Isaiah 1: 1, 10-20; Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16; Luke 12: 32-40
The author of the letter to the Hebrews tells us: Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. It’s a well-loved verse because it expresses something that we want to be true – something that we want to be true for us, today. We hope and we dream, our aspiration is often for things to be different – and eventually they will be – but not always in the ways we had imagined or in the timescales we had hoped for.
This week we have seen a number of examples in the sporting world of hopes and dreams that were realised. Who could have watched Eilish McColgan finding that spurt of energy as she made her way to the finish line in the women’s 10,000 and not felt the emotion of an ambition realised? The Lionesses have clearly changed the face of women’s football, perhaps even of women’s sport, and we’ve witnessed extraordinary responses to that achievement. Those, and all the rest of this week’s sporting achievements, whether or not the participants were medal winners, are examples of hopes and dreams translated into reality by hard work and determination and belief that it is possible.
The emotions that come with these achievements show us that it’s not just about physical strength or the ability to dig a bit deeper. This is about a whole person commitment and engagement with something that is often just on the edge of what’s achievable. And the author of this Epistle seems to understand something about that when they say: ‘what is seen was made from things that are not visible’. We see the achievements of the runners on the track; we don’t see the hours of slog in the wind and rain as they train day after day. We don’t see the blistered feet or the injured legs. We don’t see the moments of despair when someone can’t beat their personal best.
The sportsperson has much to teach us as we grapple with the challenges of living out our faith, of trusting that what we hope and pray for will, one day, be realised. The training regime for us is prayer. Regular prayer requires discipline and commitment. Dare I say that it can sometimes be quite boring or uninspiring. But we know, and are reminded by the example of those athletes, that the challenge is to stick with it, to persevere.
On those days when it feels too much like hard work; on those days when we feel as though nothing will ever change; on those days when we feel as though we are in a vacuum, those are the days when we most need to stick with it. Those are actually the moments when we are most likely to make a breakthrough, to find ourselves in a place we hadn’t known about, hadn’t imagined we could find, hadn’t thought God would take us to.
And like the athletes, this is a whole person engagement and experience. Prayer isn’t about telling God what is wrong with the world; it’s not about desperately trying to remember the name of every person whom we know to be in some kind of trouble. It’s fundamentally about stopping and engaging. It’s about engaging with God and opening our whole selves to the possibility that God might use us or put some task before us that will eventually lead to something that we may know nothing about today.
It’s about getting ourselves out of the way in order to make the space for God to point us in the direction that we need to go. Going back to the athletics analogy, it’s about trusting the process and recognising that we won’t all end up on a podium, but we will all achieve some kind of change.
Don’t be deceived into thinking that prayer is something we can just squeeze in between a trip to the supermarket and an evening in front of the TV. There are indeed moments when a fleeting prayer is offered – and heard. But the heart of prayer, the foundation of prayer, has to be that regular and consistent and faithful returning to God time and time again. We return, often using familiar words and phrases, prayers that have been passed down, even from Jesus himself. And we do well to remember that all of Jesus’ ministry was punctuated by prayer. He set aside time; he took himself off to quiet places; the fully human Jesus showed us how crucial prayer is to our ability to navigate through our lives.
Our Gospel reading teases out just that point. It makes it clear that we’re not expected to just sit back and wait for things to happen round about us. We are the ones who have the resources to make things happen and we choose whether we do so or not. The Gospel writer is quite directive – there are things that we can, perhaps should do that create the environment and the opportunity for moving forward.
That movement is about journeying through our lives and towards God, but it’s also about journeying deeper. It’s about finding those places where we didn’t know God to be. About finding the places within ourselves that are precious and sacred; those places within ourselves that thrive when we nurture and tend them, that enable us to turn our faces outward and to share something of the God we discover. In the same way that the athlete speaks about digging deep, finding that inner resource that is almost elusive, so we too need to learn how to do that digging, how to find the places that are a source of change.
The Gospel writer catches it by saying: where your treasure is there your heart will be also. Your real treasure isn’t in your jewellery drawer or in your bank account. It’s not in those beautiful things that we all like to accumulate. It’s in that place within each one of us where we encounter the living God. That place where words are often superfluous; that place that is touched by music and art, by beauty and creativity.
It’s a place that we often call our heart. And by that we don’t mean the large muscle that pumps blood around our bodies. We mean the core of each one of us; that which makes us who we are; that place which is the source of all that gives us life in all of its diversity. It’s that part of us that responds to love and life; that part that dictates how we respond to the influences that we encounter. It’s the part of us that is active when we pray deeply – when we allow our prayer to travel from our heads into our very beings. It’s the place where the risen Christ resides; it’s the way that resurrection life is enacted within and through us.
If we can find ways to stick with the routine of prayer; if we can find ways to stick with God whether or not that feels fruitful; if we can find ways to focus in and on our prayer, then we can begin to create an environment within which there is space for hope, within which we can really believe in transformation.
However tough the challenges, God always offers us hope. That was expressed in a prayer that was found on the wall of a basement in Cologne where Jewish people had been hiding from the Nazis:
I believe in the sun even when it’s not shining.
I believe in love even when feeling it not.
I believe in God even when he is silent.