, and set off.  She fought for over a year, and was one of the reasons I moved back to Arkansas in the fall of 2008.  She died on December 12th of that year.  I was at another retreat for college students, when I received the call at 2:14 a.m.  There were so many at the retreat who loved Peggy, so quietly, I began knocking on doors and letting people know that she was gone.  The community was devastated, one in particular.  Anna was Larnie’s best friend, and though she wanted to run home, she was encouraged to stay and give the talk she had been asked to give.  She did, though she changed it up.  She talked about community, and about how what we give and what we get from a community are the gifts we share.  Peggy, even though she had four children of her own, had many descendants.  At the time, I called them her fingerprints.  She touched so many and left her fingerprints on all of us.  And, in turn, we took those fingerprints and shared them with others.

When you think about it, this is how God calls us to live our lives.  God asks us to faithfully, and willingly, leave our fingerprints on others.  God asks us to wander a foreign land, giving of ourselves and creating our own descendants.  We may live in tents of brick and mortar, but they are still only temporary.  While we may be comfortable in this land, it is still foreign.  We will all, someday, leave this earth for the city of God.  But in that time that has been given to us, how we treat others, how we live in this community of Epiphany, how we live in this foreign land is our legacy.  Our fingerprints are our descendants.  And they are truly great in number.