Faith—Holding onto what you cannot see
Hebrews: 11:1-3, 8-16
A child was born in France in 1881, the fourth of eleven children. His mother taught him the great value of a strong Catholic faith and his father spent a great deal of time teaching self-discipline and instilling a love of nature and natural history. This person was Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. When he went to school he studied under the Jesuits, an order within the Catholic Church. A Ph. D. degree is required to become a full member of the Jesuit Order. They are known for their scholarship and their faithfulness to the church. As Pierre grew into a young man he decided to become a Jesuit and he studied to become a full member of that order. Looking at his life, we see in it many opportunities for him to set aside his faith. From an early age he showed a strong commitment to a calling and an unwavering sense to follow where he felt called.
At the time that he started his holy orders, the French government threw the Jesuits out of France. This young man who had lived an upper class life found himself in exile with the Jesuits on the island of Jersey, an island just south of England. Later he taught three years at the university in Cairo, a Jesuit school. It was there that he began an extraordinary scientific career. He was one of the great paleontologists studying early man, bringing new insights to the discoveries being made at that time. He spent 23 years of his life in the remote outback of China and Mongolia studying fossils and artifacts. He also studied in rural parts of Southern Africa. During the time he spent abroad, times were not easy. When World War 1 broke out he volunteered to be a stretcher-bearer, putting himself in the most dangerous place in the war, on the front lines because he wanted to serve those were immediately facing death in the tragedy of war. Several of his brothers and sisters died when Teilhard was young, and he often found himself in distance places, unable to be with his family at those times of grief. And yet he continued to follow the life to which he was called. Before his death he was recognized as gifted scientist.
But very little is known about his spiritual and philosophical life because the Pope forbid him to print any of the works he had written on that subject. In the 1950’s after his death, several of his books were published. The world discovered that this great man of science was also a man of deep and abiding faith. The man who had pushed the understanding of science to the edges of his own age had also expanded an interpretation of his religious faith that he held so deeply. It is ironic that a man, who had spent his life looking at the past trying to discover the origins of humans, geared his theology and philosophy to the future. He viewed the future with great optimism as he saw the power of God moving through creation and through humanity to take humankind to a place not yet seen. We see the fiber of his spirit that led him as a scientist. We see the optimism with which he lived his life, knowing that the truth revealed by God was the path that God wanted him to follow. He could do that with purpose and determination. Whether it was his scientific endeavors or the personal tragedies he faced, it was his belief that the power of God was moving humanity to where it ought to go. This was the abiding strength of Pierre’s faith. He was truly a man of his age, a man of science and a man of deep and passionate Christian faith.
Today’s text from Hebrews is a favorite of many of us. We aren’t sure who wrote Hebrews. At one time this letter was attributed to Paul, but we can tell by the writing that it is much more sophisticated than most of Paul’s works. Many have speculated that the writer of Hebrews may have been a disciple of Paul’s. It was probably written sometime between the years of 60 and 100 A. D. We see within it the turbulent period of the church’s life when the first generation of Christians was dying and the second and third generations weren’t sure about their faith. That early first generation community of faith believed fervently that Jesus was coming back within their lifetime. As they began to die one by one, there was the realization within the Christian community that Jesus’ return was not going occur in their lifetimes. We see in the gentle pastoral writing of the writer of Hebrews that he in a very caring and loving man who confronts the theological problems that the early church had to face. He reminds those early Christians who enjoy an understanding of whom God is that they should place their trust in God to lead them to a future that they could not know. He writes to remind them about Abraham and the Patriarchs who trusted in God to take them to unknown places and guide them through unexpected experiences. It is the profound insight of the writer of Hebrews who sees faith not something only for today, but also for the future where God’s hand gently leads. The promise of as many offspring as the stars in the sky and the sands of the sea was profound. To Abraham it was the promise of a solid future.
We live in a time with much uncertainty. I’m convinced that much of the political and cultural tension in American culture today its because we are all, no matter our political or philosophical bents, are anxious about what tomorrow may bring. A few years ago there may have been a certain swagger in America about the strength of our country and the ability of our system to carry us freely into the future. We have come to realize that there are some holes in our strength. Our interconnectedness not only militarily but also economically and culturally has left us more vulnerable than we might have imagined. We live in a time of uncertainty and there is, I’m afraid, a tendency to seek simple answers about our future. The writing of the Hebrews may be instructive to us right now. What does it mean to live as a people of faith? Not blind faith full of superstition. Not trivial faith, but a faith that is based on generations of a community that has interacted with God and has seen God’s redemptive love in the midst of human calamity. Our relationship with God is primary to whatever future that we have. Our search to know God’s will in our life is paramount to how we live our lives. Part and parcel to this is agape, the self-giving love which Jesus has offered to us and which Jesus has commanded to us to offer the world. To live a faith based upon the discipline of God’s love can be difficult in a time of uncertainty, leading to a desire to pull back into one’s self. Our faith needs to rest ultimately not on what we do as human beings, but what God has planned for our future. Our faith demands that we take God’s hand and follow where He is leading, knowing that God’s steadfast love and faithfulness will endure with us forever. It is in God’s hands that we place future generations, not in the future that we would choose. It is in God’s self-giving love that we have been called to be givers of that same love to others. It is in the power and strength of that love, not in the strength of our own intellect or material goods that will ultimately lead our lives. That our concern for future generations is saved not by what we can do, but by the God who loves us.
Pierre Teihard de Chardin was a man who lived the modern life and who pushed the edges of science and of faith because of the one thing he knew. He knew that God was leading humanity to a bigger and a better place, a place unseen even by him in all of his intellect. God has called us too as a people of faith so that we may trust in that which we do not see and that we may go to that place that we do not know because of the God whom we serve.
Let’s bow our heads now for a word of prayer.
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