Today’s scripture readings:
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
“What would you grab on the way out the door if your house was on fire?” That’s the question Jen Crow asks in an essay she wrote called, “Take What You Need.” Jen, who is the Senior Minister at First Universalist Church in Minneapolis, wrote that essay in 2019, two years after experiencing a devastating house fire that was the result of a lightning strike. What would you grab? There are all sorts of lists online of important documents you should save: licenses, passports, checkbooks, insurance policies, birth certificates, IDs. Put them in a fireproof safe, they say. In the event of a fire, just grab that safe as you walk out of your burning house.
Jen Crow says that advice is all wrong—or, at least, out of touch with reality. What does Jen say you should grab on your way out the door when your house is on fire? Start with a good pair of shoes. Flip-flops might feel right in the moment, but you’ll regret it when you’re touring the burned-out ruins of your house the next day. Grab your phone, she says, and your car keys, your glasses, a dog leash—oh, and the dog. If you’re lucky enough to go back to the house the next day with the firefighters, grab your wedding rings, the necklace your grandma always wore, the stuffed animals your children used to sleep with safe in their beds. That is the stuff that matters.
She says that in the days ahead, well-meaning people will want to “draw a smiley face on your sadness,” but don’t fall for their lies. Don’t give into “their need to control, manage, and contain this loss.” When your house burns down, you’ll know the truth: “that life is not that neat, that loss comes to all of us whether we are prepared or not. Drop the illusion of a tiny fireproof safe filled with the lie that this loss could be contained or controlled…. The safe would not have helped.”
The scripture lessons assigned for today are all about where we place our trust; what makes us feel secure. These Bible readings are about the illusion of being in control. At the end of the day, these are passages that ask us to consider the true meaning of faith.
I remember hearing once that the opposite of faith isn’t doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty. When we are so certain that the pensions we’ve built will provide a comfortable retirement, where is our faith? When we are so certain that our church endowment will get us through even the worst recession, where is our faith? When we think that our future depends on our carefully-laid plans, where is our faith? Faith isn’t basking in the security of our wise planning. Faith is being open to risk and entrusting the future to God, not necessarily certain of the outcome but trusting that God will be with us through it all and give us what we need along the way.
That’s the kind of faith we see—more or less—in Abram, known later in Genesis as Abraham. The six verses that we read (red) from Genesis today give us only a tiny piece of the story of Abram and his wife Sarai. God promises to bless them with many things. Abram responds by saying, basically, “That’s all well and good, but who’s going to inherit those things when we die? We don’t have any kids!” God promises Abram and Sarai—as God does repeatedly in the book of Genesis—that they will have a son, and that this son will be Abram’s heir. Despite being well into his 70s—well beyond the age of childrearing—Abram and Sarai trust God and hold fast to the promise. (At least, for the moment.)
There’s quite a bit of Abram and Sarai’s story that isn’t told in these six few verses. In the very next chapter of Genesis, about a decade has passed and Abram and Sarai are beginning to question God’s promise. Seeing that they’re not getting any younger—at that point, Abram is 86 years old—Abram decides to have a child with their slave girl Hagar, and she conceives a son, Ishmael.
So here we’ve got Abram and Sarai. They want to trust God’s promise, but it’s getting harder to believe with each passing day. So they decide help God out. All they want is some certainty. They’ve been waiting over 11 years—from age 75 to age 86—and it seems impossible that God will be able to follow through on the promise of child. So they take matters into their own hands. With Hagar’s help, a son is born. It was prudent. It was good planning. But God is faithful, and God was committed to the original promise. And a few years later, when Abraham is 99 years old—that’s almost 25 years after the original promise—Sarah conceives and gives birth to a son, Isaac. Only by God’s power could it have been possible. It wasn’t Sarah and Abraham’s doing. All they could do was trust.
Faith is trusting even when the odds are against us. It’s being assured that what we hope for will come to be. It’s the conviction that a future we can’t yet envision will become our reality. There is no certainty involved in faith. After all, when certainty enters the picture, faith becomes fact. Once a particular outcome can be guaranteed beyond a doubt, we no longer need to believe or trust.
I think this is what Jesus is getting at in today’s gospel lesson. “Do not be afraid, little flock,” he says, “for it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give alms…. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” God has already promised a world where all are provided for and none are in need. So we shouldn’t put our trust in our own ability to plan wisely and prepare a comfortable future for ourselves. Rather we should sell our possessions and give to those in need. True faith is trusting that it’s not up to us. It’s setting aside our need for certainty and security and putting our trust in God.
I’m not suggesting that planning for the future is a bad thing, and I don’t think that’s what the scriptures are saying today, either. But I do think they’re telling us that we shouldn’t put our ultimate trust in things we create. When we do that, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment. Putting our faith in things we create is asking for trouble. True faith asks us to hold fast to God’s promises and trust that God will provide.
Where in our lives—where in our church—can we identify misplaced faith? Where do we find ourselves clinging so tightly to our own well-made plans that we trade faith for something more fickle and bound to disappoint? How might God be calling us today to relinquish control and learn to live by faith? And most importantly, how might such a reorientation revitalize our ministry to the poor and oppressed? If we really believed that God will provide, what would we do differently around here at Gloria Dei?
Asked years later if there was any way in which the fire had been a blessing in disguise, Jen Crow says, “No.” And still, she does recognize that some good came of the fire. She says: “I’m a worrier. I’m a planner. I have 18 alternative endings that I’ve worked out for everything. I have a spreadsheet…. And part of what I learned in the fire is that I can’t plan for what really [catches] me off guard. All the time I spend worrying and trying to control [things] is a huge waste of energy. What I need to do,” she says, “is prepare myself and be grounded so that when things happen, I’m here and I’m ready—ready to do it with love. And,” she says, “I learned it was never the house we needed. It was each other.”
Faith is trusting that what we need is here. Trusting that it’s not up to us. What we will need, God will provide. There’s nothing we could put in a fireproof safe that will save us when we’re in trouble. Only God can do that. God will do that.
Jen Crow, from “‘Take What You Need’ Book Launch with Rev. Jen Crow and Rev. Kate Tucker,” published March 27, 2022 on YouTube by First Universalist Church, accessed August 5, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UvKMLVsdeRk.
Jen Crow, “Take What You Need,” on Bearings Online, from the Collegeville Institute, published May 9, 2019, accessed August 5, 2022,https://collegevilleinstitute.org/bearings/take-what-you-need/.