Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Sermon: Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 (August 11, 2013)


A sermon I wrote for pulpit supply at the church in which I was baptized:

So, before I went to seminary, I liked reading a lot. I particularly liked fantasy, science fiction, that sort of thing. One of my favorites was a little series about a boy wizard with a lightning-bolt-shaped scar. Who here has read Harry Potter? There are a lot of fantastical elements to the wizarding world that Harry, having been raised in “muggle,” or non-wizarding, society encounters for the first time along with his readers. From angry letters that literally yell at you--called “howlers”--to photographs that move, the wonders of Harry Potter’s world are endless.

As I was pondering the scripture readings for this week, I found myself recalling one detail of the Potter-verse in particular: wizarding tents. At the most highly celebrated wizarding sporting event, the Quidditch world cup, wizards come from all corners of the earth and camp out. But these are not ordinary tents. They aren’t the one-room wonders made of poles and tarp that you remember from your family vacations. These tents are EPIC. Imagine something that looks like a simple tent from the outside. Then, imagine pulling back the entrance flaps and stepping inside. No, not crawling. STEPPING. Then, once you’re inside, maybe you decide to relax on the couch in the living room for a bit. Or you’re feeling a bit peckish, so you head to the kitchen and cook up a meal on the stove. You might take a moment to admire the interior decorating skills of the tent’s owner, or you might just have a seat and tune into your favorite show on the television.

These ornate and enormous temporary dwellings are magically made bigger on the inside so that those inhabiting them can still enjoy the comforts of home to which they are accustomed. As muggle outsiders, we chuckle at the impossibility of such structures. We find the juxtaposition of camping’s transience against the comforts of permanence delightfully ironic.

And yet, this type of juxtaposition is a reality in which you and I live every day. The incongruity of the wizarding tents mirror the demands of a Christian life. Stay with me, here. On the one hand, we are a people accustomed to being spiritual nomads. Beginning with Adam and Eve being evicted from the Garden of Eden, on through the sojourn of our spiritual parents Abraham and Sarah, continuing with the Exodus of God’s people from Egypt, the Old Testament alone reminds us again and again of our transitory state. The New Testament, too, makes our situation clear. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus notes that a prophet is not without honor except in his (or her) own land. Double negative notwithstanding, this is a pretty clear indication that “home” is not to be a place of comfort for those who speak God’s word. In John, he warns us that the world is against us because we have been set apart by God; we do not belong to the world, so the world hates us. We are foreigners even within our own culture. Even Paul worked as a tentmaker to support himself during his nomadic ministry. I can’t say for sure that this was a deliberately symbolic occupational choice on his part, but it sure fits, doesn’t it?

On the other hand, most of us are not called to a life of asceticism. True, perhaps we occasionally feel a pang of guilt over our own enthusiastic participation in consumer culture, but that’s rarely enough to inspire a denouncement of our worldly goods. Few feel drawn to John-the-Baptist-type living, sleeping in a cave and “roughing it” in every sense of the phrase. In fact, some Christians believe the complete opposite, preaching a “prosperity gospel” that teaches about a divine financial reward for faithfulness.

I am not passing judgement either way on Captialism, property ownership, or the competitive market. That’s not my point here. After all, God’s chosen people throughout the Bible are often rewarded for their faithfulness with things in the here and now: land, livestock, servants, riches. As easy as it might seem to praise minimalist living and condemn wealth, it’s not that simple.

So you see the dilemma: God does not intend for us to be of this world, and yet we are in it. We are tent-dwellers, but we are intricately connected to the society, economy, and culture surrounding us. It’s almost like we’re in a state of “temporary permanence.” As the author of Hebrews tells us, “Abraham lived in tents...and he was looking forward to the city with foundations.” The future is where Abraham placed his faith, but at the same time he wasn’t waiting in tents...he was living. Incidentally, the Greek word for “live” used in that passage is ka-ta-oi-KE-o--a compound of the Greek words for “toward” and “the home.” Oikos, or home, refers not just to the house building, but to the entirety of one’s property and family--basically, everything that would provide identity. So even while he’s in a tent, looking forward to the promise of a divine city, Abraham is doing more than just squatting; he is LIVING.

This is the dichotomy of FAITH. This temporary permanence.

“Alright, God,” we say, “but seriously, what are we supposed do? You promise us great things, a city with foundations that You Yourself have built, and yet here we are in our tents. Don’t get us wrong; they’re really nice tents, and we like this whole ‘being alive’ thing. But shouldn’t we be focusing on what’s ahead? Shouldn’t we forget this world and think only of the reward that is to come?”

“Have faith,” God replies.

Or we say, “Look, God, these promises are great and all, but I think we can make something really nice and comfortable here. You know, something really permanent. If we ditch the tents, we can start building a really sweet apartment complex, with a pool and a workout center, and laundry on site...It probably wouldn’t be as nice as what you’ve been promising us, but I’d be here NOW.”

God patiently repeats, “Have faith.”

It’s easy for us to latch onto either one of these extremes. It seems impossible for them to coexist, for us to put our stock in the city promised to us by God and yet to value what is in this world. To live in a temporary tent and yet make it a home.

But the dichotomy of faith challenges us to embrace the both/and. If faith is “confidence in things hoped for and assurance of things unseen,” then to have faith is to hold fast to God’s promises, no matter how distant or impossible they might seem. But, as Abraham and Sarah teach us, faith is not passive. It’s not about sitting in our tents, making do with what’s “good enough” and waiting for the benefits to start rolling in. We can’t just sit by and watch the world turn without participating. We may not be here forever, but we are here NOW, and as people of God, we have a responsibility to live in a way that reflects God while we are a part of this world. The world may be our tent, our temporary home, but by golly, we’ve got work to do!

See, God has a plan for you. God calls you, all of us, to do great, world-changing things in this life. The trick is, we might not recognize the significance of our actions, especially if we don’t get to witness the fruits of our labors. We may think that we’re merely sprucing up the tent a bit when in fact we are preparing the way for God to lay the very foundations of the promised city. We don’t always get to know the whole plan, but believe me, God’s got it covered. Many of God’s people do God’s work without even getting to see the results of their actions. Abraham and Sarah are the example that the writer of Hebrews provides, since neither of them live to see their descendants number as many as the stars, but they were not the only ones. Remember Moses, who moved heaven and earth, so to speak, to liberate God’s people from the Egyptians? He didn’t even live to see the promised land. King David, one of the greatest figures in the history of Israel, dreamed of building a permanent temple for God, but that honor was reserved for his son, King Solomon. And yet each of these people had their own significance, their own importance, which paved the way for God’s future plans.

What kind of Bible story would it be if Abraham’s legendary faith inspired do nothing? To twiddle his thumbs while he waited for the good stuff to kick in. Not very interesting, first of all, and not very effective, either. What if Abraham had told himself, “I don’t really need to leave my home...I don’t really need to raise a child at this age...I don’t really need to live in tents...after all, God has promised me a magnificent city. I’ll just wait for that”? Abraham might have been more comfortable, sure, but he wouldn’t have been living his faith. He would have been hedging his bets: worst case scenario, he would have had a comfortable life. But he would not have been demonstrating his confidence in things hoped for, assurance of things unseen.

Instead, Abraham responded to God in faith by obediently packing up and shipping out. As a result, we have a fantastic Bible story to teach in Sunday school and, more importantly, a spiritual heritage that calls us to faith in action.

Nobody said that this would be easy. There’s a reason that camping is called “roughing it,” even when done in an RV or a wizarding tent. When living in temporary lodgings, things are very rarely the way one might like them. They’re dirty...uncomfortable...ugly...sometimes even in this world is no different. Many times we might find ourselves dissatisfied with our surroundings, as well we should be. There is plenty to be dissatisfied with. A sluggish economy...a life headed in a different direction than we expected...violence in the world and sometimes in our own backyard...dissention in our own denomination...This world isn’t as good as it gets, and we know it! We HAVE the good news!

But what do we DO with it? Do we keep it to ourselves? Do we sit in our tents and hunker down, quietly hoping that God’s kingdom on earth will appear before we have to exert ourselves? Some of us might want to say, “Can we, please?” but it seems pretty clear to me that God says, “NO!” Absolutely not. Do NOT hide your light under a bushel. Our frustration with what is and our anticipation of what will be provide the perfect catalyst for living out our faith, instead of just claiming it.

Our faith is living into this dichotomy; embracing it in the face of societal pressures and seeming impossibilities. Not merely accepting the way things are, but doing something to change it for the better, to hasten the construction of God’s city. Abraham did it. Sarah did it. And although they didn’t live to see all of God’s promises fulfilled, we still speak in awe of their remarkable acts of faith which bring us here, together, today. They made the most of their tents, so that we could do that much more with ours.

So, friends, dwell proudly in your earthly tent. Make it home, make it yours, make it the best place that it can be. Whether that means volunteering for outreach, taking a political stand on an issue that is important to you, or supporting the next generation of Christians, the specifics of your tent home-making are up to you. Perhaps, if we can live out our faith in this time and place in service of that which we cannot see, we may one day dwell in a magnificent city that God has built upon the foundations of our own humble actions--just as God intended. Amen.

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