Sunday, August 07, 2016

We are Strangers on the Earth (sermon)

I chose the passage from Hebrews in the lectionary today because the idea of being strangers on the earth seeking a homeland resonated deeply with me. But sitting with it led me to think about faith. So listen particularly for two things in the reading: what it means to have faith and the idea that at times we all feel like strangers on the earth, because we know that something better is possible.

Hebrews 11: 1-3 and 8-16 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV and RSV) 11 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2 Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. 3 By faith we understand that the ages were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. 8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was to go. 9 By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he looked forward to the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. 11 By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. 12 Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore. 13 These all died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. 14 For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.
The chapter starts by describing faith. I struggle with what faith means--different people have such different ideas. I went to the funeral of a friend’s mother yesterday and the family’s faith that their mother is now in heaven greeting her husbands is admirable but foreign to me. I worry also that some Christians seem to be saying if only we have enough faith, bad things won’t happen. I believe that understanding of faith causes a lot of harm by encouraging people to blame themselves. The description of faith in this passage is more positive. The author of Hebrews says faith is first an assurance, something firm to stand on. Second, it is belief or conviction about things not seen. But we don’t have to do that without help--the author gives the example that the creation we see around us was made by God, by what we cannot see. We aren’t simply expected to believe in things we can’t see--we can see the results even if we can’t see the cause. 
A friend told me a story last week that I am carrying in my heart as an example of how the things we can see that testify to the things we can’t see. My friend grew up in Clemson, and his family had a house on the lake in the Calhoun area. One afternoon as a young teenager he went out on the lake alone in a canoe, and he came unexpectedly upon a peninsula that was full of orange butterflies, thousands and thousands of them, resting on the trees and getting ready to cross the lake. He had come upon part of the east coast monarch butterfly migration, which was following a path further west that usual that year. I imagine it felt like being able to see God. The kingdom of heaven is not something distant that we will reach after we die, it is all around us and in us. We experience the kingdom of heaven when we experience such things as joy, love, justice, mercy, and shared hopes. 
On the other hand, it can be hard to have faith that the kingdom of heaven is here when we see so much pain and hatred in this world. But that is where faith as assurance of things hoped for can help--faith is still there when our optimism fails. I’m not someone who believes that everything that happens is God’s plan, but I do have faith that God’s love is working in the world. What I can see is that the arc of history bends towards justice.[i] We have a long way to go, but we have seen such significant progress for African-Americans, for LBGTQ people, and in care for the environment in my lifetime. To take an even larger arc, forester and philosopher Aldo Leopold said that ethics originally included only how we treated people in our family, then only how we treated people in our tribe, then only how we treated people in our nation, then the whole human race, but now we include non-human nature as well. He called that the Land Ethic. It is in that larger arc of justice that I can see the world as prepared by the word of God and slowly and irregularly moving towards living into God’s love. It isn’t easy, but it wasn’t easy then either. 
Hebrews was written to a congregation that was tired and discouraged, as some of us feel today. Frederick Buechner, in his book, Secrets in the Dark, says this about faith in the midst of chaos: “By faith we understand, if we are to understand it at all, that the madness and lostness we see all around us and within us are not the last truth about the world but only the next to last truth... It is God who made us and not we ourselves, made us out of God’s peace to live in peace, out of God’s light to dwell in light, out of God’s love to be, above all things, loved and loving. That is the last truth about the world.”[ii] Faith is a foundation that leads us into the unknown—the arc of history is not a marked path. Our discomfort with the way things are going leads us--we belong in a world that lives out God’s love, so with God’s help we do what little we can to bend the arc of history. 
I wonder in what ways the author of the letter felt how hard it would be to live out the teachings of Jesus. We don’t know who that author was--the Letter to the Hebrews is anonymous. It was accepted into the canon attributed to Paul, and the King James Bible lists it as one of Paul’s letters. However, modern scholarship thoroughly rejects Paul’s authorship. The style is different and the letter includes the author’s conversion story (Heb 2:1-3), one completely different from Paul’s. No early manuscripts name the author. 
Anonymity is very unusual for ancient letters, which like Paul’s letters started with a greeting giving the names of the author and recipients. In 1900, Lutheran theologian Adolf von Harnack proposed the explanation that the name of the author was suppressed because the author was a woman, Paul’s co-worker Priscilla. He makes a two part argument: the letter is clearly by a member of Paul’s inner circle but there is evidence that disqualifies the other members and authorship by a woman is the best explanation of why the author’s name was suppressed.[iii] The argument has been taken up more recently by Ruth Hoppin, who points out that the author of the letter also credits Ruth’s faith and names an unusual number of women as heroes of the faith elsewhere in chapter 11. [iv]
Scholars will continue to argue the point, but I like the idea that the author of Hebrews was a woman. I imagine that as an educated woman she felt particularly not at home in her world. She knew how difficult it would be to make the world more just. She has faith in a future she could not see and she could see similar faith in the heroes of past, which led them to not feel at home in the world they lived in. A world in which her writings could be accepted as sacred text under her own name would have felt very far away. 
The words that we live as strangers in this world resonate very personally for me. I remember feeling that so strongly when I was young, and yet the world has changed around us in ways that give me more hope for feeling more at home and more faith that the kingdom of heaven is present even when we have trouble seeing it. When I was in college, studying science and learning to repair bicycles, I wanted so much to be one of the boys. Feminism saved me from my dread of being a woman; I didn’t have to be limited by gender roles. It wasn’t what I had expected, but I ended up married, though only with the agreement that we would share household tasks equally. It helped that I was the better handyman. But I still felt a stranger to the women’s roles that others enjoyed. 
Years later, I read with great fascination several books on the history of hermaphrodism, what is now called intersex.[v] Perhaps 5% of the population is not biologically simply male or simply female. Can you imagine being female in all visible respects until you are tested, perhaps as an athletic competitor,[vi] and discover that genetically you are male, your chromosomes are XY, but you have a genetic defect that means your body does not respond to testosterone and so externally you developed as female. Or perhaps you have mosaicism and some of your cells are XX while others are XY. I have always wondered why I was so gripped by those stories, when I am not biologically intersex. I think they captured for me how strongly I felt I didn’t fit in to the categories around me, my sense of living as a stranger. And I think many of us have ways in which we have felt almost that strongly that we don’t fit. 
I have wondered whether if I had been a teenager in today’s world I would have decided I was transgender. I did know a transgender person in graduate school, but at that time it seemed a choice only for people whose feelings were much more extreme than mine. I don’t regret not having that path; I had a wonderful experience of biological motherhood. What I find exciting about today’s world is that we are moving away from having to fit everyone into rigid boxes—maybe someday everyone won’t have to declare themselves to be either male or female. I took a survey recently with some scholarly basis that characterized my gender role as 75% male and 64% female.[vii] And I had that feeling of momentarily finding a home, finding a description that fit. One place where I see the arc of history bending towards justice is the much wider acceptance today of all kinds of variations of gender and sexual preference. God loves everyone; it has taken western society a long time to catch up and we aren’t done yet. 
A more just world must have felt very far away to the author of Hebrews. The heroes of the faith desired a better country, a heavenly one. Part of what is going on in the passage is a reinterpretation of Jewish history to point towards a heavenly kingdom rather than a political one. Yet there is another theme in that re-interpretation, that even before the teaching of Jesus those heroes of ages past had faith there was something more, and so God is proud to be their God. I appreciate the writer’s hope that people of different beliefs share a sense of moving towards being with God, though we may understand that differently. 
In our UCC belief that God is still speaking, I will take the liberty to take that idea further than the author intended to the idea of Universalism. Bruce recently wanted to describe Peace Church as Universalist on a poster, but some of us worried that would be confusing and many people wouldn’t know what it meant. Universalism is the idea that God saves everyone, of all races and cultures and no matter what wrong they have done. Universalism rejects the idea that the only way to salvation is though Jesus. The author of Hebrews says of the visionaries of the Hebrew bible: “God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.” None of us see clearly, and we use different words, but we have faith that there is a better world inside this one. 
Another way of describing universalism is to say that if God’s law rules supreme then the forces of destruction will eventually be overcome and Hell will be empty. I was surprised years ago to hear an Episcopal priest say that a survey was done of Episcopal priests and the majority of them believed that everyone would go to heaven. For those of you who grew up in very judgmental churches, that may be a radical idea. And it is tricky, because most of us believe God gives us freedom, including the freedom to reject God. But we can also believe that God’s invitation to us is infinite, that everyone will eventually come to accept that invitation, if not in this life then after death. To me one of the greatest strengths of this belief is the spur it gives us to love our enemies. It moves us away from hate if we believe that everyone, however much we disagree with them, will ultimately be with God. This suggests another way of understanding faith, one that we can use immediately. We can have faith that everyone is loved by God. 
So why do we feel we are strangers on the earth, desiring a better country? In some ways we can see what we know by faith in the world around us, in other ways the world seems far from what God intends. The ideas in this passage used to be understood as a rejection of the physical world around us in favor of a focus on a distant heaven that we will see after the last judgement. I have been using different words because today many of us understand the kingdom of Heaven as something already present all around us and in us, if we can only open ourselves to embrace it. God has prepared a city for us not in some distant heaven but right here, if we can see it and live into it. 
If we are seeking a homeland, what would that look like? One answer is that it would be a place where we are not judged for being ourselves. No one is excluded in the kingdom of Heaven and that place is all around us and inside us if we can only embrace it. Faith is assurance of the things we need, a foundation. It is about trust in something more, while facing the difficulties of the present. We are restless, looking for a place where we can feel at home and at peace. We can do more than wander and hope; we can seek to envision and work towards the kingdom of God right here. We see the pain of the world, yet we also hold the conviction of things not seen. Faith leads somewhere that we don’t know, it calls us to move forward into the unknown to make more visible that God loves everyone.
Faith leads somewhere that we don’t know, it calls us to move forward into the unknown to make more visible that God loves everyone. 

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