Sermon: “Faith Measures”

August 7, 2016: Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

Author’s note: This sermon was part of a more musical service featuring jazz stylings. In the text below, where words are in italics, they were sung. By the preacher. Except for this author/preacher/singer’s note, that is.

In the Western musical tradition, we have an eight note scale:

Do re me fa sol la ti do!

If anyone wants to start singing “Do, a deer,” this is the time to do it.

It’s just eight notes. In fact, the jump from the lowest note “Do” to the highest note “Do again” is called at octave, which comes from the Latin word “octavus” for eight. That same word gave the eight-armed octopus its name.

You don’t have to know the names of the notes, though the song makes them easier to remember. You can just sing numbers:

One Two Three Four Five Six Seven Eight

The funny thing about it is that musicologists don’t actually count note number eight in the scale. As far as they’re concerned, the two “do’s” are the same note, even if they’re separated by the octave. So our familiar scale isn’t eight notes, but seven.

One Two Three Four Five Six Seven…

Oh, that seems strange.

One Two Three Four Five Six Seven…

You just want to go to Eight, don’t you?

One Two Three Four Five Six Seven…

It just hurts to wait for it, doesn’t it?

One Two Three Four Five Six Seven…


“Now faith,” says the author of Hebrews, “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Or, I suppose, not heard. It’s like that seventh note in the scale, aching to move to the eighth. Faith believes in something that’s not yet here. Faith trusts in things that have not manifested. Faith makes plans based on promises.

We use faith every day. Daily living relies on faith in each other, and in a world full of strangers. We trust people to drive on the right side of the street, and not to turn the car key if they don’t know what they’re doing. We eat foods we didn’t grow, and sometimes which we didn’t prepare. We trust those growers to care for their crops properly, to cull out the bad fruits from the harvest, to care for it during transport so it doesn’t spoil. And yes, we’ve got government inspectors watching them: and we trust that they know what they’re doing and that they’re doing it. The result is a staggeringly low rate of food-borne illness in the United States. In fact, when there is one, we’re deluged by the headlines – but remember that “news” is what’s “new” or “different” or “unusual.” Usually, we eat and drink without bad consequences and without fear.

There’s a funny thing about the seventh note in the scale. If you play it in a chord, in something mysteriously called a seventh chord…

(The pastor played a D chord, and then a D7 chord)

Actually, it’s the flat of the seventh note, but if you’re willing to ignore that I am.

(The pastor played a D7 chord again)

It sounds a little funny, but what happens when you put it with other chords:

(The pastor played a chord sequence: G, then C, then D7)

It wants to go somewhere again, doesn’t it? Can’t you feel it wanting to go back to that first chord?


(The pastor played the same chord sequence: G, then C, then D7 for an achingly long time, and finally G to resolve the sequence)

Abraham, though… He got to stay right here:

(And he played G, C, D7…)

By faith: Abraham
Set out for a place
Away to the south
For out of God’s mouth
Came, “Put on your bold face.
You’re receiving grace.”

By faith: Abraham
Set out on the way
Where he would go
He didn’t know
And a tent was where he’d stay;
He’d wonder and he’d pray.

By faith: Abraham
Heard he’d be a miracle dad.
By faith: Abraham
And Sarah had a lad.
By faith: Abraham
And Sarah looked to the stars.
By faith: Abraham
And Sarah said:
“These grandchildren… will be ours!”

By faith: Abraham
Saw a city bright
Perhaps he would grin
They’re descended from him
As he blew out the light
In his tent each night.

By faith: Abraham
Trusted in the Lord
Though he’d never see
These things that would be
He’d raise his heart skyward.
He lived on the seventh chord.

By faith: Abraham
Lived on the seventh chord.
By faith: Abraham
Trusted things would be.
By faith: Abraham
Lived on the seventh chord
Lived on the seventh chord
Lived on the seventh chord
By faith.

Abraham was certainly not the only one to live on the seventh chord, with that sense of movement onto something else. The author of Hebrews goes on to name Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, the people of Israel, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David and Samuel and the prophets, and concluding with these words: “Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised” – by which this author means Jesus.

Faith means living on the seventh tone, or on the seventh chord, aching to move to the conclusion, to complete the scale, to resolve the dissonance – but maybe never getting there. It means trusting that the conclusion, the completion, the resolution, is coming, but may not come when we can see it. It means knowing that what is and what might be are not the same; and trusting that what is coming is greater than what is.

In his 2001 book From Good to Great, writer Jim Collins interviewed Vice Admiral James Stockdale, who survived being captured during the Vietnam War and being tortured over twenty times to become the only admiral to wear aviators wings and the Congressional Medal of Honor. You may also remember him as Ross Perot’s running mate in 1992. Admiral Stockdale told Collins that faith in his eventual release made a huge difference in his survival for seven years. But he also observed that the optimists, seeing in each season the time they’d be free, died of a broken heart. Then he said,

“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Collins called it the Stockdale Paradox. But that’s faith. That’s living on the seventh chord: acknowledging just how precarious a place it is, and never losing sight of the new chord beyond.

Author Frederick Buechner writes: “Faith is different from theology, because theology is reasoned, systematic, and orderly, whereas faith is disorderly, intermittent, and full of surprises.”

Disorderly, intermittent, and full of surprises. That’s life on the seventh chord.

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that jazz, unlike other styles of music, plays seventh chord after seventh chord after seventh chord. That’s part of its mystery, and part of its identity.

It’s part of its life – and that’s why jazz is so much like our life.

We live on the seventh chord, feeling it as it teeters and rocks beneath us, threatening our equilibrium at each movement.

But we also live in faith, hearing faintly the resolution beyond.

By faith… Abraham
Lived on the seventh chord
Lived on the seventh chord
Lived on the seventh chord
By faith.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , | Posted on August 7, 2016

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