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Genesis 15:1-6 & Hebrews 11:1-3 & 8-16
Abram begins with a dream. It is the reason he leaves everything he has ever known and wanders into the unknown on a wing and a prayer. It is the dream given to him by God, a dream of a great nation born from him, and blessing and favor and the mighty hand of God on his side, and allthe families of the earth shall be blessed through him. We have to go all the way back to chapter 12 of Genesis to find that original covenant with God, but it surfaces again and again in Genesis, sometimes carrying forward that last line about all the families on earth being blessed through him, and sometimes more focused on the personal blessing to Abram, the uncountable number of offspring, the land given to him and the nation that comes from him.
That’s the dream that Abram believes so fully that he follows it in what would seem foolish to those around him, giving up safety and security for the path that God calls him to – and God, our text says, reckons it as righteousness to Abram. That righteousness from Abram’s faithfulness to this idea of being a blessing to everyone – to ALL the families, not just his own, or the ones who look and act like him.
As we contend with the variety of emotions and anxieties brought about by another week where what we think can’t get worse does, in fact, get worse, it’s important to remember what the call of our faith really points us towards. It is important to remember that our tradition teaches us of a God of covenant, active and participatory, responding to our faithfulness and reckoning it, as the text says, as righteousness.
In the Genesis story, from start to finish, the mark of “righteousness” is the willingness to see God’s call across social, cultural and geographical lines. It is the willingness to trust God’s directives when they cost you something, or take you to a place that is unfamiliar and uncomfortable. It is marked by how we treat one another, God’s children relating to God’s children. The same, one could say, is true of the Gospels, where Jesus is always seen crossing the boundaries of his time, telling his disciples to take up their cross and offering hospitality as purely and extravagantly as do Abraham and Sarah.
I’m not sure we appreciate how much of a “swim upstream” was being asked for by this religious practice, nor what it implies when we uphold it as foundational for the three of the largest religious communities in the world. It’s a pull against our natural tendencies. An adverse reaction to strangers, social scientists tell us, is hardwired into us, largely because during the biggest portion of our development as human beings, we lived in small tribes and rarely encountered a stranger. That was the way it was in both the culture that developed these Abram stories and during the time of Jesus. Now, of course, we see strangers all the time, heck we might even live next door to people who are virtual strangers. But that tribal mark still brands our interactions. Meeting a stranger, the research says, increases our heartbeat, raises our anxiety and changes our mood – even for the most extroverted among us – and our tribal functions are still hard at work developing and nurturing “the other” all around us. It’s almost as if it takes spiritual work for us to lift up God’s dream, like we have to develop and nurture things in us other than our natural inclinations, which we may have developed as survival techniques, not necessarily healthy, holy practice.
One very strong thread in our Bible is that our faithfulness, indeed our righteousness, is marked by how hospitable we are, how kind and generous we are with strangers and foreigners among us. That’s a complicated thing in our day and age, where boundaries are no longer several days walk away, but we routinely fly across the country, across the globe, and where we encounter “the other” everyday, even right in our neighborhoods. The practice then becomes learning how to get closer to one another, how to resist those natural inclinations as part of the journey of faith, a necessary and crucial part of getting closer to God by getting closer to God’s people. So, if we are, like Abram, on a pilgrimage of faith, seeking to follow God where God will lead us, then how we engage with this central question with all of it’s complications for us today is really important. After all, we can have the dream of a more peaceful and accepting world, a world that embraces rather than fearing the “other,” but it is awfully hard right now to see how we might possibly get there.
By the time we get to this “letter to the Hebrews,” a letter in the style of Paul, but not by Paul himself, written likely somewhere towards the end of the first century CE, this pilgrimage that Abram starts has taken many turns. Influenced by Jesus, we can hear the same call Abram heard, to reach outas an act of faith, and to trust in a vision that we cannot yet see. And then it famously defines faith – “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith is not so much a destination as it is a journey, a long walk along a path whose finish is not clear. I have heard people liken faith to driving along a country road on a moonless night, with no street lamps or light pollution, nothing but your headlights to guide you. It can be frightening and anxious, you can only see a few feet in front of the car, but you can make the whole trip home like that if you stay the course and trust that the road will be revealed to you – just a few feet at a time.
When you plant a garden, it is important to have the same kind of vision for what is not there yet, or what you can see only partially. You have to trust that what is not visible now will someday come to pass. If you drop seeds in the earth today and expect tomatoes tomorrow, you’ll be sorely disappointed. There are even some crops, like grapes for instance, that don’t produce fruit at all for years and years. And they’ll never produce if you don’t tend them and do all of the necessary work as if they wereproducing fruit right now. In the letter to the Hebrews, the pseudo-Paul writer tells us that Abraham and Sarah did not live to see their garden to fruition. “All of these,” the text reads, “died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.”
The confession that we are all strangers and foreigners on the earth, that we are all “the other” to someone, seems a very good confession to make right now. It feels like we are locked in a struggle for the soul of the United States, a struggle which seems difficult to envision will have good resolution. But it is not the time, despite how we may feel, to pull the car over. It is time, even with only the dim glow of our headlights, to keep headed down the road, to trust in compassion and hope when and where we can, to reach for the better angels of our nature and to lift one another up – every single other – for we are allstrangers and foreigners on this earth. Yet it can be so hard to stay that hopeful.
When I graduated from Phillips Seminary, the chair of the Board of Deacons was Chester Cadieux, the man famous ’round these parts for founding QT. Mr. Cadieux was a very approachable and generous man, deeply devoted to the education of clergy. That year, he gave every graduate a copy of Good to Great by Jim Collins. This book studies what has happened when one company has gone from “good to great” while others have been left behind.
One of the principles presented is the “Stockdale Paradox.” It was named for Admiral Jim Stockdale, who most of you remember having run as the VP on Ross Perot’s Presidential ticket, but who was also a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War. Asked how he was able to live through such a horrible experience, while others seemingly more fit wound up dying in the prison, Stockdale noted that the prisoners who were either complete optimists or complete pessimists had the most trouble surviving. It was the ones that combined a sort of pessimistic realism with a longer, more optimistic view that survived.
You must retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties.
AND at the same time…
You must confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.
I don’t know about you, but I kind of feel the social and political environment right now feels a lot like the environment outside right now – thick, hot, and dense – a damp blanket that saps energy and motivation because everything feels so heavy. I may indeed have that dream somewhere in my heart, but the brutal reality has buried it like a seed in a garden.
*So the challenge for me in these scriptures today is to have a deeper reservoir, to lift up a more mature faith at a time in which we need some adults in the room. The challenge is to know that dream of God’s kin-dom is a seed, and if it feels buried, then we find ways to keep it watered and we pull out the weeds and we set the conditions so it will grow into something fruitful and real. We must believe that God will prevail. I’m not asking for us to believe in supernatural intervention or some kind of irrational cosmic rescue, I’m not asking us to believe that God cares about influencing the next election or smiting those we think are our foes. But I am asking us all to consider not swinging the theological pendulum all the way over to the other side and turn our faith into an entirely intellectual argument. God IS up to something, our faith tradition tells us in so many ways, and that’s really, REALLY important for us to hear and know and trust right now. It is important for us to faith like Abram faithed.
That kind of faithfulness will lend us the ability to say, “My life is disheveled and I can’t get ahead” — but God will prevail — and, in the meantime, I am connected to God. So I will do what I can for today and find my security in God.
It will let us assert that, “people around us are falling apart” — but God will prevail — and, in the meantime, we are called to bring the love of God into our world — so we will neither gloss over the issues, nor give up on the possibility of re-birth, but will seek to be a consistent source of love, openness, and honesty.
This kind of trust will let us announce that, “Our nation is morally suspect” – but God will prevail – and, in the meantime, we are called to be salt and light, to speak truth to power and to raise our voices for those who cannot, or will not, be heard.
May God give us strength for the journey. Amen.
*Parts of the final assertion in this sermon, the Good to Be Greatand “Stockdale Paradox” references, and some of the language, was heavily influenced by Bruce Maples and his work at brucewriter.com.